Working With and Within: Thoughts on Embedded Archival Practice

After some prolonged writing time and some time off my research, this week I am returning to reading and focusing on thinking about how archival/documentation practice in active communities works.

I have spent the majority of my career to date working with relatively modern collections, having originally started out working in digitisation of AV/photographic collections and then motivated to become an archivist following my own politicisation about documentation and history making practice in the communities in which I have participated. This means that active and ongoing interactions with record creators or communities involved in archive creation has been a fairly common experience in my creative practice.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my position in relation to my PhD research, and also to archival practice in these contexts. I am someone who is already within DIY music subcultures and spaces, and who has a legacy of involvement and documentation work in my past cultural activism. This means that I start my project aware of a certain set of shared concerns and anxieties that emerge from the closure and threat of closure DIY spaces often experience. It also means that I’ve worked in the organisational context in which this study takes place – either through working non-hierarchical or through distributed organising networks.

I am spending a lot of time thinking about the importance of archive/heritage workers (I do not use this word to mean exclusively professionally qualified archivists) who politicise undertaking documentation work within their own community. These people act as what Thomas called an “embedded curator”, someone who “uses his or her physical and virtual presence within a selected community to document that community while simultaneously serving as a resource to it” (Thomas, 2012: p. 38). Other archival theorists have too drawn attention to the ways in which shared identity or cultural background can be an asset to archival or history making projects (Neal, 2002). The dynamics involved in archival practice in this context is very different than those I’ve observed in collecting projects and project undertaken in historical contexts, in which the focus is more on pursuing the collection of existing traces, or reaching out to establish connections with record creators. 

I’m exploring collaborative collecting and documentation strategies, and their application in community heritage, as a way to think about how to mobilise the creation of archives and new documentary practice in the collective working contexts of DIY music spaces/subcultures. It goes beyond working in a community too – I am thinking about what it means to work with the everyday rhythms of a space. In reference to personal archives, Ashmore, Craggs and Neate describe the experiences of sorting in a domestic space:

“Working in a domestic space as archive necessitated particular social interactions of comportment, restraint, deference between ourselves and the owner of the archive. It also meant working-with and amidst the rhythms and ruptures of the multiple geographies of home. The plumber came and went, the printer broke, the front door received a fresh coat of paint, the printer was put back in working order, friends and relatives visited, the ‘phone rang, a ‘ping’ sound from the computer signalled the arrival of another email. These domestic spaces, activities and timings produced particular sets of sociability” (Ashmore et al., 2012: p. 84).

For me, as for the authors here (in reference to arranging and sorting a personal archive in a domestic space), there is a poetics and a politics in the way in which spaces and archives intersect, in the way in which working practices, relationships and connections develop in this sort of collaboration. For me, I’m interested in how archival/documentation practice (and the traditions of both) change when undertaken in the community-led, non-hierarchical and highly collaborative nature of DIY cultural networks.

These authors also discuss the development of collaborative arrangement and description practices throughout their project:

“Working-with the owner of an archival collection offers an opportunity to consider the archival practices of historical and cultural geographers where the archive presents both traces of past and ongoing lives, and where archival research becomes explicitly sociable and collaborative. Such collaboration unsettles traditional notions of historical credibility gained through painstaking archival research, but, we argue, offers alternative forms of communal knowledge formation which are worthy of further consideration. The process of working-with, combining the physical graft of moving and discarding, intellectual work of evaluating, organising and making connections, and emotional work of listening, discussing and reviewing particular objects can be productive” (Ashmore et al., 2012: p. 82).

What came through from this for me was the intersections of social networks, sociability and the process of archiving. My experiences of arrangement and cataloguing have been predominantly lonesome, often working through a collection in a processing room by myself or with one colleague/volunteers, and whilst by the end of the process I normally feel as if I “know” the archive’s creator/owner, I can’t say I’ve ever felt very sociable. Talking and sorting with a record creator sounds like a way to collaboratively embed the voice(s) and originating context/community into an archive, and also to embed social support networks into our work.

Ashmore, P., Craggs, R., Neate, H., 2012. Working-with: talking and sorting in personal archives. Journal of Historical Geography 38, 81–89.
Neal, K.M., 2002. Cultivating Diversity. Collection Management 27, 33–42.
Thomas, L.M., 2012. The Embedded Curator: Reexamining the Documentation Strategy of Archival Acquisitions in a Web 2.0 Environment. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 13, 38–48.

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