The Shelley-Godwin Archive

What is it?

The Shelley-Godwin Archive is a website that brings together “digital surrogates” of late 18th- and early 19th- century manuscripts by four members of the famed Shelley-Godwin family, who have been termed “England’s first family of writers.”

Background

The Shelley-Godwin Archive is the result of a collaboration between the New York Public Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). The project was funded by the NEH from 2011 through 2015; it is unclear whether the site continues to be updated as of early 2019.

The Shelley-Godwin Archive aggregates digitized versions of handwritten primary source documents held by the five institutions represented below. According to the Shelley-Godwin Archive “About” page, these five institutions “contain over 90% of all known relevant manuscripts.”

Select documents from these geographically-dispersed institutions are accessible to anyone who uses the Shelley-Godwin Archive site. However, it is unclear what proportion of each institution’s holdings by the four writers has been made available through the Shelley-Godwin Archive. This begs important questions about context raised by Kate Theimer in her “Digital Historiography and the Archives” talk:

  • Who assembled the archive?
  • What is the archive’s purpose?
  • What criteria did they use?
    • On what basis were items added to this collection?
    • Why were some items excluded?
    • To what extent is what’s being presented a subset of what’s available?

Some of these questions, particularly about who assembled the archive and the archive’s purpose, are answered on the “About” page. However, any researcher who is engaging with these digitized primary sources for scholarly purposes would have to do some digging about the criteria used to add or exclude items.

Navigation

The site includes five main tabs: Home, About, Explore the Archive, Search, and Using the Archive.

A scrolling panel at the top of the archive’s Home page provides an immediate point of reference about the writers who are represented in the archive, as well as different versions of one of the archive’s most famous literary works, Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

The Home page also includes prominent links to a page that provides in-depth instructions for how to use the archive and “Featured Works.”

The Explore the Archive and Search pages provide three distinct ways of encountering primary sources from the archive:

  • By Work
  • By Manuscript
  • Search results returned by a user’s queries

The digitized primary sources included in the archive represent manuscripts for works of literature and political philosophy. It is likely that many of the site’s users have access to and are most familiar with the published version of these works. However, the order in which some of the manuscript materials appear in physical collections may differ from the published order.

Browsing the archive “By Work” allows a researcher to explore the pages of a manuscript in their published order.

Alternatively, browsing the archive “By Manuscript” allows a researcher to explore the pages of a manuscript in the physical order in which they appear in a collection.

The Search page has robust functionality for finding the sources that are most relevant to a user and refining a search. The archive’s Introductory Video helpfully uses the example of searching the term “lightning” to demonstrate how a researcher can find all of the instances of the word “lightning” that appear in the digitized primary sources, and then refine the search results by work, manuscript, and/or by author.

Examining Digitized Primary Sources

Once a user finds a work to examine more closely, they will see a webpage similar to the ones below that includes a source’s metadata, a source’s Transcription Status and Metadata Status, and one page of a primary source alongside a transcription of that page (if available).

Overall, the Shelley-Godwin Archive provides access to digital representations of valuable primary source documents that might otherwise be inaccessible to researchers across the globe. It has robust functionality for finding and examining sources, and provides useful, clear instructions for how to use the site’s features. The site also conveys some important contextual information about the Archive and the primary sources themselves. However, anyone using the archive for scholarly research should think critically along the lines of the questioning that Trevor Owens raises in “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History” about how a primary source has been rendered digitally, how a researcher has encountered that source, and what is gained or lost in the process.

Digital Archives: “Humanizing the Craft”

As we try to identify and define what exactly “digital archives” are, I believe that an important part of that process is looking into the role they play, both for professionals and the public.  By looking at how people view, and use, digital archives, we can develop a better understanding of what they can be.

“Digital archives” can mean many different things to many different people, so it is important to understand that this title is never going to apply to one specific thing.  What is even more significant to understand is that professionals and the public do not always view them the same way. Digital archives provide different opportunities and resources for these groups; however, they can also act as a bridge between the two.  

