Order of Multitudes

How are archives made? Who decides what belongs in an archive?

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Some archives are accumulations of material, often in haphazard and unexpected ways over time, that are later collected and preserved (as is the case for one famous example, the Geniza archive of Cairo). Other archives are carefully crafted collections of material (usually papers, but often also photographs, objects, memorabilia—or sound recordings, for instance Yale’s Black Sound and the Archive Project). And still others are documentary records of a person or family (such as the Thomas Thistlewood Papers at the Beinecke Library, the family archive of a Jamaican slave-owner in the eighteenth century). 

The existence of all archives, however, depends on someone—or some people—having made a choice to preserve material for a variety of reasons. Archives are thus intentional collections in one way or another, and raise crucial questions about what material has been considered valuable, significant, or useful enough to keep for the future. Public archives serve as records and documentary evidence of governance practices, the history of institutions, and the state; they are usually regulated by laws and norms regarding what should and not should be preserved, and who is allowed to access the archives. Private archives can vary very widely in their composition, focus, and organization.

Archives have existed from antiquity in a variety of forms: the collections of extant cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia are largely administrative and taxation records; the library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum in the Roman empire was the collection of a wealthy family’s luxurious residence; medieval European abbeys kept careful archives and extensive libraries for study and estate management; while early modern imperial courts across the world developed a variety of archives for political, administrative, and cultural purposes. The modern states that succeeded them have been built on extensive bureaucratic archives and record-keeping that often drives policy, law, and military action. Today, individuals create extensive personal digital archives on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—a phenomenon that has raised thorny questions about the ownership, organization, use, and access to archives.

There are two key moments in the construction of archives that are important to keep in mind: (1) how and when was the archive created? (2) how and why is the archive being maintained? In both cases, we must ask: who or what is the archive for? For librarians, archives are maintained to be used for historical research; for state agencies, archives may be crucial for justifying or creating particular policy decisions; for individuals, archival collections may be driven by sentiment, intellectual interest, or estate management, among other motivations. But the answers to these questions can change over time and this, in turn, affects what material remains in archives. Archives are thus dynamic collections that are continually evolving. Archivists, librarians, curators, and scholars have extensively considered the various dimensions of archival development, management, ownership, and access. (For a detailed history see CLIR’s The Archival Paradigm).


Ayesha Ramachandran

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Yale University

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Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an Assistant Professor of Comparative literature at Yale University. She works primarily with the English, French, and Italian literary traditions; however, her interests have extended to Portuguese, Spanish, Neo-Latin, Persian and early modern South Asian materials. Her work examines early modern maps, the history of science and technology, empires, and the rich visual archive of illustrated books. Her first book, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2015), charts transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was awarded the MLA’s Scaglione prize in Comparative Literary Studies (2017), the Milton Society of America’s Shawcross Prize for the best book chapter on Milton (2016), and the Sixteenth Century Studies Association’s Founder Prize for the best first book manuscript (2015). Her current book project, Lyric Thinking: Humanism, Selfhood, Modernity, argues for the central importance of lyric form and language in shaping new intellectual possibilities for the self. Moving from Petrarch to Descartes, while also considering their afterlives in modernist writing, it draws together scholarship on theories of mind, cognition and meditation.

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