“Milli”, a group of people interested in archives, organised a series of events for International Archives Week for a second year running. What does it aim to achieve?
“I belong to River Teesta, and I belong to Mount Khangchendzonga,” said Minket Lepcha, a filmmaker and former teacher in Darjeeling, before narrating river folklore told in her community about how the River Teesta came to be, and how it got its name. “The very fact that stories have traditional knowledge and wisdom is where my story began,” she had said earlier, when describing her own journey as a filmmaker, teacher and storyteller. “We need to tell the stories of our ancestors.” Minket shared the tale about the Teesta at a session on community archiving that coincided with International Archives Week 2021 in June, organised by Milli, a consortium of individuals that aims to nurture archives. Minket’s storytelling raised many of the questions that Milli has been trying to engage with: What is an archive? What material – and whose stories – get to be told in an archive, and who gets to claim ownership of them? How can archival material be made accessible to the public, beyond just academic scholars, so that diverse stories can emerge from them? Over the course of seven packed days, these and other questions were discussed during the sessions organised by Milli, which saw historians, artists, journalists, archivists, conservators, librarians, performers and others in conversation about archives.
Milli began in 2020, with a similar series of talks that coincided with International Archives Week that year. The people that form Milli include individuals from a range of backgrounds, such as academia, computer science, and people who work in archives – institutional ones such as those in the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and IISc as well as small community archives such as the one run by the Keystone Foundation in the Nilgiri hills – to name just a few. Oddly, it was the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in 2020 that brought the many people who volunteer at Milli together, and kickstarted the events that the consortium would come to organise.
Why have a collective?
Maya Dodd, an Associate Professor at FLAME University, Pune, works in the areas of culture studies and digital humanities. She is one of Milli’s founding members, and points out that conversations about archives in India and the need to improve them had been going on in different circles – among educationists, archivists, historians, and others – for a while. But with people being located in different places, figuring out a physical meeting point had been hard until the pandemic drove everything online. Suddenly, organising became easier – meetings and conversations on Zoom led to a plan to organise talks and panel discussions pegged onto International Archives Week; participants in remote rural areas or even in other countries such as Pakistan and the USA could be invited without the usual hassles of organising travel and managing visas, and barring small costs such as the purchase of a Zoom account, it could all be pulled off without having to seek funding.
“The hope is that through this process we’ll make a space for different kinds of archives, big and small, to be able to speak to each other”
As Aparna Vaidik, Associate Professor in history at Ashoka University, Delhi, and fellow founding member of Milli, puts it, there are very few fora for archivists to come together with scholars, community workers and others to talk about their work. She says the pandemic “freed us up” in terms of time, distance and resources and made organising a range of events possible. “The hope is that through this process we’ll get to know other people working on similar ideas and similar questions, and make a space for different kinds of archives, big and small, to be able to speak to each other,” says Venkat Srinivasan, archivist at NCBS in Bangalore. “The archive means many things to many people, and we wanted to see what that umbrella would look like,” he adds.
Access to the archive
One of Milli’s major goals is to improve public awareness about and access to archives. “If we open up the definition [of the archive] and the engagement with an archive, then the kinds of resources available to the public and storytellers changes by having such a network and shared spaces to know that this exists,” says Venkat. A way of making archives more accessible is by encouraging structure for archives in terms of helping provide a framework for conservation of materials, standards for describing archival material, and developing legal standards for accessing archives in India, among other things.
Digitising archival material and providing a catalogue of the content online can also help. Maya talks about her work in the digital humanities classroom with students to create catalogues of different archive collections. She believes that there ought to be two-way traffic between universities and archives, and conversations across these spaces. “But if we can’t even arrange this material in a digital catalogue, how are we going to have these conversations?” she asks. Language can also pose hurdles where access is concerned. TB Dinesh, another founding member of Milli and founder of the tech non-profit Janastu, cautions that people who are not literate are often simply not seen, but that new kinds of content can help make archives accessible to them. Then there’s the question of dominant languages. “How do you break down the hegemony of one language that marginalises others?” asks Aparna, who asserts that it is necessary to push for multilingual archives.