In their articles, Bergis Jules, Jarrett Drake, and Kimberly Christen highlight the importance of digital archives in the general public and give advice to professionals looking to create archives for those communities.  Why is this important? Why am I harping on the public’s experiences with digital archives so much? Well, that’s because this resource makes accessible to the public resources that were not always easy to get to. This is especially important for professionals to understand.  Even if they are not looking to collaborate with the public to develop a digital archive, it is still important to be aware of how communities outside archives view them.

Drake explains the public’s view of archives especially well in his article.  First, “traditional” archives are not always accessible. For example, if any of you have ever taken a trip to the National Archives’ research center, you will find that even getting a reading room card can pose a challenge.  They require a government issued ID that includes your photograph. If you have one, then you can get your card to do your research- but not everyone does. The National Archives are not the only ones requiring this, and Drake makes it a point to call out the fact that obstacles like this may not seem especially challenging; however, they do deter some of the public away.  More importantly, they can also contribute to a greater exclusion of certain communities from using archives.

This exclusion doesn’t only apply to whether or not someone can go into an archive, it also applies to the content being kept in the space as well. In his article, Drake calls for archivists to think about the following: “Before even thinking about whether to document the Black Lives Matter movement, look at your existing holdings and see whether or not black lives matter there. And while doing so, see whether all black lives matter there.” When a group’s history is also being excluded from an archive, what other options are there? How can archivists make their institution more inclusive and accessible?

This is where digital archives can play an important role.

Similar to Drake, Christen and Jules stress the importance of building a relationship with the public.  The digital archive can be an accessible space for collaboration. For Kimberly Christen, her experience in developing the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive led her to a close working relationship with the Warumungu community.  They wanted to make an accessible resource, and they wanted to do this with the community.  This partnership resulted in a digital archive constructed around community generated content and tailored to the wants and needs identified by the Warumungu community.  The Mukurtu Project is a significant example of how professionals in this field can work with the public to create digital archives.

There are many different ways to identify digital archives, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Being so undefinable results in different and unique ways to work with digital archives. Drake, Christen, and Jules show us how valuable these resources can be for the general public.  They also show us how digital archives can be a place where professionals work with communities to create a more accessible and personal resource. Professionals need to be aware of obstacles, value the archival work already being done in some communities, and appreciate the opportunities collaborating with the public can lead to.  Digital archives can be many different things, and one of the roles they can play is being a point of cooperation between humanities professionals and the general public.

What to make of what has been made of “digital archives”

How do archivists preserve digital records? How do humanities scholars describe the “digital archives” in which those records are kept and preserved for future use? How do historians responsibly share digital information created in the normal (and sometimes troubling) course of public and private life? What are digital sources and how should historians interpret them? These are just some of the questions that Bergis Jules, Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, and Trevor (Professor) Owens confront in (their digital publications) “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism,” “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive,” and “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” respectively.

In his post, Jules makes a compelling argument for why social media posts that are reactions to, reflections on, and memories of moments and periods of activism in modern American history is needed now more than ever. For one, gathering social media posts around activism forces historians, archivists, and activist historians and activist archivists to tackle important questions around privacy. Not to mention the fact that many of those who now create what will become the historical data, the primary sources for the future, are still alive and will be for decades to come. It also gives historians a chance to more thoroughly address questions about the responsible use and interpretation of sources. We need not look any further than the case of the Boston tapes to understand the technically true influence of recorded history on present issues that unravel social cohesion and set back efforts for peace. Will we take the approach of some and prevent much of the massive and presently uncontrollable rate of information from entering the historical record? Will we subscribe to the method defined by the historian Rachel Hope Cleves as “a ravenous appetite for the factual”? Second, social media makes it possible to document the many aspects of activism and protest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in more formal or official records kept by the state. This is a chance to document as many perspectives as possible.

Schmidt and Ardam see great use in making the whole body of information produced and maintained by a person in tact. In part, they ask, is there such thing as excess in the historical record? Can incorporating born-digital information really make the work of the historian more complicated, but potentially more fruitful. “Opening that life to a potentially broad audience, though, raises more questions than it answers, and complicates rather than simplifies our understanding of her as a thinker.” As Sontag herself posited at the end of “Against Interpretation,” Schmidt and Ardam argue that the preservers of born-digital material, implicitly as that material is produced and maintained by a single historical figure, should see the acquisition of the profoundly impactful and deafeningly mundane in born-digital collections as an opportunity to learn more about outer and digital lives of people rather than to be more selective and feel burdened by their big data.

