Documenting the Senses

Looking through Swarthmore’s Black Liberation Archive, I was particularly struck by their page dedicated to the soundtrack of the liberation. On the one hand, music seems like a very obvious aspect of a political movement (witness the recent Stephen Colbert skit on good Simon & Garfunkel songs to match our current presidential candidates), and on the other, it opened a lot of questions for me: documenting written sources and physical artifacts is all very well and good, but how does one go about recording the other ways we perceive events in our everyday lives– the sounds, the smells, the tastes?

Already Swarthmore’s page is having problems: of the twenty-five songs they have posted, two (“Pata Pata,” Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain) have been removed due YouTube copyright violations in the time since this site first went live. Furthermore, a digital exhibit automatically robs the observer of their ability to touch documents and to conduct physical examinations of an archive’s contents (of course the physical documents are still present somewhere, but then you run into the question of access again).

I think a case can be made for the power of music in demonstrations, but we should also be asking the question of whether it matters that documentation of smell and taste (and perhaps a lesser extent touch and sound) is often lost in the archiving process. We learned from Trouillot that all archives carry with them inherent silences– it’s part of the process. How would you go about preserving smell and taste, anyway? Most likely someone would have to write down how it felt, and that changes the nature of the source, and then…

The short version of all this, really, is that I think the archival process is extremely long and complicated, and I’m really impressed with how Swarthmore handled it. They were right to recognize the importance of music in the student movements, and to make that available to researchers– frankly, I think it was a brilliant idea. The question of maintenance remains, but they do list on the site an option to contact them in the event that you have questions or have found an error, and I’m not sure there’s a better option than that right now.