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The Document as Epistemic Object: Notes on Archival Knowledge Cultures

  • Alexander Starre EMAIL logo
From the journal Anglia


This article strategically resituates scholarly engagement with archival documents within the media ecology and the epistemic culture that sustains literary and cultural studies, noting affinities between historical and contemporary configurations as well as between theoretical and medial-material dimensions of archives. Based on current debates on the growing relevance of archival documents in American Studies and adjacent fields, it stakes out a framework that leans on recent work in a small branch of contemporary literary theory focused on historical epistemology, especially with regard to the notion of ‘epistemic objects’. Engaging these theoretical concerns, the article discusses concrete archival collections and documents, including letters by the novelist Willa Cather and items from a capacious archive documenting the emergence and evolution of Andrew Carnegie’s public library philanthropy. I outline several ways in which the shape and the aesthetics of such archives embody the information economies and epistemic situations of the past – in this case, the formative period around 1900. Finally, the article addresses the digital document overload that confronts the contemporary researcher and comments on the emerging archival knowledge culture of today’s humanities.

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Published Online: 2020-09-23
Published in Print: 2020-09-15

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