The Challenge of the Archive

Archivization is a deeply human endeavor and, naturally, is plagued by human error. At its core, the archive is beholden to its archiver. The means of the archiver determine the form and functionality of the archive, which in turn affects just what can be archived. As Derrida puts it “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the achievable content” (Derrida 17). Consider the library before any sort of universal system of organization. Each library is then defined by its process of archivization and the utility thereof. But there is no perfect system. Each library would be forced to make concessions on utility and accuracy. Any attempt at archiving will encounter these problems. Creating catalogues too specific runs the risk of losing information in the masses of diverse categories. In the same way, attempting to archive too much will render the archive useless. An archive in which nothing can be found is almost the same as no archive at all. Even in the library with a “universal” system, the archivable material will never fit perfectly into the system’s schema. Any useful schema for archivization on a large scale must be broad enough to permit the human error of judgmental categorization. Two archivers may focus on different aspects of their archivable content and then categorize it differently. Even when using a unified system, archivization is still limited by the archiver.

Any archive, no matter its form or content, is plagued with tradeoffs. Authenticity or utility? Accessibility or preservation? These are the questions the archiver is forced to answer and in these situations personal choice reigns supreme. The Ca d’Zan at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art provides a good example of the choices of the archiver. Once a winter home for one of the wealthiest families of the Gilded Age, the Venetian palazzo is now a blend of museum and diorama. Here there is a balance struck between the original intentions of the house and the desire for a public showcase. In some places the original possessions of the Ringlings are displayed behind ropes or glass, in others, props or replicas replace objects either lost or deemed too valuable to be housed here. The Ca d’Zan in its current state is meant to be toured, but to be toured as a guest and not as a patron. Even though great pains are made to present it as it would have been viewed at the height of the Ringlings’ prominence, it is still in the process of archivization. In places, modern touches have been added for its continued use. Security cameras are fastened into the ceilings, a closet has been filled with air conditioning apparatus. In such a way, the Ca d’Zan will never be fully archived, as preservers struggle to hold back the flow of time. The book collector Walter Benjamin is called to mind, “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended” (Benjamin 67).

The challenge of the archive is its inseverable connection to the archiver. As the archiver cannot archive everything, there must be exclusion. As the archiver is tossed about by time, so is the archive. As the archiver makes mistake, these mistakes forever echo in the archive. It is this condition of difficulty that makes the archive so fascinating a medium.

– Rory Sharp

Further Reading

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.