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ICHORA 2020 Conference Report : The Many Lives and Afterlives of Digital Archives

25 Nov 2020 10:00 AM | Anonymous member

The 9th International Conference on the History of Records and Archives (ICHORA), held virtually by the University of Michigan School of Information, featured a variety of presentations and keynote speeches. Given the scope of the conference and the quality of the speakers, ICHORA constitutes a good indicator of the current state of archival research and research about archives. The theme of the conference, with a full week-long program starting on October 26, 2020, Archives and the Digital World, allowed for multiple discussions and perspectives that testified to the power of the digital in the overall direction of archival research and practice. 

[ICHORA 2020 yellow and light blue poster with the title of the conference, the location, and the Michigan University logo. Featuring an 1980s looking computer]

Past ICHORA conferences gave birth to groundbreaking and innovative scholarship that challenged and changed archival theory and practice. From Andrew Flinn, Mary Stevens, and Elizabeth Shepherd’s presentation about community archives – which led to the article “Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream” – to Jeannette A. Bastian’s “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation” and Tom Nesmith’s “Reopening Archives: Bringing New Contextualities into Archival Theory and Practice,” ICHORA has been a fertile ground for the dynamic evolution of archival theory throughout the twenty-first century. 

This year’s edition featured a range of presentations that will certainly leave their mark in the archival realm and beyond. Multidisciplinary research is now established as part of the nature of archival studies. This has brought new horizons where a plurality of fields, including anthropology, media studies, history, gender studies, postcolonial studies, computer science, digital humanities, and others have contributed to the expansion of archival studies. On the other hand – and this is something that was evident by the type of research presented during the conference – increasingly, the diversity of archival research is also penetrating other academic fields. 

Marisa Elena Duarte’s keynote speech set the tone for rich conversations that marked the five days of the conference. Duarte’s eloquent connection between the digital and the birth of new worlds, and on notions around digital bodies of knowledge, testified to the extent of archival relationships and power. Duarte mentioned that “the technically powerful archive is but a shadow of the relationships among us.” As Duarte brilliantly put forward, data sovereignty, digital literacy, and radical empathy signal the dynamic engagement of archives and digital archival conceptions in the shaping of memory and digital relations. 

Discussions of digitization practices and the impact of the digital world resonated with Duarte’s perspective on knowledge development and the relational encounters of archives. Tomla Ernestine Tatah Lukong, for example, talked about the challenges faced by the Cameroon National Archives. Drawing attention to the volume of records created in Cameroon institutions, alongside financial and infrastructural challenges, Tatah Lukong offered a compelling account of archival advocacy oriented toward bridging the gap in the archives, and on the importance of community engagement in the trajectory of the national archives. While digitization and digital practices have been presented as crucial players that contribute to historical knowledge and access to records, other presentations highlighted darker impulses of digital initiatives and use. Katharina Hering discussed the potential crumbling of historical contexts around digital records represented in the database Acknowledging the immense market power of the genealogy-based platform, Hering highlighted that the maximization of access to records could be made at the expense of political and ethical concerns associated with private information. By paying attention to the participation of public archives in the development and expansion of Ancestry, Hering presented compelling arguments about the importance of the relationality of records and their context, and the responsibilities of archivists who work with public records.

The manipulation of records and their digital afterlives was further emphasized by a keynote speech given by Tonia Sutherland. Sutherland presented a powerful account aligned with social and cultural tensions associated with the use of what was called “digital remains.” The speaker provided an exposé concerning the commodification of Black bodies and the deaths of black people in digital spaces. Sutherland mentioned that, through the use of images and records about the death of Black people, social and political forces are extending the lives of Black people, and ultimately changing their present and future narratives. Sutherland argued that while offering new uses and recontextualizations, the sharing of records through digital platforms and in the media is deconstructing the agency and the realities of Black lives and death. Accordingly, this use of Black bodies was presented as being performative, where imaginations and projection of narratives ultimately separated the Black body imaginary from the lived experiences of Black peoples. Sutherland identified this process as being very dangerous. In talking about the digital afterlife, Sutherland insisted that race, records, and the violence of archival processes converged. Furthermore, Sutherland presented the digital afterlives of records portraying, using, and recirculating Black death as being part of expansive colonial powers in the digital world.

