Reflexivity and Archiving

‘[Insta]Poetry is not a luxury’: On the Urgency of Archiving the Diverse Voices of Social Media

In today’s digital age, verse has gone viral. Since 2013, young poets have turned to photo-sharing platforms like Instagram to self-publish their texts and gain a wide readership.

Fitting their words into the square Instagram picture frames, paying attention to font and sizing, writing texts that are accessible both in style and content, instapoets are making poetry visually appealing, relatable, scrollable, accessible, and portable to followers.

The repercussions have been significant: recent UK and US surveys reveal that poetry is on the way to becoming a bestselling literary genre. In 2017, a report by the National Endowment of the Arts (the largest survey of American adults’ participation in the arts) and UK statistics from book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan showed that the number of poetry readers had nearly doubled since 2012. The biggest increase was among young adults, especially young women and people of colour – a significant shift from the traditional middle-aged male poetry buyer, who now represents only 18% of poetry readership in the UK. In 2017, the top-selling poetry collection was Milk and Honey by 26-year-old Punjabi-Sikh Canadian “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, which has sold 3.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. Eleven other instapoets made it into the top twenty bestselling poets list that year. While these figures indicate the financial success of instapoetry in book format, they can only hint at the size of its online readership. Therefore, to counter this focus on the physical object of the published book, I want to initiate a discussion on social media that is responsive to the ways that the poetry itself appears online in order to think about alternative ways of archiving “beyond the book”.

Despite the media attention instapoetry has received since its beginnings, the academic and literary world has remained suspicious, and continues to question its literary legitimacy. Very little academic material has been published on the topic, and apart from a very small number of papers on Rupi Kaur’s writing, instapoetry is treated as a footnote. Is this simply the result of the slow-paced process of conventional academic publishing or might this also be because writing an academic article on instapoetry would give it some cultural and academic legitimacy? The most virulent criticism was voiced in a 2018 article by British poet Rebecca Watts, who condemned “social media’s dumbing effect,” compared instapoets to social media influencers, and denounced “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft” that she argued is characteristic of the genre. Her concerns undoubtedly reflect those of many poets and academics who worry that poetry is no longer being taken seriously. Yet there are historical parallels. In 1856, as more and more middle class women started writing for a living, George Eliot wrote an essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” lamenting the affectation and clichés of women writers, and the “absence of rigid requirements” of the novel form which, she contended, “constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women” (Eliot, 324). Being a new genre, the novel was accessible and socially acceptable for women writers, as it had relatively low status, was easy to read, bore “no long and intimidating tradition of ‘great masters’”, and “did not demand a knowledge of the classics, of rhetoric, or of poetic devices” (Eagleton, 60). The similarities between the novel then, and instapoetry now, are striking, as this new generation of “outsiders” is carving out a space to be heard outside mainstream publishing.

Most successful instapoets are young, feminist, from minority or immigrant backgrounds, and many of them are women, and/or queer, and/or working-class, and/or with disabilities. They often resort to Instagram after being turned down by publishers; indeed a report by the UK development agency Spread the Word in 2015 found that Western publishing tends to favour books by white male writers, resulting in the BAME writer community being underrepresented. Instagram thus offers a creative outlet for sections of the population who are usually barred from more traditional forms of poetry. In this sense, Watts’ piece voices a general sense of uncertainty that is created by instapoetry’s flouting of hidebound poetic traditions. Clearly this raises questions as to what exactly qualifies as “literature”, and more crucially, who has the authority to define a text as “literary”. In an essay entitled “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” written in 1977, African-American feminist poet Audre Lorde suggests that our definitions of literariness are a white Western male invention. Poetry, she writes, “is a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean” (Lorde, 37). Challenging the emphasis on intellect over emotion in Western culture [reiterated by Watts, who contrasts the media-celebrated “honesty” of instapoets with actual “poetic craft”], Lorde convincingly argues that for minority women, “poetry is not a luxury”. Instead, it is vital for survival as it allows women of colour to access and communicate their emotions. It is a socially meaningful medium through which to think of new ways of being and to initiate “tangible action” towards social transformation. For instapoets such as Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Amanda Lovelace, “honesty” is the way they raise awareness of political matters like sexuality, abuse, gender, race and immigration. The debate about the “literariness” of instapoetry has overshadowed a more important fact: through social media, minorities and women not only have a creative voice but are also being heard, and are experimenting with language, rhetoric and form in innovative ways.

