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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Virtual Archives

Johannes Fabian, Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008) is an interesting reflection on how placing documents in a virtual archive on the World Wide Web transforms these documents (and this discipline). Fabian recounts how the expectation for ethnographers today is to make their field notes and other documents more readily available, expanding the notion of how we have traditionally viewed the work of the ethnographer. He describes writing up a late ethnography, thirty years after the event, and its placement in a virtual archive. Fabian also distinguishes ethnographic texts from the kinds of documents found in traditional archives. He is interested in being able to present these texts in a fashion that is far more readily retrievable than ever before: “Ethnographers who have conducted research, recorded speech, labored over representing recorded sound graphically and translating their transcripts into another language remember too much to think of the documents they produced as being simply there to be deposited (and disappear) in archives” (p. 120). Placing them on the Web avoids their disappearance, but it also transforms in some fundamental ways what these documents represent. Doing this, as the title of the book suggests, moves the work of ethnographers from writing monographs to providing commentary on texts and notes (and allowing others to provide additional commentary).

In this volume, Fabian provides personal first-hand accounts of his working with older materials from past fieldwork experiences. For example, he describes the sense of rebuilding an account from long ago: “There is something intensely personal about experiencing presence through a document of past events. Listening to voices and sounds fills one with the pleasure of recognition; it feels good to be able to understand the language, and one cannot wait to exercise old skills of transcribing and translating. It does not take long, however, before delight becomes mixed with pain, enthusiasm with strain, and play turns into work, perhaps not necessarily but whenever we want to re-present what we see experienced” (pp. 112-113). This captures something of the sensibility of any archival research or research based on extensive reading and reflection. Compiling copious notes from the manuscript, documentary archive or the printed archive ultimately leads one to the need to organize, re-organize, interpret, and re-interpret that can be exhilarating and exhausting. Fabian’s work ought to assist archivists, among others, to reflect on how documents on the Web are different from documents in other venues (in print or in physical archives).