Critical views of the digital resonated throughout the conference. Critical lenses on digitization, technology, and archival standards powerfully illustrated colonial conceptions of archival practice. James Lowry, for instance, indicated that normative procedures of the ISO standard emerged from a universalist and colonial framework. This association of documentation standards with the legacies of colonialism was echoed by a presentation given by Hannah Turner, who has done research on the history of documentation in an ethnographic museum. Turner signaled the importance of studying documentation in order to situate ethnographic knowledge development. In doing so, Turner highlighted the durable and performative qualities of documentation technology and situated its crucial role in colonial knowledge production and limitations. Ayantu Tibeso, in turn, challenged conceptions of colonialism, exclusion, and marginalization by drawing attention to the silencing of Oromo peoples through recordkeeping practices in Ethiopia. By situating these activities through a colonial frame of reference, Tibeso reflected on the dynamic nature of colonial practices and of the importance of ancient oral recordkeeping practices in archival spaces. Diana Marsh pursued this theme, providing strategies and practices conceived to fill the gap in Indigenous knowledge, through the power of the digital and of digitization. Marsh reiterated that understanding the impact of digitization on Indigenous research is crucial when crafting archival processes, insisting on themes such as historical sovereignty, representational belonging, and the limits of digital knowledge sharing. 

All of these notions forced the participants to reflect on traditional archival conceptions of provenance. New perspectives of the concept of provenance was the highlight of two rich presentations. In discussing two feminist activist archives, Jessica Lapp offered a critical analysis to provenance, by proposing what is defined as “provenancial fabulation.” Lapp talked about the many variables associated with records creation, by insisting on the imaginative process of archival creation. Furthermore, Lapp discussed the dynamic and temporal characteristics of provenance, through structures and infrastructures, and ultimately through feminist perspectives that challenge official historical narratives. Gracen Brilmyer put forward the concept of crip provenance, by highlighting the creation of records about disabled people made from the perspective of people in power. Brilmyer argued that traditional notions of provenance contribute to historical absence, erasures, and partial and non-existence evidence. While doing so, Brilmyer offered a critique of this sense of wholeness to recordkeeping, formulated by traditional visions of provenance. Moreover, they indicated that restoring some sort of order to records can provoke inequities and further marginalize people with disabilities. 

If the impact of archival research and the innovations of archival theory were unequivocally expressed throughout the conference, a pertinent question was at the heart of the panel discussion in honour of Richard J. Cox. David Wallace, Lindsey Mattock, Joel Blanco-River, and the host of the conference Ricky Punzalan attempted to respond to the question posed by the moderator, Jeannette Bastian: Is archival work more a profession or part of a discipline? Based on the responses of the members of the panel, if it is a profession, it is heavily subject to academic directions; and if it is more a discipline, it is a discipline ingrained in practical articulations. David Wallace spoke about the ethics of archival work, being engaged in research and writing. He mentioned that the academic dimension improves the intellectual positioning of archival work. On a personal note, Wallace testified that the social and cultural scope of archival endeavours and research was, for him, a “salvation.” Blanco-Rivera, for his part, emphasized the multidimensional aspects of teaching to highlight the reach of archival theory and practice. Mattock added to this by mentioning that archival studies is an academic discipline that informs practice, with its own intellectual history. To conclude, Ricky Punzalan framed archival studies and practice from a multidisciplinary perspective, suggesting that these discussions do not need to be informed by this binary (profession/discipline), but should rather be thought in terms of a duality that emphasizes the importance of connectivity in the development of archival thinking. 

Various connections between digital spaces, archival records, and the scope of archival work was reiterated in the final keynote address given by Margaret Hedstrom. Problematizing the use and the ubiquity of the term “curation” in public spaces and social media, Hedstrom associated the power of the digital with surveillance capitalism. Hedstrom offered explanations that touched on the commodification of people and their representations in the archives, and how curatorial practices in the archives must be deliberate and better defined to counter the neoliberal and authoritarian impulses of surveillance capitalism in the digital world. 

The richness of the various presentations certainly evoked the multidisciplinary and multifaceted scope of archival initiatives and research. While discussions of social justice, colonialism, and social movements emerged – alongside conceptions and the reach of the digital – the different panels convincingly highlighted the impact of archival thinking and archival involvement in the direction of a plurality of memories and memories’ conceptions. ICHORA 2020 certainly left important intellectual trails that will push archival theory toward new areas of research and practice.

François Dansereau

François Dansereau is the Senior Archivist at The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada and a course lecturer at the McGill University School of Information Studies. He is the author of the chapter “Men, Masculinities, and the Archives: Introducing the Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity in Archival Discourse” in the volume Archives and Special Collections as Sites of Contestation (2020), and of the article “The Portrayal of Gender in Health Care: An Examination of Hospital Photographic Archives” (Archivaria 90, Fall 2020). Dansereau holds an MA in History from Université de Montréal and a MLIS with a concentration in archives from McGill University.

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