I first became interested in instapoetry while assessing the British Library’s holdings of contemporary North American migrant narratives as part of a PhD placement. Taking a literary perspective initially focusing solely on books, I started investigating their practices regarding online writing. I was surprised to learn that the British Library cannot acquire and collect websites or Instagram pages as easily as it can a book. The UK Web Archive, hosted at the Library, is confined to UK-based or UK-associated websites (either hosted on a UK domain or authored by UK residents) which it can collect through non-print legal deposit. It can also pull information from web pages that have no UK-based domain if there is a clear link with the UK, but permission is needed from the creators of the content and rights need to be cleared. Social media content is even more difficult to archive, as many sites also block attempts to “harvest” content. The legal restrictions are a real barrier for the archive, leading me to wonder whether the UK web archive in its current form might not be inadequate. As instapoets regularly delete older posts, their work is lost forever if it is not collected in time. A search on the UK Web Archive and the American Internet Archive (known as the Wayback Machine) suggests little trace remains of the years 2014-2015, the period when instapoetry peaked. If we think of a book as a final product, then an Instagram page can be viewed as a digital manuscript, the followers’ comments as editor’s feedback, and each deleted post as a draft that ends up in the bin. I prefer to see the published book and the Instagram page as two separate entities, especially given that instapoets continue to use Instagram even after publication. Rupi Kaur’s bestseller Milk and Honey may find its place in an archive someday, but then only half her work will have been recorded, as her books and her Instagram page simply cannot be compared with each other. Instead of one per page, poems on Instagram are interspaced with pictures and positioned on a board, rather like the page of a comic. The concept of time is also different: the reader starts with the most recent poem and scrolls down (or back) in time, and this creates a sense of ongoing progression that cannot be reproduced in a conventional book with a beginning and an end. 

Instapoetry evidently poses challenges to current academic practices regarding interpretation and archiving. Unfortunately, the archiving system in its current form continues to prioritize literature published in books over self-published online writing, and although the reasons are primarily technical and legal, this contributes significantly to the marginalization of minority voices.

Cover photo: Rupi Kaur’s instagram page, picture taken by Matteo D’Ambrosio

Works Cited
  • Eagleton, M. (1989). Gender and Genre. In C. Hanson (Ed.), Re-reading the Short Story, London: Macmillan Press, pp.55-68.
  • Eliot, G. (1967). Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. In T. Pinney (Ed.), Essays of George Eliot, London: Routledge, pp. 300-324.
  • Lorde A. (1984). Poetry is Not a Luxury. Sister Outsider, Freedom CA: The Crossing Press, pp. 36-39.
  • Watts, R. (2018). The Cult of the Noble Amateur. PN Review 239, 44 (3).

Documenting relational collections

For hundreds of years scholars and humanists have understood the importance of connected collections. Yet much of our documentation for archives and museums has become disconnected, this separation exacerbated by different technologies and distinct professional identities. Drawing on research for the recently-published “From catalogues to contextual networks: reconfiguring collection documentation in museums,” this article moves through the history of collections to the present day, and argues for the development of more relational, connected practice into the future.

In the late sixteenth century Francis Bacon wrote of the ideal tools for learning: a library, a botanical and zoological garden, a laboratory, and a large collection of natural and man-made items (Bacon, 1688, pp. 34–35). Similarly, American collector James Smithson understood knowledge as a whole, “each portion of which throws light on all the other” – an idea now engraved on the façade of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Today these ideas have been combined with contemporary understandings of complexity, postcolonial theory, participatory practice, and the contextual nature of knowledge, to produce the ‘relational museum.’

