Reading Archival Theory from the Global South: Reflections on the Monthly ICA-SUV Archival Theory Reading Group

Intellectual work at its most fruitful has a collective dimension to it. The absence of a community of practice was something I felt acutely when I made my first (accidental) foray into archiving two years ago. Understanding the ins and outs of such highly specialized work on my own was liberating, but the persistent feeling that I may be reinventing the wheel was hard to shake off. I soon came to realize that my experience was far from singular. Many archivists in India are not formally trained in archival science, having come to archiving from diverse backgrounds, with varying concerns. Autodidacticism, trial and error, learning as you go along have been part of archival praxis in India all along. Although this opens up many creative and innovative possibilities, it can also be lonely work unless archivists devise ways to find each other. As new archives get built they raise provocative questions about the current state of techniques, technologies, standards, access policies,and ethical norms that make up our practice. How well do existing international archival standards serve current needs? Is there a need for an “Indian” archival standard? How have archives in the country evolved over the years? What is the social space our archives occupy and who are they meant for? 

It is from within this context that I approach the monthly reading group meetings organised by ICA-SUV since June 2020, where a group of archivists from different time-zones meet every month over Zoom to discuss an essay, article, or podcast about archives and archiving. Perhaps without the pandemic forcing us all to explore virtual modes of collective work, the idea of a virtual transnational reading group would never have materialised – a testament to changes in our common sense notions of what a community is, and can be!

Our very first discussion pivoted around an essay by noted Canadian archivists Joan Schwartz and Tim Cook, that problematised the archive and its pretensions to neutrality and objective truth. Starting from this postmodern macro-critique of the archive, subsequent discussions have drilled down into specific contexts and configurations of power – the archive and community activism, the archive and the state, archiving in times of crisis, the history of archival tools like the finding aid. In one sense, these sessions have doubled up for me as a kind of informal night school in archival theory, where instead of a formal classroom setting one learns from one’s peers. 

Just as the archival object illustrates the contextual and relational nature of knowledge, these meetings have opened a portal that lets me switch up scales, change vantage points, and move between the particularities of my work and a broader transnational archival discourse. I believe such a setup is uniquely positioned to raise certain critical questions: to what extent does archival theory emerging from the global North engage and speak to archival practices in other parts of the world? What would archival theory written from the global South look like? 

If I were to be ambitious and articulate one desired “objective” for these meetings, it is for archivists from different locations to be able to reflect on theory from within their local context and practice. The hope is that this community, brought together in part by the complex exigencies of a global pandemic, is able to outlast this moment of crisis itself and develop a much-needed multi-sited discourse on archiving.

(Bharat S. is an archivist and researcher at the French Institute of Pondicherry. Having a keen interest in urban history, music, and media studies, he was previously part of the Kolkata Urban Archive project.)

See more about the Reading Group meetings here.

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