What to make of what has been made of “digital archives”

How do archivists preserve digital records? How do humanities scholars describe the “digital archives” in which those records are kept and preserved for future use? How do historians responsibly share digital information created in the normal (and sometimes troubling) course of public and private life? What are digital sources and how should historians interpret them? These are just some of the questions that Bergis Jules, Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, and Trevor (Professor) Owens confront in (their digital publications) “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism,” “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive,” and “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” respectively.

In his post, Jules makes a compelling argument for why social media posts that are reactions to, reflections on, and memories of moments and periods of activism in modern American history is needed now more than ever. For one, gathering social media posts around activism forces historians, archivists, and activist historians and activist archivists to tackle important questions around privacy. Not to mention the fact that many of those who now create what will become the historical data, the primary sources for the future, are still alive and will be for decades to come. It also gives historians a chance to more thoroughly address questions about the responsible use and interpretation of sources. We need not look any further than the case of the Boston tapes to understand the technically true influence of recorded history on present issues that unravel social cohesion and set back efforts for peace. Will we take the approach of some and prevent much of the massive and presently uncontrollable rate of information from entering the historical record? Will we subscribe to the method defined by the historian Rachel Hope Cleves as “a ravenous appetite for the factual”? Second, social media makes it possible to document the many aspects of activism and protest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in more formal or official records kept by the state. This is a chance to document as many perspectives as possible.

Schmidt and Ardam see great use in making the whole body of information produced and maintained by a person in tact. In part, they ask, is there such thing as excess in the historical record? Can incorporating born-digital information really make the work of the historian more complicated, but potentially more fruitful. “Opening that life to a potentially broad audience, though, raises more questions than it answers, and complicates rather than simplifies our understanding of her as a thinker.” As Sontag herself posited at the end of “Against Interpretation,” Schmidt and Ardam argue that the preservers of born-digital material, implicitly as that material is produced and maintained by a single historical figure, should see the acquisition of the profoundly impactful and deafeningly mundane in born-digital collections as an opportunity to learn more about outer and digital lives of people rather than to be more selective and feel burdened by their big data.

Finally, Professor Owens’s “Digital Sources & Digital Archives” observes, as did his thesis advisor, that sources do not speak for themselves. He provides concrete ways of thinking about how to define and describe digital sources, the reasons behind digitization or not, the true depth of information as metadata contained in born digital sources, and how to conceptualize digital archives, web archives, and digital collections. In essence, the introduction of born-digital and digitized sources into the historical record forces historians to revisit fundamental questions about the nature of sources and assemblages of them, methods of preserving and making sources available, as well as of interpreting those sources. (The very decisions made about the types of digitization of, for example, physical sources such as early modern versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet make potentially profound differences in terms of formulating and answering research questions.) (Owens, 4). “As information ecologies continually shift it is going to be critical for historians to show their work in making sense of the stratigraphy of digital sources.” Digital sources in all their forms, then, form the second great pillar of professional and public history. And it is dependent on historians to decipher its potential for and influence on the field.

To some, so many questions seem too daunting and even uninteresting or unimportant. But Jules, Schmidt and Ardam, and Owens all take the opposite approach; they see incalculable possibility for the growth and diversification of the humanities.

3 Replies to “What to make of what has been made of “digital archives””

  1. Thanks for your post Jonah, it really synthesized all the ideas coming out of these articles well! I agree with Jules, Schmidt and Ardam, and Owens that the incorporation of digital sources into research is both inescapable and essential to the growth and relevance of humanities. While those in the humanities easily see their importance, outsiders have become increasing skeptical in recent years–or so it seems. As example of this being the University of Wisconsin dropping majors such as history and english. I think one way of making the case for humanities to the neigh-sayers is demonstrating our importance to the preservation and interpretation of digital sources, such as discussed in these articles.

    Ultimately, there will need to be some kind of shift in how we frame our humanities education, as interpreting these sources is very different than interpreting physical sources, as you point out and as Owen’s discusses in his section “What are you not seeing on the screen?” Although this reformation is daunting (especially as someone about to finish an undergrad degree with very little of this type of education), I think it is also exciting as it has the potential to make the humanities relevant again (to outsiders, because of course in our eyes they have always been relevant), and most importantly, to allow new groundbreaking research to be carried out.

    1. There has definitely been a shift in education concerning technology and the Humanities. In high school and early in my undergraduate career I felt like my teachers were trying to scare me away from anything digital when conducting my research. Only in recent years have my professors encouraged me to move away from the carefully collected sources in the school’s databases. I feel that as more time passes there will be more connections between the Humanities and the digital sphere.
      As to the preservation of the digital lives of people, I agree with Schmidt and Ardam. People exist in different ways online and by preserving even a part of it creates a whole new pool for research. There is a lot of information, which can be daunting, but I do not see collecting evidence of people’s digital lives very different from collecting and preserving a handful of letters found in an old desk. They may seem uninteresting, but in context they can be the base of historical research.

  2. Your comments about the role of documenting social media made me think about Sierra’s digital project proposal regarding activism by black trans and queer individuals, and also about the sheer volume of social media activity that occurs when something of likely historical significance happens today. Are digital historians equipped with the internet literacy to know how to effectively navigate social media? If we’re making judgement calls about what social media to preserve (which seems to me to be a necessity, especially given the constraints of time, personnel, and funding that most digital history projects seem to work within), how will digital historians know what to preserve and what to exclude? How will we make sure our preservation doesn’t end up creating silences?

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