Defining Digital Archives

Tension between traditional and digital archives isn’t just about the pace of technological change – it turns out this tension reaches to the definition of what an archive is. Theimer and Owens illuminate the issues surrounding the creation and use of digital archives and sources.

In her two articles, Kate Theimer writes of a definitional disparity between the “archives” of archivists and that of digital humanists. Archives in Context and As Context argues that the term “archives” reflects particular professional principles and standards that are not necessarily reflected in the work done by digital humanists under the same label. Archivists work to preserve the context of a particular aggregate by focusing on its provenance, collective control (managing the collection as a unit rather than individual items), and original order. These standards, she claims, are not always reflected in the work of digital humanists. Theimer does concede that archival materials can of course demonstrate meaning in contexts other than their original one, but raises this distinction because “it is only in a collection managed according to archival principles that the organizational context of the letter is preserved.” Theimer wishes to preserve the particular principles of archivists and keep them connected by definition to the term “archives.”

Theimer poses a similar argument in “A Distinction worth Exploring”. She writes that “the context of the creation of the information sources is critical to understanding the problems that may be inherent in that source and which the researcher should take into consideration.” Theimer walks through several types of digital archives (or “digital historical representations”) and notes some of these questions that must be asked. Primarily, she points out questions of why particular items were selected and their context in collections. Overall, Theimer argues that “the value of the collections of materials preserved in archives often lies in the relationship of the records to each other.” In her view, archivists are the professionals best suited to understand and preserve these relationships.

Owens, on the other hand, writes that historians also have this and other skills to analyze and contextualize digital sources as they have for print sources. In “Digital Sources & Digital Archives,” he outlines questions that historians should ask of digital sources that are based in those already asked of print sources while expanding on the unique needs of digital materials. Questions of creation, why something was preserved, and what information the document is leaving out are coupled with those of how a digital source was accessed, and more. Owens notes that every iteration of a digital source is a “performance” – how it appears can change depending on how and when that item is being viewed. The artifactual qualities of a digital source stand out as a main distinction and line of inquiry for analysis; this is reminiscent of Burdick et al.’s “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities Fundamentals” and its argument that the design and medium in which a digital product is presented is itself an argument. This too is a question that historians have asked of print sources, and, as Owens poses, must continue to ask of digital sources.

Owens writes that “it is likely that historians are going to need to increasingly focus on establishing and sharing techniques for working with different kinds of sources,” work that will need to be done in collaboration with archivists. First, archivists and digital humanists must resolve their definitional disparities of what an archive is and the role of each type of professional in selecting, organizing, and preserving digital materials.

What’s an archive? What do digital collections mean for archivists?

Owens, What do you mean by archive

According to this 2014 blog post by our very own Dr. Trevor Owens, there has come to be a good amount of disagreement about what is meant by “archive.” The emergence of digital humanities, and how people use the internet, have greatly contributed to the proliferation of meanings people associate with the term “archive.” 

In this blog post on the Library of Congress website, Trevor breaks down many of the ways people define (or, at least, use) the term. Trevor noted at the start of the post that the goal here wasn’t to define once and for all what is and what isn’t an archive, but to foster understanding across the interdisciplinary world of digital humanities. Further, he invites readers to add via the comments how they understand archives (and a bunch of people responded, including in a mysterious and intriguing post from 4 years after the original publication!).

Trevor outlined various types of archives, from the mundane (IMHO) to the sophisticated. By mundane, I mean related to everyday life — the versions of “archive” that most people are likely to encounter on a regular basis, especially when computing. “Archive as in Records Management” is what it sounds like; an organization’s records that they’ll need later on. It could, I think, be your dentist’s office or your local mechanic. “Archives as in ‘Right Click -> add to Archive,” describes the type of archive you find in your web application such as an email account. The ability to store backups of emails, for example, is a form of filing that has developed as a result of the immense digital capacity computers provide us. Interestingly, this function is less similar to records management processes used by those who work with paper and, therefore, have more limited space. Finally, I’d include “Archive as in ‘Web Archive.’” This refers to archives of the web, á la the Wayback Machine. This is a bit different than the others I included in this category as it’s not something that is, I believe, commonly used. However, I included it here because it is similar to the archive feature of a web application (such as an email app) as it functions as a kind of interwebs backup. 

The remaining categories were more obviously related to disciplinary understandings of archives. “Archive as in ‘The Papers of So and So’” refers to collections of a person or organization that accumulate over time. These represent “fonds” or “a particular name for a collection that are the result of the ongoing work of the individual or organization.” In the case of the “Archive as in ‘Tape Archive,’” the term refers to a system of storing materials on reels of tape, which inexpensive and efficient. Finally, “Archive as in ‘Digital Archive’” such as the the Bracero Archive and the September 11 Digital Archive, might be deemed “artificial” by some archivists, but Owens argues that they shouldn’t be. He points to the methods of curating these digital archives as those used by The American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress. He also points out that digital archives are more often viewed this way — as intentionally collected items that don’t accrue over time in a “natural” way.

Manuscript Division stacks with acid-free containers. Manuscript Division Slide Collection

There remains the lone “Notions and Considerations of “The Archive.”’ By this, Owens means the theoretical use of the term, such Foucault’s using it to refer to historical records as a whole. This usage also likely frustrates archivists as it conflicts with archival practices.

Phillips, Close Reading, Distant Reading: Should Archival Appraisal Adjust?

