By D-M Withers
Archives are pedagogical spaces. Before the digital revolutionised the technical form of the archive and its role in everyday life, we might have considered archival pedagogies solely in relation to the contents of the archive: how artefacts can be used to provoke learning, questioning and exploration through the educational encounter. What we find in any given archive collection can help us learn about the world they reflect. In a digital environment the pedagogical territories of the archive are extended to encompass the material around collections. These also become a location where learning and social relations can be animated through activities of exchange and contribution.
To realise this, archives need to be understood as more than their data – the contents of the collection I might visit to acquire information. They also include an archive’s Meta-data: the catalogues that feature complex webs of linked classifications and descriptions that support the discovery of information. ‘Meta in Greek means three things: with or among, between and after,’[i] and it is within the ‘Meta’ capacities of digital archives – around its contents that co-mingle the past, present and future – that transformative pedagogical practices can be established and imagined.
In the ‘Meta’ realm of digital archives are three key concepts – Transmission, Storytelling and Care – that can be unlocked through pedagogy. To teach in the digital’s ‘Meta’ milieu is to activate and socialize understanding of the catalogue as a transmission machine, a site of inter-generational transfer and time travel, a contact zone with materials assembled by persons in different times and spaces. For archives of feminist social movements and other unofficial knowledges, these materials endure in the present because people have cared: cared enough to spend time and expend energy to collect, organise and preserve collections.
Pedagogy in the ‘Meta’ archive enables learners to participate in this circuit of care. This might take the form of contributing descriptions and constructing new connections between contents in the archive. The first step of any archival activity is assembly – the salvage of materials from oblivion. What comes after, however, is equally important, less emphasized and visible: the continued work to maintain the integrity of collections and ensure they can remain animated, so they might become a resource for (re)making society. In a digital environment this reality creates pedagogical opportunity, a vehicle to devise learning activities that socialize care and transgenerational responsibility.[ii] Through embodying the ‘Meta’ space of the archive, learners gain sense (in the muscles, hands, bones and eyes) of their capacity to take care of the knowledge they attend to, and reflect on and among.
The technical concepts of archival science and computational programming languages are opaque and distinctly apart from everyday life. They are ‘hard to access.’ To support movement into the ‘Meta’ space of archive it can be reclaimed as a Storytelling location constructed in direct correspondence with archive materials learners encounter. These ‘stories’, or descriptive layers, give further meaning to archival content. They create traces that record how a reader responded to and made sense of an artefact in a specific time and place. They are part of a trans-generational dialogue that future readers might also contribute to, reflecting on the different contexts in which the archive is accessed and animated. Storytelling within the catalogue realises the potential for care and transmission that can be realised through digital archival pedagogies.
Archival collections do not come fully formed. They are often messy and disorganised rather than neatly catalogued. For archive collections created in the past 50-60 years, they are likely to contain personal information about living, identifiable persons. Some of this material will be ‘sensitive’ and some of it will not. Some people will know material they created is included in an archive; others won’t be aware. This raises ethical questions about access to materials but, importantly, legal problems too. Teaching in the ‘Meta’ archive may help support the acquisition and negotiation of socio-legal literacies that inform relationships with data in the archive, but also in everyday life.
May 2018 saw significant changes to Data Protection Law through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which ascribed a new legal identity to people in a digital society: data subject. GDPR introduced new regulations about how organisations store and ‘process’ personal data. Archives, which might be public authorities or a public or private body that holds records of public interest, are able to ‘acquire, preserve, appraise, arrange, describe, communicate, promote, disseminate and provide access to records of enduring public value for general public interest.’[iii] Archiving in the public interest is the legal basis for archives to process personal data. This means archives are not subject to the same restrictions as, say, an online clothing company who must have a different – and more time-limited – legal basis for collecting and storing data.
Because the GDPR is focused on the ‘processing’ of data it places new legal constraints on the pedagogical activities that happen in the catalogue or ‘Meta’ space of the archive. It transforms participants from learners into ‘data processors’ who may, inadvertently, be involved in making judgements about materials they read. This is especially likely if pedagogical activities respond to un-catalogued or unpublished artefacts. Discussions about GDPR, when practiced in a context of group learning, may also support collective articulations of public interest vis-à-vis the archive collection in question. After all, archiving in the public interest is not a self-evident statement with fixed guidelines. It is a framework that must be contextualised and argued for. Immediately it raises two compelling questions: which public(s)? Whose interest(s)?
For a project such as Re-Animating Data, which is seeking to
activate a complex archive relating to young women’s sexuality and sexual
health created in the late 80s by feminist social scientists, this is an
opportunity to clearly articulate what ‘the public interest’ of re-using such
material is. This need not be a tick boxing exercise. It can be located in
pedagogical action, part of the project’s collective exploration of how ‘well-kept
and accessible archives contribute to the democratic functioning of society’[iv]
through the valuation, circulation and re-interpretation of marginalised
perspectives. In this manner archives can be leveraged to ask questions about
social change and organisation, enabling archival sources from a different time
and place to press into the contemporary context, offering orientation,
provocation and evidence. Introducing the socio-legal frame may also be used to
facilitate discussion about the wider rights of citizens-as-data-subjects,
whose social orientation is engineered to produce data, but not necessarily
exert control over where it is stored, or how it is used.
[i] Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons & Timotheus Vermeulen (2017) Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth After Postmodernism, London: Rowman Littlefield International, 8.
[ii] Bernard Stiegler (2010) Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, trans. Stephen Barker, Stanford University Press.
[iii] See National Archives (2018) Guide to Archiving Personal Data, 21-25. Available online: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/legislation/data-protection/.
[iv] National Archives, Guide to Archiving Personal Data, 21-25.