Derrida, Cox and the Institutional Archive

It is an interesting task to try to find connections between the Derrida’s “notion of the archive” and Cox’s Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist because the two seem to have and incompatible existence. Derrida makes the claim that an archive is institutional by nature, which contradicts the very notion of a “citizen archivist.” How can individual citizens adopt a system, or science, which is institutionalized? 

The concept of the archive being inherently institutionalized is actually reaffirmed, perhaps inadvertently, by Cox’s arguments in Citizen Archivist. Cox goes in great detail to explain the dangers new digital mediums and personal archiving has on building and maintaining the archive. Citizen Archivist consistently attempts to convey the message of change and adaptation to meet the needs of this new era ushered in by digital innovations. Cox says, “[m]y hope is that we [archivists] can build on the digital curation initiative in order to develop the means by which to help private citizens to care for their materials.” This statement may seem progressive in the sense that it is looking to adapt to archiving process to help individual archivists; but really the idea presented harkens back to Derrida’s institutionalization.

Cox is proposing that there should be some guidelines, or at least guidance, established by professional archivists to help amateurs in their collection. This means that despite the power shifting from the physical, centralized archive to the individuals, a publicly recognized authority is still trying to dictate or, in some way, standardize the way records are being kept. This keeps in line with Darrida’s notion of the archive that is derived from the Greek “arkeion.”  While the archive is moving away from the physical domicile, the authority over deposited documents and records remains. 

Admittedly, the preceding paragraph had a slightly ominous tone, and might possibly give the wrong impression. The authority and institutionalization discussed is not inherently bad (or good), and Cox is not implying that professional archivists should have control over what or how people record their personal archives. Rather, he is fulfilling another aspect of Derrida’s notion of the archive, which dictates that archivists or “archons” have to “ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate.” Cox’s suggestion to help give guidance to personal archivists is, in essence, protecting the documents. 

When people decide to take the records from “private to public” or “secret to non-secret” via outlets like Facebook, Twitter, or a blog, the documentation is no longer physical, but intangible and stored via another institution.  These institutions are not immortal, and the servers and data centers that hold millions of personal archives will eventually go dark. Cox’s suggestion to train, progress and adapt the science of archiving is a natural extension of Derrida’s notion of an archive, even if the idea of a citizen archivist conflicts with it. 

Question for class discussion: 

Does Derrida’s notion that “a science of the archive must include the theory of this institutionalization, that is to say, the theory both of the law which begins by inscribing itself there and of the right which authorizes it” actually support the concept of a citizen archivist rather than contradict it? 


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