The Multidimensional Scholarly Archive (II)

Last month, together with Silvia Stoyanova, I delivered a lecture at the “Methodological Intersections”: Trier Digital Humanities Autumn School 2015 (which Silvia co-organised) on the topic of ‘The Multidimensional Scholarly Archive’. Silvia’s part of the lecture has been posted here, underneath you can find my contribution.

I would like to focus on some of the current theories related to the agency of the archive that have emerged from within contemporary media studies. From there I will focus on the ethics and politics of the scholarly archive and on how the materialities of our current digital scholarly archiving and publishing practices are integrally entangled with the way research is produced, disseminated and consumed. To illustrate my talk, I will focus on two case studies of digital archives or archival practices. I will be looking at self-archiving or green open access and I will be exploring practices more akin to guerilla forms of open access, focusing mainly on AAAARG and, in specific, on some of the innovative scholarly archiving features this platform has been experimenting with.

Poststructuralist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida have been incremental in thinking the agency of the archive, and in theorising archives as conditions of and for knowledge. Their arguments focus among others on how the archiving possibilities determine the structure of the content that will be archived as it is becoming. The archive produces just as much as it records the event or content within it and is thus highly performative; it creates knowledge, and decides how we determine what knowledge will be. As Derrida argues, the meaning of the archive is fluid; the performance of archiving and with that the archivists’ present vision of the past is reinscribed into a reinterpreted past. Hence, as Derrida states, ‘the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future’ (Derrida 1996: 45). The archive does not stabilise or guarantee any concept, as it becomes part of the knowledge that is produced out of it. Foucault also acknowledges this fluidity, seeing the archive as a general system of both the formation and transformation of statements. The archive structures our way of perceiving the world, as we operate and see the world from within it. As Foucault states: ‘it is from within these rules that we speak’ (Foucault 1969: 146). The relationship of the archive to scholarship is however a mutual one: they determine one another. A new scholarly paradigm also asks for and creates a new vision of the archive.

The German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst based his media theory of the archive on Foucault’s insights, developing it into his own specific brand of non-human media archaeology. For Ernst it is the media, or in this case the archival media themselves that need to be examined (instead of examining their cultural or political aspects and contexts for example). Here the focus should lie on the agency and materiality of our recording technologies. For example, Ernst is interested in how relationships between objects in archives are increasingly no longer narrativised by humans, but are networked, where algorithmic connections are established by the dynamic archives themselves. Based then on increasingly dynamic technologies, archives don’t ‘store’ objects as much as they generate them, meaning that algorithmic objects are generated anew and processually within archives when they are accessed, resulting in archives as well as their objects being permanently rewritten. (Ernst 2012: 82)

English scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum, in his analysis of Ernst’s work, refers in this respect to Ernst’s notion of archaeography, which denotes forms of machinic or medial writing, or as Ernst puts it, ‘expressions of the machines themselves, functions of their very mediatic logic’ (Ernst 2011: 242). At this point archives become ‘active ‘‘archaeologists’’ of knowledge’ (Ernst 2011: 239), or as Kirschenbaum puts it, ‘the archive writes itself’ (2013). It is essential that we pay more attention to the functioning of the machine itself, as well as the technical conditions that determine what can be accessed, owned, and preserved. Therefore, as Marlene Manoff has argued, we need a more nuanced understanding of the contemporary archive based on its material properties, and an enhanced knowledge of the physical infrastructure of technology (Manoff 2013). For as Kirschenbaum explains, the preservation of digital objects is ‘logically inseparable from the act of their creation’ (Kirschenbaum 2013). Every time we access a digital object, we duplicate it, we copy it. Therefore, as part of our strategies of conservation, every time we access a file we also (re)create these objects anew over and over again. When we access an archive we are thus actively involved in the archive’s functioning.

The focus within Ernst’s work and German media theory more in general on the materiality and non-human agency of the archive, has been critiqued as being rather techno-determinist from within feminist new materialist studies, among others. Departing from a similar materialist perspective they have yet been keen on bringing discursive structurings and human interventions back into our theorizing of the archive again, albeit in a reconfigured way, focusing on the discursive-materiality of the apparatus of the archive as a whole.

