What is an Archive, What Does It Do, and What/Who is It Good For?

By Ryan Tebo

What is the ontological status of an archive in its entirety? Is there a certain point (critical mass) when an archive becomes inconceivable as a singular entity? Does an archive develop organically or does it conform to a prescribed vision? Does an archive mutate based on utilization? 

Is the archive the actual material contained within it or is it the apparatus that organizes and provides access to the material? Normally we think of an archive as the material itself but perhaps this will change as innovations and reorientations arise in distribution, storage, and preservation. When an archive becomes easily and completely accessible, does the archive’s main goal shift from being primarily about preservation to a focus on how to create an accessible system of information? Perhaps archivists will start to think more like museum curators and the way they design exhibitions.

Will archives become more public and less institutions for specialized academic research? This seems to be a likely future path of the archive, especially given the approaching universal access to the Internet. Over the past decade, an incredible amount of genealogical information has been transferred from physical archives to accessible online databases. This has given people access to archival information not possible before without traveling great distances to many different places to solve genealogical mysteries. However, there may be an illusion or danger that the original material loses its value and that the traditional role of an archive is no longer important. Archives must now negotiate the difficult relationship between their traditional role as a vault and the more contemporary role of conceiving a system that allows for the public to conveniently access the material within the archives. In my eyes this is a great development toward the democratization of access to information and material that was previously only available to an elite few. 

Are archives public services? Why else would they exist? Can an archive be for-profit? Or would it then become something else? Maybe access and usage costs are what now need to be debated and negotiated. It requires a great deal of labor and money to make archives widely accessible. Within these costs are included the issue of rights for the materials in archives, especially when thinking about transnational access to and cooperation among archives. Each country has a different set of laws guiding rights to materials within archives. The question of who owns the material in archives and who is/can profit from it is complicated, especially if the original creator/source of the material is no longer living or in existence. The archivist is in a frequently difficult position between wanting to respect the rights of the material and creator and providing access to people who want to use this material.

The old mentality of protecting archives is contrary to the new mentality of accessiblizing them. While protecting and preserving are not mutually exclusive there are possibly some important distinctions between them. Protecting implies something that goes beyond preservation, through limitations of access. These limitations may have nothing to do with the fragility of the materials in question. When I was doing a project about Robert Kennedy, I found the accessibility of material (especially film and video) to be very inhibitive due to the issue of rights. Much of my research for the project was conducted in the John F. Kennedy Library (part of the National Archives in Washington D.C.). Some of the material I had no access to and some of it I was allowed to see but couldn’t use. Very little of it was available for my project–an original art installation–even though it was not for profit.

We seem to be at a crossroads with regards to how this relationship is administered. This seems directly related to the challenging issue of copyrights in general, as evidenced in cases like Napster and Pirate Bay. How can we legislate differences between, for instance, people stealing music and selling it on the black market for profit, and artists who appropriate that same music for use in their work? Two examples that did not fare well in U.S. court, despite Fair Use protections, thereby demonstrating the problems with our current system, are Negativland's U2 (1991) EP and Todd Haynes’ animated film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), both of which can only circulate as contraband products. But it is more complicated than simply establishing a different protocol for people who will not make a profit from copyrighted material and those who plan on using the same material for commercial ends. What then should be done with artists who use archival material (including copyrighted material) in their work, which they then sell?

The further opening of archives will be a great creative asset to artists especially: both from the perspective of the distribution of their work and access to material in archives to incorporate and recombine into new work. As one such artist, what would be my ideal relationship with archives? Having access to as much material as possible seems as important as having an easy way to access the material. For me, establishing a fair relationship between my use and the rights of the material is a conversation that begins early in my contact with archives. So, how can conversations and collaborations between archivists and artists, about how and what material is accessed and used, help evolve the function(ality) of archives? Many of the archivists I have encountered exhibit a very conservative approach to their discipline, which likely reflects the conventional uses of archives for historical and academic research. When an artist walks into an archive wanting to use material in a radically different way, this can challenge the archivist to fundamentally rethink her role and may lead to new ways of structuring archives and ways to access them. 



Ryan Tebo is currently spending a year in Sweden on a Fulbright grant, making a documentary about American expatriates and exiles who moved to Sweden during the 1960s–1970s in search of a socialist utopia.  Previously he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Filmmaking at the Massachusetts College of Art.  Tebo writes, “Through a negotiation between information and aesthetic I attempt to approach political and social realities, mostly in non-fiction forms.  Though I distrust overt, expository approaches to politics in art, I do attempt some direct engagement with these issues by choosing specific communities, issues, and realities to document.”









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