The Layers of Preservation: Infrastructure and the Archival Threshold

Photograph of Seattle Federal Archives and Records Center from The U.S. National Archives

On January 25, 2020 the U.S. Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) announced the approved closure of the National Archives at Seattle, the repository for all federal records produced in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. This decision arrived mere days after state senators and regional tribes sent respective letters urging the OMB to reject the Public Buildings Reform Board’s (PBRB) recommendation for closure. According to Chairman of the Puyallup Tribe David Z. Bean, federal agencies failed to engage “government-to-government tribal consultation” required by law and “did not even alert Tribes about the proposed sale.”[1] Congresswoman Pamila Japayal tweeted similar frustrations.

The National Archives at Seattle is currently one of eighteen National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) centers across the United States. Its holdings comprise upwards of one million boxes of documents, including the history of “272 federally recognized Northwest tribes and various drafts of tribal treaties.”[2] The approved closure will ultimately divide the assemblage between centers located in Kansas City, Missouri and Riverside, California, effectively severing the tribal community from the ancestral and material history that (federally) acknowledges their right to inhabit the Pacific Northwest. Protestors like Wyam tribal member Lana Jack consequently view this regional removal as an act of “paper genocide.” [3] The infrastructural realities of archival operation only underlines Jack’s fears; while digitization seemingly presents as the contemporary antidote to such removal, as of this year only .001 percent of Seattle’s records electronically exist.[4]

Though Lana Jack’s concerns are culturally distinctive in their own right, their linkage between past and present echo the pervasive trajectory of the archive’s cultural imaginary. The archive has long signified a kind of hollowed, historical space where life, death, and dreams meet; Carolyn Steedman’s work alludes such romantic notions: When the historian enters the archives, he goes “where he believes the past lives: where he can make ink on parchment speak… where he will rescue the unconsidered myriads of the past and write the people into being.”[5] While this intricate conceptualization services the realm of humanities, it equally distances a general populace from a pragmatic understanding of its own records and the infrastructures that mediate them. Therein lies perhaps the only value of Seattle’s impending closure: The very threat of inaccessibility – to the material and digital alike – becomes a brief yet tangible keyhole through which obscured archival operations turn visible. This view in turn operates twofold. On one hand, it illustrates the realities and ongoing challenges of archival digitization, a matter exclusively taken up in the second post of this series. On the other hand, it contextualizes the archive as not as a historical dreamscape of sorts, but a knowable yet scaffolded – and evolving – site, one that I argue warrants reading infrastructurally.

It bears noting that, as an assortment of introductory musings, this post seeks to only prime such an approach; it does not attempt to claim a particular archive (and form) or discipline as its methodological focal point. Rather, it aims to provide a brief yet discursive foundation for future infrastructural research and concentrated case studies specifically pertaining to archival spaces of various kinds. In this way, it operates much like the archive itself, laying pieces of analytical material that may each later fold into other unique forms of theory and critique.

(Re)Examining the Threshold

According to Terry Cook, recent years have seen a shift in traditional archival thinking “from evidence to memory to identity.”[6] As a result, the role of the archivist “has been transformed, accordingly, from the passive curator to active appraiser to social mediator to community facilitator.”[7] While Cook’s ‘transformations’ contextually account for the archive-gone-digital, Seattle (and similar cases) reminds us that while the archive proper may shift in form, its custodial logics adhere to a historically-fixed ‘flow of preservation:’

“This flow is not a simple transition from one place to another. It is the locus of recognition and empowerment. Somewhere between the outside and the inside of the archival building, the documents must unfold into evidence and memory, prior to being ensconced within the building as testimony of past actions. There must be a space, an in-between space, where this happens, a space bound by two limits, one bordering the documents and the other bordering the evidence: the archii limes or ‘archival threshold’”

Luciana Duranti, “Archives as a Place,” 448

Sketching the lineage of the archive ‘as place,’ Duranti’s work historicizes this threshold as a status-granting portal through which documentation obtains cultural and historical status. Here, I would like to further enact the ‘threshold’ as a conceptual object of its own means, a theoretical nexus through which the archive (dis)engages with other (infra)structural approaches, disciplines, and devices.

A ‘threshold’ can be defined as a gate, door, or boundary; in the Latourian sense, the threshold-as-object can be described as “not the beginning but the end of a long process of proliferating mediators, a process in which all relevant subprograms, nested into another, meet in a ‘simple’ task.”[8] While much of historiographical and archival scholarship centers on custodianship and authentication, it also attends to the act of ‘deeming’ in itself, a process that (at times) occurs long before reaching the “archive as place.” ‘Threshold’ is thus a useful concept that encompasses the preliminary alongside the foundational. At the same time, it also refers to the required point of action for phenomenon – metaphysical, synthetic, or otherwise – to occur. At once encompassing archival nodes of (in)access, rupture, and transformation, the ‘threshold’ lends itself well to developing a disposition toward the archive not ‘as place’ but ‘as infrastructure.’[9]

