There have been debates galore with respect to the idea behind an Archive and its usage. In the present context, unlike the Library and in circles outside academia, the Archive (state and privately run) is a less popular structure not completely sure about its true purpose and quite oblivion to its vital role in validating one’s legacy. The authors of the following piece have been working as archivists for the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library for a good many years. However, they have only been met with puzzled faces at just the sheer mention of an Archive especially with folks outside academia.

By Ankit Mohonto and Ankita Vinayak

The Archive often has also been synonymously used with the library with the everyday person not completely sure of the true purpose behind preserving documents and official records. This confusion was one of the initial catalysts behind writing about the Archive and its importance.

While the Archive is usually associated with dusty old records which serve as mostly primary sources for research, it is also a place of nostalgia, of memories and untold stories. It is a place for remembering and forgetting, unheard voices and silenced pasts. It is a place for the living and the dead, for preserving and destroying. It is place of paradoxes and complexities. The Archive is the place where individual lives intersect with the apparatus of the state. The dust on the papers and the chemicals used to preserve them give the Archive a certain odor which is a testimony of the past that continues to linger and has made its way to the present times. Archives are not just “neat old stuff” rather they provide an effective technology through which the traces of past intermesh with the present. They are not just sources of documentary evidence rather both the literal and metaphorical archival spaces, contribute to the framing of future possibilities.

However, there is an allure of the Archive. It is certainly a far more complex institution than the Library. Why do Archives catch so much attention? What is this appeal of the Archive?
These are some of the questions that we seek to address.

The Archival Turn:

At the outset, it is pertinent to underscore the difference between the Library and the Archive. Interestingly, we see both of them are “collecting institutions” that are primarily concerned with documenting, collecting, preserving, and organizing a wide range of documents.

Both these institutions may be public or private (non-profit or for-profit). Though there are slippages between the definitional understanding of the two institutions, however there are integral differences between the two. The Library is mainly concerned with the collection of published documents or the printed material. These are to be concerned as secondary sources for academic research. On the contrary, Archives is a different place. Unlike the Library, the Archive focuses on the collection of raw, unpublished documents called records. In his pioneering essay called the “Archive Fever” Jacques Derrida clearly underscores the meaning of the Archive. He literally delves deeper into the root of the word. He says, “it’s only meaning come to it from the Greek Arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who command”. Therefore, the Archive is, thus, both a place and the records it houses.

It is important to understand that Archives are being reconsidered from merely a “source” of history to its very subject. Lately, we see there has been an increasing curiosity over the nature of Archive in different disciplinary contexts. There is quite literally what scholars have called an “Archival Turn” in the academia. This is indebted to the pioneering work of Michel Foucault and his ideas on the Archive as an artifact of knowledge production. Foucault provoked us to think that the “The idea of the Archive is not just “sum of all texts that a culture preserves nor those institutions that allow for that record’s preservation. The Archive is rather that “system of statements,” those “rules of practice,” that shapes the specific regularities of what can and cannot be said”.

Influenced from his work there have been theoretical interventions on understanding the nature of the Archive. Most of studies have investigated the nature of the colonial Archive and have underscored the problematic system of categories and taxonomies that the British used. These studies contextualize the nature of the Archive and underscore how they are embedded in power.

However, as more scholars investigate the concept of the Archive, more have become interested in the process of its institutionalization. Who builds the Archive and for what purpose? How is it organized and made accessible? In this paper, we focus on the Archives in India particularly, but we also engage with questions of understanding the Archive as an institution, as a tool for research and its nature.

Archive as an Institution, Tracing the roots of Archives in India:

As far as India is concerned, the Archive has colonial roots. The colonial condition had a deep impact on how the Archives in India came to be. The British administration categorically classified and preserved papers which served the needs of colonial state. It is important to remember that British quite specifically employed in India a range of technologies of power. The colonial Archive was the part of such knowledge which includes the tools of modern governmentality like the censuses and statistics. The very apparatus of the colonial Archive was then predicated on a global system of domination by creating a mechanism for ‘controlling territory by producing, distributing and consuming information about it’. It was because of this reason we saw the British Empire emerge as the first information society.

In this context, the origins of the National Archives of India, too has a colonial overtone. Established as the custodian of the records of Government of India, it was set up as the Imperial Records Department. After the transfer from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911, the Imperial Records Department shifted to the present building in 1926.

The National Archives of India is now the biggest archival repository in India. It is constitutive of vast corpus of records like public records, private papers, oriental records, cartographic records and other official records which consist of an important source of information for researchers, and users of the Archives. One of the most important features of the National Archives is that it is governed by the rules of the State. The archival document intersects with the demands of the state.

As the official website of National Archives puts it, ‘The National Archives of India is the custodian of the records of enduring value of the Government of India’[7]. These documents interestingly have an aura of authenticity, and a smell of authority. They speak to us in a formalized tone and a certain clarity. The materiality of Archive is textured with layers of past(s). These are public records and their access remains limited. National Archives of India consists of ‘Public` records of Government of India and are available for use of `bonafide` research. Access to the records in National Archives of India is governed by the provisions of Public Records Rules, 1997. These records are therefore a product of a classificatory mechanism of the state. They are meant to serve a purpose and hence are entangled in the official bureaucratic apparatus of the rules of the state.

