Concealment of Archives

From my previous research with archives, I was looking at how archives are in this transition to becoming more open rather than concealed. Digital technologies is changing how we see archives: physical artefacts are now being replicated ready for digital viewing giving everyone the right to view archives (be it at a cost).

The digitisation process 

Focussing on physical archives and their place in becoming more open and available I have been looking at the digitisation process. First and foremost it is undeniably expensive: Brewster Kahle (founder of estimated that it would cost the Library of Congress $750 million to digitise all its books.

Sarah McDonald, the curator at the Getty Images Archives in an interview with Source Magazine explains the process of digitising: cleaning, scanning, cataloguing and adding metadata then finally distributing.

This video is a good account of this process;

Flickr the Commons

Flickr the Commons, from my research I have concluded is a space for public archives to upload their photographic collections. The currency of Flickr is to tag, comment and share pictures, which is ‘unconventional’ for what we might expect an archive to be.

Bronwen Colquhoun, PhD researcher in Flickr the Commons indicates that there is an issue with the archive-social media hybrid. The user engagement to tag and ultimately catalogue collections can arguably diminish the reliability of the archive and the curators. However, in my research, I suggested that if the purpose of Flickr is to share information and create conversations around archive photography then Flickr helps add value to the original artefacts; furthermore, any tagging made on Flickr will have no direct affect on the digitised files.

Focussing on these areas of digitisation and distribution of archives to make them digital, available and open really toys with what archives are.

Archives are selected and preserved so that they may be used by those needing the-information they contain. During the past forty years, many archives have moved from an essentially passive stance (making records available on request if the originators of the records did not object) to an active role in making archives available as soon as national security and personal privacy considerations permit, undertaking outreach programs to inform potential users of their content and availability, and encouraging exploitation of archives as a means of bettering society.

– The Uniqueness and Value of Archives, Unesco

I have also been referred to the idea of archive fever and the aura around the archive in its physical existence. 

“It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (91)

Două persoane

Arguably, the migration of archives from physical to virtual forms (by means of digitisation processes) has increased this desire in the physicality of the archive. Seeing a scan of a deteriorating wet plate print on a screen made up of pixels does not recreate that same feeling of holding, seeing and (even) smelling the artefact. I believe that social media platforms, such as Flickr, have the ability to increase the aura and interest in the physical archive. At the Woodson Research Centre (USA), its archivist Lauren Meyers who deals with looking after the physical collection and making digital collections. She says that ‘providing on-demand electronic access to the WRC’s collections not only increases the archive’s visibility and impact, but also allows staff to get a better sense of what users find valuable’. (Spiro). The idea that virtual archives help the archive’s value, can be confirmed from this perspective.

Archive information is only that when it is part of the archive: so what about when it taken out of that context and put into a new one? The fluidity of the internet makes the archive ‘vulnerable’ to be taken apart. This, for me, is scary, because it makes me think that what we think is a solution (having digital versions of archives), actually could be detrimental to what an archive is.

On the other hand, I am a firm believer of open online information without strict copyright restrictions. This means that (in Cory Doctorow’s words) we can “build on earlier works in order to create new, original works, because that is the basis of all creativity” (2011). Luckily, with the malleability of the Creative Commons license of Share Alike and the Attribution means that material shouldn’t ever completely be drastically changed and taken out of context.

As Marshall McLuhan said: “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (1967). So maybe we all need to rethink what we believe an archive to be, and accept that we are struggling to identify and define what we mean by an archive.

 I want to play with this idea of openness and concealment. “Archives aren’t accustomed to the public gaze, concealment is one of their defining features” (Catherine O’Flynn). I feel that in 2014 there is this tension to how we define archives, and where they sit. With this in mind, I have decided to challenge how archives are delivered to the public, with careful consideration to the medium. As far as I believe that making archives free on the Internet is very useful for researchers and building interest in the archive; I feel that there needs to be this bridge between the physical and digital, or in other words, how they can help one another.




Colquhoun, B, et al. (2011) Conference PaperThe Versatile Image: Photography in the Era of Web 2.0 Flickr The Commons: Challenging perceptions of photographic collections? Last Accessed 8th February 2014

Flynn, C. (2011). Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness? Birmingham: Ikon Gallery. Last Accessed 14th February 2014

Derrida, J. (1998). Archive Fever. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Last Accessed 12th March 2014

Kahle, B. (2007). Free Digital Library: Ted Talk. California. Available online: Last Accessed 12th March 2014

McLuhan, M. (1967). Medium is the Massage. London: Penguin. Last Accessed: 12th March 2014

Spiro, L. (2013). The Changing Role of the Archivists: Not Just Papers Anymore. Available online: Last Accessed 13th March 2014

West, R. (2012) Interview with Curator Sarah McDonald. Available Online: Last Accessed January 2014

Unesco. (2014) The Uniqueness and value of archives. Available online: Last accessed: 12th March 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s