Commentary, Opinion

Campus Conversations: Archives

Community, Commemoration, and the Collective Archive

Matthew Molinaro, Managing Editor

Last semester, I started working in the Black Students’ Network (BSN) archive as part of my elected responsibilities in our political portfolio. In our small office nestled in the University Centre, I sat in front of hundreds of books, an aging MacBook on my lap, going through each page one by one. With the sweetness of future critical consciousness hanging over my brain, my tongue tickled with the words we must find. Immersed in this library, lingering with the tender notes, the writings bristling with weapons, the pulses and rhythms of the collective my predecessors remembered to keep close would be the only way forward.

The dust speckled off of a collection of Alice Walker’s poetry dedicated to her mentor Muriel Rukeyser. To be at Sarah Lawrence with them. How do we make legible our collaboration? The spines of Dudley Randall and Henry Dumas’ collected works winced under my categorizing caress. We never speak of the informal methods of canonization. I read lines from each aloud, militancy and beauty rustle together in this melody. Archival weight hangs on the Black writer––we will forget you––as the Black reader wanders for recuperation, crouching below legacies that loom, tangled at the roots to be rhizomatic. 

My work goes abroad. Countless tomes, past and present, devoted to the ruthless destruction of apartheid in South Africa, sociological excavations, multilingual prose-poems for freedom, memoirs that documented the violence, stared back at me as I parsed through them. Eyes that bite. The hairs on the back of my neck stand as moments of both being and radical remembering haunt this government building—freeze the air. Sitting in the cold nothingness of quiet, I ask myself: Who do I institutionalize? What forms can liberation take for us all?

The list grows on a desultory Google Sheet. Stories turn into numbers, columns make containers for our meaning-making. After a few days’ work, I read back the riches. The ledger, the possessions, the objects at my disposal. Black life, Black livelihood, Black livingness rendered into a familiarly brutal mathematics whose hold grips the nimble, wayward poetics of new creative and collective worlds. I struggle to speak the language of this archival practice. This translation transforms an ethics. The lives we save can’t reproduce, the technologies that justified the lives we’ve lost. But, in being in the archive, extraction seen for its exploitative guise, we can propel libraries for us, writing fruitfully the future we must work toward together.

Asking the digital archive who I am 

Madison McLauchlan, Editor-in-Chief

At the age of 11, a Facebook account became the portal into the rest of my young life. Somewhere between the mourning cries of MySpace and the over-filtered Instagram era, I uploaded my first photo and thus began my personal, digital archive. A profile, a full name (naïvely), some likes, and a network: A person, created. 

No digital trace of me exists before this age—I was coddled, grandfathered in by a generation so attached to physical mementos. VHS tapes, CD-ROMs, polaroids faded into obsolescence. Looking back now, I can’t pinpoint when the prospect of an online presence stopped being the riveting unknown and morphed into an extension of myself. High school dances, memes, birthday posts, acne and awkwardness, a political consciousness, all preserved on a timeline scroll, under the deceptive, out of a “Delete” button. 

The insidiousness of the digital archive reveals itself as we age. At a certain point, you decide to lean in or lean out. I ask the perennial question: When does surveillance stop being a privilege? When employers crawl Instagram tagged photos to find a drop of liquor? Or when the government rejects a passport application because of a reposted political statement? In the metaverse, digital borders are just as violent. 

Of course, a digital archive holds so much good, too: The kind that our tired, melting brains cannot recall. People we loved, pets we adored, songs we had on repeat, and articles we authored combine to form the breadcrumb trail of a life. But it’s a double-edged sword: Playlists become elegies, laughter becomes screenshots, and frozen, photographed smiles haunt you forever. Some things you can never take back.

If we have children someday, their archive will begin in the womb. How do we reject cyborg motherhood from within the matrix? I’ll put the ultrasound on my close friends story, but not on my main. Or nowhere at all. Life’s accomplishments deserve to be recorded, but the question of where has serious ramifications. Like it or not, digital archives are digital legacies—pixellated and permanent. 

The more of ourselves we stamp into the digital ether, the clearer the truth becomes: Originality still exists, but privacy is dead. 

Open your eyes to the archives around you

Theodore Yohalem Shouse, Contributor

My new favourite study spot is the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ). It’s nice to get off campus and be immersed in the city. Spending time at BAnQ has made me think, as we reach the end of the semester, that it’s worth looking back on the year and considering how we’d like to spend the next one. 

Our brief time at McGill is precious: It’s a time of learning, development, and the creation of our character. The people we meet and the things we do here will have a significant impact on our lives to come. All the choices we make here—to study biology, to learn a new language, to live with friends—will affect everything that comes after. These few university years are crucial; our memories of them will inform the rest of our lives.

This is why I fear that too many of us will finish our degrees simply as McGill students and not as Montrealers. There’s an entire city around us—a city of culture, beauty, and wonder—yet many of us remain in the McGill bubble because it’s socially convenient. It’s much easier to make friends with others in our classes and residences, but it is much more difficult to branch out into the unknown. And as busy students, we often reserve our non-studying hours for sleeping and partying, making it difficult to dedicate time to exploring Montreal. But if we want our few years here to expose us to new lives and opportunities, then we must step beyond Roddick Gates. Take the metro far away, strike up conversation at the farmers market, café, or bookstore. Make that extra scary step to meet someone new. What’s the worst that could happen?

This brings me back to BAnQ. The impressive library is found in the Quartier des Spectacles, near UQÀM. It’s worth a visit simply for its architecture: Sleek glass panels and wooden walls lend the interior a striking yet peaceful ambience. People study quietly, write, and read at desks flooded in light by the immense windows. From high up on the fourth floor balcony, there’s a view of the entire library. It’s an impressive space that puts McLennan and Redpath to shame.

So, here’s an easy way to step out of the McGill bubble: Spice up your routine, and make a short trip to the Grande Bibliothèque to study, not as a McGillian, but as a Montrealer. Maybe you’ll meet someone at the café on the ground floor of the library and make a new friend; maybe you’ll chat quietly with someone reading a favourite book of yours; maybe you’ll get the cute librarian’s number. It’s worth joining the larger Montreal community that McGill is only a small part of.

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