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Diasporic Literary Archives: Questions of Location, Ownership and Interpretation

These have been the key themes of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network, ever since its formation by various departments of the University of Reading in 2012.

Authors’ papers offer unique insights into the creative process and as such are hugely valuable to the scholarly community, as well as an often treasured archive of national culture. In recent years the destination of individual collections has become a contested topic of international interest. Given that authors migrate, and papers become dispersed among collectors, families, publishing businesses, and in locations in different countries, the diasporic character of literary archives demands serious attention. The acquisition and preservation of archives is expensive, and subject to the policies and ambitions of governments, as well as individual collectors and patrons. Recently, writers, agents and estates have become more attentive to the political and commercial issues involved in the donation, deposit or sale of their papers, whilst international conglomeration in the publishing industry has generated important implications for copyright, ideas and realities of ownership, and the pragmatics of scholarly access. Furthermore, in the digital age, new technologies hold the potential to transform our understandings of location, access and preservation, affecting in turn the nature of the creative process and of manuscripts, and the forms of scholarship that respond most productively to these.

The Diasporic Literary Archives Network

University of Reading DeviceA network led by the University of Reading was established in 2012 to better understand these issues.  The network’s five partners are: the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; a prominent archivist from Trinidad and Tobago; the Centro per gli studi sulla tradizione manoscritta di autori moderni e contemporanei at the University of Pavia; the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine in France; and the National Library and Archives Service of Namibia.

The Aims of the Network

The Network aims to promote international collaboration in the preservation of, and access to, literary archives. It has brought together a group of established scholars and experts from a variety of institutional backgrounds, and across different disciplines and regions, to initiate a context in which to practice and scrutinise methodological and conceptual frameworks. Through a programme of workshops the network has sought to establish an international perspective on these issues by examining the complicated and sometimes competing motives of different stakeholders.

Workshops held by the Network

The first workshop, held at the University of Reading on 7-8 June 2012, examined the foundational questions of the network. It identified the key ideas on preservation, migration, and the scholarly use of literary papers, and created working documents and action plans that would inform the subsequent workshops (held over 2013-2014). There were contributions from the five network partners outlining the particular issues and challenges confronting them, and from invited experts across a range of interest groups. The second workshop, held at the Università di Pavia on 28 February-1 March 2013, focused on split collections, and the third, at the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine in Caen on 30-31 May 2013, created a forum for discussion around the subject of ownership of literary archives, both public and private. The fourth workshop, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad on March 25-26, 2014 focused on the politics of location. The final meeting, at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University on October 23-24, 2014, considered the benefits and challenges associated with the rise of digital technologies.  Although this workshop marked the end of the Leverhulme Trust’s generous funding, the Network continues to operate: its sixth workshop was hosted by the British Library on April 6, 2016. The workshops have taken the form of a professional conversation, not a speakers-and-audience event. In addition to the network partners, participants represented a broad range of stakeholders: academics, librarians and archivists, authors, agents, manuscript dealers, and other relevant bodies and institutions, such as the Society of Authors and UNESCO.

ICA support, and continuation of the Network

ICA logo_bleu_webIn November 2013, the network became an approved project of the International Council on Archives, by decision of ICA’s Programme Commission. The Network’s ongoing value and impact is recognised by the University of Reading, and the University will support its continuation into the decade of the 2020s.  Visit the News page to read more about work since 2014 on archives in danger / documentary heritage at risk (work with UNESCO and swisspeace); on Caribbean archives (notably with partners in Grenada and Trinidad & Tobago); and on literary, musical and artistic archives in Africa (Namibia, Malawi, Cape Verde, Cameroon and other countries).

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