Mussel – Question 2
2To what extent do previous representations (such as editions) of the archives with which you work – or the lack thereof – affect new representations of them?
Associate Professor of Victorian Literature – University of Leeds
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I don’t think it is possible to have a pure, unmediated encounter with an object from the archive. Previous representations of archival objects, whether complete editions or any other ways in which archival objects are written about and discussed, become part of the discourse that grants the archival object its “original” form. Returning to the archive is often considered returning to the source, the authentic material against which representations should be judged. However, in practice, when we go back to the archive we find that what should have been fixed and stable has changed, rewritten by what has come afterwards. The stability of archival objects comes from subsequent representations, not despite them.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Often representations such as editions enhance the aura of the original, establishing it as a pure originary source for something important. But it is also the case, sadly, that editions can make the case for the obsolescence of the archival objects. In my area of study, nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals, the existence of digital resources is often cited as a reason for their disposal. These were the products of an industrial print culture and its legacy is a complex, bulky, but fragmented archive, rarely consulted by scholars but constituting the central textual resource for the period. There have been print editions of periodicals – there was a print edition of Blackwood’s Magazine, for instance, published in 2006 – but the difficulty and cost of producing such editions means that they are necessarily expensive and incomplete, and no librarian would cite them as reasons to dispose of the periodicals on the shelves. However, a digital project that films the entirety of a run, its resulting images presented as “surrogates,” offers a very different proposition. I know of at least one library at a well-endowed university that considered disposing of its collections of periodicals on just such grounds. Given that the library did not even own the images (access was by subscription, funded through a UK-government body), such a decision not only proposed limiting readers to the digital images, but it made access dependent on the vicissitudes of party politics.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The case for surrogacy assumes that the digital image captures everything important about the archival object and will continue to do so in the future. Yet every instance of a particular archival object is individuated in some way, marked by its own history, and so is unique. Disposing of the objects in the archives can destroy content not captured in the digital resource, but it also destroys different versions of the same material. The latter point is particularly important. A digital representation of an archival object provides a point of comparison, foregrounding distinctions between different versions of the same thing. For nineteenth-century media, this often exposes aspects of the publishing process, as the same object is encountered in two different versions. But more generally, a digital representation makes us more aware of the materiality of the object in the archive. This is not to say that the archival object is somehow more material, but that the new representation makes visible aspects of the archival object’s materiality that had been taken for granted, assumed to be simply part of the object rather than contributing to what it might mean.