From Ink to Link: Memory and the Archive

September 5th 2019

Maria Chatzicharalampous is a recent graduate of Leiden University’s Research Master’s in Colonial and Global History program. Maria was an intern at the Expatriate Archive Centre from February 2019 through July 2019. The following excerpt is from her official internship final report.

By Maria Pinelopi Chatzicharalampous

The archival culture can already be traced back to ancient times, from the Assyrians and the Greek and Roman empires to the monasteries in the Μiddle Ages. The archive back then had mainly a bureaucratic character or contained information on royal families.  The evolution of the archive however goes hand-in-hand with historical processes and technological advances. Gabriella Giannachi in her book Archive Everything points out how archiving nowadays goes way beyond than just the preservation of official government documents to the preservation of all sorts of possible sources, either material objects or even digital data.[1] Giannachi discusses Shanks’s theorisation of archives; more specifically, that he distinguishes the archives into 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0. With archive 1.0 he represents the early bureaucratic and management character of the archive. Archive 2.0 represents the digital shift of the archival processes.[2] Archive 3.0 and 4.0 are used when both physical and digital environments are merged and the archive receives a performative role through artists, curators and critics.[3]

It goes without any doubt that the preservation of memory is going through a paradigm shift in which an archival organisation has to respond. Nowadays archiving is not only about preserving old dusty documents, but also finding ways into protecting the memory created in digital environments. Memory concerns the past but it takes place in the present, and it is always about the present and the future. As Pierre Nora underlines: “Modern memory is above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.”[4]

My personal six month internship at an archival organisation provided me with insights on the ways that an archive works, and also the ways it adapts to new realities and challenges. The Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) has as its scope the preservation of the memory and experiences of expatriates around the globe. These memories and experiences are in many different forms, ranging from old documents, letters and diaries to videos, recordings and currently blogs. Interestingly enough, the idea that an archive is mostly full of dusty countless documents does not actually depict the reality of the 21st-century archive. What Shank defines as archive 2.0 represents the new methods in which an archive preserves memory. Methods such as digitisation of documents and open access to collections are well known by now.

While working on the collections of the EAC, I came across many personal diaries in which everyday people were sharing their thoughts, everyday routines, mishaps and, since we are talking about expatriates, also homesickness. The need to remember is reflected through these forms of material culture. People who not only wish to preserve their personal memory but also communicate their experiences. For instance, an expat in the Netherlands, kept two diaries reflecting all the stages of emotions that an expat goes through when set in a different environment. The diaries represented a sanctuary for the thoughts and new experiences of the expat. Every page contained not only thoughts and feelings, but also small reminders of every new experience — a postcard, a bus ticket, or even a bill.[5] Reading through the pages of the diary, one has the opportunity to observe the excitement of learning a new language, the initial fear of getting integrated into a new working environment, and also the happiness that comes with new acquaintances and cultural exchange.[6]

The diary as a form of memory preservation has been well known for centuries now. Nevertheless, the digital era has created the space and tools by means of which the human need for memory preservation is created not only with ink, but also with a link. The diaries of 21st-century people are also blogs, albeit the pattern by which the experiences are shared and saved does not actually differentiate; in fact, it could be stated that online blogs represent the diaries of the digital environment. Many expatriates keep online blogs in which — sometimes daily, even — they share small stories with experiences in their newly changed environment, communicate their feelings either that is happiness or sadness and anger. The texts are accompanied by photos just like in the traditional diaries where the text was accompanied by postcards or drawings. The method as it seems has not differed but for the tools and the means. One important characteristic of the online blogs that cannot be found in the diaries, however, is the fact that it creates an active interaction. That is to say, the memories of the expats interact and are being discussed with other users who are free to comment and share their part of their life. As a result a whole new digital environment of memory production is being created in that way.

The emerging question, thus, is how does an archive respond to the new reality? What can an archive do in order to preserve and safeguard this memory that, on the contrary to the diaries or other documents, is actually immaterial?

It is undeniable that we are going through an emerging digital era in which heritage and memory can be digitally oriented. The EAC is an organisation that is actually future oriented. In other words, by recognising the developments in technology and how memory expands beyond documents, the archive takes actions through new methods to preserve the immaterial memory.

In 2016, the EAC decided to launch an online blog preservation program. By recognising the extent in which a large part of our lifetime is presented in an online environment the archive values the importance of these memories. Modern expats create and share their experiences through online blogs that are accessible to everyone. The information shared by the blogger varies from general experiences to food culture, homesickness, culture shock or politics, among other topics. This new production of information is equally threatened with destruction and loss as physical documents are; the blogger may decide to cease writing and updating the blog, or the user may decide to close down the blog, making it totally inaccessible in the end. The EAC, recognising the equal value of these blogs, launched the Blog Archiving Project. The goal of the project is to trace the personal expat blogs and archive them so that they can be used for future research. These blogs offer an equally important side of social expat history that is not to be overlooked.

An initiative like that requires cooperation, and the EAC shows how the future archive should be: open to interdisciplinary connections. In other words, dealing with online blogs requires use of different tools. The archive must find the software applicable that will assist in the archiving, preservation, and future access of a blog which in time may stop being accessible online. Furthermore, issues of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and copyright are of importance. As the rest of the archive’s collection follows rules concerning open access in the same way, there is a legal pattern that also must be followed in the case of the blogs. The bloggers must give written consent for the archiving and the use of their personal blog for research purposes. With the creation of this online archival collection, a depository of global expat resources originates.

This example of the EAC’s response to the requirements of 21st-century memory preservation shows the challenges for similar organisations. For example, organisations should question not only how to preserve in the digital age but also what to preserve from the current overproduction of information and data. This is part of the larger discussion on digital humanities and the position of organisations and faculties in the new digital space. When it comes to an archive, the challenge is even greater. Does an archive remain stable to its tools and methods or does it expand and use a new set of toolbox, which will create a new piece of information?

[1] Gabriella Giannachi, Archive Everything : Mapping the Everyday, Cambridge, MA: The MIT press, 2016, p.1-9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid,p.15-16.

[4] Pierre Nora, ‘‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.’’ Representations 26 (1989), p.13.

[5] Expatriate Archive Centre: EAC 1.0015.1.02.

[6] EAC 1.0015.1.01.


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