How will our stories be found and our lives remembered in the future? And how might our stories connect with those who’ve gone before? Naomi Wells invites Latin Americans in the UK to explore these questions through the physical and online collections of the British Library as part of Being Human, the School of Advanced Study’s annual nine-day celebration of UK humanities research. Here she explains how the ‘Who tells your story? Latin America at the British Library‘ workshop will encourage participants and researchers to share their own objects and materials such as songs, websites or books, as they explore what they would like remembered and what they may want to be lost or forgotten.  

Thinking about how our own lives and stories will be documented and remembered in the future can be hard to imagine or predict, especially when we consider how many of the records of our lives exist only in the digital realm. While our image of an archive is often of physical objects such as diaries and letters, many of us have now replaced these with email, social media, blogs and apps.

In this sense, internet archives such as the UK Web Archive, which preserves websites for the future, are becoming increasingly vital resources for documenting and consequently studying the 21st century. However, as Stuart Hall reminds us, the act of constituting an archive is a critical moment in which a seemingly random collection of items becomes something intended as an object of reflection, study and debate (2001, Constituting an archive, Third Text, 15:54). In this sense, archiving should be a reflexive activity, which demands we pay critical attention to whose voices are included not only within the archive but also in shaping and determining the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.

While archiving can and often has taken place in what Hall describes as ‘a closed community of taste and authority beyond the reach of ordinary mortals’ (2001: 91), reflecting on how our own contemporary records and objects may be preserved for the future provides an opportunity to rethink archives in more participatory and inclusive ways. This is the focus of our Being Human festival workshop, which invites Latin Americans in the UK to explore these questions through the physical and digital collections of the British Library. Being Human runs from 17 to 25 November (see the full UK programme of events online).  

The workshop will ask how we can shape archives and collections and use them to discover and tell our own individual and collective histories. Curators will present unique examples of physical items from the Library’s Latin American Collections alongside ‘born-digital’ archival material from the UK Web Archive in order to reflect on the changing shape of archives and collections, and also ask whether we place the same value on our digital records as on the physical archives of the past.

At the same time, participants are invited to bring and share their own physical and digital materials of personal significance, such as diaries, music recordings, community websites or personal blogs, to explore what they would like preserved, and perhaps also forgotten, of their own histories.

The participatory and collaborative workshop intends to ask critical questions about what we understand an archive to be and also how we would like an archive of our own individual and collective experiences to look. Together, we will produce an online record of the day with images and recordings of some of the objects and stories shared, which can itself be digitally preserved for the future as an active intervention into the archive.

More specifically, the workshop will directly inform the development and content of a Special Collection in the UK Web Archive of websites relating to Latin American communities in the UK. This is part of a wider project to highlight the linguistically and culturally diverse content of the UK Web Archive and to ensure that, as for any other form of national archive, it includes and represents communities historically marginalised from national narratives and institutions.

By seeking to actively engage community members in determining what should be preserved and why, the workshop will ensure multiple voices and perspectives are involved in shaping the content of this collection. A collection which in turn will highlight, within the UK Web Archive, the heterogeneity and multiplicity of discourses which, as Hall said, would ‘make the archive live’.

Dr Naomi Wells is a postdoctoral research associate in translingual communities and digital humanities in the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study. She is a researcher on the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Communities project, which is funded under the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative. Working with key partners such as the British Library, her research for the project focuses on technology-driven forms of communication and representation, concentrating on digital media generated by language communities in the UK. 

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