2011-07-23 From the Metroon to #WikiLeaks: People, power and the archive #wlcat

What is an archive? What is its purpose? Has the kind of archive that has evolved in 20th and early 21st century Western civilisation remained consistent with the underlying principles of the contract struck between the people and the State in a democracy, whereby the State establishes the archive in part as a guarantee of its ability to carry out its actions in a fair and accountable way? WikiLeaks, embodying as it does a renegotiation of the boundaries of knowledge and power that exist between the citizenry and the State, has brought into sharp relief the unhelpful layers of bureaucracy and vested political interests that have blunted the power of the archive in society. Now, as technology permits us to sweep away many of the encumbrances of the paper based recordkeeping legacy, is it possible for the archive to reclaim its position at the heart of a healthy democracy?

The archive in the Greek city-state of Athens in about 400 BC was located in the Metroon, a temple situated by the courthouse in the centre of the city. This archive housed the law, contracts, diplomatic records, court proceedings, and other records – even archiving the day’s art forms such as the plays of Sophocles and others. These were the raw materials of the first democracy, and they were open to any private citizen to access and make copies. The archive was watched over by the magistrate, or ‘archon’, hence our word ‘archive’. This indicates the extent to which the archive related directly to the law; the archive was the law, it provided the foundation from which power in society was wielded. And the people (of the right class and education) could access records from this trusted repository without intermediaries, either physical or administrative, to understand for themselves how their government was operating.

ImageIn his seminal work Archive Fever (1996), French philosopher Jacques Derrida references the role of the archon in his exploration of the role and purpose of the archive, arguing that it is through control of the archive that political power is exerted. His argument is, in part, that “Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” The centrality of the archive to the use and abuse of power has been well illustrated in the meticulous record keeping practices of repressive regimes from the East German Stasi to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Once the regime falls, the archives are opened and become a powerful resource for those who have suffered injustices to seek redress or simply to understand.

However despite this understanding of the vital importance of the archive to a just and well managed society, it could be argued that public archives today have failed to uphold the qualities which put the Metroon at the very heart of Athenian life. A variety of factors including the massive quantities of paper based records generated from the second half of the twentieth century, a lack of adequate technologies to identify and capture records of significance, a separation of the record keeping process and the archive, and laws and practices favouring secrecy have left government archives too often as the passive recipients of records that are long removed from the business to which they relate, impotent and relegated to the category of historical curios.

By contrast, WikiLeaks shows us how an archive can be formed and pluralised directly from the affairs the records document and thus serve a powerful purpose in society. Take, for example, a WikiLeaks archive such as the United States diplomatic cables, and compare it with a typical records release by a government archive, the National Archives of Australia’s 1980 Cabinet papers release. These records were released on January 1, 2011 under the normal ’30 year rule’ which is the default position for opening public records up for general public access in many Western jurisdictions (recently amended by law to 20 years for Federal Government records in Australia under the Commonwealth Archives Act 1983). January 1 is usually a slow news day, so the Cabinet papers provided a useful filler for the media, with folksy and nostalgic stories from the political machinations of 1980. By contrast, just over one month earlier, on November 28, 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing over 250,000 United States embassy cables. The documents give the world an unprecedented insight into the US government’s foreign policy and actions in almost every corner of the globe. Significant flow on effects from the cable releases have been felt in the Arab world, in post tsunami Japan and in South East Asia, giving people the information they had been lacking to understand and address administrative and political wrongs.

An archive, as understood by the Greeks, is a tangible and irrevocable symbol of the fragile bonds of trust between the powerful and the weak. In a society in which the role of the archive is marginalised or in which malign political influence is exerted on its formation, that trust is broken. Archives which do not capture and provide ready access to the records that form our laws, our rights and our memory are not fulfilling their purpose. WikiLeaks has shown us how it could be; where using technology we are able to draw out and exclude that information which must be kept secret to protect the privacy of the vulnerable, while the vast majority of records of the acts, agreements and events which are actually occurring in our society are made part of the people’s archive and are widely disseminated to the people directly from their participation in those acts. This should be the new (from the old) model for our archives.

Encouragingly, projects like the Committee to Document the 25th January Revolution in Egypt, set up by the Egyptian National Archives, have understood the need for more contemporary and relevant archives. This project is about gathering as much primary evidence about the revolution as possible for deposit in the archives and release online – including official records, insurrectionary pamphlets, multimedia footage, Facebook and Twitter content. Importantly, there is an understanding from the start that all material should be publicly accessible to anyone on the Internet. It is a significant step in the Egyptian transition to a freer and more civilised society, and away from the abuses of the dictatorship. The power balance between people and State being redressed. The historian in charge of the project, Khaled Fahmy, has indeed spoken of the project in a manner which evokes Derrida’s thesis, saying ""The question of access to information and archives is political, because reading history is interpreting history, and interpreting history is one way of making it. Closing people off from the sources of their own history is an inherently political gesture, and equally opening that up is a political – even revolutionary – act."