For example, feminist scholar Maria Tamboukou recently wrote an important article describing her archival work on the English writer Dora Carrington, which was informed by new materialist theories and feminist science and technology studies, especially by the work of Karen Barad. Tamboukou, similar to what we have established before, departs from the fact that the configuration of the archive has an impact on the type of data and the kind of knowledges that will derive from it. So, she too argues that our focus should be on the structures at play behind the archive, and how this influences the outcome of scholarly research. But as Tamboukou argues, our scholarly situatedness and perspective is similarly materially entangled with the context of the archive. As Tamboukou explains: ‘The material conditions of working in the archive are not mere practicalities or technicalities; they are always interrelated with specific methodological decisions and theoretical paths that the researcher is led to follow. (…) the researcher’s experience and choices in the archive creates certain conditions of possibility for what will emerge from the archival research.’ (Tamboukou 2014) Tamboukou thus highlights issues of material and discursive entanglements within the archive. Similar to auto-ethnographic methodologies, instead of obscuring the interpretational strategies of her research, Tamboukou rather chooses to expose them, to highlight how matter and meaning have been entangled in the writing of her research. Importantly Tamboukou shows in her article how our situatedness and our archival strategies are indeed materially meaningful. Research is thus necessarily an outcome of these entanglements, and it is necessary to acknowledge this.

When designing or using digitally-born archives or remediating paper-based ones, we thus have to pay attention to their mediatic constraints, and we need to explore their technological and material context, how this shaped and structured them. At the same time, as we have learned from Ernst, we need to take into consideration the agency of the archive, where especially in digital archives, the human aspects of control and structure can be seen to be taken over by algorithmic structuring beyond humans’ controls. Tamboukou has however argued, from both a practical and an ethical viewpoint that we as scholars are always already entangled with the functioning of the archive. We thus need to acknowledge our own situatedness as scholars in intra-action with the archive if we want to acknowledge how our research comes about.

One aspect of why, as Silvia already remarked, scholars are not always creating and/or interacting with archives the way they would like to, is due to medial inhibitions; but cultural and political and economical issues play a big role too: In this respect, as Manoff has argued, it is important to emphasise how the political economy of contemporary increasingly closed (both technologically and legally, as in the case of DRM) media technologies inhibits our access not only to the content of these media, but also to their functioning and design (Manoff 2013). At the same time copyright and reuse inhibitions stand in the way of creating and curating our own collections of both primary and secondary sources, annotating and responding to them in the way we see fit, away from the branded, closed and cloud-based platforms of Google, Apple and Amazon. This present context of the scholarly archive plays an important role in the research that can be produced and, as Tamboukou argues referencing Karen Barad, in the interventions or agential cuts researchers can make. This includes not only decisions that we make as researchers within existing archives, but also includes decisions of which archives we are able to create and use (and how we can intervene in these limitations). All these aspects are important for the outcomes of our research. I would like to focus more in depth now on how issues of access delimit our opportunities to create relationships between resources as part of the creation of our own scholarly archives.

What I would like to showcase here now are two examples of archives or archival practices, in which scholars try to stage interventions into this context of delimited access in order to create their own networked archives. I will discuss two archives or archival practices in specific here: Green open access, or the depositing of preprint or postprint published research publications by scholars into repositories, and shadow libraries or pirate archives such as AAAARG which, outside of legal structures and copyright possibilities, have started to create collections of mainly secondary digitized scholarly literature. Unstable and ephemeral these nonetheless form an important resource from which scholars are able to build and curate their own digital archives of scholarly materials and resources.

As many have argued, there is an increasing need for scholars to become archivists themselves. This relates among others to the ubiquity of information we are confronted with on a daily basis and which we need to be able to process as part of our professional and personal lives. Increasingly though, it is commercial companies and platforms that aid us in our archiving needs, from social media giants to Google Books and Amazon. What is left of the agency of the scholar-archivist to be able to organise resources, data and digital objects in these constellations, especially when they are platform and software bound, DRM-ed and app-based? In what way can we still intervene in these technological conditions and power structures underlying the archive? Digital theorist Yuk Hui therefore argues for a technics of care (Hui 2013). In his archivist manifesto he calls for the reinsertion of knowledge and skills for developing personal archives. This technics of care includes an infrastructure for the sharing of information on an individual level. One of the ways we can do this as scholars, is by starting to archive our own scholarly works in subject-based or institutional repositories, to in a sense, as Hui has argued ‘re-appropriate’ our archives and the access to them. In 1995 Stevan Harnad published his ‘Subversive Proposal’ for scholars to publish their publications on public FTP servers to make them available to all (Harnad 1995). From there this practice has developed further and reached from the computer and hard sciences into the HSS and green open access policies and mandates have been adopted by institutions and funders worldwide.

