The textuality of archives can hide their meaning

Archives are mainly texts and as a result they suffer from the weaknesses of all such objects: their words and format can conceal their meaning. Documents can be silenced in plain sight. The first problem of texts is often recognised as being the need to discover which is the original and so what should be the focus of scholarly investigation. We can explore this difficulty by looking at how literary scholars have sought the ‘original’ of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the absence of a manuscript play script, they had to rely on two early printed texts: a quarto edition of 1608 and the 1623 First Folio. These texts differed from each other and scholars believed that neither of them represented Shakespeare’s authorial work. Beginning in the eighteenth century, they began to conflate the two texts in order to produce the definitive version. More recently, literary scholars have regarded this as an anachronistic approach and have argued that the two texts were, in fact, two separate plays. The 1986 Oxford edition includes both the 1608 and 1623 texts. Not to be outdone, in 1989, Michael Warren produced four texts of Lear, the 1608 and 1623 editions, a quarto of 1619 and his own parallel text of the 1608 and 1623 versions.30

While manuscript scholars are familiar with this problem of multiple and variant texts, archivists, on the whole have not had this problem because archives are normally unique. However, in 2016, Amanda Bevan and David Foster claimed to have discovered that page 2 of William Shakespeare’s will (of 1616) was a survivor of an earlier, 1613 text.31 Well, if we have four Lears, we can probably cope with two wills.

In the paper era, archivists knew where their records came from - their authenticity is protected by a chain of custody and issues as to which is the correct version rarely arise. This is not true in the digital era as can be seen from the notorious case of Barrack Obama’s birth certificate. Obama was born in Hawaii and his birth was recorded there. However, many people were unwilling to accept a black man as president of the United States and developed claims that he was born in Kenya. Originally, the Department of Health in Hawaii released a printout from a database showing a short form of Obama’s birth certificate. This did not satisfy critics and so a copy of the long form of the certificate was released in the form of a PDF. The new document was immediately attacked, partly because the PDF contained layers which, it was alleged, was a proof of forgery. Let us hear Andrew Prescott on the subject:

the controversy is driven by a maniacal form of close reading of documents that is suspicious of almost every feature of an archival record. The rules and conventions that govern the use of documentary evidence, such as the role of certified copies, are overturned and disregarded. Yet this debate reflects the conventions of historical criticism by focussing on the status and characteristics of primary documents. However, this documentary analysis has become destabilised and unhinged to the point of lunacy, because of the effects of making the birth certificates available in digital form. The authenticity of the digital copies can only be shown by their provenance and in a digital environment it is easy to point to technical flaws that might suggest doubts about the document’s veracity.32

The historian Lara Putnam has described how the move to digital has accelerated the sort of data gathering that historians were already doing and has facilitated the development of transnational history. However, this has come at a price. As she observes, ‘in terms of discipline-wide transformation, shifting the outer bound of the possible matters less than shifting the center of the easy’.33 Her observation, which is most pertinent to a book on silences, is that, while there is a wealth of resources available to scholars in wealthy institutions in the global north, the same is not true of those in poorer institutions or in poorer countries.34 Moreover, there is a real danger that scholarship will focus on what has been digitised and will ignore material that can only be accessed by a physical trip to an archive, effectively silencing much of the archive. As Tim Hitchcock observed:

Without serious intent and political will - a determination to digitise the more difficult forms of the non-canonical, the non-Western, the non-elite and the quotidian - the materials that capture the lives and thoughts of the least powerful in society - we will have inadvertently turned a major area of scholarship, in to a fossilised irrelevance.35

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