Searching for a Black Pacific: An Alternative Archive

Alternative Archives in COVID-19

INTERLUDE: Digitization and documentation in the midst of crisis

As a history student and researcher, I am familiar with the existence of silences within archives,[1] the spaces to look for where a document or narrative or voice should be, but has been lost or obscured, or left out of the collection altogether. As a history researcher, I am familiar with the complicit and systemic forces that can create these silences – institutional racism, systems of power which privilege certain modes of access and certain collections or providences of collections over others, cultural norms or even laws that dictate legitimacy of sources, which can be considered worthy of archiving, the list goes on and on. But rarely in my research is the power to create and choose silences in my own hands. Before this work, I was always in the position of retrieval, or of connection and analysis of the silences. Never before could I create them whether by intention or by mistake.

Or, as it were, by crisis.

It was March 12th, 2020. My friend snuck me into Concordia University’s design lab so that I could make high quality scans of the sources lent to me by david george morgan. I had just gone home to Vancouver to visit my family and sick father. After a crazy week of doctor’s visits, midterms and rapidly changing travels plans, david george morgan and I met up and traded more sources for digitization, namely the three magazines included (two issues of diaspora, one issue of mix magazine, which contains the foundational article to this research: Peter Hudson’s “Disappearing Histories of the Black Pacific.”)

On March 12th, I started into my digitization process: scanning documents at six or seven hundred dpi, manually delineating the confines of the scan, cropping, and dumping the finished scan directly onto my portable hard drive. Each pamphlet, paper and magazine presented a different size and texture: from typical 8 x 11 printouts, to waxy magazine covers that exceeded the scanners limitations, each document’s physical ramifications challenged me as I made the myriad tiny decisions that would constitute the scan. 

At the time, I was barely aware of the situation surrounding COVID-19. I had been tracking with the stories and increasing preventative measures, but my visit home had left room for little else but thoughts about dad and of my family. 

I received a text from my friend, asking how things are going with Dad back in Vancouver. I told her I’d returned to Montreal. She told me: Phoebe, go home. Go home now. 

For the next four hours, I scanned documents and searched flights for the following week. I read news updates on COVID and decided, yes, I need to move home as soon as possible, before things like flights got shut down.

I stayed in the lab until every document was scanned. I won’t have another opportunity to do so. 

Since I began this research, this thesis, my world and the world at large have changed, again and again. I write this to note the strange confluence of contemporary event with historical research and documentation; Walter Benjamin’s quote from the beginning of this essay flashes to mind: 

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger…[t]he danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers.”

What does it mean to digitize documents in extraordinary circumstances? How does the process of historical production (the research, writing and interpretation of historical events and lineages) affect the past presented?

And why do I write about my personal experiences of digitizing in the midst of personal (and global) crisis?

I write about this because its applicable to the conversation that Mark Vajcner presents about online archival practices and the politics of digitizing. The conditions under which my work – particularly the work of scanning the documents – was produced dictated those myriad decisions made in resolution, in selection of excerpts and their storage, and in the organization of the documents on my hard drive which constitute the “second layer” of raw materials, the raw but “mediated” sources which compose my archive.

There are, despite my best efforts, silences in the archive I present to you. For example, I had hoped to scan the entirety of mix magazine in order to salvage some contextualization of the central article, and because the other stories, articles and advertisements deserve digitization and increased community access. When I realized the constraints of COVID-19 and my personal situation, I had to cut anything that wasn’t key to my subject: pamphlet literature in the production of black art in Vancouver, BC.

This project would not have come about without personal crisis, and would look and read differently if produced under different conditions. Despite my best efforts, I create certain silences just as I dispel others. That, though, is the intimate work of historical production as I have come to know it - its a messy, unpredictable, stunning adventure to research and create an alternative archive. 
[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Acls Humanities E-Book (Series). Boston: Beacon Press, 2015. https://www-fulcrum-

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