On Context


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

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

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.


Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

Although Johanna Drucker, in a review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, calls the work “improbably readable,” this book is not an easy read.  The reviews of this book, although less dense are still not easy to read.  I have found myself continually getting stuck in the introduction trying to make my way through his explanation of the book’s message and trajectory.   Although I may disagree slighty with Drucker on that point, I agree with her assessment (if I understand what’s really going on here) that Kirschenbaum’s work is “compellingly suggestive and significant in its overall argument.”

This is how I feel…


And this is what I think is happening …

In Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum hopes to present “a set of alternative access points for the study of computing, access points that bring storage, inscription, and engineering into the visible purview of what we think of as new media” (p. 35).  By examining the textuality and materiality of electronic records, the “thingness” that makes a collection of pieces – hardware, code, programs, bits, etc. – into a whole digital object that we can experience, he seeks to demonstrate that these forms of new media are more than what we can see at a superficial level.  To truly understand digital objects, Kirschenbaum asserts that we much look beyond our tendency toward “screen essentialism” and examine what is happening on the other side of the screen.

Kirschenbaum breaks the concept of materiality into two areas, forensic and formal materiality.  For these definitions, I like (i.e. I can understand) the explanation given by Viola Lasmana in her review of Mechanisms.  According to Lasmana, “formal materiality involves the use of software to make up the simulated materiality that we see on the screen.  Forensic materiality, on the other hand, is the inscriptive, the trace, the ‘difference’ that is based in individuality.”  In chapter 3 Kirschenbaum links the concepts of formal and forensic materiality to allographic and autographic objects respectively.  According to Kirschenbaum’s explanation, “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (p. 133).

This is how I understand these concepts and categories.  With respect to texts, or much of what we would consider secondary sources, the carrier of information contributes little to most peoples’ understanding of the object.   Public library users, for instance, frequently care little if they are looking for the latest John Grisham, whether the book is hard or soft cover, or even large print.  The content of the work remains constant regardless of format.  In electronic media, and other objects with artifactual value, the carrier or the format has much greater importance.  A copy of a daguerreotype will relate the information contained within the photo (a boy with his dog, material culture, the built environment) but the original photograph has added artifactual value simply because it is a daguerreotype.  According to Kirschenbaum, to truly understand and therefore preserve a digital artifact you need to understand how it was created, how it is being stored and how it is presented.  You need to consider the digital artifact beyond what is seen.


Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Glitch

This week I attempted to recreate the results of glitching files as demonstrated in this blog post by Trevor Owens. As we shall see, I ran into a few difficulties in reproducing this experiment exactly. But first what is a glitch? According to Wikipedia, “A computer glitch is the failure of a system, usually containing a computing device, to complete its functions or to perform them properly.” In this post, I chronicle my attempts to create glitches by using files in ways other than their intended purpose to reveal what we can learn about the formats themselves.

A Textual Audio Experience

I started trying to view an .mp3 as a .txt file. I could not use the same audio file as in the original blog post because the Library of Congress does not provide direct download any longer, having switched to streaming-only for access. Instead, I randomly selected an .mp3 of the Rush classic Tom Sawyer. From here I changed the file extension to a .txt file and opened it with my computer’s text editor. Here is the result:

A real toe tapper

Just as with the audio file Owens used, much of the information in the .mp3 is a confused mess and the result of the text editor’s attempt at interpreting the bits as alphanumeric sequences. However, along the top there is some embedded metadata such as information on the writers of the song: Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, Neil Pert, and Pye Dubois. These bits are meant to be read as text and therefore can be read by the program.

Where the Trouble Began

In the next step, I tried to view an .mp3 and .wav file as .raw images. Because I did not use the same audio file as the original blog post, I did not have a .wav file to accompany my .mp3 when trying to replicate this part. Rather than simply changing the extension on my Tom Sawyer .mp3 I used a media encoder and converted the file to a .wav file. From here, I changed the extension on each to .raw and attempted to view them in an image editor. Unfortunately these files would not open in any of my image editing software. Borrowing a computer that had Photoshop, I was able to view the results seen below:

01 Tom Sawyer wav and mp3 raw photoshop
On the left: .mp3 as .raw, on the right: .wav as .raw

Just as above, an image editor can do no better than a text editor when attempting to read the audio files in a visual manner. Unlike Owens’s results, my two images look largely the same. The .wav as .raw did produce a large black bar at the top of image, which I am assuming is due to the difference in original format. I thought the similarity might have been because I converted my .mp3 into a .wav, so I downloaded a different .wav audio file directly from the web and repeated the steps and yet it still yielded the same results.

Complete Failure

While I was able to replicate most of the outcomes in the preceding section, I failed at the next step of editing an image with a text editor. The link Owens listed for the image in his post was broken, but luckily the original image was also available in the post. I downloaded this image and changed the extension from .jpg to .txt. I opened the file in the text editor, deleted some of the text, and changed it back it into a .jpg. Unfortunately, the file would not open in any of the image software I tried, including Photoshop. I kept receiving error messages that the file was unsupported, corrupted, etc. I tried these steps again but with copying and pasting parts of the text back into itself or even deleting only one character. I even attempted using a different image entirely and doing all the same steps again. Alas, all my attempts failed to produce a glitched image that could open.

