Archival Futures: The Archive as a Place and the Place of the Archive

July 16, 2021   •   By Sarath Pillai

ONE CERTAINTY THAT has always guided historians is the possibility of traveling to work in an archive. The time and costs involved in such research trips set the timelines of their research projects. But, confronted with an unprecedented pandemic, can we still stick to the old certainties that such research trips are central to what we write and teach? In an increasingly uncertain and digitizing world, where the relationship between past, present, and future thins out, it is time to rethink the relationship between historical writing and the archive. Specifically, the notion of the archive as a place requires revision.

According to Jacques Derrida, in his 1995 essay “Archive Fever,” the meaning of “archive,” “its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who command.” The archive is thus both a place (office or building) and the records it houses. To quote Derrida further: “It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place.” Put differently, it is the housing, the literal place of the archive, that gives it legitimacy, as much as the records themselves.

Archival research is an emotional topic for historians: the nostalgia for cramped reading rooms and dusty files, the excitement about discovering new towns and neighborhoods. While historians may differ over what constitutes an archive, they are unanimous on the indispensability of archival research. But there is little to no debate on how much archival research is sufficient for a project. Researchers limit their archival work on the bases of time, resources, and access, and these opportunity costs generally help to decide how much research is “enough.”

Yet in our pandemic present, none of the usual metrics hold true. The resources available for archival research have been scaled back, and researchers face travel limitations and social distancing requirements that hinder access. Many archives have simply closed for the duration. Moreover, even when they reopen (if they all do), it is hard to imagine that we will simply return to the old normal, as if COVID-19 had been just a bad dream, one that will never trouble us again.

The present crisis has already reconstituted our future in enduring ways. For one thing, few will be able to jet off to another continent on an archival trip for months on end without a nagging sense that their stay could be unexpectedly abbreviated.


For historians, archives provide evidence to support their arguments, but such evidence could be digital. As Ian Milligan argues in his 2019 book, History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web Is Transforming Historical Research, anyone working on recent history — i.e., since the mid-1990s — will be disadvantaged if they do not use internet archives. But Milligan’s insights are also applicable to more conventional archives, which are increasingly moving into the digital realm. Such digitization fundamentally upsets the Derridean idea of “no archive without residence/place.”

Paywall restrictions on digital databases, such as British Online Archives, have replicated the kind of surveillance that occurs in a physical archive by vetting those who access the databases and tracking what each user does on the platform. But this is quite different from saying that these archives constitute a place; rather, what we access online is a non-place — a displaced or misplaced archive. Moreover, such restrictions show that digitization is unlikely to make archives more egalitarian: it still takes resources to access the expensive databases that “house” these archives. Yet digital archives question the very idea of what an archive is, moving us increasingly toward a world of research that is more decentered and deregulated.

The wide availability of digital archives requires us to rethink old notions about what makes for “enough” research. When drafting timelines for research projects, historians usually list only the time it takes to travel to archives and peruse them on site; little to no mention is made of the time it takes to consult an online archive. Moreover, research grants still privilege site-specific work. Clearly, delinking archives from place cannot be meaningful without corollary changes in the research culture of universities.

Such changes include teaching students the tools of online research, preparing them for the possibility of fully digital research projects and helping them use the time and resources freed up from travel to gain further skills. These might range from doing an exchange with a foreign university, to studying for a cohesive one-year degree within the PhD, to acquiring new quantitative or linguistic skills.

There will always be a certain romanticism about old-style archival research, which is why eager scholars stand in line on wintry mornings to get into the British Library. But there is no time like the present to rethink the archive as a place, and to reject the false binary of close reading versus distant reading. In reality, the tools of digital (or distant) reading allow us to scan texts far more closely — and clearly — than if we were trying to read a delicate parchment held in our hands. And finally, if we are unwilling to rethink the question of what constitutes enough archival research, we might be compelled to do so again in the future, under terms and conditions not of our making.


Sarath Pillai is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Chicago. He holds a MSL from Yale Law School and a post-graduate diploma in archives management from the National Archives of India, Delhi. His writings have appeared in various publications, including Law and History Review, Archives and Records, Economic and Political Weekly, The Book Review,, and The Diplomat.


Featured image: "TSLAC Behind the Scenes: THF Tours the Texas State Archives 1.17.14" by Texas State Library and Archives Commission is licensed under CC BY 2.0.