The trouble with digitizing archives

Home occupied by General Lawton during his official residence in the islands: Malate, Manila—1899, Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan.

There are several methods to organize documents. One of them asks what a document means; whether it is true, authentic or forged; whether it can be understood as a trace of an event that can be used for its reconstruction. Another method does not seek to interpret the document, but to arrange, organize, and add to it, in such a way that makes it easier to explain to others. According to Michel Focault, the first is considered a historical method, the second an archaeological one. Foucault further makes a case that the historical method turns monuments into documents, while the archaeological method turns documents into monuments. This creates new terrains of knowledge, such as mountains of files, registers, archives and other infrastructures for commemoration.[1]

While the historical method has to deal with the problem of testimony, the second refers to the problem of the archive. Hito Steyerl calls the ordering of the archive, which seeks to be committed to a politics of truth, a “memory palace”.[2] A dozen or so years ago, curators Okwui Enwezor and Massimiliano Gioni organized exhibitions around this notion of a “memory palace.” Both curators drew on the fascination for the encyclopedic scope of the archive,[3] and noted how this has driven scholars and the artists from various fields into the previously under-explored departments of museums and libraries.

This made Enzewor turn to Derrida, and his idea of the entwined notions of hierarchy and origin in the word “archive.” One refers to the physical, historical sense of the Greek word “arche” which, Derrida explains, means both commencement and commandment. The other is“Arkheion”, which Derrida translates as “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.”[4] This etymology is important to Derrida, as it binds the archive historically to government, power and law. Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge echoes the same point: “The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system which governs the appearance of statements as unique events”[5] Foucault traces out the discursive rules that govern the different epistemes of  Renaissance, classical and modern knowledge[6] while Derrida returns to Greek antiquity to study the arkheion.[7]

With these philosophical issues in mind, I wonder how “digitization” of the archive helped dismantle the borders of academic disciplines. Researchers can probably take a cue from artistic methods that tackle the feverish pace of contemporary image production. The term “archive” has become a metaphor for cultural memory. Artists discover archives or create them. The artist decides what is archived according to his individual preference. Rumpled beds, women’s clothes, electric chairs, a lists of victims and perpetrators of terrorism. The construction of the Archive itself regulates and organizes the accessibility of information. Power over image archives have long been a new currency of the new economies. Getty Images founded in 1995, quickly became one of the largest picture agencies in the world. In 1996 the company acquired the picture archive of the Picture Post (today the Hulton Picture Library) which has a pictorial cachet dating back to the 19th century. The history of monopolies of the image and their commercialization has yet to be written.

While observing the CSER protests archives, I realized that I am Derridean because my interest is not on the direct examination of the content but on how it can be used to critique the very institution that holds these documents: CSER or Columbia University. I guess it is inevitable that the researcher who compiled the CSER protest archive confronts the currency of holding or withholding these documents.

The innovation of utilizing Google Drive as an archive seems to have ripened the investigation of the CSER protests documents. It has also made research somewhat doable during the COVID-19 pandemic. This tells me something about the nature of research of the present; that publicly available technologies can equally serve the purpose of obscure applications that researchers from the digital humanities use. Keyword search and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) are technical features available to all.

I am bewildered by the material infrastructures of data centers or “highways” and server rooms. What happens to knowledge when these servers are bombed, like in the likelihood of a Third World War? Who will have the competence to use card catalogs, or explain the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal System, or how to use a concordance? The task of the scholar now has been largely relegated to gleaning beneath what these machines can offer to produce an “original” project.

I am primarily fascinated by photographic collections, especially ones that remain stubbornly analog. This will sound politically incorrect but I’m going to say it anyway: I worry about democratization of the institutional archives through the internet. It might be good to continue restricting access to it not because I fear that the Taliban might be spying on the academe but because of a more boring reason: the retail distribution images online tend to eliminate context in dangerous ways. The demand of digital platforms to optimize also means degradation of copies into less and less bytes. For example, I rarely printed photos since 2003, the year I was able to buy my first Kodak digital camera (5 megapixels!). All of these photos were “burned” onto a CD which I no longer have the hardware to open. Those that I posted online have been lost, somewhat fortunately, when platforms such as Multiply and Myspace deleted my profile or went out of business.  Now imagine my predicament on the scale of an X Institution’s digital storage that is now obsolete?  I am certain there are people more responsible than I am who actually take care of these things, but in the Third World where I come from, one can only hope and pray. It seems like a bad omen when, for example, I sift through the Digital Archive of Indonesian Visual Arts (Arsip IVAA), and I notice that most data collection stopped in 1999.
            I was delighted to have the opportunity to study in the United States because I can finally get access to libraries and museums. Had these been available to me as an undergrad, I would probably not be as excited. During the pandemic, I binged on the temporary access to Hathitrust. Historian Christopher Capozolla, who recently published a book on the role of Filipinos in the US military in expanding the American empire, thinks that U.S. researchers are “spoiled.” He continues,“The American scholar is swamped with too many sources.” Capozzola says he is fortunate that the war records and documents of veterans are neatly kept in several institutions. Asked by an audience member if he ever went to Manila for his research, he said that it wasn’t necessary, because “it would’ve been a mess.” Most of what he needed was already in the U.S.[8]

 I envy him as I view the pixelated recording of an artistic performance in the early 2000s. The song was like someone was hammering on iron sheets. I remember Professor Courtney Thorsson saying in class that she chose to write her dissertation on Toni Morrisson because she was the last writer who became famous before the digital age and that much of her letters and manuscripts are still physically available. In the words of a corrupt dictator: some are smarter than others.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

[2] Hito Steyerl, “Palaces of memory,” Documents and Monuments, Politics of the Archive in The Color of Truth. Documentarisms in the Kunstfeld, Vienna 2015, 27.

[3] Enzewor got the title Archive Fever (1994) by Jacques Derrida. Massimiliano Gioni curated the exhibition Encyclopedic Palace for the Venice Biennale in 2013.  Okwui Enwezor, Archive fever: uses of the document in contemporary art (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008).

[4] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9.

[5] Foucault, op. cit., 129.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Derrida, Loc cit.

[8] Christopher Capozzola, Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America’s First Pacific Century (New York: Basic Books, 2020). These are quotes from his lecture  held on March 29, 2021 to promote the book.