Scholarly Memory in Nairobi, Kenya: Essay Meta-Narrative


AO: I have taken this year's frame of "innovation" very broadly to think about the technologies, spaces and practices needed to preserve and care for research data. What is particularly innovative about the long-standing practice of archiving primary source materials? I tack between historical materials found in the very places highlighted and the rationale behind the creation of these spaces. Why were archives deemed a necessary "innovation" in the 1960s at the cusp of Kenyan independence? How has their purpose and the care of them shifted over time? What are the implications for "innovations" in contemporary scholarly communications and the circulation of knowledges today?

Archives -- characterized broadly as a kind of "techno-prostheses" (Derrida 1995, 34) in time and space of our knowledge or experience of the world (Waterton 2010) -- continue to be an important place of/for "innovation." I pose that the "innovation" which scholarly data archives offer are--under the right conditions--as placeholders towards imagining what more decentralised, non-hierarchical and locally controlled forms of scholarly communications infrastructure might look like.

Scholars like Arondekar (2009) and Chaudhuri et al. (2010) have challenged the assumption that an archive is a neutral, immutable, and a historical repository of information, arguing instead that the archives are a place where important decisions about what documents--and therefore whose history--are made. Michelle Dizon explores the politics of archives in The Archive’s Fold where she questions: where are the archive of communities who are erased from the historical record? And how might digital technology inaugurate a space for state archives to repeat old forms of occupation and invent new ones? Across these questions, Dizon explores what understanding of archives might aid in a decolonial struggle for memory, all the while asking what needs to be remembered, why, and for whom?

Technologists and digital humanities scholars have also increasingly fixed their attention to the archives. I have come to learn of initiatives like the Digital Himalaya Project (Turin 2011); Mukurtu (Christen 2011); and individual projects like the development of an archive as part of Lisa Cliggett's dissertation project. The impact of digital technologies on practices of fieldwork and the materials that result from ethnographic research which is increasingly being "born archival" (Turin 2011) requires contemporary scholars to think about how they are making "back-ups for the future" through our own ethnographic data practices (Currie and Paris 2018). In spite of the importance of thinking about the preservation of materials, through the process of conducting the research for this exhibit, I was also reminded that digitization and the development of digital archives in Kenya are set against a history of unequal colonial relations which endures into the present day. There is continued suspicion about who truly benefits from materials made digital and this is particularly important to take into account.

I (AO) am interested in these sites of public research data because of broader interests in supporting non-commercial scholarly infrastructures. There is a neglected commercial layer to discussions about the scholarly archive. Emerging studies have shed light on the expansion of commercial publishers into all parts of the scholarly research life cycle, including data analytics for ‘impact factors’, university rankings and management of research data. While expansion of commercial publishers into of ethnographic research data archives appears still nascent, if recent news is any indication, it may only be a matter of time. Given the already uneven landscape of publishing power, what are the implications for the diversity of knowledge production in such moves towards consolidation?

Given my existing relationships, personal and professional commitments to the country and ongoing dissertation project research, I chose to look at questions of care and stewardship of research data specifically in Nairobi. Kenya appears to be a context where there is high research saturation across a wide range of disciplines and actors, thus making it a particularly important place from which to think about the care of research data.

To radically reshape the way scholarship and scholarly knowledge is produced and communicated requires questioning who makes the decisions about it and why. Focusing our attention on the sociotechnical knowledge infrastructures can help spark these important conversations: what might decentralised but still interconnected, non-hierarchical and locally controlled forms of scholarly communications and knowledge look like? From that vision, perhaps we can help pluralise forms of knowledge and bring its stewardship and care closer to the communities it most concerns.


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Contributed date

June 4, 2019 - 11:20am

Critical Commentary

This artifact details the rationale behind the Scholarly Memory in Nairobi, Kenya 4S 2019 iSTS exhibit.


Angela Okune