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Essays: Archives as Medium

Kim Sawchuk: Materiality, Memory Machines and the Archive as Media

By Kim Sawchuk, Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University

Archives are repositories of a variety of artefacts, or "rich" media, that have been designated as having potential value for future generations. According to Harold Innis, all media -- letters on papyrus, photographic traces on celluloid, stone tablets -- have a bias that favours communication through time or across space. Electronic media, for instance, which emphasize the speed of information, collapse the significance of spatial distance in communication. Stone tablets, which are difficult to write upon and even more difficult to move, may foster continuity within a community.

If we consider media in Innisian terms, as communications technologies that emphasize time and space in different ways, then it is possible to approach the archive as a communications medium and not just as a repository for artefacts. Consider the difference between documents found in archives and the holdings in a library. Except for rare book collections, the items in a library can also be found in at least one other library, and most items in the collection can circulate beyond the walls of the library for a circumscribed period of time. While some archives allow materials to be copied, often at great expense, archival records and documents do not circulate easily beyond their institutional resting places. You cannot check them out or obtain them through a library loan -- they are rooted in the time and space of the archive itself. Considering an archive as a medium emphasizes its character as a complex organizational tool that facilitates or impedes individual and social communication with future generations about past events, through the instantiation of specific protocols and rules of access.

Innis was concerned with the bias towards relations of time or space in all media, as well as with the institutionalization of authority through media. This is best captured in his phrase "monopolies of knowledge." Innis suggested that the construction of libraries in history and the work of scribes, who occupied a "strategic position in centralized bureaucracies in earlier eras," 1 meant that a library or an archive could become "a great instrument of imperial power." 2 Innis was not saying that libraries and archives should be banned; he was suspicious of the centralizing and standardizing tendencies of mechanical means of information gathering that were beginning to appear in the late 1940s.

Innis warned that archives were not neutral transmitters of knowledge but had implications for cultural memory and how we think. Would a turn to the preservation of everything favour "accumulation over synthesis"? How would a shift in the dominant media usurp who had a monopoly -- and who would be marginalized? Who decides what is of value? Who will have access? How will information be disseminated?

In creating an archive we do not merely dwell on past events; archivists acting at the behest of benefactors must speculate as to what will be of relevance to a future society. They must consider that what is of cultural importance may shift as some items are remembered and others are willfully forgotten. It is not only what is kept, but what is eliminated that limits the claims a researcher can make when using "the evidence" contained in any archival collection. A researcher like myself, looking for traces of women's participation in civil life, knows this only too well.

Considering an archive as a medium tied to various monopolies of knowledge brings to the fore the politics and economics of preservation and research and the relationship of research to media technologies. Institutions must have the ongoing resources to store and maintain a collection as well as a sense of its value.

It is arguable that, with the move to digital technologies, archives will become a different sort of communications medium. As a virtual online database linked by a vast hypertextual network, the digital archive would be one without walls, that allows input by anyone and access to anyone, anywhere, anytime. In this utopian narrative, an archive is less like the archivium, or house of the magistrate, and more like a city that continually expands and grows, that contains numerous pathways. 3 The classical notion of the archive as a place of singular documents in a specific setting would be eliminated.

Relations of power will necessarily shift in this move to the digitized archive. Another Innisan word of caution, however: considering the materiality of a given medium means dealing with the physical nature of the materials at hand. Archiving, like communicating, is influenced by the material specificity of media artefacts as well as their modes of communication.

I am presently involved in a project that draws attention to the complexities embedded in the process of translating fragile objects from the past into digital form for the future. My research team is seeking to digitize a collection of over 1,000 anatomical illustrations drawn by women in the 1940s, women who worked at the edges and the frontiers of medicine, but whose contributions have not been sufficiently recognized. Tests need to be done to determine the optimum resolution for a range of images: photographs, line drawings, watercolours, and illustrations made with carbon dust. Some of the images are larger than a typical scanner and thus need special treatment, not to mention investment in yet another technology. A trade-off may be necessary between scanning at high resolution and scanning at low resolution to facilitate the speed at which the digitized images can be accessed. One must consider that any archival database must allow for users with a variety of technologies and platforms with which to access the materials; otherwise, a new monopoly of knowledge will form -- one biased towards those with access to the most sophisticated machines. In short, the materiality of the medium matters as we work towards creating our archive of digitized images.

Artefacts communicate because of what is inscribed on them, but they also tell us something about the values at the time and place of their creation because of the media that were used, and because of the users who are imagined or not, and thus are left out by technological default. To draw attention to the archive as a media, and not just as a space or a place, is to understand archives as memory machines that produce our sense of history and facilitate communication between past, present and future generations of potential users.


1. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (new edition), edited by Paul Heyer and David Crowley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), p. 135.

2. Innis, The Bias of Communication, p. 13.

3. Mike Featherstone, "Archiving Cultures," British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, no. 1 (January-March 2000), p. 161-184.

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