Game Changer: “Digital Sources & Digital Archives”

What is a digital archive?  How are they created?  And what are we going to do about them?  In Trevor Owens’ essay, “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” he breaks down a piece of the relatively new field of Digital Humanities by explaining digital sources that are either digitized or born digital and showing the different ways to do Digital Archives.  With that said, there is a lot up in the air surrounding this subject because the concept is so new and technology changes so quickly, so I will do my best in explaining these changes to the Humanities game.

Before the digital age, physical artifacts were the primary source of study, but with the increasing production of preserving digital sources, historical research has begun to shift.  The questions surrounding digital sources are the same as physical ones; such as what is a source’s providence or how was it created.  Context surrounding a source remains as important as ever, but the medium of the source makes the process a bit trickier.  Technology as a medium can be difficult to solidify.  Owens uses his Gmail as an example, unlike a letter, where the perspective of the author is represented and it is assumed the recipient read the letter, an email could be set to be marked as “read,” but never actually opened.  Digitizing primary sources and born digital sources have their own respective challenges and questions surrounding them. 

Digitized primary sources are physical sources that were created as digital surrogates

They were selected, which leads to the question of why were these particular sources selected?  The answer could be a number of things based on copyright issues or policies of institution digitizing the primary source.  The quality of these copies is also important based on the research a historian is conducting.  In some cases a simple black and white scan from Microfilm is enough, but in other cases a higher definition image can tell a lot more about the source.  Digitized sources makes searching a lot easier, but finding the context behind these sources still needs to be done and requires working backward to the original source and origin.

Born digital sources are sources that started out digital

The challenges with them are you do not always see everything connected to the source on the screen.  What is on the screen is just the front and there is more information to be found encoded behind the screen.  This encoded information could be information thought to be deleted, but was actually written over with different metadata.  It is also important to look at what could be lost when the source is rendered.  For instance, a source could look different based on the web browser it is opened in.  Understanding the creation of a digital source is as essential to the context as it is with a physical source.  Since technology keeps changing it is important to understand how the source was created at a certain time.  For example, emailing has changed since its initial creation and so have the practices of sending and receiving emails, which adds context to the source.  Even how we search online has changed.  We may know how searches worked at certain times, but we cannot see what content was displayed or accessed with this search.

The big question is what are digital archives? 

This answer can depend on whom you ask.  Some digital historians would define it as “aggregated collections of digitized primary sources,” or digitized copies of archival collections, while others might say it is collection of born digital materials.  There are also Web Archives that are constructed by sources collected by open source web crawler tools, such as Heritrix, that require the online organization’s permission in order to collect from its site.  There is a debate amongst digital archivists over a solid definition of what a Digital Archive is, while archivists like Kate Theimer would prefer it to have a different name all together.

Digital archives are not set in stone, they do not have a clearly defined set of standards or even an agreed upon definition.  What can be done to create more unity in this subject?  Should anything be done at all?  Where will digital archives go from here?

2 Replies to “Game Changer: “Digital Sources & Digital Archives””

  1. Thank you for your post! I found Kate Theimer’s “Digital Historical Representations” particularly helpful in thinking about some of the questions your blog post raised. It is always useful to have as much information as possible about the sources we can use digitally, but I wonder if her definition of “digital archives” as groups of born-digital materials as opposed to the digital surrogates of analog originals, could become widespread. It seems that outside the professional world of digital historians, anything that is not on paper is labeled digital. Theimer also raises an important concern that archivists are trying to meet the needs of the broadest range of users. It is indeed a big change for historians who were often some of the few people who had been able to get archival information. Academia suffers from elitism as is, and while the pay wall may still pose barriers, there are still some open sources available online. Digital archives at least help the general audience (as well as historians) interact with sources, especially if they do not have the opportunity to leave their home or country.

  2. Thanks for your post! I appreciated what Owens said at the end, ” sources don’t speak for themselves.” In 2019, it’s easy to take things at face value without looking deeper. However, historians need to explore the full context in order to get the entire story. So many digital sources are available to us which is great for accessibility and collaboration, but bare challenges in tracking and solidifying context. Since digital progress is not slowing down, historians need to more conscious of these problems as more and more digital-born materials are being produced.

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