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Archives as Crucible, Archives as Commons. Talk by archivist and science writer Venkat Srinivasan

Wednesday, September 25, 2019
2:30pm to 3:30pm
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Speaker: Venkat Srinivasan is a visiting researcher and archivist at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. He, together with his team, is developing templates to pull archival material into coherent stories, and connect personal stories to established records of a scientific process. Prior to this, he was a research engineer at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University. He is an independent science writer, with work in The Atlantic and Scientific American online, Nautilus, Aeon, Wired, and the Caravan. This intersection of science journalism, scientific research and history led to probing ways to building diverse science narratives from archival material.

Abstract: Archives enable diverse stories. This aim shapes the purpose of an archive and what environments it could nourish in the future. And it serves as our beacon for most steps in the life cycle of a historical record – from sourcing material to making sense of it, and then in making it visible to the public.

Collectively, we can reimagine the Archives as a crucible for education and as a way to strengthen the commons. This short talk will review the place – physically and intellectually -- of the archive in the age of Instagram and the unique opportunity that is in each of our hands as custodians of personal and professional histories. The talk will discuss the use of the physical space of the Archives at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), a public collecting center for the history of contemporary biology in India that opened in February 2019. We hope that a living, breathing archive can bridge the gaps between four silos: the scientists, historians of science, storytellers for a non academic audience, and the public.

At the heart of an archive – both for the archivist and for the user – is an attempt to find meaning in the data stream. This data can arrive at the archive in various containers: a custom-built lab contraption, a four-hour-long audio interview, an annotated album of photographs.

Within each object lie many stories waiting to be interpreted, each a reflection of the interpreter. We will try and unpack this idea.

For the archives to be continuously relevant, it also has to listen to and speak to those who will be custodians in the next generation. So, during the setup starting in August 2017, the Archives decided to involve students at an early stage. We positioned the archives as an ecosystem for learning for students across disciplines. In the first 1.5 years of this experiment, the Archives has been host to 40 students from across India and from various disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, education, history, art, design, journalism, communication, sociology, and law. They all work independently or with each other and develop projects around their specific interests.

The talk will also briefly allude to a couple of other collaborative projects the Archives is undertaking over the coming three years: an open source storytelling and annotation template as an additional layer to the Archives digital portal, and the development of a global interconnected digital archive of science through standards across archival material.

For more information, please contact Mariella Soprano by email at [email protected].