I’ve been enjoying reading David Macey’s biography of Michel Foucault, that was republished in 2019 by Verso. Macey himself is an interesting figure, both a scholar and an activist who took leave from academia to do translation work and to write this biography and others of Lacan and Fanon.

One thing that struck me as I’m nearing the end of Macey’s book is the relationship between Foucault and archives. I think Foucault has become emblematic of a certain brand of literary analysis of “the archive” that is far removed from the research literature of archival studies, while using “the archive” as a metaphor (Caswell, 2016). I’ve spent much of my life working in libraries and digital preservation, and now studying and teaching about them from the perspective of practice, so I am very sympathetic to this critique. It is perhaps ironic that the disconnect between these two bodies of research is a difference in discourse which Foucault himself brought attention to.

At any rate, the thing that has struck me while reading this biography is how much time Foucault himself spent working in libraries and archives. Here’s Foucault in his own words talking about his thesis:

In Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique I wished to determine what could be known about mental illness in a given epoch … An object took shape for me: the knowledge invested in complex systems of institutions. And a method became imperative: rather than perusing … only the library of scientific books, it was necessary to consult a body of archives comprising decrees, rules hospital and prison registers, and acts of jurisprudence. It was in the Arsenal or the Archives Nationales that I undertook the analysis of a knowledge whose visible body is neither scientific nor theoretical discourse, nor literature, but a daily and regulated practice. (Macey, 2019, p. 94)

Foucault didn’t simply use archives for his research: understanding the processes and practices of archives were integral to his method. Even though the theory and practice of libraries and archives are quite different given their different functions and materials, they are often lumped together as a convenience in the same buildings. Macey blurs them a little bit, in sections like this where he talks about how important libraries were to Foucault’s work:

Foucault required access to Paris for a variety of reasons, not least because he was also teaching part-time at ENS. The putative thesis he had begun at the Fondation Thiers – and which he now described to Polin as being on the philosophy of psychology – meant that he had to work at the Bibliothèque Nationale and he had already become one of its habitues. For the next thirty years, Henri Labrouste’s great building in the rue de Richelieu, with its elegant pillars and arches of cast iron, would be his primary place of work. His favourite seat was in the hemicycle, the small, raised section directly opposite the entrance, sheltered from the main reading room, where a central aisle separates rows of long tables subdivided into individual reading desks. The hemicycle affords slighty more quiet and privacy. For thirty years, Foucault pursued his research here almost daily, with occasional forays to the manuscript department and to other libraries, and contended with the Byzantine cataloguing system: two incomplete and dated printed catalogues supplemented by cabinets containing countless index cards, many of them inscribed with copperplate handwriting. Libraries were to become Foucault’s natural habitat: ‘those greenish institutions where books accumulate and where there grows the dense vegetation of their knowledge’

There’s a metaphor for you: libraries as vegetation :) It kind of reminds me of some recent work looking at decentralized web technologies in terms of mushrooms. But I digress.

I really just wanted to note here that the erasure of archival studies from humanities research about “the archive” shouldn’t really be attributed to Foucault, whose own practice centered the work of libraries and archives. Foucault wasn’t just writing about an abstract archive, he was practically living out of them. As someone who has worked in libraries and archives I can appreciate how power users (pun intended) often knew aspects of the holdings and intricacies of their their management better than I did. Archives, when they are working, are always collaborative endeavours, and the important thing is to recognize and attribute the various sides of that collaboration.

PS. Writing this blog post led me to dig up a few things I want to read (Eliassen, 2010; Radford, Radford, & Lingel, 2015 ).


Caswell, M. (2016). The archive is not an archives: On acknowledging the intellectual contributions of archival studies. Reconstruction, 16(1). Retrieved from http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/161/Caswell.shtml

Eliassen, K. (2010). Archives of Michel Foucualt. In E. Røssaak (Ed.), The archive in motion, new conceptions of the archive in contemporary thought and new media practices. Novus Press.

Macey, D. (2019). The lives of Michel Foucault: A biography. Verso.

Radford, G. P., Radford, M. L., & Lingel, J. (2015). The library as heterotopia: Michel Foucault and the experience of library space. Journal of Documentation, 71(4), 773–751.