Archives at the MLA: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels

By Charlotte Nunes
February 2016

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention that took place January 7-10 in Austin, Texas, archival interests and concerns were well represented at such exciting panels as “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics” (#s280), “What We Talk about When We Talk about DH: Interdisciplinary Vocabularies” (#s258), and “The Digital Humanities and the Archive” (#s460). The many intersections between archives and digital scholarship were prominently at issue in panel discussions throughout the conference. As Eleanor F. Shevlin pointed out in a panel titled “Secret Archives: Privacy, Control, and Access,” “Digital developments are transforming archival thinking.” Although archivists have long centered questions of access and representation in archival theory and practice, the onset of the digital age “shifts boundaries of private and public control,” creating a situation where “failures of access are as important as what’s there: negatives are part and parcel of how archives function as intellectual tools.”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Attuned to such negatives, panelists across the conference called for increased sensitivity to the conditions of inclusion and exclusion that determine archival stewardship. As Maria Cotera pointed out in her discussion of the Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Memory Collective on the panel “Archival Legibility and Invisibility,” “You can’t do research if you don’t have an archive. But if you don’t have a history, you can’t get an archive.” In this negative feedback loop, Cotera contends, knowledge is produced from archives, but archives are also produced from knowledge; archival institutions are less likely to collect material without an authenticated history. To redress a historic focus on textual archives that “invisibilize” communities with oral and material histories, Cotera highlighted the Chicana Por Mi Raza project to advocate a rethinking of the archive as an exchange between documenter and documented, wherein the archive-building process is the archive. Jonathan Senchyne seconded Cotera’s call in his case study on recovering histories of enslaved Americans in material cultures of print. Rather than viewing the archive as a site of proof or evidence, Senchyne argued, we must acknowledge it as a site of inquiry and encounter—a place to overturn and complicate inherited historical narratives.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The imperative to rethink the identity, scope, and function of the archive prevailed at panels on archives and pedagogy, as well. In a presentation titled “Text as Process,” on the panel “Teaching the Archive,” Jan Buerger reinforced Senchyne’s argument that the experience of contingency is perhaps the most valuable lesson archives have to offer. Echoing Laura Mandell’s simple yet elegant formulation of the edition as “where we go to learn about authorial intent,”1 Buerger advised educators to introduce students to the archive as “a school of contexts.” With the mantra “don’t trust the text” driving archival exploration, students are primed to recognize how authorial edits can completely change the atmosphere of a text. Stephen Enniss, Director of the Harry Ransom Center (HRC), offered that this recognition of the instability of the text constitutes a highly developed form of literacy that the HRC, along with other archival institutions across the nation, intends to foster by creating staff positions such as the one held by Andi Gustavson, the newly designated Instructional Services Coordinator at the HRC. In a discussion following a roundtable on “Archival Practices,” Gustavson emphasized that to maximize student engagement in courses with substantive archives components, designated archival education staff are crucial for determining pedagogical goals in conversation with faculty, and for providing students with the skills necessary to conduct archival research. Both Enniss and Gustavson suggested co-teaching between archivists and faculty as a promising avenue toward meaningful archives-based humanities education.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A related conversation charging the atmosphere at MLA theorized the role of archives in humanities scholarship and teaching more broadly. T-Kay Sangwand, Digital Scholarship Librarian at UCLA, encouraged humanities scholars to stop asking, “What is the archive?” and to start drawing on terms that have already been established in archival theory.2 On a panel titled “From Canon to Archival Encounters,” Alberto Varon posed the question, “What do archives do for literary study?”, and answered it from his position as a scholar of Latin@ studies. Since researchers in Latin@ archives encounter French, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and indigenous languages, the sheer scale and diversity of these archives flout a standardized canon, thus redefining intellectual history in more inclusive terms. In this way, Varon argued, the unstable archive is necessary to a flourishing field of Latin@ studies. Panelists such as Sangwand and Varon, as well as many others not cited here, are doing important work to clarify the theoretical contributions that archives and the field of archival stewardship can make to studies in the humanities.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This is but a smattering of the excellent archives-related content that proliferated at this year’s MLA Convention. That there were a host of panels I did not have the space to detail here—“Touching Disability: Crip Theory in the Archive,” “Archival Publics: Tracing Humans in Special Collections and Archives,” and “Rethinking AIDS in the Age of Archival Publics,” to name just a few—testifies to the increasingly central role of archives in humanities inquiry.

  1. 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0
  2. Panel 258: “What We Talk about When We Talk about DH: Interdisciplinary Vocabularies.” []
  3. Ibid. []
Archives at the MLA: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels

Charlotte Nunes

Co-Director of Digital Scholarship Services, Skillman Library – Lafayette College

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