The Institutionalizing of the Archive

What is an archive?  Before reading Richard Cox’s “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist,” the image the word “archive” brought to mind was a big room, almost cathedral-like with its high ceilings and an immediate sense that there is a need to be quiet and solemn.  But the room does not contain religious items; no, rather it holds dusty filing cabinets filled with old, boring documents, and bookshelves with leather volumes, each volume having its own assigned place.  It is a room to be respected, but it is also room that feels impersonal and lonely; a place that I think would be incredibly boring to work at.  Yet I do, in a sense, work in an archives.  Actually, I freely volunteer my time to update it and maintain it—perhaps even too freely.  The archive is well known by the name Facebook.

Prior to reading Cox, I never would have classified Facebook as an archive.  But it is.  I am constantly archiving tidbits of my life on my account, from updating my status as a record of what I’m currently doing to posting pictures of significant events.  An archive is so much more than a dusty, lonesome records room.  According to Cox, I am a citizen archivist, and, partially thanks to the digital era, my private archives are rather public.  Jacques Derrida says in Archive Fever, “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.”   I think that Cox would agree with Derrida.  One of the focuses of Cox’s article is the relationship between private and public, or institutional, archives.  Yet as he speaks of the changes archiving is undergoing due to the digital age, I would argue that he demonstrates how the lines between personal and institutional archiving are blurring. 

Public archives are, as the name implies, public, and Cox speaks many times of the way personal archives are becoming more public.  He often refers to documents—such as certificates and diplomas—and pictures being “framed and displayed… in public spaces,” and how “the Internet has provided a new space for displaying personal archives, such as blogs and personal photograph galleries.”  Cox himself juxtaposes public and private archives when he says that these items are “often displayed with the care of a museum exhibit.”  Derrida also comments on this publicity when, speaking of archives, “The dwelling, this place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public.”  By posting previously private pictures on the Facebook, a citizen archivist causes his or her archive to go through that “institutional passage.”  But Derrida makes an interesting point when he that this “does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret.”  As Cox pointed out, we have a tendency to display some archives in public spaces, like the wall in our living room.  So when we take an old picture from the wall, scan it into the computer and post it on Facebook, goes from one institution to another, but not from the “secret to the nonsecret.”

So, what is an archive?  Clearly Cox and Derrida have shown me that my original thoughts on the subject were not entirely accurate.  I am sure there do exist record rooms, perhaps a bit dusty and quiet, that clearly contain archives, but in simply exploring the idea of a citizen archivist, Cox expanded the definition of an archive to include pictures hanging on the wall in a living room or a status update on Facebook.  Derrida and Cox both have shown me that archives are often very public, not stored away in an old room where people cease to care about them.  And yet, I feel that I cannot give an all-encompassing definition of an archive.  What is it?


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