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Sherpa RoMEO is a searchable database of publisher’s policies regarding the self-archiving of journal articles (both preprints and postprints) on the web and in Open Access repositories. This website lists the publishers conditions or policies under which you are allowed to deposit your research.

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OpenDOAR is an authoritative directory of academic open access repositories, meaning that it is quality-controlled. Here you can find information about both institutional and disciplinary repositories, where you can both contribute and access research publications.

Even though self-archiving seems like a viable option to tackle the problem of access to scholarly publications and archive building, there are still a lot of drawbacks. There is a problem with uptake where only between 20-30 % of articles (not books!) are being made available via OA self-archiving (and in HSS this is more around 10 %), they are not always easy to locate or properly harvested by Google, there are a lot of embargo periods for Green OA and in some countries, such as the UK, the focus seems to be shifting to Gold OA publishing with upfront fees (article processing charges). Many researchers worldwide feel this is all not going quick enough and, perhaps logically, some have started to digitise and distribute scholarly publications of others themselves: witness the rise of pirate book sharing sites or shadow libraries.

One of the most well-known of these platforms is AAAARG. AAAARG is an online archive of academic papers in critical theory, but it includes many more subjects and interests. It is a website where people share texts, usually PDFs and many hand-scanned. One of the main characteristics of AAAARG and other pirate websites, due to the illegality of the sharing of in-copyright work, is its nomadic character.

Its domain name has changed many times, as has its web address, after publishers’ takedown notices. Sean Dockray, AAAARG’s founder has argued that he set up the platform as ‘a way around the illiberal copyrighting of scholarly papers, and the dramatic costs imposed upon accessing official archives.’  AAAARG has been labeled a “conversation platform”, “a school”, a “reading group”, or a “journal”. It is crowd-sourced by its members and heralded by scholars from developing countries with low or non-existent library budgets. As a radical commons with a distributed organisation it hosts collections, discussions, reading groups etc. In this sense AAAARG goes well beyond simply providing access to scholarly materials, as it also experiments with other archival functions of interest to scholars, including the creation of a social media archive and the creation of readers based on the site’s materials.

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In 2013, AAAARG in collaboration with Anna-Sophie Springer and Berlin-based K-Verlag created a “Common Place Book’ out of some of the materials on AAAARG. Commonplace books are a type of scholarly notebook containing a collection of excerpted and copied passages compiled and stored for future purposes such as reference and quotation. The “Exhibition Book”, that you see here has been created from excerpted and copied passages of thematically relevant publications on AAAARG and has subsequently been uploaded back onto the platform as a PDF.

It works with a very interesting visually-based compiler to select quotations and excerpts. This, I think, is a very valuable experiment in enabling scholars to again gain more agency and to build, curate and maintain their own scholarly archives out of primary and secondary sources.

Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. University of Chicago Press

Ernst, W. (2012) Digital Memory and the Archive. ed. by Parikka, J. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Foucault, M. (1969) Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge

Harnad, S. (1995) ‘A Subversive Proposal’. in Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing [online] ed. by O’Donnell, J.J. and Okerson, A. Washington, D.C.: Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, Association of Research Libraries. available from <; [21 October 2015]

Hui, Y. (2013) ‘Archivist Manifesto’. Mute lab [online] available from <; [21 October 2015]

Kirschenbaum, M. (2013) ‘The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary’. DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly [online] 7 (1). available from <; [20 July 2014]

Manoff, M. (2013) ‘Unintended Consequences: New Materialist Perspectives on Library Technologies and the Digital Record’. portal: Libraries and the Academy 13 (3), 273–282

Tamboukou, M. (2014) ‘Archival Research: Unravelling Space/time/matter Entanglements and Fragments’. Qualitative Research 14 (5), 617–633



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