Report on the first Forum on Digital Archives and Cultural Memory (Nov. 10th, 2014)

A guest post by Emmanuelle Chaze

This first forum on Digital Archives and Cultural Memory coordinated[1] by the Institut Français and the French Embassy in Germany gathered together speakers from different backgrounds in an interdisciplinary and intercultural bid to understand the challenges encountered by institutions and individuals towards digital archives. The day-long discussion, animated by Marjorie Berthomier (Ambassade de France, Institut Français) kicked off with a foreword from the French Ambassador Philippe Etienne and from Anne Tallineau, Head of the Institut Français.

In an introductory session, Pr. Ian Christie (Birkbeck University and London Screen Archives) showed how, along with the emergence of digital sources and user generated data, researchers have to rethink their approach to archives, both physically (no direct contact with the archive anymore) and intellectually (a digital archive is a legitimate source, but one has to learn how to retrieve and analyze it). He also emphasized the diversity of perceptions and practices of the archives at an international level, comparing a slower European digital scholarship with that of the United States, by citing copyright traditions at various national levels. While he acknowledged a loss of contact with the physical archive, and a loss of knowledge of some materials and technicalities, he also pointed out that the specificity of each media was a warranty against their disappearance.

This gave way to the first round table chaired by Laurent Romary (DARIAH-EU) on the “Goals and uses of the archive: memory and oblivion. What do we archive and why?” Romary advocated a broader access to archives while highlighting that technicality wouldn’t necessarily be lost. Claude Mussou (INA), underlined two lines of reflection, first on the visibility of the archive, second on its intelligibility. Through the example of the INA archives, Mussou stated that means of visibility have necessarily increased through the multiplication of means of transmission, and she underlined the crucial role of the archivist whose role is to accompany the viewer of the archive by editing, re-contextualising and informing on the archive viewed. Olaf Zimmermann (Deutscher Kulturrat) evoked the emergence of a new scholarship on digital archives while raising the issue of the conservation of the original archives in the digital age and highlighted the existing problems of public vs. private funding of digital archival initiatives in Germany. Xavier de la Porte (Rue89), tackled the subject from a journalistic perspective: while digitisation of information is a clear advantage for the user, it raises a methodological question for the journalist. Everything being recorded and available long after the first diffusion, one has to be more imaginative and more thorough in the treatment and presentation of information. Again, the question of the user as an archive generator was raised through the examples of social networks (Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat), along with that of the right to be forgotten. Nicolas Apostolopoulos (Center für Digitale Systeme, Freie Universität Berlin), highlighted the difference between data storage and archival work, highlighting again the importance of accessibility and understanding of archives by the user, researcher or not.

This first session generated various interrogations in the audience: first, the question of the role of archivists and librarians in the digitalisation process was raised. For Olaf Zimmermann and Xavier de la Porte, digital age comes along with a renewal of both professions, and creates new career paths. Another preoccupation was evoked in the audience, that of the overabundance of information available. Louise Merzeau (Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense), argued that this couldn’t be avoided, but that the intelligibility of visible archives could in time be improved.

The speakers of the second roundtable, chaired by Vincent von Wroblewsky (Sartre Society), deliberated on the theme of “Practices and languages of the archive: think and sort: How does one archive?”. Clément Oury (BNF) explained the two processes of archive acquisition: deposit and collection. While the generator of the media is usually known in the case of a deposit, it is harder to identify him/her on the Web. Oury also underlined the need to make decision strategies as to which data, and which volume of data, will be collected. Thomas Steinke (Deutsche Nationalbibliothek) presented the German National Library archives and discussed their accessibility, sometimes limited due to current legislation. He also highlighted the issue of making available contents of various formats within a same software. Gilles Eboli (Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon), depicted the partnership between his institution and Google. While acknowledging that such alliances between public and patrimonial institutions and private investors (later on revealed to be in most cases one of the “GAFA” giants: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), Eboli also raised the question of independence and governance of the transmission of information, he also emphasized the flexibility of such partners in the archiving process. Claus Löser (Ex.Oriente. Lux, Experimental Film Archive Ost 1976 bis 1989), kept the idea of the archive as a political act as he unveiled the challenges inherent to data collection within movies shot under the censorship German Democratic Republic regime.

