How do you use a digital archive?
Digital archives are not just compiled archives by professionals. They can be created by archivists, librarians, historians, amateurs, non-profit or for-profit companies. Because digital archives can be created by a host of individuals, the purpose and criteria for the particular archive are important to know. When searching a digital archive, you should always be prepared with questions: “where does this content fit in the digital collection?”, “why were some items excluded?”, “how was this archive created?” As Kate Theimer says in her AHA conference paper, digital archives are making an argument, just like any other archive, and we must approach it the same way.
Digital archives can also contribute to breaking down the historically white, male dominated archive. In Kimberly Christen’s piece “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia,” we see how a digital archive both saves important Aboriginal historical and community based information while limiting what information is available to outsiders. This allows the Aboriginals to control how their history is saved and who has access to it, a courtesy that archives have historically denied native communities. Similarly, Jarret Drake’s piece “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories” brings up valuable insights into the traditional limitations of archives (language, distance, cost of travel, etc.) and practical subjects like needing a state-issued ID to gain access to the documents. He also touches on the importance of working with the community being archived to build trust and make sure that the archive is accessible to those whose history is being recorded.
Susan Sontag’s “born digital” collection is an excellent example of exploring the fine line between electronic preservation and the privacy of her personal life, as examined by Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Adram. Sontag kept a massive collection of her works, digitally, saved on her computer and hard-drives to be accessed by the public upon her death. Sontag was committed to protecting her privacy during her lifetime, yet she opened up her life to the public, in a digital format no less, after her demise. Sontag’s born-digital archives demonstrates the journey from traditional archives to born-digital, yet leaves room for users to explore these new digital archives. However, Sontag’s born-digital archive opens up room for questions about what should be preserved and what, if anything, should remain private?
The question of privacy is also explored in Jules’ article, “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism.” Social media accounts, particularly Twitter, have begun to play a larger role in documenting reactions of activism (largely in situations of race). Twitter has been thought of as a personal bubble and space where individuals can document their thoughts and feelings. But now Twitter, has become its own sort of digital archive, with tweets being viewed as primary source documents that can be preserved for future generations to see reactions and feelings on incidents of activism and social movements. The social media platforms, like Twitter, have also brought a spotlight on situations that otherwise would not have been recognized and have brought forth preservation of these events.
How do digital archives help break down the race/gender/class barrier that traditional archives have historically created? Do any authors (thinking of Drake in particular) offer practical solutions to addressing these issues with physical archives, or is this simply something digital archives can fix?
Should spaces like Twitter, preserve documentation of events, like Ferguson? What would that look like? Is it even feasible (thinking legality, privacy, etc.)?
Do tweets made by political figures, like Trump, count as archival material? What would the different authors say?
17 Replies to “Archivists Beyond Borders (Digital archives in other platforms)”
While I don’t think that online spaces should have an obligation to save all of their user data for events, it can be incredibly helpful for researches. Simple programs like Python allow an individual to sift through an obscene amount of information in seconds, providing the answers about engaged users such as demographics, location, and level and engagement. This is an example where distant reading is more beneficial for the archived data than close reading, because the answers most worth exploring can only be attained through large data sets. If you have a public twitter account then you legally allow twitter to buy and sell the public information you provide, such as location, user handle, and tweet information such as hashtags. The fact that we are only able to deal with public profiles can inhibit a more comprehensive look at individuals information, but it’s still a great tool for people in and out of the field of history.
Wow! The Kimberly Christen article on the Aboriginal Australia digital archives really hit home for me. When I was a collections assistant for Sitka National Historical Park in Alaska, we had to carefully curate our collections items with Alaska Natives in mind. There were many sacred objects in the collection that had first been repatriated from the Smithsonian to the Alaska Natives. These objects were then entrusted to the National Park Service because we had the proper collections conditions and storage facilities. When we would handle these sacred objects we would do so following correct protocol including gloves and delicate wrapping of the objects. However, the objects were not ours. The local tribes would frequently come to the collections area and “check out” items like woven blankets or ceremonial hats. These items were hundreds of years old, but they would take them for active use in potlatch celebrations. We could not display these objects to the public and additional archival records about archaeological sites were kept under restricted status so that the public could not view them but Alaska Natives could. It was really interesting system! It occurs to me now that we did not have any sort of digital archival component available for Alaska Natives to interact with collections materials. I think the Aboriginal digital archive demonstrates great promise and could serve as a valuable example to many sites similar to Sitka National Historical Park. I think I might even send this article to my former bosses for their consideration as they inevitably will begin to better address digital collections in the coming years.
