Archives enable diverse stories. This statement serves as a guiding principle for us through the workflow of historical records – sourcing for material, archival judgment and accessioning policies, understanding context and arrangement, preservation/conservation, and physical and digital access.

In late 2016, when we started the endeavour to build a new archive, we wanted to deliberate on the purpose of an archive and what environments it could nourish in the future.

We at the Archives at NCBS are developing an interconnected science archive project linking storytelling to historic material and scientific research.

Archival material is difficult to work with in India due to lack of access and common standards. We want people to see – and make – connections between disparate archival records flung across repositories.

We are building a space that makes it easier for multiple interpretations and stories to emerge from the raw data. The premise is a little bit of a truism, but it serves as a beacon for this whole exercise: What we tend to remember are stories, which arise from the way we see and describe primary data—oral histories, manuscripts, photographs, research notes. These annotations should be thought of as the card catalogs of primary historical information on the web.

The pilot repository, the archives of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), will hold both institutional records and material from beyond the walls of the campus, covering the history of 20th century biology in India. Like the research at NCBS, it will traverse the scales of biology, from molecules to ecosystems. The physical and digital archive – a tiny start in this endeavour – is open for research and public use starting in 2019. It is our first step in rethinking the interplay between memory, database and narrative.

As we build the physical and digital archive at NCBS, we hope it situates itself at the intersection of four silos in society: the scientific community that generates archival material, the historians of science that interpret archival material, the communicators and interrogators of science for a non academic audience, and the public itself.

An archival record is a fragment of a story. The narratives of our lives give rise to these things we call collections, manuscripts, oral history interviews, each an abstract item sitting in the physical and digital shelves of an archive. We keep that in mind when we look for archival material: Every person has many stories, and every story has many people. We hope these two maxims remind us of the need to be diverse in our accessioning policy.

It is true that archival records sitting in a database are often decoupled from the stories that generated them. They gather dust or, worse yet, are found in set narratives. But an archival record is not static. Every archival record is a consequence of narratives. It has many ways of seeing, and it should be catapulted back into newer stories. This is of course in the hands of the gatekeepers of archives. Stories will emerge if we empower the records with catalogue descriptions that expand our imagination and connect the dots of our messy histories. We need to build spaces for the public to come and inform us of new ways of seeing the records we preserve. If archives come from stories, into stories the archive must go. This interplay is necessary for the very existence of data, narrative and repository.

The Archives at NCBS is being built in three broad phases and as part of a larger experiment to develop an interconnected digital archive of science with a parallel narrative layer. Besides building an extensive catalogue for material housed at NCBS, we aim to develop open source tools for the public to find and tell varying narratives from the digital archive.

The first phase of this digital experiment in archiving, journalism and storytelling was a pilot exhibit on thirteen ways of looking at the institutional history of NCBS (paying homage to Wallace Stevens' poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird). The pilot project tries to bring to light multiple interpretations of NCBS, weaved by the voices of over 70 story tellers. The material for the exhibit ( is curated from records collected to build the Centre's archive. The oral history excerpts, along with over 600 photographs, official records, letters, and the occasional lab note, give a glimpse into the Centre's history and show connections with the present.

In the next phase, we hope to release an open source storytelling portal in an ‘Exhibits’ section on the Archives that enables the public to draft newer narratives and connections between the different kinds of archival material, thus allowing multiple ways of seeing to coexist.

Following that, we hope to start forming parallel networks of catalogues and stories linked to each other across institutions, places, events, people and time. This will be an effort to build an interconnected digital archival of science with pilot material from various science archives in India and then, later, from other parts of the world. This will be made available through a digital platform to historians, journalists, scientific researchers and the general public.

The aim is not to build more data visualization widgets – these tools will drift in and out of popularity. The foundation of our work is in how an individual record is sourced and described. The focus is on building a storytelling platform that relies on this interpretation of data. We think of this not so much as a project, but as a movement, one that embeds itself firmly in the idea we brought up earlier in this document: what we remember are stories, and stories reside in the way we see primary archival material. To allow this ecosystem to flourish, what needs to be preserved and nurtured is not just a diversity of memories, but also ways of seeing memory.


January 2019
Venkat Srinivasan