By:The Archives of Global History in a time of international immobility- IHR Partnership Seminar:Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi (@honarmand_sara) and Ismay Milford (@IsmayMilford), with the input of co-convenors Bengü Aydın Dikmen, Nilina Deb Lal, Merve Fejzula, and Mohamed Yehia.

Jennifer O’Donnell, Archive Folders, 2012, watercolour

We first began discussing plans and bringing together convenors for our IHR Partnership Seminar Series in August 2020. At the time, we wondered if the questions that had prompted the series would still seem relevant once seminars were underway. Reflecting now, that is, almost halfway through the series, there is no doubt that they are. In a basic sense, this is because the series was a response to the global coronavirus pandemic, which, it is now alarmingly clear, is not just a 2020 phenomenon. More importantly (as we were beginning to realise then) the issues that the pandemic had prompted us to think about were actually urgent questions for our discipline and our work as historians. Ultimately, these questions were about what it means to research Global History in a deeply unequal world. As we discussed when planning the seminars, being unable to travel internationally was a reality for many researchers and citizens long before the pandemic, and would continue to be in its aftermath.

While there is no shortage of scholarly publications about Global History as a field or perspective, there is much less discussion about its archival politics, specifically how its practitioners reflect on the archives they use. Our hope for the seminar series was (and is) to provide both a practical forum to exchange ideas about new archival practices in light of the pandemic and a space for thinking creatively about conceptual questions regarding ‘disconnection’ that currently animate the field of Global History. The first three sessions in the series have confirmed that the context of the pandemic does indeed add new dimensions and urgency to these issues. Each session has taken the form of an informal roundtable-style discussion, chaired by one of the series convenors.

The first session brought together four scholars based in the US, Austria, the UK, and Nigeria: Kate Brown, Katherine Oke, G. A. Bremner, and Felix Ajiola. Each with a different relationship with the field of Global History (or with a different approach to Global History), they reflected on the guiding question, ‘Where are the archives of Global History?’ The discussion not only highlighted the uneven distribution and access to the archives, but also underlined some of the limitations of digitalisation. For example, Brown and Bremner referred to their own experiences of conducting field work and the importance of visiting a place where something happened or a building. In fact, it is not only the uneven distribution of materials that can lead to marginalisation of voices, but also certain approaches to digitalisation. Collaboration and organisation of similar forums were suggested as some of the ways forward.

The second roundtable, Digitisation and Democratisation, invited four speakers from across the disciplines, notably from cultural studies, and with professional experience beyond academia, notably in archival management and outreach, librarianship, and curation: Daniela Agostinho, Melodee Beals, Alex Miskin Simple, and Rustin Zarkar. Researchers and institutions alike have become quickly aware of the value of online source collections – especially those that are free for public use – in light of pandemic-related travel bans and archive closures. However, as well as celebrating innovative digital archive projects, like Scissors and Paste, or Ajam Media’s Mehele, our discussion demonstrated why digitisation needs to be approached with caution. Colonial power dynamics implicated in the creation of paper archives are easily reproduced in the process of digitisation, sometimes releasing material obtained violently and without consent into the public sphere. Public engagement and critical approaches to categorising data are key to a progressive archival politics, but both require resources that not all archives can access. Out approach to digitisation, as one audience member hinted, has consequences in the machine world too.

Suez Canal

The third session, Indigenous Mobilities, took the discussion of archival practices into the specific context of Indigenous communities living under settler colonialism, particularly in North America, Northern Europe, and North Africa. The concept of mobility provided a thread throughout the roundtable: Melody Delmar, Sami Lakomäki, John Little, and Mark Lewis Tizzoni all reflected on notions of mobility beyond assumptions about nomadic lives. Perhaps surprisingly, insights from Classical studies came into dialogue with questions relating to contemporary Indigenous lives, about how mobility becomes a mode of resistance and how cultural practises move relative to people. While History as a discipline has proved overwhelmingly conservative in its disregard for Indigenous methodologies and epistemologies, Indigenous scholars have developed creative ways of archiving cultural material, such as LP records, as well as frameworks for good practice when collaborating with Indigenous communities to tell their ever-changing stories.

These initial roundtables have taken our conversations down exciting and unexpected paths that we hope to pursue as we prepare for the remaining roundtables, which will continue throughout 2021. Information and booking for our next three roundtables is here:

Radicals and Exiles, a Global History of an Egyptian Odyssey? Monday 26 April, 3pm

Science, Technology, and Senses, Monday 17 May, 2:30pm

Cities and Buildings, Monday 14 June, 1pm

And more next academic year!