Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The mysterious case of the disappearing archive

The course of my current project has taken me to the workings of the Land Tenure Center at the University of Wisconsin, the Workshop on Political Economy at the University of Indiana, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, three para-academic institutes that began, after 1946, commissioning research reports and evaluations from academics, graduate students, and their affiliates embedded in peasant movements across Latin America, southeast Asia, and Africa. Framed within a logic of postcolonial independence from fascism and economic development, the research initiatives were designed to institute a network of communally and cooperatively-run farms, distributors, and research centers that would foster peasant independence and indigenous political movements. Grounded in the late nineteenth-century radical critique of property law as a social construction, these research centers aimed to develop global knowledge of communal, cooperative, state-subsidized, or other alternative forms of community organization.

These centers from the beginning were designed as information clear-houses, as paper machines designed to collect research towards the transformation of global political economy. Their designers leaned heavily on the promise of information and the modern university to transform society, dreaming that through the proliferation of information, they could foster political independence and cooperation on a global scale -- by making knowledge of Spanish and English property law available, by talking about Roman and Irish tenant revolts available to contemporary peasant movements, and by keeping Latin American peasants apprised of Gandhian economic theory. The result was the collection of hundreds of standing steel vertical files, each of them filled with hundreds of folders and hundreds of articles, reports, case studies, and field notes, documenting the workings of an international utopian movement for the reform of property law, designed to give control over territory to the people living there.

In April, I went to Wisconsin to attend the 50-year reunion of the Land Tenure Center and revisit its archive. There, I enthused about the paper machines to the Center's 60- and 70-year-old alumni, now consultants at the World Bank, some of whom began to talk about other archives with me. In the emails that followed, I heard a tale of disappearing archives -- of conservative political administrations' attempts to downsize the archives at the United Nations, about the jettisoning of thousands of unique case-studies documenting land reformers' work with peasants and cooperatives in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1980s, as US State-department land reform activity fell under critique by Jesse Helms-era Republicans in the Congress, the FAO archive was ordered downsized, and much of the "grey literature" -- published nowhere in official journals -- was reclassed as "insignificant material" fit for downsizing. I immediately contacted the current librarian at the FAO in Rome and asked if I could schedule a preliminary visit to the archive. She told me to hurry, for the archive was again scheduled for downsizing, and the remaining grey literature was on its way out.

It needs some preservation unit of guerilla librarians who could snatch this precious archive from the moment of destruction. We'd all like to think that the era of digital preservation is a moment of cheap digitization, where precious archives can be not only preserved but also disseminated to possible readers. But there are unforeseen complications with modern archive, particularly copyright. I've spoken to the University of Wisconsin librarians about the possibility of preserving their library -- now housed in the upper floor of a periodical library on the edge of the humanities campus, rarely visited, never updated. They have a digital infrastructure in place. Could it be scanned? They worry over ownership of the material. Much of what's in the vertical files was published elsewhere, in unofficial newsletters and journals around the globe. It's all post-1930, and the copyright belongs with the author or the journal. It'd be another entire labor to secure free copyright for all the material, and the library doesn't imagine being able to do it.

There are alternative courses of preservation too. Another course of action would be to privately scan and preserve the archive for university-campus-use only. Still another course of action would be to scan everything and gradually secure open copyrights from the authors and their estates. At the University of Indiana, Elinor Ostrom's staff wrote grants and did just that, and the result is their online Digital Library of the Commons, thousands of articles and grey literature reports preserved and made available for the public. It can be done, if only there were institutional will to preserve the papers.

I'll be in Rome in two weeks, and I hope to learn more about the fate of the FAO archive then.


Blogger Ryan Shaw said...

While the downsizing and defunding of archives is certainly a concern, deaccessioning is a normal part of archival practice. Archives are valuable precisely because they don't attempt to preserve everything.

4:14 PM  

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