Archive and Story

Last spring I presented a paper at the Left Forum on "Archive and Story". The observations discussed in this paper were largely based on my experiences working at the CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA). I saw a shift of balance gradually occur from scope towards content. Curating an experience began to replace more traditional ways of building archives.

What do archives and stories have in common?

They are both trying to give form to chaos. They both actively create meaning from information or data (to use the jargon of today).

What are their similarities, differences and where do they intersect?

Traditional stories are linear – they have a beginning, middle and end. They also have an author, who inherently has a perspective. On the other hand archives are nonlinear and by nature invite the user to navigate and create their own story from the materials. The very act of curating a specific collection in an archive is to tell a story – the process of selecting material gives the archive a specific scope. The way it is arranged and contextualized encourages people to make certain connections – possibly influencing their interpretations of the past and therefore the analogies they make as try to decode today. In essence archives like stories are the opposite of being objective. They have a message. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Data is boring stories are interesting – The state of Florida apparently has the special distinction of having the largest, digital archive in the country – but it isn’t very useful. Thousands of government records don’t tell stories. Searching for meaning in this archive takes a scholar with presumed ideas to give it form.

Curated collections allow the documents to tell a textured narrative – and the audience a chance to experince the material.

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