I’ve been meaning for a while to blog about Passages, which is a web-based revival of a publication started and maintained by my graduate advisor, David William Cohen. I helped put together one of the original issues in the early 1990s, so it’s a welcome sight for that reason alone.

The interesting thing about Passages was that it showed how much compelling “found material” was out there about Africa and the African diaspora just waiting to be drawn into a single location. My advisor was and remains a master at devising ways to magnetically redirect hidden or unremarked upon flows of documents, statements and materials into general visibility, to make apparent a transnational but also African public sphere that hums along unmarked and unnoticed in other global centers. I remember in particular how amazing the results were when he circulated a call for applications to an African Humanities Center at Northwestern. The call was printed in a unique format and mailed to many academic institutions in Africa; what came back in many cases were challenging, absorbing descriptions of quietly unpublished, ongoing work from intellectuals and scholars who had been patiently pursuing their inquiries despite a near-total lack of support from their own universities and often in difficult economic and political circumstances. The journal Transition, once published by Duke University Press and now (I think: the Nov. 2004 issue is still listed as “coming”) by Soft Skull Press, has often accomplished the same purpose, collecting surprising or idiosyncratic material from across the Africa diaspora.

In a way, Passages reminds me of my frustrations with blogging and the web, especially with sites like Slashdot or Boing Boing. Boing Boing’s main flaw is the speed of its information flow; Boing Boing’s strength is the speed of its information flow. The flawed side of that is visible as an amnesia. You can find old Boing Boing entries with the site’s own search function, or when you’re Googling something, but there really isn’t any kind of meaningfully useable archival character to Boing Boing, no accumulation of knowledge from the stream of information. (You can tell just how amnesiac Boing Boing is by the fact that the contributors sometimes link to something that one of them linked to a year or more ago.)

The late historian Raphael Samuel’s, 1994 work Theatres of Memory had a huge impact on me (and very much echoed the consistent methodological guidance that David Cohen offered to me). Samuel reinforced my sense that various kinds of documentary ephemera and flows of cultural production were a crucial kind of historical evidence overlooked by scholars, information that the conventional nature of most archives excluded from view. That’s one of the amazing revelations of the post-web world for historians: a lot of ephemera is suddenly exposed to view, if inconsistently and whimsically. You can spend an afternoon just compiling bits and pieces of material culture for sale on eBay that would have been all but impossible to find in museums or archives before 1990, no matter how intellectually useful such items might have been.

Passages in its early 1990s incarnation almost feels to me like a prescient look ahead at what might be possible in an online world. The sad thing to me is that it’s still a potential largely uncaptured. Group blogs are great, but I wish there were also group depositories for historians or area specialists, scholarly Boing Boings with a more thought out scheme for laying down new deposits of information in some archival structure that encourages ready recall of information. You wouldn’t expect them to be fast-paced, or even the kind of thing that people read regularly the way we read blogs. Just that when you came across a letter or document or picture or comic strip or bit of material culture or other ephemera that you recognized as having an interesting character, you’d go ahead and deposit it. Not as a systematic archive, but more along the lines of Boing Boing’s declared purpose, a “directory of wonderful things”.

I know that there would be copyright issues. For example, there’s a letter I typed verbatim into my database when I was working in the National Archives of Zimbabwe. I’ve occasionally shared it with students because it’s an extraordinarily complex and ambivalent document. I’d love to just put it somewhere online that was maintained as a repository. The letter is well over 60 years old. But doing so unilaterally would collide the rights of that archive with the desire of scholars to draw from it. I wouldn’t want to do that without thinking the consequences through very carefully. Martin Duberman has a remarkable essay called “‘Writhing Bedfellows’ in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence” (available in the 1989 anthology Hidden From History) that I recommend to anyone who wants to think about the intrinsic trickiness of relationships between archives and scholars, and of the importance of working through that intricacy with great care.

In any event, the new Passages comes close to doing or being the kind of thing I’d like to see: an organized depository of found primary or evidentiary material of interest to scholars. Alongside our blogging and carnivals, I’d like to see many more such projects flourish as we grow into the online environment.

crossposted at Cliopatria

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7 Responses to Passages

  1. I’m not an academic. What would an achival system look like?

    Would a tags system like the one at LiveJournal be a good start? LJ just applies the tags across each journal, I think–I’m imagining tags for a whole archive. Even if there’s no overarching structure, it would help.

  2. A. G. says:


    I googled Gaurav Desai, and noted he is at Tulane. Is he okay? I have written the editors and asked more about a submission. This is very interesting to me. As an Africa outsider, I see Africa as a seriously understudied area, and hope to learn more about this vast and complex topic.

  3. Soft Skull says:

    Yeah, sorry about that delays with TRANSITION. The magazine’s funding has been cut, so the editorial staff is far far smaller than before. So they’re having a tough time keeping up. Soon as editorial has us the material, we’ll get it out ASAP, and eventually get back on schedule…

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    AG: don’t know about Gaurav’s situation right now–I’ve got an email out to a friend asking about a number of folks.


    I think a tags system or some kind of metadata system is one part of archiving a depository of this kind successfully. The second thing that’s important is the top-level page: something that gives a person who is just browsing around a sense of what’s in the depository as a whole so they know what they’re likely to find and not find there. The third thing is the easiest: a flexible search tool.

    Also some kind of administrative oversight that stays on top of platform migration when and if that becomes necessary: a depository that isn’t maintained tends to become a dumping ground full of weeds.

  5. “You can tell just how amnesiac Boing Boing is by the fact that the contributors sometimes link to something that one of them linked to a year or more ago.”

    You know, I would have said this shows that BB’s four editors are sometimes “absent-minded” or even “forgetful.” But “amnesiac” sounds much more serious.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually, I don’t think it’s a problem, or a criticism. I just think it’s the nature of the beast. Lots of the web is like that. Almost all blogs I know are like that: they don’t have a structure that encourages memory among their readers. A Boing Boing editor isn’t being forgetful in any ordinary way when he links to something already linked: think of how much content they plow through. I don’t know that anyone could remember it all.

  7. ben wolfson says:

    Metafilter has a pretty good system for avoiding duplicates: if you post something that’s already been posted, it’s practically inevitable that someone will point that out (often within, say, ten minutes).

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