Scholars' Lab Blog //Unmaking and Remaking the Archive
Blog //Unmaking and Remaking the Archive

That old saying about trash and treasure can rarely be taken literally, but there’s one instance in which it almost certainly can be: the amassing, over the course of the Middle Ages, of hundreds of thousands of discarded looseleaf papers in an Old Cairene synagogue. The Cairo Geniza, as this collection is now named, is an assortment of letters, religious texts, inventories, shipping manifests, and the like, and has provided historians with most of what they know about Jews in the Middle East and North Africa during the medieval period. A geniza is where Jewish communities deposit old Torah scrolls and other religious texts that are no longer in usable condition, but which cannot be disposed of entirely because they contain the name of God. So it was with the documents in the Cairo Geniza, whose authors no longer had any use for them: they had to find a ‘third way’ between retaining and fully discarding their old writings, because each sheet of paper, somewhere, featured the name of God. Over the course of several hundred years, then, successive generations of Jewish communities in Fustat (Old Cairo) inadvertently created an “anti-archive”1—a repository of disposed-of, mostly quotidian words and lists that would go on to inform a rich and intimate portrait of Mediterranean life in the Middle Ages.

This story already raises a number of questions about how we see an archive. Who is responsible for its collection, and the ways in which the collections are grouped together? What is considered ‘worthy’ of archiving? What counts as authentic? And, perhaps most importantly, who ‘owns’ the materials and the histories they hold? This last question brings us back to another twist in the tale of the Cairo Geniza: the documents were removed, almost in their entirety, by the European Jewish scholar and rabbi, Solomon Schecter, who took them to Cambridge. This extraction, carried out under British imperial supervision, was considered an act of ‘preservation.’ But in reality, it removed an enormously valuable archive from its native community, dismantled it—parts of the collection went all over Europe and the US—and thereby wrested control over not only the stuff of that community’s history, but also how that history would be interpreted and catalogued.2 The fractured afterlives of the Cairo Geniza have been on my mind as I’ve begun planning a workshop under the auspices of the Praxis Program fellowship. Our mandate is to develop a workshop focused on an aspect of digital humanities, ideally related to our own research interests, through which we would be able to test-drive—and hopefully model—an engaging unit of digital pedagogy. Given my own conceptual struggles with archives, I decided to focus on how DH can potentially unpick some of the problematic dynamics I’ve come across in my research—both the cultural sacking involved in removing valuable artefacts en masse from their original home, and also, because I research the far right, the ways in which our research as historians can center the very ideologies we try to disempower through interrogation.

I therefore set myself a few tasks for this workshop: firstly, for it to be an opportunity to explore preconceived notions of what an archive is, and what belongs in an archive. Secondly, to use that exploration in order to think about what legacies of oppression are replicated, by accident or design, when archives are collected and catalogued without consideration to or input from their subjects, and these subjects’ stake in and ownership over their own histories—as per the Cairo Geniza. After all, even the most well-meaning effort to collect and catalogue materials according to an assumed objective standard will inevitably be shaped by the surrounding hegemonic culture—which leads, as Roopika Risam has written, to “archival violence.”3 And thirdly, to think about how digital tools can help us begin to address, and redress, those issues.

The first part of the workshop will be an open discussion guided by the questions at the start of this post. What makes an archive an archive? What is valid material for collection? Can a collection be an archive when it wasn’t originally intended as such? What types of materials do we consider the most ‘reliable’ as archival sources, and why? Breaking down our preconceived notions around authority, authorship, and authenticity (in terms of whose perspectives we consider reliable or canonical, not in terms of whether a document is genuine or not) helps uncover the often concealed role of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy in erasing subaltern and non-dominant voices and histories. In so doing, we are led into the next phase of the workshop: thinking, as a group, through a series of open questions designed to probe the assumptions named in the first section, and grappling with how to overturn them—whether we are archivists or researchers. The work of Lorena Gauthereau is greatly clarifying on this point: in a (fairly) recent blogpost, she poses a number of questions that underscore what’s at stake when amassing an archival record, for example: “Who is being represented? Who is speaking? Whose history is it? Who is making the choices? Who is working on the archive? Who can access it? Who owns the items? Who houses them?” Here, I want to show two examples of archives that offer a radical alternatives to the ‘traditional’ archive, in name, format, ownership, and presentation: “Queering the Map,” and “the real face of white australia” (the latter of which I accessed via Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities).

Those two examples will take us into the final section of the workshop, and to the heart of the original brief: putting all of this into Praxis. The idea is for workshop attendees to start applying some of these concepts around unmaking and remaking an archive, and to have that remaking enabled through digital tools. I will present them with a range of materials (or suggestions of materials) related to a recent political conflict in the US—for example, the stand-offs between antifascists and white nationalists in Portland or California—and pose a series of prompts that will challenge attendees to think about how they classify materials, which they give priority to, how they place them in relation to one another, and whose voices they center in their selection. For example: what should go down as the ‘official’ record of what happened? The newspaper report, the police report, the antifascist blog, the far-right chatroom post, or the social media post from a member of a community that habitually absorbs far-right violence in the city in question? Can a state record ever be considered neutral? Should this cataloguing center the far-right instigators of the demonstration, or should it center the coalitions of groups and individuals working to protect those most threatened by white supremacist violence? Next, how can a digital archive promote and protect archival accountability? What issues of access, authorship, ownership, version control and transparency over process can a digital archive conceivably address? If you are attaching keywords, authors, categories, to digital archival entries, how do you ensure they reflect and represent the subjects and communities you are accountable to? In other words, how do you make sure the metadata is worthy of the data?

Evidently, these are not questions that can be fully explored, much less answered, in a one-hour workshop. I still haven’t fully explored them myself (and expect that exploration to continue for as long as I am working in and around archives). But I hope, at least, for us to unpack as a group how we think about archives, why, and how we have the capacity to inform an archive as much as it informs us. And I hope to put across the role that digital humanities—when administered correctly—can play in that reckoning. 

  1. Jessica Goldberg, Trade Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean: The Geniza Merchants and their Business World (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 8. 

  2. Ella Shohat, “Taboo Memories, Diasporic Visions: Columbus, Palestine, and Arab-Jews,” in Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 203. 

  3. Roopika Risam, New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019), 20. 

Cite this post: Natasha Roth-Rowland. “Unmaking and Remaking the Archive”. Published October 24, 2019. Accessed on .