The question that looms large where do find the more personal and private papers? How do we engage with the more intimate, and raw voices of the past? In this context we will look at the institute of the private Archive in India.

The Private Archive: An alternative to the State Archive?

Archives are not monolithic; rather we see there are different types of Archives. Quite contrary to the state-controlled Archive is the Private Archive. In the discourses on Archival Sciences and its history, private archives generally are defined as records created by individuals and corporate entities (including non-profit organizations) outside of the public sphere of governments, governmental agencies, and departments. These non-governmental archives typically include the fonds (a group of documents with same origin) of persons, families, non-profit organizations, for-profit businesses, and even less formal groups of people acting in concert, like a social involvement or a one-time conference or special event.

However, it is quite different in the Indian context. Besides records maintained by individual families and corporate entities, there are institutions backed by the Government and other funding agencies which serve as repositories of records. Private archives take a new meaning in India as it is mostly to do with the nature of documents rather than the issue of ownership.

Keeping the above point in mind, it can be stated that the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library is one of the largest private Archives in the country with its primary source of funding being the Ministry of Culture of the Government of India. Among them the private Archives of NMML plays an important role in making available to scholars the “primary” and “non-official” source material for their research. The primary responsibilities of the manuscript section include acquisition, preservation, classification and maintenance of papers of Indians who have distinguished themselves in multiple fields of politics, administration, diplomacy, social reform, journalism, industry and education. It also constitutes the records of non-governmental organizations and associations that played an important role in the independence movement. Interestingly the private archives were initiated with the acquisition of two indispensable collections of: the papers of Jawaharlal Nehru and All India Congress Committee. In due course of time a full-fledged repository of non-official sources and non-governmental sources was set up. The main motive was to collect papers from private hands lying scattered all over the country and systematically arrange them at one place, thus providing easy accessibility to scholars working on Modern Indian history. These were the roots of as to how the largest archive of private papers in India was established. It goes without saying that the any research work on modern and contemporary India has to base itself upon the study of both official and non-official sources for broader perspective.

Based on the same principle there have been other archives that have seen set up across the country. Ashoka Archives of Contemporary India being the most recent and with the same vision.

So what makes these Indian private Archives different? In the mentioned private Archives, ownership of the documents continues to remain with the donor and a written agreement merely states that the archive only serves as a repository of these documents. But what is more vital is the fond and its nature. The word private takes a precarious twist as documents are not strictly limited to official papers. All documents, housed previously with the donor, are donated to the Archive making sorting and a form of cataloguing essential for the fond to make any kind of sense to a research scholar. Drafts, copies of letters with minor corrections, published matter which at one point might have seemed interesting to the donor in question and everything which met the keen interest of the donor makes part of this private collection. Keeping this in mind, research in any of the facets of social science requires a keen eye as occasionally, far more important elements of research are hidden in these obscure drafts and scribbled notes than any official document which might at first seem of utmost importance.

Another interesting aspect of this variant of the Private Archive is the way in which new primary sources are acquired. While the State Archive is the designated official custodian of the official records of the State, the Private Archive looks for the prospective donors (individuals and institutions) who are willing to donate papers they think would be valuable in contemporary research. Resources are also exchanged with other similar institutions thus enriching the collections of both these institutions and making primary sources more accessible to scholars in different parts of the world.

Not Just History- Many lives of the Archive

Archival stories are everywhere; they are relevant to not only historians and archivists. There is a common misconception that archives are a place where only historians go. It is important to highlight that an archive is not just an historical artifact. If one could say that Archives were once treated as a means to an end by students of history, this is no longer the case today. The inherent nature of the Archive is interdisciplinary. The Archive functions for humanities and social science disciplines as the laboratory functions for sciences. The laboratory and the Archive intersect as the sites of knowledge production. It is here we see that the Archives emerge as important for other disciplines as well.

Interestingly, however we see, the nature of the Archives opens for us fascinating ways of thinking about how and why ordinary people, both individually and in group construct identities and histories. To put it in simple terms, an archival record is a fragment of a large narrative. The stories of one’s life is a foundation of what we call collections, manuscripts, oral history interviews, each an abstract item forming the base of the physical and digital archives. Archives facilitate multiple stories. When we look for archival material related to a theme, it is important to note that these themes have multiple voices irrespective of the field. The Archive is the place where one can reassess the broader guiding principles behind a larger narrative irrespective of discipline. The final aim is to link scientists, historians, journalists, communicators and all those involved in a particular narrative.

In conclusion, it can be added that thousands and millions of records about people, events, decisions and governments and achievements built the history of our nation. The records whether physical or digital are a sum total of all the information, communication, ideas and opinions people have generated through time. However, Archives, whether physical or digital, are tangible. Daily thousands of people visit Archives and login Archives systems around the world and this huge information flows rapidly between researchers and archival institutions. Access to these records is an archive’s obligation toward the scholarly community and the public in general in order to inform a broader audience about the availability of the records related to the memory of a nation. Archives, thus, represent a source of information which is a focal point serving as the key to a nation’s memory.

This article first appeared in and it belongs to them.