Our documentation and systems are often quite different. The focus has been more on classification, inventory management, and the creation of distinct disciplines and professions. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the numbers of museums exploded around the world, scholarship and research was becoming more specialised. Meanwhile, librarians were developing their practice, as were archivists and museum staff. Associations were formed and specialist training was developed, with distinctions between libraries, archives, museums, and galleries reinforced by the physical separation of collections and exhibition spaces.

Technology contributed to the split. Automation developed in libraries, museums, and for manuscript collections evolved into distinct systems and standards. Cataloguing rules and classification structures were tailored to particular formats and specialised areas of research. By the end of the twentieth century many large collecting institutions have implemented separate systems for documenting and managing artefacts, specimens, publications, and archival records. Some have separate systems for different departments within the same institution. The result is that the archival material related to a particular artefact, or the publication produced following analysis of a specimen, are held and managed quite separately. While some may know there is a connection, the majority of users will need to work hard to discover the link.

In contrast, over the same period theorists of collections and material culture have become increasingly interested in exploring the complex systems within which all things exist. Linguists, anthropologists, ethnographers, archaeologists, sociologists, feminists theorists, and physicists have developed theories ‘relationality.’ The term is used to mean more than a simple relationship between two things. Instead, the identity and meaning of things is seen as emerging from their entanglement with each other and with the world.

Though archival theorists and museologists have started to incorporate some of these ideas in their work, there is more to do if we are to effectively capture the evolving, complex meanings of our interconnected collections. We need to develop our standards, systems, and processes in ways which better support rich, complex linking between collection materials and the contextual entities (people, organisations, places, events) which help us to understand those collections. Museums needs to learn from archivists by developing layers of aggregate description, while archivists need to better understand the value of item-level documentation and access as part of cross-institutional discovery systems.

As for collection description more broadly, a relational approach requires several developments in practice. Embedded, hierarchical classification structures should be replaced by related, non-hierarchical networks of time-specific terminology. The connections between things should be expanded from thin links to rich relationships containing descriptive information, dates, source material, and more. Descriptive data and fielded information needs to be contextualised by information on authors, times, places, and events rather than being treated as anonymous, unchanging, or universal. And communities, researchers, and other user groups need to be involved as part of capturing different perspectives and knowledge systems in, around, and between our collection items.

The ideas presented here are undoubtedly aspirational; but they are also the direct result of engagement with contemporary thinking about material culture, museology and archival theory. True relational description undoubtedly raises challenges. More complex information structures will have significant consequences for internal and public interfaces, for resourcing, and for the ongoing maintenance and storage of the knowledge our institutions hold. But without change we are only giving our communities part of the story.

Early descriptive practice, combined with a focus on professionalisation and the development of separate technologies and standards has meant that collectiondescription has failed to keep pace with the disciplines it is designed to support. Change is required. While it takes effort to trace, capture and make visible the relationships between artefacts, people, documentation and other things, by failing to do so we are failing to capture the significance and meaning of our collections. More effective, relational documentation of collections (including archives) will benefit our institutions, develop the value of our collections, engage visitors in new and interesting ways, and better support future research.

To see the extended article: Jones, Michael. ‘From Catalogues to Contextual Networks: Reconfiguring Collection Documentation in Museums’. Archives and Records 39, no. 1 (24 April 2018): 4–20.

Reflexivity and Archiving: Reflections on the High Court of Uganda’s Archive

At the end of May 2018, a team assembled in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in order to appraise, organize, and catalogue the High Court of Uganda’s archive. Over a period of three months, the team of 15+ archivists, academics, and High Court staff members catalogued what is believed to be the largest legal archive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initiated by Sauda Nabukenya, Ph.D. student in the History Department of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies at the same university, the project’s aim was to “organize and make accessible the very considerable archives of the High Court.” Over the course of the first two months, the team transported over 800 boxes of materials from the High Court’s basement to an offsite location that provided adequate space for sorting. Once there, the team sorted and catalogued over 450 boxes, totaling 45,000 files. Finally, the Judiciary granted a project extension for August 2018 so that the remaining boxes could also be catalogued.

