This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.

More info Close

On Leaving the Archive

Avner Ofrath

To cite this contribution:

Ofrath, Avner. ‘On Leaving the Archive.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 1 (2017),


I first came to the archive in Saint-Denis by underground train from central Paris, racing underneath neighbourhoods, monuments and highways of which I was to remain ignorant for weeks to come. It was, in fact, by mistake that I first tried to join the dots and walked through downtown Saint-Denis to the northern neighbourhoods of Paris, having found the archive closed on a beautiful Saturday morning. Freed from the pressure to exploit every moment of my precious time, I gazed at the archive’s building, almost arbitrarily positioned in a compound neighboured by the town’s bus terminal, a brutalist campus and a series of dilapidated terraced houses. Reluctant to vanish again in the dark and airless tunnels, I tried to find my way downtown. No sign, no map – let alone an urban flow of any sort – are there to lead you from the new site of the French national archives to its neighbouring urban centre. ‘Saint-Denis welcomes the National archives’, declares a humble sign installed by the municipality between the metro station and the archive. But there is nothing in the archive’s interaction with its surroundings to suggest the feeling to be mutual. In fact, Saint-Denis is not even mentioned in the name of the site, which is instead named ‘Site Pierrefitte’ after the municipality in whose confines it was built, just on the edge of Saint-Denis. Though officially a mere administrative matter, it is hard not see this as a deliberate attempt to avoid any reference to Saint-Denis – a place more often associated in media representations with criminality and violence, than with its history and culture. In comparison, the neighbouring university, Paris VIII Sain-Denis, has the French capital in its name, even though built far outside Paris’s municipal borders.

There is no lack of heritage or sights of historical interest in Saint-Denis. It is, indeed, a most appropriate seat for the modern and contemporary holdings of the national archives, encapsulating much of the country’s distant and recent past with its gothic royal burial basilica, the national football stadium, and a long history of industrialisation and immigration from France’s former colonies. But it is only this latter facet of Saint-Denis that the attentive visitor will encounter in the archive, where persisting divisions of ethnicity and class determine who will write history and who will hand over the dossiers. Having come to the archive to study colonial Algeria and its reverberations back in France, I had to admit the unexpected closure of the archive on a Saturday morning to be almost as revealing as the long days spent inside it: a most useful exercise in situating the archive in the context of its built environment, societal order and public memory.

The site’s indifference to its immediate environment imposes itself all too effectively upon the visitor. Separated from the street by a high steel fence, the compound is accessed through a narrow gate. Crossing it, one finds oneself amidst what resembles a parking lot, lacking any greenery, shadow or dialogue with the street. As if to enhance this impression, a shallow pool is situated between the cafeteria’s terrace and the fence separating the compound from the neighbouring terraced houses. In the quiet of this residential suburb, one hears only a rooster calling from one of these houses’ backyards – an almost subversive sound. Complete silence is enforced upon crossing the security check and entering the large reception area of the archive: well-lit and zealously functional – no exhibition vitrines, no pictures on the walls, no attempt to make any use of this vast space beyond what is necessary. A narrow corridor of glass and metal leads from the reception area to the reading room, not before a low glass gate opens at the signal of the reader’s electronic card. You’re in. You have left behind you the outside world and are now in what strives to be a sterile, neutral space.

Some fifty tables are arranged in orderly rows in this room, each designed for four readers – but one rarely shares a table with more than one person. Each seat is equipped with a trolley with which to move heavy boxes from the main counter to the desk. Practical, undecorated and simple, the reading room resembles, more than anything else, the aesthetics of a Swedish furniture retailer. It first seemed to me like an awkward architectural choice for the site of a state-archive – no intelligible style, no symbolism, no celebration of glory past or present. But in fact, this functionalism appears appropriate in light of what does take place in that archive – of what takes place in every archive, judging from what I have observed thus far.


I have so far used the word ‘archive’ in different ways which are, often, difficult to distinguish. The OED defines ‘archive, n. (usu. pl.)’ as a ‘Place in which public records are kept; records so kept’. The French Petit Robert dictionary assigns a similar double-meaning to ‘archive’, only in the reverse order.1 In a wider, metaphorical sense, ‘archive’ (mostly in the singular form) denotes that which constitutes a collective memory, a corpus of knowledge composed and shared by a group of people. Jacques Derrida’s seminal essay Archive Fever (Mal d’Archive, 1995) uses the word even more abstractly, applying it in his discussion of Freud to one’s most private realms and the act of unearthing repressed memories; in one of his most daring metaphors, Derrida wonders whether circumcision might be seen as an archive of a sort.2

