Anarchic Archives

Alyse Dunavant-Jones

I discovered the concept of anarchic archives while conducting research on Angola’s National Archives: Arquivo Histórico Nacional/Arquivo Nacional de Angola.

In a blog post entitled “Field Notes from Angola: Of Archived Archives and Anarchic Archives”, Schenck (2015) describes her experience climbing “a mountain of documents” in the “dusty dark” with the sole guidance from an archivist: “You can climb it and see whether you find anything that might interest you.” She goes on to ponder exactly what constitutes an archives, describes the different places her historical research took her, and offers tips for future researchers in Africa.

When I told my IDNA colleagues about Schenck’s experience, I was surprised to discover that anarchic archives are a common phenomenon not just in Africa, but all over the world. Indeed many researchers and archivists, including IDNA’s Dr. Pat Franks, have sifted through trailers and dug through attic boxes for vital information contained in these orphaned, scattered archives.

Another example of anarchic archives comes from “Anarchic Archives: The Potency and Problems of Maritime Archaeological Archives” (Ransley and Satchell, 2014). Ransley and Satchell argue that maritime archives in the UK are unkempt due to the conditions in which the archives are created (oftentimes at sea) and the “messy politics of archive production” which gives “a sense that these archives are created within an ungoverned, ambiguous legal (and physical) environment” (p. 2). They describe the resulting archives as “dispersed, un-curated and insecure”.

How Can National Archives Help?

Most national archives’ collections and focuses are limited to government records. It is not uncommon for national archives to also collect cultural and historical records of enduring value, but it would be impossible for these institutions to track and secure all records created in a country. This means that, while national archives are often a starting point for researchers, they may not be the finish line. In fact, a researcher may travel to many different offices, institutions, and even private homes to find certain information. This is especially the case in war-torn, post-colonial, and developing countries.

One way national archives can improve researchers’ experiences with anarchic archives is assistance in locating and contacting the archives. National archives often have contact information for state and provincial archives. Additionally, national archives may have contact information for other archives that hold records related to the national archive’s collections and mission.

Schenck describes another way the Angolan National Archives, her “home base” during her time in Angola, assisted her research: “The director wrote the invitation letter necessary to apply for my visa and provided me with a valuable letter, certifying my bona fide status as a researcher.” The director’s letter gave Schenck credibility that helped her gain entrance into anarchic archives as well as government offices.


Ransley, J. & Satchell, J. (2014). Anarchic archives: The potency and problems of maritime archaeological archives. Archive Issue of the Archaeological Review, 29(2), 181-197.

Schenck, M. (2015, July 6). Field notes from Angola: Of archived archives and anarchic archives. AHA Today: A Blog of the American Historical Association. Retrieved from