WikiLeaks opens governments. This was the role of the Athenian archive, the Metroon. It should be the role of the contemporary archive; not to serve as a gatekeeper waiting for decades before making the raw materials of history available to us in piecemeal form, but rather as the trusted guardian and provider of timely, useable evidence, the use of which will allow us to steer an honest course for our society.


  • The Australian, 1980 Cabinet papers release, 1 January 2011 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/cabinet-papers/cabinet-papers-1980
  • Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian impression, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.
  • Harris, Verne ‘Archons, aliens and angels: power and politics in the archive’ in Hill (ed.), The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A reader, Facet Publishing, London, 2011.
  • McKemmish, Piggott, Reed and Upward (ed.s), Archives: Recordkeeping in society, Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, 2005.
  • Mitchell, Greg The Age of Wikileaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and beyond), Sinclair Books, New York, 2011.
  • Shenker, Jack ‘The struggle to document Egypt’s revolution’, guardian.co.uk 15 July 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/15/struggle-to-document-egypt-r...

For previous coverage, please see Archive Fever: A Crowd-Sourced Investigation into Library Catalogue Classification of Wikileaks as an "Extremist Web Site"

Khaled Fahmy

Hi all
Just a quick note to rectify an error in the above. The link to a Twitter account for Khaled Fahmy is not the right Khaled Fahmy (although he looks like a very interesting guy). The actual Khaled Fahmy, Professor of History and Chair of the Department of the American University in Cairo University, isn't on Twitter.
Here's an excerpt from an excellent article & interview with the *real* Khaled Fahmy in which he talks about his work:
"Khaled Fahmy, chair of the American University in Cairo's history department, heads the group, called the Committee to Document the 25th of January Revolution. By making all the materials available online, he and his collaborators also hope to offer a new model of an official historical archive, one that emphasizes public access rather than government control."

Nice essay Cass, here is my opinion.

The very existence of archives is implicit recognition of the human tendency to abuse power. What has amazed many is the parallel tendency of all power structures to maintain archives. In fact there appears a one hundred percent correlation between the repressiveness of regimes and the amount of detail in their archives. It would seem that greater effort at control and repression requires some greater historical justification. Also, since the most horrific attempts at governance have been dogmatic in nature, this also reflects obsessive compulsive disorders on a group or nation scale.

Archives may be important to provide historical perspective, however, they suffer from two fatal flaws.
-As the author alluded, they are subject to ‘selective release’, and therefore only reflect the bias of that authority releasing.
-Archives also suffer from hindsight. This is a very human flaw. The American Civil War is still fresh in the minds of many after one hundred and fifty years. Slavery is still a psychic wound in the minds of some Black Americans (The term “African American” demonstrates how fresh, and how important). In the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in South Africa, and the Middle East, the tribal memories are much longer. While some of these ‘archives’ may exist only as a story telling tradition, they are none the less powerful. In search of reference points humans inevitable turn to past experience. Since we recognize the imperfection of memory, we often turn to archival material without admitting that it may be just as imperfect.
Perhaps reliance on archival material dooms us to repeat the mistakes of the past. Certainly, there is no evidence to suggest that archives have prevented repetition. We appear to be stuck in some cosmic ‘Do Loop’, and the existence of archives is a conservative rather than a progressive aspect. Archives are often aplauded as evidentiary materials to support retribution for excesses.

Thus the twin pillars of Archivist records; justification and retribution, are a sum negative for the effort expended. Humans need to develop a more forward looking and less punitive mindset. We may be capable of this. The South African, “Truth and reconciliation commissions” may be a first step in our evolution.

In praise of WikiLeaks, they may have an agenda, but their function is expository rather than punative and justificatory. The internet era has reduced the grip of secrecy on our civilization. Now we just need to learn logic to sort fact from fiction.

Archives and power

I agree with you Paul that there is a connection between archives and power, but having seen many detailed archives of 'good' organizations (medical records, housing records, archives of architects and engineers) I disagree that that is by definition a bad thing. In my opinion secret archives is the scary one and then the scary part comes from the secrecy.

And don't forget: there also exist very violent movements without any archive at all (wars in Rwanda, gangs in the USA)

Archives and power

Thanks for the comment - and raising some really important and interesting points. I agree with pretty much all of them. Decisions about what to keep in - and what to release from - an archive are made in the context of the politics and interests of the day, not always benign. And if recordkeeping is used a tool of abuse, does the fact that those records can then give victims power later make it all ok?

As you mention, the expository nature of the WikiLeaks archives is part of what makes them so interesting as an alternative. Instead of the appraisal and access frameworks taking many interests into account that archivists use, they have a single, simple criterion; a promise to the whistleblower. Arguably this is the purest form of archive that you can create.

If you are interested in this stuff and in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, read Verne Harris. In his article cited above he quotes the words of Mandela when he opened the South African Centre for Memory and Dialogue: "We want it to dedicate itself to the recovery of memories and stories suppressed by power. That is the call of justice."

@ CassPF Love your article &

@ CassPF Love your article & will definitely read Verne Harris. So glad there are more archives professionals that support Wikileaks (it IS a bit of a daring thing to do!)!!

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