Same Same But Different
Archive and database might look fairly similar on the surface. Both contain information and some type of structural system or interface that allows for accessing that information. We need both for wrangling today’s (and tomorrow’s) unprecedented level of digital media. But these similarities mask a few complex differences and interactions going on under the surface. We might see these areas as concerned with cultivation, transparency, opportunity, and gatekeeping.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to think of a database as wild or without a guiding force; it’s the sum total of all contributions, no matter where they came from or who put them there. An archive, on the other hand, has an element of cultivation. Someone conscientiously decided that a group of objects belonged together for some reason: to commemorate, to preserve, to enlighten, etc. There is inclusivity in the former, forethought and exemption in the latter. This means there’s a lot at stake in an archive; Harris, describing Patrick Leary’s work, reminds us that “whatever does not end up in a digital archive, represented as cyber- and hypertext, will not, in the future, be studied, remembered, valorized, and canonized” (47). If everything is in a database, but we don’t know a thing is there, will it be remembered the way archived materials will be?
Levels of transparency
We think we can see into an archive quite clearly, but in reality, a whole host of opaque dividers are in the way. The tool, the archivist, the occasion for or drive to archival, and where/how the archive is housed stand between a clear overview/picture of the archive and the user. Databases, however, may have more viewing freedom built in because they often happen more organically and democratically. It probably wouldn’t be wise, though, to think of a database as without layers; as Azuma notes, for instance, the otaku database has strata: “The surface outer layer of otaku culture is covered with simulacra, or derivative works. But in the deep inner layer lies the database of settings and characters, and further down, the database of moe-elements” (58). In either case, reaching the levels or clearing hurdles to clarity, users must put some kind of effort in if they are to understand the system that stands in front of them.
Opportunities for remixes/derivations/creations
Because the archive is already in a preserved state, it already has some sort of narrative, which means that it could be harder to forge new works from or remix. An archive might function as inspiration, but in order to use the contained materials to make derivative works, a user would have to remove (or work around) the overarching narrative that’s already there. A database, though, doesn’t have a grand narrative, so it’s ready to be remixed and played with. There isn’t as much standing in the way. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a database will form a narrative or that users will even desire that it do so, as Manovich notes: “However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all” (228). Depending on the importance one assigns not just to narrative but to new, fresh narrative, these varying remix potentials could be seen as either benefits or drawbacks.
The term for those who keep archives sounds somewhat lofty: archivist. They take time to learn how to archive, to preserve; they need an understanding of history, of how parts fit together. Database entrances and remixes don’t demand nearly so much from participants. Anyone who watches some Star Trek episodes, for example, can become a creator (whether sanctioned or not) in the media property’s realm. Critics might make claims about the quality of the participant/creator’s work, but these may be of no consequence to creators and those who view their works. Archival is usually not so casually entered into, however, since an archive presents more obstacles to remixing and shuffling.
As archives and databases continue to grow, and new forms of media rise and fall in popularity, we will see more complications between archive and database. These complications are probably no bad thing, however, since they provide us with multiple ways of capturing and understanding information. Since the control of information is a form of power, we will need to continually pay close attention to how archives and databases interact to hold and make accessible our knowledge.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Harris, Katherine D. “Archive.” Digital Keywords, edited by Benjamin Peters, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 45-53.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.