Finally, Professor Owens’s “Digital Sources & Digital Archives” observes, as did his thesis advisor, that sources do not speak for themselves. He provides concrete ways of thinking about how to define and describe digital sources, the reasons behind digitization or not, the true depth of information as metadata contained in born digital sources, and how to conceptualize digital archives, web archives, and digital collections. In essence, the introduction of born-digital and digitized sources into the historical record forces historians to revisit fundamental questions about the nature of sources and assemblages of them, methods of preserving and making sources available, as well as of interpreting those sources. (The very decisions made about the types of digitization of, for example, physical sources such as early modern versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet make potentially profound differences in terms of formulating and answering research questions.) (Owens, 4). “As information ecologies continually shift it is going to be critical for historians to show their work in making sense of the stratigraphy of digital sources.” Digital sources in all their forms, then, form the second great pillar of professional and public history. And it is dependent on historians to decipher its potential for and influence on the field.

To some, so many questions seem too daunting and even uninteresting or unimportant. But Jules, Schmidt and Ardam, and Owens all take the opposite approach; they see incalculable possibility for the growth and diversification of the humanities.

Game Changer: “Digital Sources & Digital Archives”

What is a digital archive?  How are they created?  And what are we going to do about them?  In Trevor Owens’ essay, “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” he breaks down a piece of the relatively new field of Digital Humanities by explaining digital sources that are either digitized or born digital and showing the different ways to do Digital Archives.  With that said, there is a lot up in the air surrounding this subject because the concept is so new and technology changes so quickly, so I will do my best in explaining these changes to the Humanities game.

Before the digital age, physical artifacts were the primary source of study, but with the increasing production of preserving digital sources, historical research has begun to shift.  The questions surrounding digital sources are the same as physical ones; such as what is a source’s providence or how was it created.  Context surrounding a source remains as important as ever, but the medium of the source makes the process a bit trickier.  Technology as a medium can be difficult to solidify.  Owens uses his Gmail as an example, unlike a letter, where the perspective of the author is represented and it is assumed the recipient read the letter, an email could be set to be marked as “read,” but never actually opened.  Digitizing primary sources and born digital sources have their own respective challenges and questions surrounding them. 

Digitized primary sources are physical sources that were created as digital surrogates

They were selected, which leads to the question of why were these particular sources selected?  The answer could be a number of things based on copyright issues or policies of institution digitizing the primary source.  The quality of these copies is also important based on the research a historian is conducting.  In some cases a simple black and white scan from Microfilm is enough, but in other cases a higher definition image can tell a lot more about the source.  Digitized sources makes searching a lot easier, but finding the context behind these sources still needs to be done and requires working backward to the original source and origin.

Born digital sources are sources that started out digital

The challenges with them are you do not always see everything connected to the source on the screen.  What is on the screen is just the front and there is more information to be found encoded behind the screen.  This encoded information could be information thought to be deleted, but was actually written over with different metadata.  It is also important to look at what could be lost when the source is rendered.  For instance, a source could look different based on the web browser it is opened in.  Understanding the creation of a digital source is as essential to the context as it is with a physical source.  Since technology keeps changing it is important to understand how the source was created at a certain time.  For example, emailing has changed since its initial creation and so have the practices of sending and receiving emails, which adds context to the source.  Even how we search online has changed.  We may know how searches worked at certain times, but we cannot see what content was displayed or accessed with this search.

The big question is what are digital archives? 

This answer can depend on whom you ask.  Some digital historians would define it as “aggregated collections of digitized primary sources,” or digitized copies of archival collections, while others might say it is collection of born digital materials.  There are also Web Archives that are constructed by sources collected by open source web crawler tools, such as Heritrix, that require the online organization’s permission in order to collect from its site.  There is a debate amongst digital archivists over a solid definition of what a Digital Archive is, while archivists like Kate Theimer would prefer it to have a different name all together.

Digital archives are not set in stone, they do not have a clearly defined set of standards or even an agreed upon definition.  What can be done to create more unity in this subject?  Should anything be done at all?  Where will digital archives go from here?

