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Archive monocultures considered harmful

Note: like everything on this blog, this is my personal opinion. I’m not speaking for Wellcome Collection or anybody else who works there.

When you think about archives, it’s easy to imagine them as neutral, impartial collections of stuff. They’re a container for historical objects, presented without bias or opinion. But ask anyone who works in an archive, and they’ll tell you that isn’t the case.

Archives don’t just accept any material that gets donated. Archivists make choices about what to include and what to exclude, trying to select objects that are on-topic and have historical value. Those choices mean some groups will inevitably be over or underrepresented in the archival record.

And an archive isn’t just a passive container of unadorned objects. An archive has a catalogue, which describes and contextualises what it contains – and somebody has to write those descriptions. Different archivists will describe the same object in different ways. Their expertise, their knowledge, their biases, their cultural sensitivities – all these things feed into how an object gets presented.

Archives are not neutral; they are inherently political. When dealing with archives, there are always power structures at play.

Most archives have a theme: a topic, an institution, or a person. That helps inform what gets included – for example, a transport archive might accept a collection of old timetables, but decline some leaflets about gardening. Having this focus means the people who work on that archive can have a detailed knowledge of the theme. They can write more in-depth descriptions and bring more context to the catalogue entries.

Often different archives will have overlapping themes – the same object could be in-scope in multiple places. This is a good thing! You can get a wider range of perspectives on the theme, and a more diverse set of people writing the catalogue entries. Voices that are underrepresented in one archive might be better represented in another.

This means people can choose where to donate their material – based on where they think it will be best looked after, catalogued with the most sensitivity, the history recognised, and so on.

For example, if you have something about Black men in London during the AIDS crisis, I can think of at least three different archives that might be interested. Do you want it to form part of the history of LGBTQ+ people in London? Or the history of the Black community in the UK? Or maybe part of the wider history of human health? You choose.

Archives aren’t some sort of land grab, where everybody tries to get the biggest or best collection. Archivists will often decline material, if they think it’s out-of-scope or it would be better housed elsewhere. They recognise the benefits of having a variety of archives, and the different perspectives and interpretations that they can bring. Archives and history flourish with diversity, and that applies to the institutions as much as the individual records they keep.

All this means I get nervous when I see one archive hoovering up all the material or attention for a given theme. Monocultures and monopolies are bad, and that’s as true for archives as anywhere else. Forget tearing down statues, that’s how history gets forgotten – when only one group gets to decide what’s worth remembering.

I’m worried that this is happening in our digital spaces – consider the Internet Archive, or the fanfiction site the Archive of Our Own (AO3).

Both of them do good work, and I use them regularly. I don’t want either of them to go away, but I am concerned that they take up a huge amount of attention. To many people, they’re the only archive in their respective spaces. (The Internet Archive is absolutely not the only web archiving project, but how many others can you name?)

What happens to the stuff they don’t take?

What happens to the communities they exclude?

What happens if one or both of them goes away?

Long-term, I think we’d all be better off if there were more big archives for the Internet and fandom. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, or there are other archiving initiatives that I’m not aware of – but from where I’m standing, the current situations look worryingly like monocultures.

This post was originally a thread on Twitter.