The sheer scale of this project and the rate at which it was completed is impressive and warrants reflection. However, the project provoked several considerations for me, a professionally-trained archivist interested in the politics of archival use and control in the aftermath of colonialism.

Neutrality of the Archive

Neutrality has been a central pillar in the ideals/mythologies of archives. The archivist, armed with their catalogue, is expected to assist a user in navigating a collection by organizing and describing materials much like a GPS would any other terrain – accurately, objectively, and usefully. Though the concept of neutrality has been contested within the archival profession and likewise by researchers, other ideals have not been as discussed. Below, I raise collaboration and reflexivity as useful alternatives.

Useful Imperfection and Collaborative Cataloguing

Working on this project, I was aware of several systematic violations of neutrality. I wish to explore them here with ambivalence. I would argue that some of the conditions of our work (time pressure, resource limitations, asymmetrical archiving skills and knowledge of the material, etc.) are characteristic of archival projects more generally and influenced our cataloguing. For example, we devised a categorizing schema such that records were tagged at the item level based on the nature of the case in the file (i.e. Civil Suit – Labour – Unlawful suspension). These categories depended on our cursory reading of each file to identify the cause of the case and despite our aspirations for uniformity and because of our diverse expertise and time restrictions, our classification undoubtedly varied. Instead, our goal was to operate with useful imperfection: choosing consistency and transparency over objective accuracy so that a researcher could understand how and why we catalogued things as we did.

Our team, stationed in a single workspace, worked collaboratively in cataloguing. Pairs of cataloguers worked together to quickly identify the key descriptors for every file and made joint decisions on classification. The results of this cooperation not only included quicker, more accurate work but provided social contact around each file which, especially in my case, often helped bring to life the significance of the materials. For example, alone, I would not have known that business transfer cases in the 1970s were often consequences of the Asian expulsion process under Idi Amin.

Reflexive not Neutral

Other of our working conditions were more unique. I was the technical lead on this project, and for much of the project’s duration, the only non-Ugandan. On the one hand, I had experience in similar projects in years prior (at the Kabale and Jinja District Administrative Archives) in addition to working as an archivist in the U.S. and U.K. and was professionally trained.  On the other hand, I was the least qualified on the team to understand the contents of the materials, their significance, and the contemporary political situation in which they sit. Geopolitics was at the fore of the very structure of our project’s hierarchy.

Some in the archival profession argue that content-knowledge is unnecessary for an archivist to adequately perform their job. I disagree. The High Court’s archive is a rich resource on many fronts. Historically, it helps in understanding changing notions of crime, punishment, and power. It offers insight into the socio-legal history during the rapid successions of post-colonial governments. Contemporarily, it holds legal records belonging to individuals and families that are necessary to pursue due process. My ignorance as an outsider/non-specialist was challenged and remedied by the expertise of my colleagues – Ugandan academics and citizens. The dangers of empowering ignorance are not as simple as wrongfully describing a file but misunderstanding the file’s power. For example, the international crisis of land grabbing – or contentious land acquisition – is a huge problem in Uganda. The High Court archive contains land deeds and titles which, if recklessly treated, have the potential to accelerate that crisis.

Reflexivity in the archival profession isn’t supported by project-oriented funding structures and the daunting stress of backlogs. In fact, I had to leave my job working as an archivist in order to think more deeply about archival work. However, the stakes are too high not to. The High Court’s archive is a gift to scholars, but it is a right for the people of Uganda. The archive, and those who tend it, are far from neutral – on the contrary, the archive is an intervention. Better to understand this intervention rather than deny it. I am hopeful and enthusiastic to track the future and progress of the High Court’s archive, left in the very capable hands of our 2018 team members.

For more information about the High Court archiving project please see: The Judiciary Web and the article A MacArthur “Genius” Works to Preserve Uganda’s History” by Leslie Station.