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The Suspicious Archive: A Prejudiced Interpretation of the Interpretation of Archives, Part I


An archive is a non-random collection of things, or the place where such a collection resides. The concept of non-randomness or purposiveness implies that archivists have a reason for archiving—that an archive is a meaningful project with a set of goals. It is possible to generate an archive by accident, so long as some party in the future can attribute meaning to this accidental collection of things. An accumulation of dangerous nuclear waste is not normally considered an archive, but the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico fits my definition of a “non-random collection of things.” Just as a collection of ruins functions as an archive for archeologists and other scientists, in the far future the vast collection of nuclear waste in the New Mexico desert should provide abundant clues to the civilization that produced it. In this case, the primary archival materials are injurious to human life, and if future generations are unaware of their danger, signage in multiple languages will provide clues. Accurate interpretation can be a life-and-death matter.

Three very basic questions are asked of any archive:
1. Why does this archive exist?
2. What is missing from the archive?
3. Why does this archive contain this item rather than another?

One of the most famous archives in the world is the US National Archives and Records Administration, run by the US government. A lesser-known archive on the West Coast of the US is the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Containing an astonishing amount of documents and other objects, both present a controlled picture of the past and the present. Access to these archives is restricted, and each contains items that frequently shed a poor light on the past actions of the US government. But the sustained presence of these items in the archive, and the existence of the entire archive itself, represent the continued power and justification of the US as an ongoing national concern. This understanding of the raison d’être of archives such as these should be uncontroversial, and in fact their mission statements reflect this interpretation.

Furthermore, the vast breadth of these archives attests to the global superpower status of the US. Some items in their collections are contested and function like artworks plundered during the Age of Imperialism. For example, the diaries of Chinese generalissimo Chang Kai-shek are housed at the Hoover Institution, where access is restricted and copying forbidden. Given the historical importance of Chiang Kai-shek to the modern history of China and Taiwan, doesn’t it make more sense for his diaries (or at least a copy of them) to be housed in an archive in Taiwan or perhaps China?4 Rather than languishing in a basement in California, shouldn’t Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries be accessible to the very public he so greatly affected? The fact that they’re in the US, under lock and key, demonstrates the US’s political relationship to Taiwan and China.

Read the full article here.