Tom Hanks typing


While I was not able to reproduce all the tasks that Owens accomplished in his blog post, I was still able to see his main point that screen essentialism masks that digital objects are more than what they appear to be on the screen. The different ways the files can be read demonstrates the different structures of the formats, even if they look the same on the screen. My failure in this process has made me realize how much the public is pushed to a limited understanding and shielded by the programs that are meant to read certain files in certain ways. Perhaps my failures are just a result of well working computer software that allows you only to produce the desired outcome of these files. I encourage everyone to try glitching some files. Can you do it?

UPDATE: I was able to fix the problems I mentioned in this post. Here are the results:

Desert (2)
Glitched Image
Correct comparison, .mp3 as .raw on left, .wav as .raw on right

To see how my issues were fixed, see the comments section below. Many thanks to Nick Krabbenhoeft for helping me fix the problems.

April is the Cruellest Month: Ending the Civil War in 1865

I propose to create blog and podcast to commemorate the ostensible end of the American Civil War in the month of April, 1865. This site will provide text, photos, and audio (maybe video?) to succinctly tell the story of the end of the war. (Above is a working title, below is a photo from Richmond in April, 1865.)


Major events to be covered will include:

  • April 2nd, The Fall of Richmond
  • April 9th, Appomattox Court House
  • April 14th, The Assassination of Lincoln
  • April 26th, The Death of Booth

In addition to that those featured dates, I will also create a page of “Annotated Enumerations” that will cite significant numbers associated with the war (e.g. numbers of dead, numbers of resulting Constitutional Amendments, number of total battles, numbers of people emancipated, numbers of books written about Lincoln and/or the Civil War, weather stats for DC, interesting parallels in dates/time, etc.) So, I’m looking at 5 to 6 blog entries over the course of the month, some of which will have a brief podcast associated with it–if not all, I am still assessing pricing and practicality.

The audience for Civil War history is ridiculously vast. How will my blog/podcast be different from what already exist? Mine will only focus on April 1865 and will be mainly overview punctuated with vivid descriptions and depictions of events and letters. My intended audience will be high school students as well as life-long learners. I will attempt to distill many facts and aspects into a punchy and pithy presentation that stays passionate and informative. (Definitely aspiring to Crash Course delivery and factual presentation.)

I will also attempt to plug my site into already existing sites that are public history related (or at least link to them and hit them up via social media) and I have a couple friends who could give me an assist on the web, and in particular social media. I will evaluate the site by keeping track of site visits and links, retweets, etc. via Google Analytics. Sites that are somewhat similar, or will be source material, include:


Digital Project Proposal: Building a Catalog with Omeka and The William O. Lee Jr. Collection

William O. Lee Jr. (1928-2004) was a prominent Frederick County citizen, active in local education, politics, civic associations and his church.  After his death in 2004, Lee’s papers were given to the Historical Society of Frederick County (HSFC).  The materials within the William O. Lee Jr. Collection are those gathered or created by Lee through the course of his life and include photographs, documents, ephemera and memorabilia, video, and three dimensional objects. The collection documents Lee’s personal, professional and political life, late 19th and 20th century African American life in Frederick County and Frederick County history.

For my digital project, I will create a website for the archival collections of the HSFC and a collection guide for the William O. Lee Jr. Collection, collection MS0080 of the Historical Society of Frederick County’s Archives and Research Center.  Using Omeka I will display the collection’s finding aid and exhibit collection items.  The Lee Collection is the only collection belonging to the HSFC which documents the lives of African Americans; a wonderful collection that gets very little use.  Creating an online guide for the collection would increase user access to the collection and hopefully result in greater interest in the Historical Society’s Archives and Research Center.

HSFC Archival Collections

At the Fall 2014 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) I attended a half-day workshop on building a “catablog,” or an online site designed to share finding aids using blog technology (see p. 8 of the MARAC Baltimore Program for a description of the workshop).  The instructor was Lindsey Turley of the Museum of the City of New York.  During the workshop we used WordPress to build practice online catalogs, posting finding aid content and photographs.  WordPress provides small institutions like historical societies with limited resources, easy and affordable ways to host online finding aids.  Omeka, as a platform designed to display collections and build online exhibits, provides similar opportunities for small institutions.

The WordPress catablog of the Museum of the City of New York will be a guiding influence for the organization of the HSFC site.  A site will be created for the archival collections of the HSFC and the William O. Lee Jr. Collection will be added as a “collection.”  Using Omeka I can then add materials selected for digitization to the collection as “items.”

Wm O Lee Jr. Collection 2

I will begin with the free Basic plan, which provides 500 MB of storage, 1 site, 13 plugins and the choice between 5 themes with hopes of upgrading in the future.  The audience will include the Historical Society’s administration in addition to potential users.  If I can demonstrate this project’s potential benefits in terms of user access to collections and a possibility of increased Research Center visits hopefully I can justify an increase in my budget next year for a paid plan.  If this project is a success I would like to create guides for other collections.