Framing the Archive as Techno-cultural Construct

A growing number of scholars have been adopting concepts from the sociology, philosophy and history of science as a way to address complex problems and transcend disciplinary boundaries. These science studies approaches provide a useful framework for theorizing the archival record. They build on the work of a range of authors including Donna Harraway, Bruno Latour, John Law, Michel Callon and Karen Barad. This paper uses tools from science studies in an attempt to clarify the sometimes vexed notion of archival silence. It focuses on the way that the term “archival silence,” like the term “archive” itself, has been the subject of debate both within and outside of archival studies. Since roughly the turn of the millennium, the notion of archival silence has increasingly captured the anxiety across cultures and disciplines about what is lost through censorship, distortion, destruction or inadvertence. Globalization and digitization raise the specter of historical amnesia and failure to secure the past. Growing recognition of the instability and impermanence of the digital record give the term a particular resonance. Science studies can help us frame and better understand the interlocking strands of this discourse through its insistence on the complex interplay of social, economic and technical forces. Technology and culture are not separate domains that can be studied in isolation. The digital record is conditioned by multiple interlocking factors including the intentions of the creators of original documents, the strategies of corporations that own and sell access to published content, the physical capacities of the materials used to fabricate digital infrastructure, the knowledge and beliefs of the computer engineers and designers who create digital technologies and the professional assumptions and practices of archivists, curators, and librarians.

Marlene Manoff is an independent scholar living in the Netherlands.  She is the former Senior Collections Strategist for the MIT Libraries. Prior to that, she was Associate Head of the MIT Humanities Library. She has a PhD from Brandeis University and master’s degrees from UCLA and Simmons College. Her research focuses on transformations in scholarly research as well as the impact of digital technology on academic libraries.