This session aroused questions on funding politics of the digital archive: what is to most likely to be funded and what is left aside? What determines the value of an archive (Berthomier)? Again, the accessibility of the archive for the user was discussed, as well as the perspectives of sustainability for current positions in patrimonial institutions and the possibilities of creating new career paths along with emerging digital collections. The underlying themes of private investment and ethics of the archives were also discussed, with Merzeau advocating the necessity of protecting the public domain and Oury arguing that data collection doesn’t always stem from a patrimonial perspective. Faced with the question of the authenticity of the content, Oury argued for the panel that the role of archivists and librarians isn’t to find out whether the content is right or wrong by offering critical hindsight into the archive, but merely to put the content available.

The last roundtable, chaired by Marjorie Berthomier, dealt specifically with “Politics and accessibility of the archive: who archives, and for whom?”. Céline Guyon (Conseil général de l’Aube, ENSSIB) reminded that the archive had originally a legal function that ensured authenticity, not a cultural one. She argued that the process of creating the archive, from the moment it is emitted by an individual to that of the deposit or collect by the collectivity, is a natural one. The decision process on what to keep and what to forget belongs both to the producer and to the repository, but one has to rethink this linear approach at a time when the number of producers as well as the mass of information are ever-increasing. Madeline Ritter (Tanzfonds) then presented her approach to create a specific repository for contemporary dance history. While the support to archive (dance) is different, how should the archivist proceed to index past performances, taking account of the multiplicity of actors (screenwriters, choreographers, performers)? Nicolas Larrousse (DARIAH-FR) further discussed this methodological issue by presenting technical solutions offered at an international cooperation level by DARIAH in the field of Digital Humanities, in order to ensure researchers the future access to their archive in the appropriate digital format.

Following this session, a manager of the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, who wasn’t named for security reasons, attested of the difficulty to collect data in secrecy. Faced with oppression and immediacy of the revolution, the manager explained that intellectual right and freedom of expression, rather than how to rate this expression, were paramount in such context. This led to the recurring question of the archive as a political engagement and, again, to the accessibility of the archive. The fate of archive was the object of a last round of interrogations from the speakers: Guyon questioned the sustainability of the archive in time, while Larrousse raised the question of Google’s legacy, should the search engine disappear, and that of a necessary cooperation between the different actors of the archives. Merzeau stressed out that one aspect had been omitted by the discussions of the day: that of the worldwide variety of cultures and vocabularies of the archive. She closed the Forum by raising a series of questions to be further explored in digital thinking: that of traceability first, about which Merzeau argued that it was impossible nowadays not to leave a trace online, as everything is recorded and processed. Not only must we invent new patterns of safeguard in order to manage the mass of data collected, but we also have to consider the right to be forgotten, in a fundamentally new inversion of the relationship between memory and oblivion. While a bid of self-archiving would be illusory, she asserted that individuals and patrimonial institutions should reinvent common spaces for archives. The physical support of the archive tend to disappear in favor of the digital one, and these institutions have to re-negociate the passage between the digitization of the heritage and the heritage of the digital. In light of the new dynamics generated by online interactions, she pleaded for a temporal conception of the Web, rather than the recurring spatial one. Knowledge, she argued, is now considered in terms of rankings, as the Web firms not only weigh in financially, but also determine and standardize sorting and accessibility protocols. Patrimonial institutions should act accordingly by cooperating ion the editing and sharing process, but bearing in mind that each culture keeps its distinctiveness, thus rendering internationalization strategies irrelevant. Therefore, gateways must be created between archives and social projects, and tools and expertise must be conveyed through collaboration and teaching.

A live report in French, written by students of the Technische Universität and the ENS during the sessions, is available here.

Follow on Twitter: @IFnumerique, #ArchivesNum

(if you want to contact Emmanuelle Chaze, the author of this report, leave a comment here. Comments are moderated.)


[1] Partners: Institut Français Paris, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ENS Lyon, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques, Bibliothèque Municipale de la Ville de Lyon, DARIAH.fr and Huma-Num Networks, Rue89, Deutscher Kulturrat, Freie Universität Berlin, Tanzfonds, Centre Marc Bloch Berlin, Brotfabrik.


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