Archives

Document based and archival research has been quietly undergoing a wholly remarkable change over the last decade. Once largely set aside in human geography as a means to an end, documents and archives are no longer seen simply as a goldmine for the extraction of select elements and valuable information, or as the source of data about some other interesting phenomenon (a person, place, or event, popular iconography, a growth sector, or a government project). Increasingly, they are seen as fascinating artifacts in themselves. Following on the work of Kenneth Foote, Joan Schwartz, Gillian Rose, and Charles Withers, one now finds geographers writing about photograph collections, departmental archives, military archives, imperial archives, postcolonial archives, local history archives, weather records, and even ice cores as nature’s own ‘archive’ of environmental change. In each case, the collections of material that earlier generations of geographers referenced in their footnotes as sources for their data have, instead, become one of the central objects of interest, a dynamic site where knowledge and power have been and continue to be negotiated.

The following pages first sketch several reasons for this development. Among them is the fact that ‘the archive’ holds a provocative position through its links to influential notions of discourse and to responses of dissatisfaction with discourse analysis in geography. These explanations fold into a sketch of some work that geographers are beginning to draw from in their reconceptualization of the document as a cultural artifact. This, in turn, feeds into an outline of some major theoretical works that inform geographers’ interest in archives as curious subjects of study in themselves, a growing interest that might be called (with some trepidation) ‘archive fever’. As a caveat, the article does not offer a categorical survey or any broad toolkit of techniques that can be used for archival or document based research on a range of geographical topics. Rather, it offers a brief diagnosis of the archive fever that appears to be slowly spreading among geographers.

Documents of a Material Culture

Archive Fever?