The Optimism of the Archive

An archive can be – is – many things. An archive is a concept, a metaphor enabling us to think of fragments, loosely affiliated objects, and tangential documents as related to one another. It is also a term used to refer to a storage site or repository–be that material or digital. Institutions as diverse as museums, libraries, and digital databases are considered archives. An archive is a place devoted to collecting documents, distinct from a museum (which can house a large variety of objects in addition to texts) or a library (which focuses on circulating books and other published materials). Whether the product of a single person or by constructed by a group, the archive suggests, through its organizational structure, an attempt at unity. Each archive attempts to anticipate an audience, yet in its acts of gathering it must remove the very objects it wishes to preserve from circulation, an act that, in effect, limits the object’s future audience to those able to access the archive. Still, imperfect as the gesture is, its value is real and ranges from the maintenance of national history (the Smithsonian, for example) to entertainment (a community library’s dvd collection) to future use, only to be anticipated, such as the seed bank in Norway’s Svalbard or the golden records aboard Voyager. The seed bank and the golden records indicate two opposing yet compatible visions of the archive: one in anticipation of environmental catastrophe, the other in the expectation that launching a bottle into “the blue cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan writes, “says something very hopeful about life on this planet” ( Whatever the purpose, archives are valuable, practical tools, varying in scope and material, gathered and maintained for anyone with the inclination and opportunity to use them. The past is our present. Sometimes archives help us rediscover what might otherwise have been lost. Gaps in knowledge come from deliberate human agendas. History is a constructed narrative, a sorting of events according to a moral analysis or to notions of teleology and it is therefore always a limited account. For example, if we only have records from the victors of a war, we can only ever know half the experiences of war (if we can even imagine war has any victors). But the artifact––be that a lab book, a diary, a photograph, a textile or a sound recording, links the present to the past and enables the archivist to unearth, rework, and rewrite historical narrative. History is power. The histories of individuals and groups – especially minority groups – can be transformed through narratives designed to favor some interests and not others. Too often are the pasts of these people swept into obscurity; archives devoted to their history can bring it back, giving a sense of place and of belonging in a world that failed to recognize their contributions. In the case of the Ringling Library, the archive of John Ringling’s personal books provides an opportunity to explore the material traces of his reading. The objects can never fully disclose John Ringling. He will always remain outside of and beyond the objects he possessed. But they conjure otherwise intangible specters of one person’s engagement with the material and intellectual culture of the early twentieth century. Marginalia, book plates, creased pages, and faded spines can tell us much about how and why a book was read, and where it was stored (and thus what value it held for its owner). Some books are gifts, others are casually acquired, others, like Ringling’s facsimile Gutenberg Bible, represent prestige acquisitions. Examining his library we can restore a bit of his personality and taste, retained in his belongings. Ringling was wealthy and he knowingly created a massive visual arts collection, knowing that it would preserve his name, long past his death. But there can be archives that are seemingly less significant and more personal in form. Social media accounts, diaries or journals, and communications between friends are all forms of archivization. These daily archives hold the same value as archives at larger institutions like the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Put simply, an archive is a repository of the past, whatever form that may take. Archives can retain the past, preserving treasures and junk alike so that today and tomorrow our present will be more pliable to better understandings of human history and more welcoming to better ways of living. Margaret Konkol & Amber Standridge


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