Theories of the Archive

If there is one thing to be garnered from the theory of the archive it is the shifting relationship between medium and material. Looking at various archives it becomes clear that the archive cannot be viewed merely as a network. The archive is a network. Like any network, the archive is shaped by its users. These users subsequently shape the possibilities of the archive. What can be archived? The answer depends entirely on the structure of the archive itself.

Take for example the Rainbow History Project, a movement to chronicle the LGBTQ history of Washington D.C.. Board member Philip Clark documents issues and difficulties involved in operating a small, relatively young archival organization, emphasizing the importance of the archive in maintaining thorough histories. This archive has the bare minimum of both funding and physical space, and yet it has largely been a successful endeavor insomuch as its provides a history for new members of the LGBTQ community. As users, they are are engaged in a network with the archivist. Learning and revising histories, they utilize the archive as a gathering of artifacts to bring forward goals and improve their future communities.

The archival network engages both archivist and audience, past and future. Walter Benjamin speaks of the archive (as collection and collector) and futures it may inspire:


“One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through into the distant past.” [Benjamin 61]


Here, the archive connects its users across vast distance. Past and present memories (artifacts) set down as form, made available for public interpretation. Benjamin uses the metaphor “unpacking” to describe the process where those engaged in an archival network sift through its contents, making the “chaos of memories” more permeable (Benjamin 60).

An example of a literal network, Joanne Garde-Hansen makes us see that Facebook exemplifies the digital archive as it connects Facebook as institutional identity, its users, and their memories (as archives) together. In this sense, the network reorients how archives function, making its users into archivists. Garde-Hansen argues that there is an ideological divide between the historical and the personal digital archive, making us see that the personal archive “remediates” the historical archive (147). A Facebook news feed versus a daily newspaper. Personal memory versus recorded history.

Benjamin, Garde-Hansen, and Clark describe the archive and its idiosyncrasies. Its ephemeral nature adapts to the movements, additions, and interpretations made by its network. Users, archivists, audience, etc.. Polyvalent and limited both. The limitations of the archive allow it to capture the “the unique power of the ordinary” (Clark 189). Here the medium and the material of the archive encircle and alter each other. The archive is ultimately answerable to the abilities and opportunities of archiver and audience. Whether digital or physical, DIY or professional, historical or personal memoria, the archive will always reflect the process of its own archivization.

-Corey Culbertson & Rory Sharp


Works Consulted

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

Clark, Philip. “The DIY Archive.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1.2, GLBTQ Pasts, Worldmaking Presence (2014): 186-89. JSTOR. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.

Garde-Hansen, Joanne “My Memories?: Personal Digital ARchive Fever and Facebook.” Save As… Digital Memories Eds. Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins and Anna Reading. Palgrave McMillan, 2009. Online and Print.


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