Prioritizing in the Archive

When a piece of literature is archived, it is given an inherent amount of importance. It is deemed worthy to be saved for future generations. But what of the massive amount of literature that isn’t archived? Who is making the decisions of what to archive, and what criteria are they using?

“The architecture of the archive and the sentinels who control access to its interior suggest that the conservation and transmission of knowledge has been, at least historically, the prerogative of a few chosen agents, of a coterie of privileged insiders. As scholars, we benefit from this privilege. Yet, this architecture may also be a reminder of the archive’s susceptibility to both external and internal forces of wastage. The history of the archive, on the one hand a history of conservation, is, on the other hand, a history of loss” (Werner/Voss, i).

So, a few scholars have, historically, been responsible for archiving human culture. Naturally, whenever human judgment is involved, mistakes are made and things can go wrong. Also, things are naturally prioritized as more or less important. One might even say that’s the whole point of archiving certain things and not others. This practice is still in place today. I will use the example of the Blake Archive:

“As we indicate in the Plan of the Archive (see¬†Significance), we chose the illuminated books as our starting point for several reasons: their historical and artistic value, the editorial and technical challenges they present, their relative coherence as an extensive group, the difficulties that their fragility and their widely dispersed present locations have created for scholars, and the need for a new map of their place in Blake’s lifetime of artistic labor. We saw the illuminated books, once we had substantially achieved our first-phase goal of including one copy from every printing of every book, as a kind of archival and editorial backbone for the project.”

What impact does choosing the illuminated books as the backbone of the project have? Some choice had to be made as to what should be prioritized. How would the project differ if other Blake material was put in the spotlight? Will this have any impact on the future of Blake research? In the past, deeming something more important in an archive may have ensured its survival along with the destruction of another less important work. All of this is decided by a few lucky scholars. So, the politics of what is archived, what isn’t, and what is given priority seems to be an important thing to consider.


2 thoughts on “Prioritizing in the Archive

  1. Good stuff, Braden. I admire your concept of how important it is to understand how archives are prioritized, as well as what should be (and should not be) archived. I looked at William Blake before in high school on two occasions in my AP Art Class, so that is the archive I immediately went to from the list as well. You did was brilliant work, especially tying it to the quote from the Blake archive, on top of the passage from Werner and Voss.

    The Blake archive is fascinating in the way it is organized. As you pointed out, the backbone of the collection is the illuminated books, and selecting those works as the backbone was allows for two things: The first is that they set the collection up to evolve along in a way the best provides complete coverage of Blake’s work, and second is that the illuminated books also lead the collection in the direction that provides the best “scholarly coherence,” as was pointed out on the same web page as you cited.

    As seen in the explanation from both Braden and the previous paragraph, it seems vitally important to a successful archive to decide exactly what should be archived, and how to do it most appropriately. The researchers behind the William Blake Archive undoubtably spent countless time planning the best way to set up the archive so that it best reflected his work, and that involves making judgement calls on what to include, what to exclude, and how everything should be organized. Like you said, Braden, prioritizing seems to be crucial, and it seems to me that if an archive is prioritized correctly, then it has the best possible opportunity of evolving into something truly special.

    – Jesse Haynes

  2. Both the writer and responder made excellent points on the idea of prioritizing what to archive, and were in similar agreement. I am also in agreement on this point. It’s a subject often on my mind that there are countless works of beautiful art and literature that have been lost to history because they weren’t deemed worthy to be preserved in any way. It is completely impossible to preserve all of culture for future generations, so they must be choosy.

    As Braden pointed out and Jesse elaborated, it’s most often scholars and academics who put together these archives, and thus they tend to approach the process in a scholarly and academic fashion. As the Blake archive is comprised of original, illuminated manuscripts, and the Jane Austen archive also is comprised of only those handwritten texts of hers that have survived the years, they may not be the most comprehensive or even easiest to navigate, but in terms of scholarly preservation, they are indeed the best choice to preserve that history. Anyone can purchase an anthology of Blake’s work or a copy of Pride and Prejudice, but these originals are delicate and irreplaceable. One could even make the argument that these archives dedicated to famous, well-established authors are necessary to be in this curatorial, museum style, because of the accessibility of their contemporarily printed work.

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