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The Archive in Theory, Practice, and the Novel

ENGL 799.301
Thursdays 9-12:00 pm
fulfills requirements:


This seminar is an experiment designed to demystify “the Archive” by broadening our understanding of modern archival practices, performing research tasks among disparate collections in various stages of processing, and reading key theorizations of the archive in an effort to harmonize—or at least bridge—theory and praxis. Our readings will consist of a mélange of theory, practical guides, original sources, and literary fiction.

We will meet in the RBML itself (in one of the new 6th floor seminar rooms) in order to have access to archival materials during many of our class sessions. We will have the chance to consult with Penn archivists and curators, and to discuss such issues as the concepts of original order and provenance, intellectual and physical control, the politics of appraisal and archival curation, materiality and ephemerality; the gaps and aporias that surround and define any archive; the advent of “born digital” materials; and the evolving challenges of preservation. Students will have the opportunity to review materials contained in different kinds of collections, and at different stages on the journey from acquisition to reading room, and to share their own “archive stories” as lessons in method. Along the way, we will address some of the fundamental challenges of archival research: how to prepare, how to read finding aids, and how to sift through an excess of material. The course should foster critical conversation about how archives are constructed, consulted, and conceived in recent scholarship and literature, putting pressure on the latter as a malleable form of archival thinking.

Assignments will include performing a finding aid exercise, creating a detailed inventory of an unprocessed box, exercises in archival appraisal, and independent archival research followed by a presentation. The presentation will consist of a briefing report on the experience and reasoning behind your research choices, and their outcome in the field. For at least one class session over the course of the semester, each student will be appointed as chief discussant, in effect guiding the group by making correspondences with our readings. For your final assignment, you will be given the choice between writing a research paper or developing a research plan. The paper may expand on work you began during the semester related to the readings and/or archives we consulted. The other option would entail the construction of a detailed research plan, along with a rationale, for a future visit to a specific, or a few specific, repositories.

Note: Because RBML will be granting us unprecedented access to some uncatalogued collections, enrollment will be limited. Feel free to email me with questions: