Archives and Access

After reading Derrida’s thoughts about the archive, discussing it in class, and then reading the NPR article about the photographs of internment camps, I have been thinking a lot about how archived items are chosen. Who determines what has value? Who determines what does not? In the case of the Japanese Internment camps, the government decided whose photos could be published. Ansel Adams photos were allowed to represent those camps while Dorothea Lange’s images were hidden from the public. The obvious reason for this exclusion was that Lange’s photographs showed the reality of those camps, while Adams’ images allowed the viewer to look over the inhumanity of imprisoning American citizens. While that may not have been Adams’ intentions, it was the intention of those who distributed the images.

In another class that I am enrolled in this semester, we read a book that questioned our beliefs about history and how much truth is actually portrayed in history. The book addressed a concept of “secret history,” which challenged how much trust we place in history. We do not always get the full story, and we have to continually seek out all sides of a situation. In an archive, the archivists can save whatever they deem worthy to save. The archivist will have biases just like any other person. What we archive can sway how we study an event in history. History does not want to remember the Japanese Internment camps as being a negative because that forces the United States to face the truth in our history. But what does this mean for archives?

It’s important to remember that we may not be given the full and complete history. Archives may contain important artifacts that help us study history; however, Lange and Adams’ photos remind us that there will always be people in power who want history remembered in a certain light. Archives are valuable, but it is important that we remain critical about the history that we are being presented with. Orlando, I think, was created as an answer to some of the information that was left out of traditional archives. The creators of Orlando saw that women writers were underrepresented in similar archives. Orlando was made to fill this gap. This digital archive exemplifies how the Internet has changed the concept of archives. Scholars with access to the database do not have to travel to a specific archive; they just need access.

While it is impossible to save everything, the internet does change how archives function and does allow for more information and items to be saved; however, how we privilege certain information has to change as well. The internet provides for more open-access to information (as long as it isn’t behind a pay-wall) without a person needing to go to a physical library, but the question of access also arises. The internet and digital archives might increase access, but there will still be people who do not have access to computers or internet. When discussing education and technology, inequality has been a running problem. Archives are unavailable to the same people who are underrepresented in them. The internet isn’t the ultimate fix, either. It may close the gap for people who are unable to travel, but it leaves the question of access to other groups wide open. Digital archives are great, but they are also not perfect. Are there any ways to fix them? I’m not sure, but I think it is important to continue trying to.


One thought on “Archives and Access”

  1. “History is written by the victors.” You made me think of that saying, and I think archives are definitely part of how that happens. Internet archives, in addition to providing greater (albeit still limited) access, may also turn “history is written by the victors” on its head; not only can more people access the archives, but more people can also create them. The digital space evens the playing field, allowing the non-victor voices to contribute to the history. Though as you point out, digitization isn’t a panacea, and internet access remains an issue. Digital platforms help more perspectives to write history, but that still doesn’t mean all perspectives are represented.


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