The language of description, called metadata, and the way in which archival material is described can also affect whether it is accessible. Metadata in archives typically involves keywords that tag information, potentially making this information easier to find during a search. “You discover material using keywords,” says Venkat. “We have an opportunity to explore this in India and I don’t think we do this often enough. We don’t engage with this question of how the way something is described impacts whether or not it is going to be found and who is going to find it. The archivist’s description may not take into account different ways of seeing an object. If the public is able to point out other ways of viewing an object, archives are richer for it.” With the goal of facilitating public involvement in how archival material is described, Milli is working on an open-source platform to allow people to add their own annotations and tags to catalogued material as additional layers of description. The platform is also intended as a means to discover and find archives and archival material by building “a catalogue of catalogues”, to use Venkat’s term.
Dinesh sees the platform for annotations that Milli is building as a bridge between different kinds of archives, connecting traditional institutional archives to community archives, which are an area of focus at Milli. “We need new directions and ways of including more people in what we traditionally think of as archive spaces,” he emphasises. “One of our goals when we came together was to highlight, amplify and support community archives and community archiving efforts,” says Aparna. Community archiving also forces a reckoning with the ethical questions that come into play when archiving people’s lives – about representation, about whose perspective defines the way a community is seen, about the value assigned to community lives and community knowledge, about ownership of and access to the material that is archived, and who the user of the archives is. “Community archiving,” says Aparna, “is about embedding the community’s concerns, their vision, and their gaze into the archive. And when a community creates its own archive, it has ownership of that knowledge, which can impact the way that knowledge is presented and taught.”
“One of our goals when we came together was to highlight, amplify and support community archives and community archiving efforts”
Community archiving can also point to new directions for the field. Maya points out that Adivasi Lives Matter, one of the participants in the Milli sessions this year, uses the internet and social media to enable indigenous people to document and share stories about their communities. Khabar Lahariya, a grassroots feminist media publication, began as a print newspaper with hyperlocal stories almost 20 years ago, and today also has online editions and YouTube shows, still with a hyperlocal focus. Kavita Bundelkhandi, its editor-in-chief, emphasised during a Milli session the importance of engaging with people in their own language. Dinesh, who is also involved in a community radio initiative near Tumkur in Karnataka, says that it is important to envision a space where storytelling is driven by the archive and is available to all. An example of this at the community level, he says, is the community of Helavarus in Karnataka, “tellers”, who travel from home to home singing of each family’s history, which is based on written genealogical records that are constantly updated. Opening up access to archives, he says, allows people to bring their voices and connections to all these archives. “It could be the truck-loader’s son who has become a scientist,” he offers as an example. If archival information about this scientist was accessible to the truck-loader’s community, they could use this to tell stories about themselves, drawing a relationship with and building on records in institutional archives.
Milli is keen to facilitate the use of archives in storytelling as a way of breaking down how we think about scholarship, says Venkat. “Historians are perhaps the most frequent visitors of the archives. [One of Milli’s goals] is to ask what kinds of knowledge are produced in their fields, and ask what are the gaps in this knowledge.” “If historians continue to draw on big institutional archives, it is [only] those stories that will get represented,” says Aparna.
At the moment there are two components to Milli, the organising of talks and discussions, and the building of the tech platform. The collective itself is an informal and open-ended one, with a loose structure and no official membership. So far, it has served as a place for discussion and collaboration, and has led to programmes such as the Ownership of Public History in India, funded by the British Academy, and projects such as the Indian Community Cookbook Project. “We’re facilitating conversations that would be difficult to have individually,” says Farah Yameen, an independent researcher and contributor to Milli. “Right now it is essentially run on enthusiasm, which a lot of us have in a fairly healthy amount,” Farah adds.
Whether to develop a formal structure is one aspect that the collective has been debating. “We are not an official body – that is not our goal,” says Maya. Though she sees the loose formation of the collective as being one of its strengths, she also sees it as a limitation. A more formal and long-term structure would enable its members to go beyond hosting discussions to doing consulting and applied work. Aparna also feels that the collective needs to be clearer in its vision. But that would mean more involved internal discussions on what the group’s different members agree on, including ownership of data, whom to accept funding from. And “boring” questions such as “Should we have a mailing list?” Venkat jokes. These are aspects that the collective still needs to work out.
For now, it continues with its goal, as Venkat puts it, of raising public awareness about what archives are, to interrogate, and to celebrate them.
Donna Eva is a freelance writer and illustrator