Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Tin Trunk Archives

Across Africa, during the Colonial period, its educated leaders and nearly every type of other inhabitant began to maintain elaborate personal archives stored in tin trunks and other storage containers. In a volume edited by Karin Barber with a range of Africanist scholars -- Africa’s Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), ISBN 0-253-21843-8 – these archives, along with newspaper publishing and reading, are examined as expressions of literacy, all contributing to making a “civilized and civic community” (p. 5) and each, in different ways, suggesting “new kinds of self-representation and personhood” (p. 7).

What links these efforts by tribal leaders, civil servants, writers and journalists, and ordinary inhabitants are their engagement with the colonial state. As Barber reflects in the volume’s introduction, “by writing directly to colonial officials, by establishing an alternative epistolary network, by using a diary to keep miscellaneous records of official information, by writing love letters with one eye on their possible future use as legal evidence, by recording their own public achievements and civic contributions (perhaps with a view to being appropriately obituarized in due course), or, by participating in the constitution of an exacting religious community, enclosed within the state but reversing some of its key values” (p. 9) these various individuals documented their interaction with and reaction to the colonial powers and influences.

Africa’s Hidden Histories groups the various essays into three themes. One explores the evolution of a reading culture and another examines the development of new literary genres, both of these essay groupings examining literature, literary societies, newspapers, and schoolteachers. It is the first section – “Diaries, Letters, and the Constitution of the Self” – that individuals interested in the nature of archives and archiving will most want to peruse. Comprising seven essays, really a book in itself, the reader discovers detailed descriptions of individuals gathering, in quite elaborate fashion, personal archives. Stephen Miescher notes how one African hoped that his personal papers would create a “form of afterlife” (p. 47). Ruth Watson describes another who “used his diary as a tool of self-realization, proving to himself that his peers respected him” (p. 70) as he sought to find his place in society. Catherine Burns recreates how another individual over the years constantly revisited her archives, making notes and rewriting earlier documents,

This is an interesting contribution to many different scholarly areas. Individuals interested in reading, literacy, community, and Colonial Africa will find much to commend. Others interested in the nature of the archive will be engaged with what the various contributors offer to our growing understanding of the personal archives, especially why such archives are formed by one’s interaction with shifting societal forces.