The Social Logics of Global Archives

On May 7th I attended the first event of the new Global Archivalities Research Network. This was a virtual conference hosted over Adobe Connect, with a viewing location in the UC Riverside History Library. The group is organized by Dr. Randolph Head of University of California, Riverside, Dr. Arndt Brendecke of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and Dr. Hilde De Weerdt of Kings College London. The digital aspect of the conference allowed many other scholars from across the globe to join, which added greatly to the international scope and diversity of archives that were discussed.

Thanks to the steady hand of fellow UCR graduate student, Heather Van Mouwerik, the technological aspect of the conference went off without a hitch. Van Mouwerik spent many hours in the weeks preceding the conference ensuring that all technological details were considered. Most virtual workshops or conferences are a one-to-many format, meaning that one presenter maintains control of the video and audio, and audience participation is limited to textual responses. However, with presenters in California, Munich, Madrid, and London, there was a definite need for a more complex video conferencing arrangement.

There are many video conferencing services, but none of them fit the needs of this workshop exactly. Using Adobe Connect, Van Mouwerik was able to maintain control of bandwidth by manually promoting each speaker to the primary position, and demoting others to view-only status as needed. Also, Van Mouwerik made sure that the workshop could be digitally recorded. The video recording should be made available soon at, allowing participants to review the material, and other interested scholars to engage in the content after the fact.

The title for this event was “Global Archivalities: A Conceptual Workshop,” and the most contentious portion of the virtual conference was the usage of the term “archivalities” itself. The word archivalities is meant to convey a sense of process and movement through the study of various archives of all forms, and through all parts of the historical record. The grand scope and inclusiveness of the project is the major factor in calling for such a term, and archivalities is a difficult but perhaps necessary starting point. Even the notion of the archive itself carries a Western connotation (not to mention Weberian and Foucauldian notions of state bureaucracy and institutional power), and in other languages the use of archivality or the suffix “ality” could present confusion. Other similar terms have been showing up in academic circles lately, such as documentality and spectrality, so perhaps archivality could find a toehold, however tenuous it might be at the moment.

Throughout the conference many of the presenters were moving toward a common goal of reconsidering archives and archival practices throughout history. Archives are not necessarily a representation of state power, and collections of artifacts and documents are not always considered an archive at the time of their assembly. Dr. Diego Navarro Bonilla spoke of the need to consider “little” archives as well as the larger bureaucratic ones, and he also touched on the importance of archives as a place of both creation and destruction. In line with this notion of destruction, De Weerdt expressed that archives can also be considered as a process or strategy for coping with loss. Archived documents could themselves be destroyed, and in the wake of devastating events, such as a natural disaster or the death of an individual, archives could also be a form of collective memory.


Dr. Hilde De Weerdt presenting at the Global Archivalities Research Network virtual conference.

The inclusive nature of this research group allowed for scholars located across the world to participate, and it also provided for a wide range of historical reference. The archives discussed included collections of ninth century Japanese scrolls, the examination system in thirteenth century imperial China, the legal archives carried by judges in the Middle East prior to the year 1500, as well as early modern European archives. Such a broad range of archival material greatly enriched the discussion, adding a sense of wonder to the possibilities for comparative study.

Most interesting in the discussion was the idea put forth by Dr. Konrad Hirschler that each archive carries its own “social logic.” As historians we must be careful to not privilege materials that have been archived in the Western sense over non-traditional archives (such as a collection of Inca quipus), or even non-archived archives (such as a genizah). This notion of “social logic” means that we must consider how and why the collection of materials came to be, and the thought processes surrounding their assembly. The “social logics” of the archives are especially important, because there is no way to study all the archives across the globe. However, historians can compare the “social logics” of archives in a broader sense. If scholars can “consider the archive in a much more creative way,” as proposed by Hirschler, new social connections and new opportunities for research will emerge.

This event was sponsored by the University of California Multi-Campus Research Group “Material Cultures of Knowledge, 1500-1800,” funded by the University of California Humanities Network and the University of California Humanities Research Institute.

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