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.

7 Replies to “Digital Archives: “Humanizing the Craft””

  1. After reading your post and exploring all the different “digital archives,” I wonder if the accessibility of digital archives have made traditional archives less intimidating for visitors. As you said, archives have a lot of barriers, not least mental barriers. I wonder if by using and seeing digital archives, audiences that would have intimidated by and traditional archives and felt like the space was not for them are more willing to visit and use traditional archives. If so, I think that is plenty of justification to continue calling these digital repositories archives.

    1. Hi Emily! I think you make a great point. If anything, digital archives could be that bridge between the public and traditional institutions (which would hopefully lead to communities visiting them more). To achieve this, I think archivists really need to make an effort to work with the public, and listen to them. They also need to reevaluate what those barriers are and help to get rid of them.

      Drake encourages archivists to build a relationship of trust with the public (“a trust they should pursue not under the guise of collection development but under the practice of allyship.”) I think this will help people trust traditional archives more and hopefully visit them more often, especially if they feel welcomed and heard.

  2. I thought Kimberly Christen’s article about working with the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive to be a particularly fascinating example of bridging accessibility, technology, and archives. I think what struck me most was the level of interactivity that individuals can have with the collections, but also what it looks like for traditionally marginalized communities to dictate the way their history is organized, described, and released into the world. Warumungu elder, Michael Jampin Jones is quoted on the website’s front page that the intent for this archive was meant to offer a safe space for their community. That really resonates for me as to what archives can represent to different people.

  3. Thank you for your post! Kimberly Christen rightly notes challenges inherent to the digitization of indigenous materials, such as privacy concerns and limited Internet access within indigenous communities. As I was reading the article however, I could not help but have ethical and “white savior” concerns regarding such projects. Did anyone else have similar thoughts?

    In contrast, Jarett Drake’s “#ArchivesForBlackLives: Building a Community Archives of Police Violence in Cleveland” stood out to me the most. He argues that the unbearable whiteness and patriarchy of traditional archives demand that new archives for black lives emerge and sustain themselves as spaces and sites for trauma, transcendence, and transformation. He even provides with helpful prescriptive examples of how librarians and archivists can be better allies.

    1. In regards to the “white savior” questions, I think intention and mindset of the non-indigenous partners are key factors here in determining whether the creation of such digital archives is ever tainted with the “white savior” complex. Empathy and a sincere desire to both learn and contribute knowledge and skill through collaboration are good barometers of a given project’s ethical foundations (or lack thereof). Archives aren’t archives simply because they are devised and built with ethical considerations in mind, but archives devised, built, and revised with ethical questions and solutions at a project’s core are of vital importance for a number of conceptual and pragmatic reasons.

  4. I had similar thoughts, Laura. I thought Drake’s piece was particularly insightful because it emphasizes that good intentions are not the only requirement for creating an archive for black lives matter. If an archive or special collection is going to replicate white privilege, patriarchy, and structural inequalities, then it does more harm than good. I also appreciated his advice on how to “engage this work critically and anti-oppressively:” namely by admitting first that these institutions are part of the problem and then considering how the archive’s practices need to be reevaluated in order to undergo this archival work. This is an important article to read for any historian working in an archive, considering creating an archive, or even those of us just using the archive for research for as Trouillot says in Silencing the Past, “the ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

  5. Great post! I really appreciate how you brought all of Drake, Christen, and Jules’ ideas together. The center of archive collections should be the general public. Accessibility, agency, and collaboration are important factors in how the general public and marginalized groups can engage with collections. Drake and Julles’ community archive projects are great models on how to confront intersecting issues and structural inequalities in traditional archiving. Specifically, Christen’s Mukurtu Project provided a space for Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals to engage in the archives in different forms. The archives could be personalized by the user and designed to cater to the indigenous population. As digital sources and “surrogates” are growing, do you think digital community archives will become a popular method for archivists or do you see traditional archiving remaining the standard?

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