Centre for Internet & Society

This post is the second in a series by Aparna Balachandran and Rochelle Pinto. It comes to the question of how we can extend some of the questions and concerns that have arisen around contemporary archives to the documentary archive. It argues that the conventional understanding of the print archive as a fragile, irreplaceable national cultural legacy is a limited one and tries instead to rethink questions of ownership and access, issues thrown up in sharp relief by the digital archive.


If we could eavesdrop on informal conversations between historians on their use of state-owned archives outside of metropolitan centres, we would probably chance upon a rich trove of stories. Many of these would have to do with the tragi-comic experience of accessing, finding and handling precious material that is sure to not survive the conditions in which it is stored. The uppermost thought and feeling when working in a small archive in India, therefore, is usually an anxiety about the mortality of the document.Yet, the conditions of preservation are scarcely the only concern when we approach the question of the archive here. In fact, without embedding the archive in the many questions surrounding it, it is unlikely that issues of preservation can be broached fruitfully.
Of late, a proliferation of questions and concerns around contemporary archives has foregrounded some of the assumptions underpinning print archives.* These could be seen as a development on the perspectives that have disrupted the sanctity of the historical document in itself. The place of the archive has been assailed from many quarters, whether from the Foucauldian suspicion of the logic of the archive, or from the critiques of history that point to the divide between history and memory, public and private, or, from the subaltern perspective, between history and other ways of experiencing time.

One strand of this critique that emphasises the constructed nature of the archive, as against viewing it as a precious and accidental trace, also emphasises the variety of users and uses that open archives enable.** Archives of the contemporary that allow users to catalogue, edit, comment and add their own data pose some challenging questions to more conventional approaches to archiving.

If we could typify a ‘conventional’ approach, it would be one that sees manuscript and paper archives as a source for researchers alone, or as a pedagogic appendage, or as a national legacy, held permanently in safekeeping away from those whose psyche it is supposed to buttress. For the historian-researcher, the view of the archive as a precious and irreplaceable trace from the past is an instinctive reaction to handling an ‘original’ document. It is that instinct that makes the question of whether or not the state can and should be a repository of the archive a tortuous one. If we revisit the print archive with questions emerging from contemporary archivists, it is still difficult to detach oneself from the compelling fragility of the document. Its potential transience in fact reinforces the idea of its accidental survival from a ‘different’ time and space, and the need to restrict its handling to a careful few. The historical document in an age of mechanical reproduction threatens to remove from the historianś grasp the experience of handling the original.Yet most historians would probably agree that as a generality, taking an average archive into consideration, the state’s role in preservation could until recently be summed up as exercising tight control over disappearing documents.

Most of the conceptual questions that are implicit in the critique posed by contemporary archivists are not new to historians. However, efforts to extend this to the material existence of the archive have not had the same success, and this is where there seems to be a gap between what contemporary and non-contemporary archivists are able to do. A very different picture is conjured up by the contemporary archive with the potential access it offers to non-specialist users. The uses and needs that emerge from non-specialists cannot be imagined in the context of the state archive. Often, though this is not usually made explicit, the imagination of the contemporary archive, dislodged from the sanctity of the national, pedagogic or academic ideal, implies a digital format and the increasing possibility for the user to recategorise and signpost different aspects of a collection.

While archives of the contemporary are not necessarily celebratory, and often indicate the differential access and rights of digital publics, they nonetheless do not address those areas that the conventional historian is most familiar with.*** All of these skirt around the relatively unreachable government archives, or privately held collections. The transition from print to digital format does not ensure that issues of state ownership, access and generating potential different users for archives will be addressed. In fact the Indian historian who is the bridge between the University and the state archive can only too easily imagine continuity across the transition to another technology.

On another note, the transition to digital technology and private ownership has actually presented the historian in India with a further quandary. The digital archive in a well-funded private university setting such as can be found in the US, or in a state institution as in the UK enables holding organizations to use digital technology to ‘complete’ their archival collections, drawing in private collections from countries that cannot afford preservation and enhancing their own closed holdings. While such institutions cannot have access to Indian state archives, it is an indication that technology alone does not resolve questions that require another sort of intervention.

The question at hand:
It may be well to set aside a nationalist perspective here, for it can be argued that those forbidden by the Indian government from accessing pertinent archives are well served by the fact that these exist elsewhere. The issue here is that while currently the archives continue to be housed and controlled by national institutions, we probably cannot retain this nationalist perspective to address the question of archives anymore. Aside from being positioned between two approaches: a rapid acquisition policy with respect to private holdings, and a relatively inaccessible state policy, we could also be seen as the (illegitimate?) repository of other national holdings. For instance, the Central Library in Goa at one point in time was the holding library for Portuguese empire in the ‘East’ or the Estado da Índia. It therefore has a large collection of official government publications from Africa. Communities disaffected from the nation see their archival holdings as illegitimately if safely housed in dominant regional libraries. Each area could possibly produce varying positions vis-à-vis the nationalist perspective and not just about illegitimacy of ownership. These will be rendered untenable if one sustains a singularly nationalist perspective on the archive What is at issue is that we currently have a restricted number of print archive models at hand. The most dominant are the stateist and the knowledge economy model. 

The knowledge economy model seeks to make a single repository such as a well-funded University library the single largest holding of historical material; an asset into which other Universities can buy. As an instance, we could cite the South Asia projects of the University of Chicago, which, while it makes funds available to rescue private collections from disappearance, also has a centralizing vision that converts archival collections into a private asset.**** How do we, as historians of India (and perhaps necessarily Indian historians) situate ourselves with respect to these two models?

Quite simply, we, as an assorted group of users, don’t have the resources to buy private archives, and would be opposed to (in any case untenable) state control over these. As a first move, there is a need to shift from seeing ourselves in relation to the state archives alone, or as a relatively silent entity positioned between the state and the knowledge economy, dependent on individual research grants for  access overseas archives.
We could instead consider the possibilities that technology holds out to enhance control, centralization and exclusivity, or to dissipate it. We could focus on questions of access; on who potential users are; on mutually recognized open access policies between institutions, and on finding interest groups and archive-related projects and other contexts for use of the archives.

A discussion on state and private collections may have to consider different approaches and collate different kinds of information to be able to intervene in defining the possibilities of archiving. Most fundamentally, these approaches would stem from considering who the current owners – economic, ethical, political – of these archives are, and who they could possibly be, what could take and what routes of dissemination they could have?A conceptualization of a notion of commons, or public good may be a beginning point to envisage who owns the archives, who cares for them, who uses them, and how. 

*By contemporary archives we refer to those housed by SARAI in Delhi or the recently launched Pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive), an open access video archive that allows users to catalogue, edit, comment and add their own data.
**See for instance, Arjun Appadurai’s ‘Archive and Aspiration’
***See Lawrence Liang, ‘Global Commons, Public Space And Contemporary Ipr’
**** See the proposed Urdu Research Library Consortium into which members can buy shares.

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