So what is a digital archive?
Before there were digital archives there were physical archives, both of which exist today. However, as we’ve seen, there are huge differences, but also similarities, between traditional archives and digital archives. Traditional archives and the transition towards digital archives are best explained in Owens, Theimer and Bailey’s articles.
Traditional archives are defined by Kate Theimer as inclusive of provenance, a unified collection (aggregate), and being kept in their original context. Examples of this include records management, the papers of well-known figures, i.e. George Washington, and tape archives (see Owens). Theimer pushes back against calling online collections “archives” because they do not keep to the same values as traditional physical archives. However, the concept of what counts as an archive becomes more complicated once you introduce born-digital items, or records created and stored digitally, creating the need for digital archives. Just as digital history is not simply history on the computer, neither are digital archives just archival records online.
So then what is a digital archive?
In Bailey’s article he discusses how archival practices have changed to suit the needs, both political and practical, of archivists, and pushes for a change in how archives are conceived of in the digital world. Many of the practices that archivists use for physical archives are unnecessary for digital ones. Original order and provenance, as Theimer would agree, are cornerstones of archival management, but this information is stored in the data records of files online, making the organization of archival information in this order unnecessary. Through digital archives, access to each item is not dependent on its original collection or provenance, making physical archival practices impractical for a digital archive.
It is important to note the difference between a web archive and a digital archive. A website never starts out as an archive, but becomes an archive over time by preserving its data. The practicums being looked at this week showcase the diversity of the term ‘digital archive,’ as defined by Owens. The September 11th archive is a crowdsourced collection of materials related to the incidents of 9/11. The Bracero archive is a digitized collection of oral history interviews. The Shelley-Goodwin archive is a digitized collection of primary source materials. The diversity of these sites (as you will read about in our cohort’s blog posts) highlights the strengths and differences of digital archives.
In Jerome McGann’s “the Rationale of HyperText”, he discusses the process of digitizing books. Would this be considered a digital archive? Why or why not?
What processes of digital history do you see used in digital archives, as explored by these authors? (Close reading, as discussed in Meg Philips’ “Close Reading, Distant Reading: Should Archival Appraisal Adjust” is a great place to start)
How do physical and digital archives differ? Can physical archives adapt to become digital archives? Will physical archives ever become obsolete?