Critical archiving, tacit narratives, and participatory knowledge production - The social and political history of archiving

Pieter BRUEGHEL the Younger, The Village Lawyer, Pieter Brueghel the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Fabian

Ideas about the role of archives reflect, as amongst others the Canadian pioneer in archival theory Terrence Eastwood (1942) has shown, wider currents in intellectual history. Archives are traditionally constructions that works to witness the past, and has traditionally been seen as tools for acquiring, describing, and preserving documents through an impartial, neutral, and objective archivist practice (Cook 2013:97). The archive, however, is more than a container for documents, and has been used to both witness, provide evidence, justify, explain, educate, entertain, support research, help protect human rights, confirm identity, invoke imagination, manipulate, seduce, and lie. 

Norms of historical practices, social memory and heritage can be addressed and challenged by exploring and developing archival practices. Being part of the collective creation of the Narcotic City Archive has brought me to want to explore the very idea and history of the archive, to try to understand how the roles and understandings of the archive have changed and are changing and to reflect upon potential roles of a historical and activist archives. My hope with this article is to contribute to the ongoing collective reflections on what the Narcotic City Archive is and might develop into be, and to identify central discussions and themes in the social and political history of archive ideologies. 


The history of archiving

Archiving is traditionally a practice where you collect and make collections. One can collect as different objects as butterflies, number plates, maps, scalps, legal documents, letters, garden gnomes and antique statues. Traditionally we archive to store information for things, data, objects, and stories to be potentially saved for and used in the future. The Greek word ἀρχεῖον (arkheion) originally referred to the dwelling of the Archon, who was the head magistrate which had the role of storing and interpreting official state documents. The root of the Greek word ἀρχή (arkhē) means magistracy, government and office and is derived of the word ἄρχω (arkhō) which mean to govern or rule, we know this root of the word also from words like monarchy or anarchy. Jacques Derrida’s writes in Archival Fever (1996) the following about the role of the archons: “The Archons are first of all the documents guardians. The do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives. Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect speak the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law” (Derrida 1996:2).  

The first archives we know of where those connected to power centers in Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, and pre-Columbian America. We find here in power centers of religion, trade and accounting archives playing an active role in politics of memory. As leading member of the French Annales school Jacques le Goff has shown in his groundbreaking work History and Memory the control of memory leads to the control history, mythology and ultimately power (Le Goff 1992).

Professional archives are often generated as a product of administrative, commercial, legal, and social activities. When we archive, we take specific things and order and file them in specific places. Together with for instance museums and libraries, archives have traditionally played a role in preserving and protecting cultural heritage and making it accessible for the future. Historical archives have fundamentally colored and shaped our histories of the past. 

The way we imagine, and practice archived have changed over time. Terry Cook has argued that archival paradigms have gone through four phases of ‘archival mindsets’ (Cook 2013: 97) over the last 150 years namely: 1) juridical legacy 2)cultural memory 3) societal engagement 4) community archiving (Cook 2013). This development has also changed the perceived role of the archivist, who according to Cook accordingly has transformed from passive curator to active appraiser to societal mediator to community facilitator. Archival cultures are historically specific and are connected to different ideologies of archivist practices. Cook are identifying two competing mythologies in the archival profession, namely evidence and memory (Cook 2013: 99). Traditionally the central self-understanding of archives and archivist has been the idea of evidence. The English archivist and archival theorist Sir Hilary Jenkinson (1882 – 1961) published in 1922 the at the time widely recognized treatise Manual of Archive Administration.  It clearly reflected ideals of objectivity, organization, conservation, and custodianship.  

‘‘His Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim, to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge… the good Archivist is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces… .’’ (Jenkinson 1947: 258 – 259)

The archives of churches, governments, nations, regions, universities and private collectors have always been the result of someone selecting, ordering, arranging and preserving and was never neutral reservoirs of historical facts. The modern nation state even further developed the art of ruling through the construction of facts that were contained and upheld in documents. 

Historiographical developments in the nineteenth century have shaped the historians traditional trust in the neutrality of the archive. The German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886) was one of the founders of empirical source-based history. Ranke emphasized the necessity of a wide variety of primary sources including mundane documents. During the time Ranke taught at the university of Berlin more and more archives opened, and Ranke sent his students to these archives. His work is traditionally seen as an important step to the development of a critical historical science.  

Archives do not only preserve and archival version of the past. The fetishization of the archive we find in the time of Ranke reflect a positivist period where objectivity was considered the emblem of professional academic practice (Walsham 2016). Archives however reflects realities as they are seen by the archivers (Ketelaar 2001). The archival processes produces as much as they record. As Derrida formulates it: “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivazation produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida 1996: 17).


