Reading Workshop Review

Opening Workshop: Questions of Location, Ownership and Interpretation (University of Reading, June 7th and 8th, 2012)

In referring to literary archives today, we use the word “diasporic” in a number of different ways. Archives would not only preserve authors’ papers that are geographically scattered due to a variety of reasons, but also have to deal themselves with all the problems, interests, forces (often of different kinds and origins) such a literary diaspora entails. A situation as complex and multi-faceted as this can only be faced by co-operatively deploying different kinds of expertise across a range of different subject areas.

The initial meeting of the participants in the Diasporic Literary Archives project marked the first step towards consolidating such a network. In addition to representatives of the six partner institutions, it brought together a very large team of high-profile international experts and professional figures concerned with issues related to literary archives: authors, scholars, librarians, publishers, archivists, literary agents, and representatives of private, public and publishers’ archives, and of relevant bodies and institutions. The assembly of all these different voices provided an opportunity to compare their perspectives. This vast sharing of ideas, working procedures, advice and professional contacts made it possible to explore the foundational guidelines of the project, to identify its key questions and points and to begin outlining action plans and finding solutions to problems.

Some key points have emerged from two days of discussion covering a wide variety of topics: beginning, for instance, with the very question of what archives are, how they should be managed and what their goals might be. In answering this, librarians, archivists and scholars emphasised the interplay between on the one hand the basic mission of an archive to collect, preserve, catalogue, present and make accessible important historical and literary material, and on the other hand the actual working procedures to adopt when dealing with such materials (the guidelines in the UNESCO Universal Declaration of Archives was indicated as a possible model).  Some speakers focused in particular on the value of keeping an archive’s papers together in one place: and the next seminar, to be held in Pavia in February 2013, will explore precisely this theme of split collections, whereas that in Trinidad and Tobago in March 2014 will deal with the politics of location and its consequences. Given the global nature of the network and of the challenges it aims to face, a good deal of attention has also been drawn to the situation of those archives caught up in problems of a material and political nature, such as Grenada’s not having at the moment an accessible building for its archive, or the difficulties faced by Trinidad and Namibia in attracting the attention of policy makers and grants.

Another major area of discussion concerned copyright, ownership and permission, as well as the issue of the commercial value of archives and their links with the publishing industry. Scholars, publishing houses, literary agents and archivists shared their views and experiences on these slippery topics (sometimes characterised by laws and information not always clear, and often varying from country to country) which come into play at every moment of an archive’s life: from its setting up and its internal organisation, to its accessibility and the ways it is used, to the means by which the information it holds may be shared with the scholarly community and the whole world. In addition to this, working with archives also entails delicate ethical issues: the border between law and ethics may sometimes be quite subtle. Such aspects can have a tremendous impact on current and future scholarship: they will thus be carefully and systematically discussed during the workshop at IMEC in May 2013.

Throughout both days, “digitisation” made its presence felt. It is, in fact, increasingly changing the way archives are shaped, perceived and used, and is an issue that is attracting growing academic attention. Digitisation can help archives to pursue their mission, by offering improved means of preservation, as well as wider and easier accessibility. And it is interesting that what emerged from the discussion was that the problems connected both with the digitisation of pre-existing archives and with archives born digitally are mostly of a “traditional” archival nature, rather than specifically digital: they relate to copyright, ownership, access, permission, internal organisation, etc. Problems of a purely digital kind would relate more to issues of authenticity, as well as to such challenges as how to treat digital materials like emails and computer files. The workshop to be held in September 2014 at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library will be devoted specifically to digitisation.

The various themes discussed in the sessions over two days consistently informed the outlining of the network’s plan for future action, which was one of the main goals of the meeting. In addition to determining the structures of the next workshops, the partners agreed to work together for the development of the Diasporic Collections Directory, and to establish contacts with other relevant organisations involved in the field. This will also serve to promote the network at events and conferences, in journals and on websites. Another item on the agenda for the future will be to sensitise authors to the importance of archives as being precisely the places where their literary manuscripts can be preserved and therefore become part of the world’s cultural heritage. Moreover, it was emphasised how important it was to arrange concrete help for those countries experiencing difficulties in keeping and managing their archives, also by enlisting the cooperation of UNESCO.

Stefano Bragato, Department of Modern Languages & European Studies, The University of Reading

Diasporic Literary Archives Presentation

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