Research framework

“Matter is never a settled matter. It is always already radically open”. Karen Barad.

The archivefutures research framework starts from a series of quite general questions:

  • what are archives and what can they do?
  • What can we do in and with archives?
  • What happens to the stubborn materiality of archived documents in the face of new digital storage and distribution technologies?

New theories and practices of the archive operate as critical points of intersection between disciplines. Whether we are located within literary studies, media studies, information studies or archival science we share an understanding that we have entered a new cultural economy that requires us to think anew about what archival collections have meant and what they will mean into the future.

As Jerome McGann observed, “In the coming decades – the process has already begun – the entirety of our cultural inheritance will be transformed and re-edited in digital forms”. This process has been accompanied by rapidly developing critical debate over the ways in which digital tools such as text-mining, data visualization, geographic information systems, computer modelling, as well newly available digital formats are changing forever the conceptual and practical dimensions of both archive-driven humanities scholarship and the work of building and maintaining archives. Mike Featherstone, for example, highlights the ways in which the digital archive “presents new conceptual problems about the identity, distinctiveness and boundaries of the datum and the document”, while Marlene Manoff argues that “the electronic environment introduces a whole new set of questions about the material aspects of library collections”.

What is significant for our purposes, however, is the developing recognition that – despite initial suggestions to the contrary – the digital has not forever cancelled out or superseded paper formats and in fact has thrown into relief the histories of material embodiment associated with traditional archival collections.

Indeed, as anyone who has ever printed a born-digital document knows, a culture of co-existence has emerged. This provides a unique opportunity or vantage point from which to tackle questions of matter and materiality that were never fully explored or successfully resolved in relation to traditional analogue sources and which persist in relation to digital forms and formats. In the words of Derrida, “by carrying us beyond paper, the adventures of technology grant us a sort of future anterior; they liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of paper”.

The issue then is how we can use this opportunity or vantage point for tackling the status of the material in the era of digitization and how through our own work we can advance, reconfigure and/or profitably disrupt prevailing conversations around materiality and method in the context of the digitally mediated future of archives, archiving and archive-based humanities research.

Among the questions that necessarily arise are:

  • How are we to understand the material in the realm of digitized and born-digital collections of personal papers and other literary and cultural artefacts?
  • How does this differ from pre-digital collections?
  • What happens to paper documents – and our engagements with them – once digital surrogates are available? How does the availability of the latter transform the conditions of scholarly engagement?
  • For example, how do relations of matter and meaning shift as a given text shifts from one medium to another? Do different modes of material embodiment produce different objects of study? And do these objects demand different (and possibly new) methods?
  • Can we think of paper objects as doing things the digitized or born-digital can’t and vice versa?
  • How does the new materiality of the digital environment trouble familiar distinctions between fragile and enduring records and the once taken for granted relations between access and preservation?
  • What can the digital offer to the complex material states associated with difficult manuscripts and damaged or altered physical documents?
  • And can such documents in turn help us to uncover and examine our assumptions about digital archives and the affordances of new processes of digitization?
  • If material literacy has remained largely under-developed in terms of engagements with analogue sources, can the complexities of materiality and matter in the digital environment now help to refine and strengthen these approaches?
  • What is the future ontological status of fonds for which there are no funds and no plans for digitization? How does this speak to a new political economy of archives and archiving?
  • How will the affordances of “socially amplified” digital archival spaces that explicitly provide for social reading, social writing and annotation challenge more static understandings of the archive and of the document? Will such affordances begin to blur existing (hierarchical) distinctions between categories of users? Will users through their contributions become part of what formally constitutes an archive or a document?
  • How does the digital archival environment challenge what we have known about the space and time of the archive? How can we talk about new and emerging spatio-temporal coordinates of archival accumulation?

As these questions demonstrate, familiar distinctions have been emptied out, boundaries are dissolving, and we are witnessing a convergence of the “what” and the “how” of our engagements with archived and archivable materials. Researchers and archivists are thus confronting not only radical transformations to the very ‘stuff’ we study or otherwise work with but equally radical revisions to familiar knowledge-making practices.

It is important then that we remember how futures – and radically uncertain ones at that – have been central historically to the formation, management and use of archives. After all, the preservation of cultural heritage has always been premised on its as yet undetermined future potential. As Derrida reminds us, “if we want to know what [the archive] will have meant, we will only know in times to come”.

Maryanne Dever



Karen Barad, What is the Measure of Nothingness? 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts. No. 99. Erschienen im Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012.

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Mike Featherstone, “Archive.” Theory, Culture and Society 23:2-3 (2006): 591-596.

Marlene Manoff, “Archive and Database As Metaphor: Theorizing The Historical Record.” Portal: Libraries and The Academy. 10.4 (2010): 385-398.

Jerome McGann, “Culture and Technology.” New Literary History 36.1 (2005): 71-82.