From guardian custodians to decentralized curation 

Traditionally the idea of an archive thus comes with the ideal of being neutral, impartial, and disinterested. Especially the nineteenth century celebrated as described above the notion of the archive as a guardian of surviving traces of the past and imagined the archivists as invisible loyal custodians (Walsham 2016). However, nothing in an archival process – including the archive itself – can be neutral (Huvila 2008).  We always must ask ourselves who owns, controls, regulate, curate and shapes the archive. 

One of the first to point to the fast that the archivist are more than just the neutral servants to the historians, was the American historian Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010). Zinn writes already in 1977 in the article ‘Secrecy, Archives and the Public interest’:

”The archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake. If so, the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft. Scholarship in society is inescapably political. Our choice is not between being political or not. Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.” (Zinn 1977:20)

Zinn points to seven impotent aspects of the politics of archives, that I will here shortly summon up: 1) that the existence, preservation and availability of archives and documents are determined by the unequal distribution of power and wealth. 2) That this power structure also reflects in the fact that governments and military can and do withhold important documents from the public. 3) That the collection of materials from archives – such as records, papers, oral history, memoires – is asymmetrically biased towards specific privileged and powerful people. 4) the written dominate over the oral which privileges the most literate elements of the population. 5) collections of records prioritize documentation of histories of individuals higher than documentation of histories of movements. 6) archival work accentuates and value the past more than the present. 7) Collecting and preserving already existing records are giving far more resources than recording new data (Zinn 1977).     

Since Zinn published his article in 1977 a number of people and groups have taken up his invitation to compile new worlds of documentary material about what Zinn called: “the lives, desires, needs of ordinary people.” (Zinn 1977:25)

As Kathryn Burns has argued archives are also sites in which a variety of both contemporary and later actors have negotiated power, identity, and agency. Using colonial Peru and especially the Cuszo archival records as case Burns shows how the archive itself must be historicized. One of the first thing Columbus did, when he entered the shores of Guanahani in October 1492, was that he had his notary in spanish escribano record his claim of territorial possession. Notaries were indispensable in the European worlds at this time. The Jewish sofer the Muslim sahib-al-watha’iq and the Christian notary all played a fundamental role in establishing and upholding the idea, that several state-sanctioned rights depended on being written down by the notaries (Burns 2010:2).  

Foucault describe in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) the archive as:

“[S]ystems of statements (whether events or things ) …. one should seek the immediate reason for them in the things that were said not in them, nor in the men that said them, but in the system of discursivity, in the enunciative possibilities and impossibilities that it lays down. The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events." ( Foucault: 1972, 129)

Foucault talks about the archive in the context of talking about language systems, but his description is still worth thinking about. Because it can make us think about the conditions of the production of knowledge and stories in an archival context. Together with Derrida (1995) Foucault in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge has put awareness to the way the archive can function as a metaphor for the very ways cultures and societies construct matrices, filters and prisms for what can be known and investigated .

Archives and archivists have through history played important roles in establishing the possibilities, parameters and boundaries for historical narration and interpretation (Walsham 2016, Cook 2013)) We therefor as researchers working with archives has to ask ourselves: 

What do we do when we put things into archives? What logics do we create? What “systems of statements.”

Under which circumstances has an archive been created? what is its purpose? what can it be used for? By whom can it be used?


Archives as contested memory institutions

Archives, museums, and libraries are memory institutions (Huvila 2008). The writing of history is a contested practice. History is never written from nowhere. Historical narratives have inherent ideological biases. At the same time as we have become more and more aware, how history and traditions are invented or reshaped to serve the present (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Lowenthal 1985) different groups have started to explore how one can analyze and explore past events, traumas, abuses, achievements, or triumphs as powerful tools to strengthen, justify and present the needs and struggles of the present (Cook 2013).  This has also led to explorations of what roles archives and archivist practices might play in these memory and identity processes (Cook 2013).

Archives can also be like, Eric Ketelaar has formulated it, spaces of memory practice’: 

‘‘[S]paces of memory-practice, where people can try to put their trauma in context by accessing the documents, not primarily seeking the truth or searching the history, but transforming their experiences into meaning.’’(Ketelaar 2009:102)

A growing literature is exploring the values, power inequalities and social constructions in archival and record keeping processes, frameworks, and technologies (Evans and Wilson 2018)


Historical research, activism and community archives

As described above, the last 50 years has brought a growing concern with the complicity of archives with the interest of those groups most dominant in society. At the same time a growing interest in challenging the hegemony of the archive has developed amongst others related to community archives and archives developed by social movements. Museums, churches, and different local societies have long made different forms of archiving. But from the 1970s community archives became still more common. Archives have for still more people become a practice integral to the production of knowledge, culture, and activism. Community archives are archives that are created by different communities, groups and populations that want to document e.g. their culture/cultural heritage/history. I here use the concept community in its broadest sense where it is not only referring to people who live in a particular area, but also to groups of people who have some sort of shared interest or socio-material condition in common for instance relating to a certain gender, sexuality, class, way of life, ethnicity, religion etc., some sort of common history or some sort of common economic, social, or political interest.

