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Archival encounters: rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives

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The year of 2017 marked the centennial of Denmark’s sale of the former Danish West Indies to the United States of America, today the US Virgin Islands (USVI). The colonial archives figured prominently during the year-long commemorations in Denmark, as the Danish National Archives digitized and publicly released the colonial records of the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Drawing on cultural theories as well as debates in archival science, this article proposes the notion of ‘archival encounter’ to centre the ethical-epistemological challenges of digitization and to emphasize the intersected problematics raised by the encounter between the colonial, the archival and the digital. The article begins by revisiting the history of these archives in order to situate the digitization of these records within debates on provenance, custody and access. It then introduces some of the debates taking place within the field of Atlantic slavery, as well as feminist and critical race theories, to argue that the digitization of the USVI records recasts questions about the limitations and possibilities of colonial archives. Furthermore, the article contends that digitality and datafication are indebted to colonial histories of quantification that structure the technological encounter with the colonial archive. Finally, the article builds on these theorizations to amplify recent calls for a feminist ethics of care in archival praxis. Drawing on postcolonial critiques, the article problematizes and situates the notion of care within the colonial and non-innocent histories in which it is embedded, in order to align ethics of care with a critical reorientation of digital colonial archives. Marshalling a postcolonial feminist critique of care as a framework for thinking, the article suggests, can help us to realign archival encounters in ways that that more pointedly confront the colonial legacies of our present.

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This article is indebted to multiple and ongoing conversations about the legacies of colonialism in Denmark and the US Virgin Islands. I particularly thank Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, La Vaughn Belle, Tami Navarro and the Uncertain Archives collective for inspiring collaborations and support. I would also like to express my gratitude to the editors of this special issue for their incredible intellectual input. Their generous and insightful comments have profoundly shaped the present version of this article. All remaining flaws can be attributed only to me.


The article is based on research funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research and the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

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Correspondence to Daniela Agostinho.

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Agostinho, D. Archival encounters: rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives. Arch Sci 19, 141–165 (2019).

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