A thorough discussion of how ‘archive’ has acquired its figurative sense – particularly in critical theory, and much less so in the discipline of history – lies beyond the scope of these reflections. But I dare speculate that this development has been encouraged by the growing critical engagement with state-archives as institutions constituting, preserving and demonstrating power. Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge is but the most pertinent coinage, in this context, of the multi-faceted quest to deconstruct the organisation, regulation and transmission of knowledge. Inspired by this endeavour – any attempt to mention a representative range of authors or works would be mere namedropping, as I am not sufficiently familiar with many of these – a growing number of historians and anthropologists have started to treat the archive as a subject rather than a source, as Ann-Laura Stoler has aptly phrased it.3 ‘Archive’ as an institution has become a highly-charged term, often identified with authority as such, and the very idea that an archive can be a source of knowledge or historical understanding has become highly controversial. This observation may be almost trivial to those working in many fields of critical theory. But many historians are struggling to reconcile critical understandings of the state-archive with the necessities of the discipline, to develop a constructive approach to what is at once a source of authority and the potential to challenge it – as I am seeking to do here.

Strikingly, the Saint-Denis site – both its functionalist architecture and its indifference to its surroundings – embraces the dissolution of the archive as a significant institution. Not evoking any narrative, not laying claim to any authority over historical truth, it seems to withdraw from a long-established tradition of the archive as a pillar of the nation and its memory, succumbing instead to a notion of the archive as a mere depository.4

This development is not exclusively the result of the site’s architecture. Rather, it is partly due to the rapid digitalisation of archival catalogues. On my first day here, I was advised by an archivist to set the printed inventories aside and type keywords into the catalogue’s search engine instead. Indeed, browsing printed inventories often seems to be a waste of time – not a minor concern for visitors on short research trips, or for researchers expected to make quantifiable progress yielding a steady flow of publications. But what is lost when the slow, haphazard search through inventories is dropped in favour of automatic filtering is context: other issues that may surface from the dossiers, or the frequency with which a certain topic is mentioned compared with others. It was by browsing an inventory of a colonial archive while searching for documentation of the settlement of families from Alsace-Lorraine in Algeria that I learned about plans to recruit settlers from Canada, South Africa and China. The significance of this seemingly irrelevant knowledge is immense: it is the difference between the exception and the rule, an anecdote and a case study of a wider phenomenon. Our use of search engines instead of inventories is not unlike the way in which navigation systems have come to replace maps: by optimising our search and minimising our mistakes, we necessarily see less of the deviations and dead-ends around us.

But the site in Saint-Denis embraces the dissolution of the archive in its own particular way. This is most of all the case in the archive’s reading room (‘Salle de consultation’). Despite its name, neither the design nor the equipment of this rooms invites reading. This can be seen most clearly in the lack of reference works – dictionaries, lexicons, atlases, biographical dictionaries – which are abundant in most archives and libraries. Their absence means that scholarly engagement with the sources – their deciphering, understanding and contextualising – must take place elsewhere, where such references are available. Even the black colour of the desks favours photography more than reading. A space for visitors to amass material rather than consult it, this so-called reading room conditions what I think is a major, if subtle shift in the way historians approach sources: the dissolution of the archive as a collection with its own logic.

By reproducing documents, we unmake the archive in which we were working – its classification, prioritisation, hierarchisation – and create our own, alternative archives, arranged according to our own questions. I look at my hard-drive folders of documents photographed at the French national and colonial archives and see, for instance ‘Muslims’ political exclusion’ – not a category or a language one would find in state-archives. In her book The Archive Thief, Lisa Leff traces the story of Jewish historian Zosa Szajkowski who, during World War II and in the wake of the Holocaust, stole tens of thousands of documents from state-archives in France and sold them to Jewish research institutes in the USA and Israel. Putting aside the ethical and legal questions around his actions, this extreme example demonstrates how shifts in narratives and arguments were brought about by taking documents from one archive and reclassifying them in another:

Selecting…only what had to do with Jews, the collector-historian had rearranged these papers for his own purposes. And he had not stopped with merely gathering these Jewish documents together. He had organised them into an archive, dividing them into the folders he had marked according to an idiosyncratic filing system only he understood.5

Reproducing is obviously a very different act from stealing, as no archive is damaged when its material is reproduced. But it is precisely this difference that helps see how the blessing of creating one’s alternative archive can become a curse. Regardless of how one may judge him, Szajkowski veritably created new archives with their own logic, thus conditioning the emergence of new narratives and theses. Digital reproduction, by contrast, does not replace the structure of a state-archive by any other logic. Though it certainly allows for silenced voices and new narratives to be expressed more articulately, creating one’s own archive does not confront predominant arranging principles of knowledge.