I also found the Christen article fascinating! I’d definitely encountered this type of balance between preservation and use/access in physical collections before (I know NMAI has some arrangements similar to what you’re describing at Sitka) but I’d never thought about it with respect to digital collections before. When the physical condition of an object is no longer at issue, access becomes solely about cultural context and belonging rather than preservation.
I did wonder what security measures might be in place to ensure that only the correct people with the correct affiliations can access those materials. I know they have to set up personal accounts, but have they had any issues with fraudulent accounts or attempts to trick the system? That issue is a distinction between physical and digital archives as well.
I was also wondering about this idea about security as well. I think its maybe our recent discussions from Colloq II (sorry everyone that isn’t in that class) that made me really think hard about how this would even work. How do you even classify someone as being part of a group that is allowed to see certain archival materials? It seems like a really slippery slope to try and categorize people, especially in a digital context. I’m just curious about how this would be effectively and fairly implemented.
Whether in digital archives or academia at large, tackling race/gender/class barriers seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Since I am new to digital humanities, I never thought that current social issues would be considered in the process of storing information today. Then again, it’s never too early to start saving information! I do think that tweets, be that from events like Ferguson or political figures like Trump, should be thought of as products of history to be saved as archival material. With the rise of technology, social media posts will be the new diaries, newspapers, and other documents of our time. These born-digital materials will make analyzing contemporary cultures easier from the vast amount of them to the ability of tracking trends through databases and other computing programs.
That being said, I don’t think enough is being done to “de-white” or “de-patriarcilize” (yes, I made up that word) these institutions. Current collections don’t need to be thrown away, rather repartitioned to include voices of color, gender, class, and other identities sooner rather than later. I also think that throughout these articles, there was no real mention of ability. How are archives being accessible to the blind, hearing impaired, or other learning disabilities? What do you think about this topic? I think this deserves further conversation!
The point you are making about accessibility is super interesting and important! I think that these things should certainly be made more accessible but I think it is a matter of money and technology at this point. Having worked in many small archives, it is a struggle just to grapple with the physical material. Hopefully, as more archives make a transition to digital access they will be able to keep this type of accessibility in mind. With the exception of large, well-funded archives and repositories many institutions don’t even have a digital archive yet, let alone the ability to make them so widely accessible.
Also, I love your point about keeping current collections and adding in marginalized voices. I think this is probably the most practical solution moving forward. Starting from scratch with archives would be an immense undertaking. Adding and creating new collections would be key. However, I will acknowledge that in many cases it may be really hard to add to add these voices. Sometimes, sadly, these materials simply do not exist to be added. Instead, I think we just need to make a concerted effort to include them moving forward!
Going on your question about whether Trump’s tweets counts as archival material, the National Archives is currently preserving all of Trump’s tweets and their replies from other Twitter users, so these have been deemed worthy of being archived. I also think this shows how archivists have had to broaden what/how modern material is preserved with the advent of Twitter and other forms of social media.
Already we are making meaning of the (recent) past from Twitter. I saw this reposted on Facebook with the caption, “This didn’t age well.”
Unfortunately Trump’s tweets will have to be archived, because when he speaks outside of this particular medium he rarely says anything of substance. He doesn’t read anything except twitter and it seems to be the only thing that interests him. And since he is president and has such leverage over policy and events, these things will have to be recorded.
That said, I consider this to be a positive development. An archive accessible to everyone, everywhere, particularly a text-searchable archive, makes research a breeze. And when research can be conducted in this manner, knowledge is no longer restrained for the auto-didact, no matter the race, gender, class.
It is interesting to compare the difference between archiving presidential tweets and, say, presidential radio addresses. Why does one feel so strange to us over the other, despite them both being intended for easy public consumption? Things that are born digital still often feel less legitimate, which I’m certain will change over time.
With Trump’s tweets in particular, it seems particularly absurd to preserve them because they are not filtered or crafted in the way that Obama’s were. It’s hard for most people to think of them as serious presidential output, and the medium certainly doesn’t help.
Should spaces like Twitter, preserve documentation of events, like Ferguson? What would that look like? Is it even feasible (thinking legality, privacy, etc.)?
This is an interesting idea, and I think it would have to be broken down into a few components. The first hurdle to overcome is the fact that people can modify and delete their twitter feeds and the feeds of other social media platforms. This ability to modify is essential to ensure the usability of the platform, but is not conducive to a good archive on the basis that it’s not saved in any way. Schmidt and Ardam mentioned that Susan Sontag’s laptop has been locked so that it cannot be modified at all, and this might be a possibility for a platform archive if it weren’t being used anymore or a specific feed or hashtag, but it would be hard to do the same for the whole platform.
