The Power in the Archive

The word “archive” is one that I know is in my lexicon, but I can’t remember when or where I learned the word. It has always been around and in my world. However, I’ve never thought much about where the archive comes from, what goes into it, and, perhaps most troubling, who decides what goes into the archive. As someone who is a firm believer in questioning power structures, I was intrigued to be asked the question: who decides what goes into the archive?

I think of the archive as being a big room somewhere that artifacts, documents, photographs, and such exist. A vision of white gloves, a panopticon, and an air of sophistication come to mind. The room would be what aliens would study if they were trying to discover the human race. However, such a room also holds such power that it alienates those who are not part of the community that is privileged enough to be able to access it. As with many aspects of society, we see that those who hold the power are the ones that decide what knowledge and information is distributed to the masses and preserved in the archive.

The internet is one way that the closed-off, hierarchy of the archive can begin to shift. There is no longer the same type of elite power that existed before. One day, this blog post will become a part of the archive. The expansion of human knowledge is rapidly growing and becoming part of the World Wide Web. This could either be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the context and the person that is asked.

Nevertheless, there is still a power that comes with the digital archive. Only those who have access and ability to use technology are included in the direct production of archival material. And it is not just a matter of being able to get access to the Internet. It is also a matter of being able to use the tool.  Thus, the power is still tilted towards those who are educated and of a higher socioeconomic status.

This is not to say that there are not incredibly wonderful things that have come out of the digital shift in archiving materials and sources. One of the first websites that comes to mind when considering online archives is the fandom website Archive of Our Own, which is part of The Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit that was created to provide access to and preserve the “history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms.” Through looking at this website alone, I was led to another project that OTW is involved in: Transformative Works and Cultures, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles about transformative works, media studies, and the fan community. There is a niche in the internet that has created a new field of study that revolves around fandoms, which would not be possible without the digitization of the archive.

We see a different type of power that is given when the archive becomes digital and more accessible in examples such as OTW. The ability to visit a website where people can build a community, collaborate, and create together, is a powerful tool. The archive no longer belongs to the elite. Although there is still much work to be done to expand access to more people, the power is still being shifted away from a small percentage of people towards a broader audience.

While the rapid expansion of access to the internet and the demystifying of the archive is far from a bad thing, it is also important for us to remember that we have a long way to go before the archive is truly “free and open” to all.

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