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.