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Part 2 of the research: Consequences of ‘living’ and ‘fluid’ archives

The archive’s traditional representational relationship to social identity, agency and memory is challenged by the distributed nature of networked media. Initially designed as a mirror of physical collections and paper archives, the digital repository became a collection itself. A new set of values is presented, but it often remains unarticulated at the cultural and scientific level. For this particular commission we wanted to seek new understandings of the relationship between the software with which online archives are coded and the social, commercial and organisational practices of what is still considered the archiving of documents. In particular we wanted to look at the role of users, in all its manifestations as the meeting point of cultural value and technological systems.

As sociologist Mike Featherstone puts it, ‘Increasingly the boundaries between the archive and everyday life become blurred through digital recording and storage technologies’ (2006, 591). Whereas the paper archive has always been the place to store and preserve documents and records, and has functioned as a warehouse for the material from which memories were (re)constructed, its digital counterpart is changing the meaning and function of an archive. Rather than aiming to compare and analyse the differences, in this phase of the project we will focus on what some have defined as ‘living archives’ (Passerini 2014; Lehner 2014, 77) or ‘fluid archives’ (Aasman 2014) and the changing role of their users in those spaces. Numerous other terms are used to describe these ‘new’ types of archives, however it is commonly acknowledged that archives are no longer stable institutions.

The terms ‘living’ and ‘fluid’ point to the following characteristic of online archives: openness (they are constantly changing and accumulating), self-reference (hash tags have replaced traditional categorisation) and they represent – like many other online platforms – the shift from passive audiences to active users. Due to their transient quality, it could be argued, these archives are not designed for long-term storage and memory, but for reproduction. As media scientist Wolfgang Ernst explains, the emphasis in the digital archive shifts from documenting a single event to redevelopment, in which a document is (co-) produced by users (Ernst 2012, 95). Whereas the source may remain intact, as in the original archive, its existence is constantly changing and dynamic.

One of the main reasons for this change is the practice of a variety  of non-specialists who are ‘archiving the everyday’ and creating endless ‘personal archives’. This has often given rise to statements about the ‘democratisation of archival practices’, which allows a broad range of individuals, communities and organisations to document, preserve, share and promote (community) identity through collective stories and heritage (Cook 2013; Gilliland and Flinn 2013).

What does it mean when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems? Whereas this question has many consequences for thinking about the archive, for the purpose of this phase in the research we focus on how these changes affect the agency of users, by addressing the ways in which users engage with online archives and playfully interrogate and subvert systems such as archives to produce new knowledge concerning their social, cultural and commercial values.


Aasman, Susanna. 2014. ‘Saving Private Reels? Archiving User Generated Content (Formerly Known as Home Movies) in the Digital Age’. In Amateur Filmmaking the Home Movie, the Archive, the Web, edited by L. Rascaroli, G. Young, and B. Monahan. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 245-57.

Cook, Terry. 2013. ‘Evidence, Memory, Identity and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms’. Archival Science, June, Vol. 13, No. 2-3, pp. 95-120.

Ernst, Wolfgang. 2012. Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Featherstone, Mark. 2006. ‘Archive’. Theory, Culture & Society, May, Vol. 23, No. 2-3, pp. 591-6.

Gilliland, Anne and Andrew Flinn. 2013 ‘Community Archives: What are we really talking about?’. Nexus, Confluence, and Difference: Community Archives meets Community Informatics: Prato CIRN Conference Oct 28-30 2013, editors: L. Stillman, A. Sabiescu, N. Memarovic, Centre for Community Networking Research, Centre for Social Informatics, Monash University.

Lehner, Sharon. 2014. ‘Documentation Strategy and the Living Archive’. In Inheriting Dance: An Invitation from Pina, edited by Marc Wagenbach and The Pina Bausch Foundation. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, pp. 75-84.

Passerini, Luisa. 2014. ‘Living Archives. Continuity and Innovation in the Art of Memory’. Unpublished transcript of lecture at Columbia University, 1 April.

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