Community archiving can happen with or without intervention from professionals such as historians, librarians, or researchers. An interesting question in relation to community archives, has been how the different communities can create records via more autonomous or participatory practices. 

 In the article 'Activating the archive: Rethinking the role of traditional archives for local activist projects' Alexandrina Buchanan and Michelle Bastian explore how archival material have the potential to become a core component of activism (Buchanan and Bastian 2015). More specifically they, by focusing on cases of food heritage in Liverpool (see, explore how historical work might assist and contribute to develop a local food movement and empower members of activist communities to develop new narratives of change and communicate these to a wider public (Buchanan and Bastian 2015). The project brought together food growing, heritage research and sustainability and combined archival research with oral history and historical maps. Buchanan and Bastian points to how we must look at user’s relationship to records if we will understand archives potentials in an activist context (Buchanan and Bastian 2015:2).

Communities and social movements have used archival processes to collect, create and share stories and to express, signify and represent life stories and fight for rights to be acknowledged and valued. It is often a part of activist work, to try to create counter-hegemonic histories or histories from below (Buchanan and Bastian 2015:5). There is a growing interest in building a wider range of materials, challenge the role of the archivist, reclaiming the right to decide what deserves the status of cultural heritage and involving new groups of archive users. This has also involved archiving existing materials from social movements. This has also led to explorations of how archival collection and creation can function as an activist practice, that amongst others make a greater range of materials accessible to a wider public, counter inadequacies in existing records and record-practices, and enable the production of counter-narratives or alternative narratives context (Buchanan and Bastian 2015).   

An interesting example of a “community archive” is The Inclusive Archive of Learning Disability Archive (LALDH) This archive build reflects in its very form, the value of self-advocacy as a form of activism that has worked for autonomy for marginalized groups. If we look at methods for memory making utilized in this archive, it becomes clear that it is important that the “memory making methods” is controlled by those whose stories it represents (Brownlee Chapman et al.).

The digital age has given new possibilities for several different groups such as activists, minorities, and private collectors to establish online collections that would normally not fit into traditional institutionalized archives (Eichhorn 2014). An example of this is the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) that was launched in 2003. QZAP was established to preserve past and present queer zines. QZAP writes the following about their own mission "The mission of the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) is to establish a "living history" archive of past and present queer zines and to encourage current and emerging zine publishers to continue to create. In curating such a unique aspect of culture, we value a collectivist approach that respects the diversity of experiences that fall under the heading "queer": Zines and zineproduction was an integral part of many feminist movements in the 1990s. Zines are selfpublished works of either original or appropriated texts. They are often produced mainly just using paper, glue, scissors, and a copy machine. Traditionally zines are produced by on person or a small group, have relatively few copies and are printed for circulation without profit. As Kate Eichhorn has thoroughly explored, the feminist zines migrated into community-based collections and university libraries and archives (Eichhorn 2013). Practices of archiving has played a central role for many feminists in the last decades.

A queer feminist politics is according to Eichhorn also a question about regaining agency to make collective imaginings 

Archiving and oral history collecting has been used as an feminist tool the last decades. From the 1970s a number of archives and libraries emerged that were designed to document the women’s movement, lesbian history, queer communities and queer history. Archives has helped create new historical narratives and empowered new political agents. Feminist archives had played a major role in the creation of the histories of women and sexual minorities. Here archives have been used not just a place for preserving the past, but also as a tool to create and legitimate new forms of knowledge. Examples are beside QZAP the Zine collection in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, STICHWORT The archives of Women and Lesbians’ movements of Vienna and Lesbian Herstory Archives.

The archive ACT UP/NY Archives at the New York Public Library is a well-funded archive that document the works of the grassroot group ACT UP that since 1987 has worked to improve the lives of people with AIDS and to end the AIDS crisis


Shifting technologies, the destabilization of the archive and the lure of participation

Archival practices, archival cultures and archival tools have been changed by transformations in information technologies. Archival tools of record keeping have shifted through time, and technological changes has also contributed to changing what is archivable, what is being archived, how it is being archived and not least how the archived is used and by whom. Historical, political, religious, intellectual, economic, and social developments like the expansion of literacy, the advent of mechanized printing, shifting conventions of self-expression, communication tools, new technologies of record creation, constitutional revolutions, the emergence of the market economy, social mobility or lack of the same have shaped the phenomena and politics of archival recordkeeping (Walsham 2016).  Archives can today store in several different formats. We do no longer necessarily need a museum, an attic, a suitcase under the bed or a castle, we can store digitally online. 

