On Context

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In this post, I will not be addressing what is and isn’t an archive (Joe’s throwing down on that), but for full disclosure, I will be using the terms “archives” and “digital collections” interchangeably when referring to a grouping of materials.
What I will do in this post is compare features of digital archives highlighted in the readings, and discuss how they are affecting the context of digital collections in new and awesome (?) ways.

The Hyperlink
McGann is right to say that hypertext is redefining how users interact with archives in the digital environment. Instead of needing books to analyze books, digital material (born-digital and surrogates) allows the “white sea of paper” to recede. Researchers are no longer limited by geography or representation when deciding what objects they’d ideally put in dialogue with each other . Hypertext has the ability to aggregate dynamic objects together to inform or comprise a collection, and although Theimer implies that this violates the context of these collections, McCann argues that hypertext allows us to create richer context for our collections that was never before possible through this digital tool. Of course, hypertext is so easy that it allows anyone to be able to create a collection, not just the “professionals” that respect archival theory, have an HVAC compliant preservation environment, or the budget or reputation to acquire material, and so this loss of control may be seen as threatening (a familiar theme for this class, I know).

Visualization tools

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In his article “Disrespect de Fonds,” Jefferson Bailey introduces us to the Series Browser Visualization tool from the Visual Archives Project. With this tool, the context and codex-like purposes of a finding aid are replaced by networks and inter-linkages that communicate the relationships and size of hundreds of record groups, all visible to the user on a single screen. As Phillips points out in her article, this capability creates some questions. If we can make this scope accessible for researchers, should we just take everything? Will changing what users can get affect what they actually want? Although Phillips is specifically discussing appraisal, we can see it as a context issue as well. Selection of what to keep is the act of an archivist indirectly creating a context for the user; the responsibility of deciding if something is trash or treasure is, in my opinion, one of the most stressful aspects of the job. Through visualization tools, appraisal could potentially become a thing of the past; a hindrance to context that was a product of its time, much like Bailey argues fonds was a product of its time that has also become obsolete in the digital age.

Deep Freeze

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In Schmidt & Ardem’s look at the Susan Sontag Archive, they discuss UCLA’s decision to allow researchers to check out Sontag’s laptop as an access model. Archivists treated the laptop with a deep freeze, a process that essentially preserved the laptop at the bit level so that it can be explored by a user but not changed. The authors’ question whether preserving context in this way effectively tells the whole story:

When we search, we may feel as if we can finally, totally, and quickly find everything we want to know about a particular aspect of Sontag’s work or life, but the very ease of that process makes our misguidedness plain. What we are “finding” is, of course, nothing more or less than particular words in a particular order.

Having the writer’s laptop in your hands makes you think that you have it all, but as we know, even something as ubiquitous now as text searching leaves out semantics that a computer command just can’t register at our current technological capability.

Final Thoughts

Even though there are still many challenges, looking at these features makes me incredibly excited about the potential for digital collections to tell richer stories when freed from aspects of appraisal and geographical limits, for finding aids to be reimagined as visual maps vs. textual ones, and for true original order to be captured at the bit level. But if i’m honest, it’s a little scary too. What if we’re eschewing things we shouldn’t be? Bailey’s article consoled me that there was never a “true” way to process things, just a way convenient for its time. But does anyone else have a nagging, apocalyptic side that sees the bubble bursting after we burned the book that got us here? Maybe this Sagan quote will warm you.

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2 Replies to “On Context”

  1. I take a cautiously optimistic viewpoint as far as changing how we do archives. On one hand, more and more of our cultural and historical materials are born-digital and it’s vital that we keep up with their preservation, exploring new methods and structures as we acquire them and figure out these new best practices. At the same time, I don’t want to discount the value of older methods. I think Bailey is right in his relativistic assessment of archival processing and procedure; maybe some things are best sorted with respect des fonds, and some things, like born-digital materials, almost certainly aren’t. I’m happy to see archivists and theorists branching out into new ways of thinking about archives, and would hate to see “traditional” archivists left in the dust; after all, digital materials will be traditional archives someday, right? My last optimistic thought is this: as long as there’s debate and uncertainty about the best way to do these things, computers can’t completely replace us! So let’s keep thinking, experimenting, and critiquing, for the good of the archive (however we’re defining it) and for the good of the archivist.

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