The other main issue I see in this project is the way one would or could contextualize a media platform. Several of our articles we’ve read for tonight have focused on the importance of context in a physical space and how that’s lost in the digital archive. Receiving digital input from many different creators would make it even more difficult for an archivist to collect materials so that they made sense within the context of each other and in the context of other events. Perhaps more interpretation could be the answer, except for the sheer volume of materials in large social movements or within Twitter at large.
That said, if these two issues could be overcome, I do think that the archives of online materials could become a very valuable resource to anyone studying these movements.
You make a really good point about the importance of context, which is essential to an archive, as well as the ability to modify. I was thinking about whether the site itself could be archived. I am not really sure about the specifics about how this would work but I was thinking about what the White House has done with their websites.
When a new President is elected the new administration has the ability to alter all the websites associated with whitehouse.gov to their specifications. There was a large outcry about this when Trump became President. However, they also “froze” the old pages from the Obama era and they are still searchable and usable on the internet today. The only difference is that they now say, “This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.” Here is a link to one of the pages. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-record/climate
I don’t know if this could be effectively applied to something like twitter, but I think its an intriguing prospect in terms of the future of digital archives. If moments could be frozen it would solve issues with context.
You mentioned an interesting point, Chloe. People can delete their individual accounts and of course should be able to, but hashtags could be interpreted as a public record of sorts. I think legally speaking a hashtag could be archived, even if accounts are deleted, given that the archive respects anonymity if desired.
Unfortunately, I think we have to classify Trump’s tweets as archival materials given the Library of Congress and other sites’ use of them as such. In order to make myself less depressed though that this situation is the way it is, I try to think about these tweets as public addresses, as meaningless as they may seem. Remember, we have archives filled with letters sent by past public figures and speeches made by political figures. If a love letter sent by John Adams to his wife Abigail counts as archival due to its author being a major political figure, I think we have to count Trump’s tweets in the same manner.
I also want to address Twitter as a means of preserving documentation in terms of major events like Ferguson. I feel as though this would require a major effort on the part of Twitter’s employees, and an even bigger change to be made to Twitter’s purpose. Should Twitter undergo a change to gain the ability to become an archive? I don’t know, maybe. But will they? Likely not because that’s just not what Twitter does. Because Twitter is a social media site and not a digital archive, I feel like it is more likely to fall into the hands of digital historians and archivists to sift through social media sites in order to compile their own archives while Twitter continues to be a source of archival documents, not an archive itself.
I really love hearing all of your guys’ thoughts on archiving Twitter. I think what is sometimes holding me up is that Twitter is a social media outlet-it can’t be touched or felt. We can’t physically hold Twitter or the tweets that are archived. Yet after Ferguson happened, historians went around and collected materials to document as historical artifacts. Historians did the same thing after the Women’s marches with posters. Why do individuals consider physical materials to be historical artifacts instead of tweets? I think archiving something digitally is still such a new field that it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around archiving something on the Internet. I’m still not sure how I feel about archiving Presidential tweets (but maybe that’s a whole another issue to the current president), anyway I digress.
The take away for me from these articles was mainly privacy and accessibility. Two main question stem from this topic. How accessible should information be? What role does privacy play in archives?
The answer to the former question is complicated. Academic instinct suggests that as much information as possible should be accessible by as many people as possible. However, as Kimberly Christen discusses, there are unique complications regarding authority and control of information. Historically, racial and cultural factors have unfairly represented and interpreted information and it is our responsibility to right these wrongs. On the other hand, at what point do we go too far in the other direction? If we only allow members of a specific community access to certain archival material we are not only limiting the discourse to a single narrative but also limiting potential contributions from those outside these communities.
These articles also made me consider the role of privacy when constructing and utilizing archives. There is no clear answer as to when material can or should be made public. In Bergis Jules’ article he includes an example of archived tweets being used by the Baltimore Police Department to persecute rioters indicating a violation of privacy. This demonstrates the necessity of digital humanists to consider the consequences of archive creation with regards to privacy as we seem to increasingly want to keep record of every event.
The nature of an archive is such that it is heavily dependent on what materials you have access to. This has led to a proliferation of archives on areas of the past we have a lot of research on. But it’s very heartening, and important, to look at works like the archive of Aboriginal history. Not only is it important to think about history as a collective past, but also to understand how histories affect different communities differently. Indigenous populations all over the world have had their artifacts plundered and disseminated in ways that are present and real in our current community. An archive choosing to give control back to indigenous people is important and necessary work.