Introduction: archives and radical education.

Author:Dittmar, Linda


Though Alain Resnais' documentary film about the French National Library, All the World's Memory (Toute la Memoir du Monde), is meant to celebrate the library's scope and organization, anxiety seeps into its cinematic "language": dim black-and-white footage, a restlessly prowling camera, close-ups that cut off object from context and detail from whole, discontinuous cuts, choppy bullet-like comments, and darkly foreboding orchestral music. It's a beautiful film, but what does it say about Resnais' feelings about the library? Certainly awe, but also high modernism's anxiety about proliferating knowledge. "Man," the authoritative male voice-over proclaims, "fears being engulfed by this mass of words."

In Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel"--a surreal fiction rather than documentary--anxiety gives way to despair, where the profusion of knowledge overwhelms those who search for it. For all its discomfort, Resnais' film has confidence in order (and the labor that goes into it) as key to retrieval, while in Borges' library even its highly regulated architecture bewilders those who traverse it. Its books are stored in an "indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries," each connected to its immediate neighbors in a mazelike array of unknown options. As more and more seekers set out to find the "books of Vindication" that will justify all actions for all times, as they believe, a mad stampede for the texts that offer that salvation ensues.

A 20th-century anxiety about the quantity and use of available knowledge haunts these accounts. Resnais' library is being dug ever deeper into the ground and built ever higher toward the sky to accommodate the multiplying "mass of words" that is "engulfing" it. Borges' hexagonal containers extend beyond anyone's ability to chart; like its namesake, the tower of Babel, the library's seemingly rational arrangement becomes the site of chaos.


In a sense, these dark accounts are not so much about libraries as they are about the human brain, with its "hexagons" and neurons working hard to navigate everything from putting one foot in front of another to responding to a world crisis. For libraries and archives, though, the situation is changing now that we are entering a digital age, albeit in ways that we cannot yet predict. While available knowledge is multiplying many times over, so are systems of storage and retrieval. Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, and Wikileaks are well known but hardly the only examples of this turn-around. The capacity to digitize and disseminate has grown exponentially, creating different staffing and budget challenges but also raising questions of ownership and access, participation and exclusion, reliability, oversight and censorship.

These are old questions, though they may require new responses from researchers and educators, including radicals. While this means that there are struggles ahead, the articles submitted to this special issue of Radical Teacher reflect optimism regarding a radical practice of teaching with archives. There's the verve of discovery here, of energy about re-appropriating conventional archives, accessing marginal knowledge, and expanding the definition of "archive." In her contribution, Ellen Schrecker reminds us of the usefulness of mainstream archives (e.g. FBI files and the Hoover Institute) for radical research. Her sobering caution concerns funding--a cause for concern for small alternative archives and radical ones in particular. Other contributors also discuss archives that consist of paper and other tangible objects, though their holdings are of more direct use to radicals: the Peace Archive at Haverford College, Asian-American zines, Interference Archive's social movement collection, the Lesbian Herstory Archive in Brooklyn, oral histories of the India/Pakistan Partition, and iLand's collection of performative movement "scores."

Many other archives could have been included in this cluster, from archived African American history to the New England Textile Museum or Argentina's Mothers of Plaza del Mayo. These and many others register the need to preserve and...

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