Participation is today a buzzword in almost any discussion on culture and human interaction with information (Fabian and Samson 2015, Fabian and Rowan 2016). However, the call for and claiming of collaborative approaches raise methodological, ethical, and political questions. And it poses question to the way we deal with phenomena like history, social memory and heritage, and how we understand participation and decentralized curation in an archive context? 

New digital media har led to a new focus on how to use the capabilities of digital technologies to collect, create and share stories. Use of web. 2.0 technologies have allowed for different users to engage in building digital archive collections.

This has led to experimentation with formats that aims at a decentralizing and decolonizing knowledge production, and for marginalized voices to be heard. The archival recording and storing of artefacts in this paradigm become mediated and ever-changing constructions.

In the article ‘Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for old concepts’ the Canadian archivist Terry Cook writes about a postmodern paradigm shift from viewing archival material and records as static physical objects to mediated dynamic virtual concepts (Cook 2001:4). Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962) defined paradigm shifts as what happens when radical changes happen in the interpretive framework for a scientific theory for instance due to the premise that answers to research questions no longer explain the phenomena being analyzed or practical methodologies no longer work in the context.

Digital archives often come with a promise of potentially being more inclusive and democratic. Traveling to spend time in physical archives are obviously not a privilege that is accessible for everyone. It demands both time, monetary and symbolic capital and a family situation and political context that allows for it. Archives are traditionally often locations of power and knowledge for privileged scholars from western elite universities. The democratization of archives obviously has to do with access. Digital archives hold the potential to reach levels of accessibility that will never be possible in an exclusively physical archive. But hopes for a democratization of archives is not least related to question of who has the mandate to build a collection and tell a story. 

Not only technology has destabilized the role and discourses of the archive. The same period has seen calls for a decolonization of knowledge production, different social justice groups have worked to mobilize archives as part of their struggles and a number of researches started to explore how archives could be seen as a critical enquiry in its own right (Harris 2021).


Archives and social justice

Recently we have seen still more calls for archives to adapt to a social justice agenda (Harris Punzaland and Caswell 2016, Verne 2021).  Groups that have traditionally been marginalized in history has used – as I have pointed to some examples of – used both physical and digital archives as ways of having their lives and their histories acknowledged and authorized. 

The politics of archiving is not only about what we remember but also about what we forget or make silent. I have above showed how archiving is a regime of practices that shift through time. Museums and archives need to be clearer about the contexts that created the ordering and presenting of objects. We always must ask ourselves what life stories and which objects becomes presented, marginalized, preserved, excluded, modified, or propagated?

Verne Harris, who the the archivist for the papers of Nelson Mandela from 2004 to 2013, explore in his book Ghosts of Archive – Deconstructive Intersectionality and Praxis how the work of archive can be an essential source of justice activism.


The Narcotic City Archive - Achivebuilding as an exploratory and participatory research tool

In the GONACI project the processes building an online archive has been an exploratory research tool. When we started the project, we had different more or less expressed hopes for what at a living online archive might do. But we are still in the process of exploring how archives can be used as an exploratory tool and an inclusive participatory critical praxis 

In The Narcotic City Archive we use the archive as tools for exploring and telling stories of past and present. One of the aims of the Narcotic City Archive has been to make things, lives and stories that are often marginalised, unheard, undervalued and or remain taboo heard and visible. The Archive itself claim to invite into exploring questions of what needs to be preserved and remembered and what stories need to be told? The Archive aims to provide resources for knowledge exchange, fostering dialogue between researchers, activists, users, NGOs and a wider public. The GONACI archive is based on a vision to become a participatory inclusive archive and a platform for public participation. But we are still in the process of exploring what methodological and ethical approaches and what archiving systems and practices it demands to accommodate an inclusive archive. How do we approach and realize the ambition of an inclusive participatory archive, in a way that make it possible for not only researchers but also other actors/users/activists to express their own agency and tell their own stories? What does participation mean in relation to engaging users in building archival collections? What does it technically demand? How do we take into consideration the relation between archival material, users, and usages? How do we deal with the question of power that haunts the archive whatever form it might take?

The Narcotic City Archive has been motivated by questions such as: How can a digital archive play a role in the making of cultural heritage informed by the lives of often marginalized populations. Can archival sources play a role in pointing to or even changing power imbalances and work for social justice? Can an archive work to unsettle assumptions about how narcotics, space, activism, and governance are intertwined?

I hope with this text to have contributed to place these questions in a long tradition of rethinking the shifting social and political role of archives and archiving. So, we in the process of building the archive can both be aware of the political implication and power imbalances the tradition of archive building brings with it, and maybe even contribute to the ongoing interdisciplinary exploration of how it might be possible to work with archives in a social justice paradigm. 



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Archives mentioned