The Bracero History Archive

The Bracero History Archive (BHA), part of the Bracero History Project, is a “collaborative, bilingual, online archive documenting the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican guest workers to the United States between 1942 and 1964” (NEH Funded Grants).

The BHA functions primarily as a digital repository for oral histories, artifacts, and archival materials, as well as a community collecting initiative. The homepage directs visitors to explore the archive (in Spanish or English) and the mission statement emphasizes the collection and dissemination aspect of the project.

“The Bracero History Archive collects and makes available the oral histories and artifacts pertaining to the Bracero program, a guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964. Millions of Mexican agricultural workers crossed the border under the program to work in more than half of the states in America.”

The BHA is a multi-organization initiative with many moving parts. It was created by and is currently run by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso; the National Endowment for the Humanities funds the project.

There is little discussion on the website on where the collections are sourced from; visitors must click on individual records to view their source. One thing to note when exploring the collection, materials are listed in reverse chronological order from when they were posted. This means that user-posted materials are the first that visitors will see. This information is also not clear on the website. I only found out after watching the introduction to the archive video tutorial.

Note the green bar at the top of the record that states that the item was user-contributed.
For non-user-generated items, the source is found in the metadata. This item was contributed by NMAH.

When the BHA launched in 2007, visitors could add their own historical content to the archive. This part of the project appears to have been removed or gone defunct around 2017. The website still provides resources on how to add content to the project and guides on how to collect materials and conduct oral histories. It is unclear why this part of the project no longer functions and whether it is temporary or permanent.

In addition to the digital archive, the BHA provides three lesson plans on the Bracero Program for K-12 teachers that use the BHA’s collections, as well as a two-part bibliography. The first part of the bibliography is a selection of resources on bracero history; the second part is a full BHA research bibliography. Interestingly, the bibliography does not include the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) online exhibit about the Bracero Program, which ran as a traveling exhibit on the Bracero Program from 2009-2017. Despite both the exhibit and the BHA being part of the Bracero History Project, there is no mention of the online exhibit anywhere on the BHA. The exhibit did not use source material from the BHA, but it does link to the BHA for further visitor exploration and contribution.

The project’s original collaborative collecting initiative has led to a few problems. First, items uploaded by users lack much of the basic metadata and the metadata that does exist is not “quality” metadata, meaning that it is not consistent, which makes the archive less searchable and sensible. Although the BHA does provide metadata and uploading guides, these guides are inevitably not followed to the letter of the guide, especially since users were inputting the data rather than choosing from a pre-selected drop-down menu.  Second, most user-generated oral histories were uploaded with no transcript or description of the oral history, which forces visitors to listen to entire oral histories for the content. There is also no way to know whether an oral history has a transcription without clicking on the individual oral history record and then clicking on “Switch to Full View”.

The project was initially created with an aim to be bilingual, with content available in both Spanish and English. When visitors first view the site, they are immediately given the option to view the site in Spanish. Although I do not speak Spanish, I chose the Spanish option to see if I could get a sense of how well the website achieves its bilingual goal. My conclusion: not too well. The History, Resources, and Partners pages are entirely in English and the About page is two tiny paragraphs rather than thirteen full-length paragraphs. To the BHA’s credit, the teaching resources and collection material uploaded by “project historians” do seem to be available in full in Spanish, but I’d need a bilingual person to confirm.

In terms of user-generated content and the language barrier, many oral histories are done in Spanish, as one would expect, but the lack of any metadata (and particularly a transcription) makes it almost impossible for non-Spanish speakers to learn from these oral histories (the same goes for English oral histories for non-English speakers). There is no great solution to this problem, but it is worth considering.

For a more in-depth discussion of the BHA and some of its pitfalls, I highly recommend reading the following two articles. I included snippets of the discussions and arguments from the articles, but not everything.

Facilitating History: The Bracero History Archive

Omeka, Collecting, & Crowdsourcing

Questions to consider:

  • Do you have any ideas on how to avoid some of the pitfalls the BHA faced as a community collecting initiative?
  • Do you think the website achieves its goal to document the Bracero Program?
  • Do you think there is enough information about where the materials are sourced from?
  • How would you improve the BHA?