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Technology and the archive

One of the primary interests of mine is the connection between technology and law. The development of archives is one place where this connection plays out in practice. This I am deeply interested in the question presented by Schwartz and Cook present as to what the impact of new technologies–like “postal services, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, photography”–was on “on the production, preservation, and use of records and archives since the mid-nineteenth century.”

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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One of my primary interests is the connection between technology and law. The development of archives is one place where this connection plays out in practice. This I am deeply interested in the question presented by Schwartz and Cook in as to what the impact of new technologies–like “postal services, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, photography”–was the production, preservation, and use of records and archives since the mid-nineteenth century.”

While we tend to think most about modern technological shifts due to electronic records, older technological innovations–such as the typewriter and modern filing mechanisms–were just as radical. Featherstone gives the flavor of some of the modern concerns related to the instability and massiveness of electronic data:

Nara-archives
Image via Wikipedia

How are decisions on what to collect, what to store, what to throw away and what to catalogue to be made? Today this is not just a question of which material to put on shelves in the stack and which to leave in unlabeled boxes in the back-rooms, but how to deal with potentially unstable electronic archives. This can be illustrated by the US Government National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, which faced the problem of how to preserve, organize and catalogue the 16-24 million electronic messages accumulated by the Clinton Administration.

But although this highlights the modern example, I think such questions are not radically different from those posed by the ability to file, catalog, and maintain archival paper records in the 18th and 19th centuries.

An interesting distinction between the implementation of older technologies of archives and modern ones emerged in Featherstone’s article:

the downsizing of the public sector within nation-states since the 1980s … has led to commercial sponsorship of archives being sought to fill the funding gap. The problem here is that the commercial logic revolves around the need to get good returns on investment: high profile archives of the good and the great would then be preferred by sponsors to those of lesser known figures or local interest.

First flag of the Honourable East India Company
Image via Wikipedia

I wonder, though, if this is a distinction that is completely supported historically? After all, wasn’t the East India Company a driver of archival methods in the past, and wasn’t that driver one of commercial need? Perhaps the distinction is more one of specialization. Modern archival technologies are being driven by companies that are seeking to profit from the technology itself, and specialize in providing that archival technology. This, instead of archives being subservient to other needs, products, etc., archives today are the product.

BERLIN - JANUARY 16:  Rows of original case do...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Another point that emerged as critical for me was the idea that the archive enshrined and reflected power relations. While this is true, I think it can be overstated in terms of intentionality. Thus I particularly responded to Schwartz and Cook’s comment about this: “to assert that archives and records are only about power, about imposing control and order, is an incomplete view. We are not suggesting that traditional archivists engage consciously in conspiracy or collusion, let alone that they are power-mad.” In other words, while it’s critical to remember that archiving is an exercise of power, that isn’t their primary purpose, and focusing too much on the power behind the archive (reading against it, in other terms) might well be neglecting the importance of other, more intentional facets of the archive (reading with it, perhaps).