HST6093: Interrogating and Rethinking "the Archive"

HST6093 Image

15 credits (Semester 2019-20: Spring)

Module Leader: Dr Daniel Lee

Please note: this module is subject to approval by the University's Learning and Teaching Committee

Module Summary

"What the searchlight makes visible," Karl Popper wrote "will depend upon its position, upon our way of directing it, and upon its intensity, colour, etc.; although it will, of course, also depend very largely upon the things illuminated by it".

What is the archive? A set of papers? Of documents? An institution? The archive is foundation to the practice of history, to the constitution of states as well as individuals’ histories. We often assume archives hold the truth about how things really were, by providing us with tangible empirical evidence. The more archival evidence we hold, the closer we get to the truth—or so the story goes. We rarely interrogate “the archive.” Yet, as both object and practice, the archive is neither self- evident nor neutral. Its existence relies on historians' understanding of and investment in the status of documents that are deemed ‘proper’ archives. Archives are made: they come into being through institutions, regulations, and codes. They are interpreted according the assumptions embedded in historical writing regarding the notions of fact, evidence, and interpretation. The writing of history often demands that practitioners 'forget' the making and production of archives, yet thinking about how and why we write history demands we explore the very foundations of our discipline.

This course is not designed to teach how to engage in archival research. It will explore how "archives around the world are policed, manipulated, experienced," and naturalized in order to investigate some of the central principles (objectivity, interpretation) that organize the historical profession and that have been the subject of debates, discussions, reflections and controversies.


Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Familiarise you with the themes and debates that relate to the making and production of archives;
  2. Enable you to historicise archives and approaches them as "artifacts of history";
  3. Introduce you to the complex relationship between archivists and archives and how they create and shape history and heritage.
  4. Critically examine current historiography;
  5. Develop your ability to express themselves with confidence and fluency in small and large group setting;
  6. Develop your ability to express yourselves with confidence and fluency in written work.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should (be able to):

  1. Understand the key features and new approaches to thinking about "the archive" (Aim 1);
  2. Have gained the skills to structure a coherent written argument based on an engagement with literature that relates to “the archive” (Aim 6);
  3. Question how some knowledge of the past is preserved while other parts are repressed. Aims 2, 3);
  4. Evaluate critically the theoretical and methodological approaches used by scholars whose work is considered as foundational in the field (Aims 1, 4)
  5. Rethink your own individual research projects in terms of our critical discussion of the archive (Aim 2)
  6. Have developed an ability to work independently and to engage in critical discussion and debate (Aim 5)


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

This module will be taught in five two-hour seminars. Each of these seminars will address a different aspect of the making and production of archives, (LO1 & LO3), based on readings from the critical literature (LO2 & LO4). Seminars will be structured so that debate, reflection, source analysis and discussion can consider the multiple ways in which resources are created for public use (LO5 & LO6).

You will also contribute digitally outside of the classroom using software such as perusall.com in the form of weekly responses to assigned readings (c. 300 words) (LO2 & LO6). Although not included in the final assessment, the marks awarded for these, together with the tutor's comments, are recorded in your files.

You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

Assessment for this course is a 3,000-word critical and historiographical "archive essay" (LO2 & LO6) that reflects on the conceptual and critical uses of the archive (LO1 & LO3). Students will centre their essays around their previous experience of working in or with an archive – either at L3 or in the early stages of their PG work. They will employ the methodological approaches studied during this course as an opportunity to complicate and reflect on their own work as an historian (LO4 & LO5).


Selected reading

  • Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Duke UP, 2010)
  • Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories: Facts, Fiction, and the Writing of History (Duke UP, 2006)
  • Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Duke UP, 2003)
  • Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, Harry Camp Lectures at Stanford University (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987).
  • Lisa Moses Leff, The Archive Thief: The Man who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (Oxford UP, 2015)
  • Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton UP, 2010)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.