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Essays: Archives as Medium

Michael Cheney: The Monopoly of Knowledge: Understanding Harold Innis and the Archives of Harold Innis

By Michael Cheney, Professor of Communication and Senior Fellow, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois

Communications historians regularly cite Harold Innis as one of the major figures of their field. His study of communications history offered several significant terms for understanding that history. Of those, the term "monopoly of knowledge" is by far the most important and offers an important insight into Innis's thinking about communications -- one that goes beyond the communications medium approach with which he is sometimes identified. In studying the history of communications across time, Innis argued that when civilizations control the dominant medium of communication, be it writing or printing, they importantly control how knowledge is obtained and disseminated. This concept, of defining what people think about and what they think with, is the key to understanding a good deal of Innis's published work, as well as the challenges faced by those wishing to go beyond his currently available material.

Innis's communications work, which spanned less than 10 years, was perplexing, if not enigmatic, for scholars at the time. The approach he took, the terms he developed, and even the range of material he used, all challenged conventional notions of scholarship. Even today, the available books and articles by Innis require focused reading, and a certain suspension of typical critical faculties, to understand the flow of his thoughts and the direction he was pursuing.

As with other scholars whose work is not easily grasped, Innis's communications work fares better with more articulation and explication. A case in point is Empire and Communications, in which Innis presents the history of communications from the earliest times of Egypt, Babylon, and Greece. In its initial printing, the work contained a minimal number of footnotes; they captured the essence of the idea being cited, but did little to expand, or to explain the connection between the citation and the details of the text. In the time between the first and second editions, however, Innis notated the text more thoroughly -- adding additional sources, providing additional editorial commentary, and generally facilitating the reading of the work to give the reader greater insight into his points. But this is one of the few instances where such revisions of Innis's work are available.

An example of the challenge more commonly faced by readers of Innis is one of the first articles he published on communications history, "The Newspaper in Economic Development." It covers a period of time from the 1600s to the 1910s and uses a range of sources and insights, but is written in Innis's characteristically dense style. Like Empire and Communications, the article would benefit from further notations and comments. The logical step for a scholar wishing to deconstruct the article would be to explore the Innis archives to see what materials are available for this article and the other communications works. Specifically, what rough drafts, outlines, letters to colleagues, or notes could be found to clarify the article? What one discovers in going to the archives, however, is a set of documents that confounds rather than clarifies.

Innis, in his ongoing project on communications history, worked with a manuscript that encompassed over 1,500 pages of material spanning from earliest times to the late 19th century. He also maintained a set of index cards noting various ideas that might be of use, and wrote down individual quotes and citations onto sheets of paper, which he then cut into individual units for later inclusion in the project. As various scholars have explained, Innis regularly used these materials in a fairly literal cut-and-paste method, with minimal supporting or connecting text.

Someone searching Innis's archives for something between the raw notes and the finished document would be disappointed. The archives left behind after Innis's death are rich with a range of notes and other materials, as well as the various publications he produced, but contain little in terms of intermediate draft work. In fact, the 1,500 page "A History of Communications," which was Innis's working database, is a typescript taken from a handwritten manuscript that has since been discarded.

Anecdotal reports state that as things were being organized after Harold Innis's death, some materials were removed and discarded. In later years, as various projects associated with Innis were concluded, research files were often pruned without much attention to what was in the current archives and what might be an important addition. While there are various reasons for such housecleaning, the Innis scholar is left with fewer intermediate materials and works-in-progress than what might be expected from a scholar whose final stage of work was interrupted.

Ironically, the archives of Harold Innis are, in many ways, a monopoly of knowledge. In this, the archives are like almost any archive in the world -- a repository of information and material that was collected, albeit with some negotiation and editing, to present the material and the individual in a certain light. For the archival scholar, not just of Innis, but of any person or subject, recognizing the ways that thoughts might be shaped and the questions that might be answerable from archival information is exactly the kind of response Innis argued we should have to any monopoly of knowledge.

Just as Innis thought anew about communications history, so too do scholars seeking to further understand his thinking need to think anew about his work and subject and recognize the monopoly of knowledge that is his archive.

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