I do not mean to overestimate the coherence of the archive as a collection, nor do I wish to overlook the problematic nature of state-archives. Gaps, omissions and at times outright erasures occur in every archive. Even more commonly, chaos and arbitrary archiving choices make it difficult to infer any pattern at all. And yet, a collection in the archive may entail information on a source’s context which a single document cannot possibly provide. The organisation of records along certain categories or the density of documentation in a certain area can prove particularly illuminating in the quest to understand, say, colonial mentalities and policies. As Ann-Laura Stoler has argued, doing so becomes difficult when the ‘grain of the archive’ is no longer visible:

How can students of colonialisms so quickly and confidently turn to readings ‘against the grain’ without moving along their grain first?…If a notion of colonial ethnography starts from the premise that archival production is itself both a process and a powerful ideology of rule, then we need not only to brush against the archive’s received categories. We need to read from its regularities, from its logic of recall, from its densities and distributions, from its consistencies of misinformation, omission and mistake – along the archival grain.6

It is precisely this invisibility of the archive’s logic that is enhanced by the site at question – a depository avoiding any interaction with its immediate surrounding, not encouraging any dialogue with its own space or any engagement with its bottomless collection as such.


I have started this text by describing the pleasure of unmaking the detachment between the archive and its environment. Indeed, that was the experience that had sparked these reflections in the first place. In the weeks and months since then, I have tried to understand this pleasure, this sense of satisfaction, of doing something significant simply by wandering through a small city to the north of Paris. Writing an early version of this text over a long winter break spent in my childhood room, I could not arrive at anything beyond general observations on history as a living discipline, on exploring the city as a sort of conversation amid advancing social atomisation. I could certainly sense that the setting around me – I was spending my days in West Jerusalem, some ten minutes’ walk from the Damascus Gate and the 1967 border – constrained my thought, my insights on the writing of colonial history as a theoretical venture. I was also aware that, by opening boxes unearthed from dusty cupboards and sorting my grandfather’s diaries and letters, I was creating yet another archive. What I failed to appreciate was how, with the passing of time, a childhood room becomes an archive itself, with books, posters, CDs and notebooks constituting an uncannily complete collection. What I was missing, then, was distance between myself and the questions at stake. Or, to use a more elegant word: perspective.

After all, historical writing (and any other writing, I would argue – but that is a different question) is all about perspective or, better said, a game of shifting perspectives. Sources never speak for themselves. They gain their meaning form the questions through which they are viewed, the contexts in which they are discussed, other sources alongside which they are read. Archival research, crucial though it often may be, is but the first step in the process of critical engagement with the past. What happens in this process is a transformation of meaningless sources into a series of arguments, a transformation that occurs as we leave the archive behind.

For me, studying the troubled past of colonial Algeria and its presence in metropolitan France, the streets between the French national archives and one of the country’s most thoroughly othered banlieues was a most fitting setting to allow for this transformation to unfold. At once distant and omnipresent, visible and unintelligible, the enduring presence of the past in this urban seam of Paris-to-Saint-Denis helped me both to reconstitute a dissolved, detached archive and to leave it behind me. As the distinction between the depository and the records is rapidly disappearing and our tailor-made collections follow us wherever we please, leaving the archive – that is, seeing it in perspective – is perhaps less trivial a task than it first seems.

1. The definition in the Petit Robert reads: ‘Archives. n. f. pl…Collection de pièces, titres, documents, dossiers anciens…Par ext.: Lieu où les archives sont déposées, conservées.’
2. Jacques Derrida, Mal d’archive. Une impression freudienne (Paris: Galilée, 1995), 39-44. On ‘archive’ as metaphor for memory see: Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002), 68.
3. Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,’ in Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, ed. Francis X. Blouin and William G. Rosenberg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 269–71.
4. On the national archives in modern France see: Jennifer Milligan, ‘“What is an archive?” in the History of Modern France,’ in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 159–83.
5. Lisa Moses Leff, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 15.
6. Stoler, ‘Colonial Archive,’ 272.

About the author:

Avner Ofrath is the Sir Colin Lucas Scholar in French History at Balliol College, Oxford. His doctoral thesis concerns colonial Algeria and French republicanism in the nineteenth and twentieth century. He previously studied architecture and urban planning in colonial Algeria, and has written on various aspects of French-Algerian, Mediterranean and Jewish history.