(The Archive’s) Infrastructural Disposition(s)

When the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) recommended Seattle’s closure, its findings were not based on barometers of archival usage or historical merit, but rather the state and upkeep of the National Archives building itself. According to the report, “the 73-year-old building had a ‘deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million, [and] its annual operating and maintenance costs were $357,000.”[10] These operational realties fall under what Nikhil Anand would categorize as “boring” or “banal.” Though Anand’s work is unrelated in scope –detailing instead the political (in)equalities distributed via water systems – his work accentuates “how infrastructures operate with multiple temporalities that distribute life and harm.”[11] Nevertheless, as Lana Jack and the affected Pacific Northwest tribes remind us, the archive too possesses – and controls – both validity and the lack thereof.

If, as explored above, the archival threshold is the node that controls its “flow of preservation,” then it may also be the point where infrastructural logics – and potentialities – intervene. To that end, an “infrastructural disposition” of the archive provides a lens through which the layers of the threshold may be respectively dissected and explored. According to Lisa Parks, an

“infrastructural disposition… approaches what is framed as a starting point for imagining and inferring other infrastructural parts or resources. [This subsequently] fosters infrastructural intelligibility – a process by which ordinary people use images, sounds, objects, observations, information, and technical experiences to imagine the existence, shape, or form of an extensive and dispersed media infrastructure that cannot be physically observed by one person in its entirety.”

Lisa Parks, “Stuff You Can Kick,” 359

As a media scholar and archivist (of sorts), this work is of particular use to my own work and archive(s) of interest. That said, infrastructural intelligibility productively lends itself to a multitude of practical and scholarly contexts alike. As a historically-grounded term, the archival threshold coveys a sense of disciplinary containment, preservation, and (one-way) flow. What might be gained by viewing this same term through the disposition described above? On a pragmatic level, the threshold becomes more empirically vulnerable than theory would have us believe: Costs rise and buildings fail; boards convene and deliberate; and records disperse despite their own custodial eminence.

Discursively, this approach realizes the archive as, to again borrow from Parks, an “extensive and dispersed” entity worthy of infrastructural theory and critique. As these introductory reflections have attempted to covey, the archival threshold may at once attain, secure, and embed; this multifunctionality in turn entangles the archive in an array of disciplines that critically foreground infrastructure itself. The digital humanities, social justice approaches (like Anand’s work on water), and theories of waste each lend themselves well to further archival exploration. While the digital humanities have taken up the archive in its own way (which has, in turn, been considered and debated by ‘traditional’ archivists), this discipline offers generative contemplations on digital sector and formats, interfaces, and issues of (racialized) access. Matters of (archival) waste are present in Nicole Starosielski’s recent work on thermocultures and geological media.[12] Though each avenue warrants further exploration than afforded here, the presence of the archive across such issues further underlines its applicability to infrastructural approaches.

This post is by no means meant to be an exhaustive tabulation of these avenues. The potential reach of the archive and infrastructural studies alike are vast, and such preliminary musings only enact further questions. What does a comprehensive infrastructural disposition of the archive entail? How do individual archives approach, enact, or circumvent the threshold in their own way? Does an infrastructural approach infer yet another branch of archival ‘transformation’ altogether? One question unfailingly leads to one after the other, leaving much to be desired and thus a further road ahead. I can only hope that this space serves as its own foundational nexus, gathering, curating, and authenticating such queries and connections discovered along the way.

[1] David Z. Bean, David Z. Bean to Russell T. Vought, Letter to OMB Acting Director Russell T. Vought, January 23, 2020. Letter. (accessed December 9, 2020).
[2] Erik Lacitis, “Despite Pleas, It Looks like National Archives in Seattle Still Set to Close.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Company, August 2, 2020.
[3] Knute Berger, “Closing Seattle’s National Archives Is a ‘Paper Genocide’ for Some Natives,” September 25, 2020.
[4] Erik Lacitis, “‘Terrible and disgusting’: Decision to close National Archives at Seattle a blow to tribes, historians in 4 states,” January 27, 2020.
[5] Carolyn Steedman, “The space of memory: in an archive” in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 70.
[6] Terry Cook, “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms,” Archival Science 13.2-3 (June 2012): 117
[7] Cook 116-117.
[8] Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 45.
[9] Lisa Parks, “Stuff You Can Kick: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures,” in Between Humanities and the Digital, ed. Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg, 359.
[10] Erik Lacitis, “‘Terrible and disgusting’: Decision to close National Archives at Seattle a blow to tribes, historians in 4 states,” January 27, 2020.
[11] Nikhil Anand, Cécile Stehrenberger, Allissa Richardson, Alexis Rider, and Michael Miller. 2020. “The Banality Of Infrastructure”. Items.
[12] Nicole Starosielski, “Thermocultures of Geological Media,” Cultural Politics 12 no. 3: 293-309.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s