20 November 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith
Our fourth session on storing and retrieving archival material, led by Sarah Easterby-Smith from the School of History, suitably tied in with the practical advice given by Julia Prest, Guy Rowlands and Roy Dilley during our first session on planning trips to French archives. Besides reviewing how best to organise our archival records when returning home from these trips, we also looked at broader discussions—both past and present—of how to store and organise information.
The early modern archive
Michel Foucault’s 1966 book Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines served as a springboard for a discussion on the different épistémès or systems of understanding according to which people have organised knowledge throughout history. The prototypical repository for knowledge in the Renaissance (c. 1450-c. 1650) is the Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities in which information was stored on the basis of symbolic ‘resemblances’ (see image 1 and header image). Items were ordered so as to reflect the divine order of the universe.
Image 1: Frontispiece of Museum Wormianum … by Ole Worm, published by Lugduni Batavorum: Apud Iohannem Elsevirium, Leiden (1655). © National Art Library, London
According to Foucault, the ‘classical’ period (c. 1650-c. 1800) marked a shift towards language as the primary grid of all things, inasmuch as verbal signs came to represent and hence order thought. The museum vitrine or glass cabinet typically illustrates this shift, as it allowed the viewer to observe things from a distance, detached from the world they originated from, and neatly arranged on the basis of similarity or genus (see image 2). The ‘modern’ age (from the 1800s onwards) finally witnessed a reflexive approach to knowledge. Language was no longer privileged, but widely regarded as a historical construct. In other words, language became an object of study (i.e. epistemology) itself.
Image 2: Panorama of the eighteenth-century Cabinet de Bonnier de la Mosson at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
Sarah pointed out that public archives are products of the 1790s. The French Revolution introduced a way of thinking that regarded historical consciousness as the basis of national unity. Before that time, archives primarily served administrative and personal needs and were thus mainly owned by private individuals, governmental organisations or businesses such as insurance companies. The modern archive served a different function, namely diffusing the historical consciousness of a nation among a wide public.
Roy Dilley from the Department of Social Anthropology suggested during our first session that it often proves useful to retrace the history of archival collections: why did precisely these records end up in this particular archive? As is well known, inventories of European archives usually favoured a white and male dominated history, thus leaving out marginalised groups of people and other controversial matters. Reflecting on how and why archival material has been compiled may prompt us to re-evaluate certain episodes in history.
Archiving in the twenty-first century
The remaining part of our session focussed on modern tools and ways of archiving historical material. Recurring themes concerned the accessibility, ordering and sustainability of our personal archives. We agreed that Zotero and iPhoto are particularly useful in organising and storing sources. Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software that allows you to easily manage bibliographic data as well as related research material, such as PDF files and personal notes (see image 3). It offers the added possibility to share data with others. iPhoto enables you to organise photos by adding descriptions and tags, which makes it easier to search for particular documents.
Image 3: Zotero’s user interface.
Sarah revealed that she always keeps hard copies of her most important documents, such as transcriptions of manuscripts. We agreed that digital repositories like Dropbox and Google Drive offer essential, cloud-based backup storage, but we also raised concerns about their long-terms sustainability. Project management applications such as EverNote and Scribenote can greatly assist with organising research, but can become unwieldy because they take up a large amount of space on computers and other devices.
Crucial for managing your sources effectively, is thinking how best to order them. Personal notes can be structured by using Zotero (you can create text fields for each bibliographic reference) or MindManager (a software application for the creation of mind maps). Depending on the focus and scope of your research, you might want to use an alphabetical (e.g. using a person’s surname) or chronological order (e.g. using the chronology of particular historical events or the time period during which you’ve worked on a research project). If you plan to reuse the collected material, it might be helpful to refer to archives and collections instead. By all means, don’t have too many ordering systems at the same time!
A question that has entertained people for centuries is how best to preserve knowledge. We found that most twenty-first century technologies are in fact rather poorly equipped to store information. This seems counter-intuitive at first sight. New areas of study, notably the digital humanities, put much effort into the digital preservation of a wide variety of sources, both analogue and digital. At the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of the growing number of languages used to programme digital archives. And what to think of such widespread communication tools as e-mail and social media? When taking into account their ephemeral nature (most people will store only their most important messages), it may seem that the physical, strong paper of the early modern period is more capable of standing the test of time.
Derrida, Jacques. Mal d’archive: Une impression freudienne (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1995).
Foucault, Michel, Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1966).
Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).
Written by Bram van Leuveren