The Infinite Archive

Eric Ketelaar’s paper, Archives as Spaces of Memory, struck me as an important contribution to the paradigmatic postmodern literature on archives. Ketelaar’s paper is divided into two main sections. In the first section, he discusses the differences between legal records and archival records. This discussion is framed by an interesting contextual history of the Nuremberg trials. The second section of Ketelaar’s paper focuses on the concept of Archives 2.0, in which the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as “annotation systems, wikis, clusters of blogs, social network visualisations, social recommender systems, and new ways of visualising conversations…” (18) can enliven the use and impact of archives on society. Throughout the paper, Ketelaar’s thesis remains clear. He argues that archival records – when opened up to a community for participatory interaction – can strengthen communal bonds which invariably heal societies that have undergone a traumatic experience or sequence of traumas.

When discussing the Nuremberg trials, Ketelaar argued that the law itself, even the successful service of justice through and by the law, is not enough to bring closure to the victims of an atrocity. He quotes Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda who says: “the past for victims and survivors, and their families, is ‘unfinished business’: they go on searching for meaning how the humiliations, the cruelties, the systematic destruction could have come about” (13). In other words, when the trial is over, the perpetrators of a crime are dealt with accordingly by the justice system, but the memory of what happened – the trauma – continues to affect the victims. The courts, however, are impartial and unemotional, and as far as they are concerned, when guilt has been proven and criminals are indicted, there is nothing left for them to do. Indeed, legal records in a trial are meant to be used by the prosecutors to serve an objective, finite end. Once the case is closed, the records are sealed away. As Ketelaar writes, “[t]he law aspires to a degree of finality, that neither History nor Memory does” (11).

Ketelaar’s conception of the “infinite archive” suggests that records are meant to be used ad infinitum for purposes that are restorative and creative. He says that “[a] record is never finished, never complete, the record is ‘always in a process of becoming” (12). This is the main difference between the two record groups as discussed by Ketelaar. He would likely maintain that legal records are these stale things which, while they are very important in their own right and can certainly be archived, they are not infinitely archival. According to Ketelaar, archives can heal trauma(s) because the records contained within have the power to serve what he refers to as “memory-justice” (13). Indeed, archival records, unlike law records, can be used or “activated” by the victims of history. They can be tapped for their healing powers by victimized or marginalized groups of people. Legal records cannot.

I think this is an important consideration. Knowing that archival records can be used as therapeutic resources, it becomes imperative to discover new and effective ways of providing access to archives. This is why Ketelaar shifts in his discussion to talk about Archives 2.0. By now, it is obvious that new media and social networking have produced novel ways of engaging in cultural modes of thought and creation. Ketelaar brings up some important concepts in this section such as “parallel provenance” and “co-creatorship.” In terms of archives, these concepts support the Records Continuum Model of Frank Upward. Ketelaar writes, “the social and cultural phenomenon of co-creatorship entails a shift of the traditional paradigm of the organic nature of records and the principle of provenance” (15). Participatory archives is important, then, for the reasons mentioned above. Releasing the fixity of archives allows for the process of re-creation and reconciliation, which is vital for the health of society. As emotional fixity can result in depression and dissociation from society, participatory archives can only be a good thing. Still, there are problems inherent in releasing archives for public use and activation. For instance, Archives 2.0 increases the problem of ensuring data protection, consent, and privacy. Ketelaar does admit that “[t]his needs a new generation of access policies, tools and practices, less collection driven, but directed towards archives as social spaces and records as social entities” (18). So despite the altruism Ketelaar exhibits in his call to release the archives, one can sense that new traumas could emerge in these social spaces.


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