While Owens helps us understand the range ways people understand archives, Meg Philips, who works at NARA, grapples with the implications of Digital Humanities for archivists. She wonders how archivists should (if at all) change what they do in response to new methods used by Digital Humanists and the types of questions these methods raise. In the end, she seems to land on that archivists will still “decid[e] what is worth permanent preservation,” but with new questions in mind — ones that deal with systems and large corpuses. She posts some questions to help consider how archivists can do their work with both distant and close reading in mind. I included the last in her list because it questions whether this tension between archival methods for distant and close reading is even actually new:

  • “Is there a meaningful difference between trying to support computational research and actually just keeping everything?  (Perhaps this whole discussion is just the modern version of the old tension between historians who want to save everything and archivists who are trying to put their resources toward the most important materials.)”

Schmidt & Ardam, On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive

“On Excess,” by Schmidt and Ardam, provides us with a case study of the challenges that born-digital archives can present. They examine how to approach Susan Sontag’s digital life, which was donated to the UCLA Library Special Collections after she died. Amazingly, researchers can visit the collections and use a computer that is a complete recreation of the files and folders contained on Susan Sontag’s computers. While this allows the user to explore aspects of her life that she shielded from public view during her life, the complete access may be more illusory than it seems.

Susan Sontag

Archivists and researchers working with such a vast born-digital collection face multiple challenges. For one, there’s the challenge of making the contents accessible while leaving as little trace of intervention as possible. The archivists accidentally let dates of some documents update. Since technology changes so rapidly, preserving a computer in time requires interventions that allow for access but may seem at odds with preservation including updating hardware or working with outdated software. The comprehensive collection can be difficult to navigate. As the authors point out, one may search the title of the book she wrote, but who’s to say she didn’t use an abbreviated title at times?

Thinking across these three articles, it seems like all the authors are doing what Sontag tried to do: to deal with the “excess,” “material plenitude,” and “sheer crowdedness” of life. She used lists of varying lengths to make order. Digital Humanists might use computational analyses to gain insights into a period or literature that a narrower approach might preclude. As a starting point, we should try to understand what each other means by “archive.”

September 11th Digital Archive

The irreparable effect of 9/11 on contemporary society is a phenomenon posterity will recognize as a facet of everyday life. Those born during the turn of the twentieth century will most likely develop prosthetic memories of the event through the wave of militaristic films produced in the wake of the attack. The September 11 Digital Archive created in 2002 provides these generations a platform to learn about 9/11 through “first-hand accounts, emails, and other electronic communications, digital photographs and artworks, and a range of other digital materials.” The American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center partnered with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University to create a permanent record of the 9/11 epoch. A partnership with the Library of Congress forged in 2003 resulted in the archive becoming a permanent collection and the first digital acquisition of the national institution. In 2011 the National Park Service and the NEH awarded the Archive a Saving America’s Treasure Grant to ensure its longevity. The historians and archivists who created the September 11 Digital Archive also see it as an opportunity to analyze how historical events are digitized and preserved in the twenty-first century. The main objective of this archive is to break through the political cacophony dominating the memory of the attacks by preserving and highlighting the stories of those who lived through it. The site also provides historical context to help viewers understand the lasting effects of this event on the contemporary political, social, and cultural discourse. The FAQs About 9/11 tab includes a variety of links to different news sites, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, government reports about the rebuilding efforts, and links to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Flight 93 National Memorial, and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

By clicking the collections tab of the archive viewers can explore the eclectic sources preserved on the site which include oral histories, paintings, chains of emails, and action reports produced in the aftermath of the attacks. What differentiates this archive from standard ones is that the collections constitute of emails and the personal thoughts people in the immediate aftermath of the event. Some of the personal collections, such as that of Alex Ringer, place 9/11 within a global context which compels viewers to recognize the global ramifications that spurred from the event.

One collection item that immediately captured my attention was a collection of emails titled the Vivek Sud emails. The email chain is between a group of coworkers attempting to discern what is going on and if everyone in their office is safe. By examining these emails viewers of the archives can obtain a glimpse into the commotion that occurred on September 11th. By looking at the timestamps of the emails and juxtaposing it with one of the timelines provided in the FAQ visitors of the site can observe what some of the immediate reactions were to the different attacks that occurred throughout the day. Also included in the Items list is an oral history interview conducted by Rebecca Brenner Graham who is a Ph.D. candidate in history at American University with Steve Navon who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a business in the North Tower, who was late to work on 9/11. During this interview, Navon recounts his morning with explicit detail as well as the importance of remembering those who lost their lives in the attack.

The Bracero Archive

Bracero [bɾa.’se.ɾo], a Spanish word translating to “laborer” or more specifically “farm laborer,” stemming from the Spanish word “brazo,” meaning “arm.” (I studied Spanish phonetics in undergrad so I really wanted to include the phonetic transcription because phonetics is fun don’t mind me)

Background to the Bracero Program

Some of you might not have studied the Bracero program, so I want to give a little background for those who aren’t familiar. The Bracero program began in 1942 with the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, signed by both the United States and Mexico. This agreement allowed for Mexican workers, mostly men, to migrate to the United States for a period of time for the US to use as a source of cheap labor. This program went on for twenty years, being terminated in 1964. After numerous problems with illegal immigration, the government set up Operation Wetback in order to send these illegal immigrants back to Mexico, but it affected the Bracero workers as well. Ultimately, this program caused heightened tensions regarding immigrants and constant discrimination and anti-Mexican sentiment was growing during this period, especially during Operation Wetback. Officials used anti-immigrant propaganda, such as portraying Mexicans as dirty, lazy, menacing, irresponsible, etc., to justify their actions in deporting this group. There’s a lot more to the Bracero program so go read more!!

Introduction to the Website

First and foremost, the website has a Spanish version! This option makes it much more inclusive especially since the participants of this program were native Spanish speakers. The archive also got the Public History Project Award in 2010!! All of this is fantastic, but today I’ll be taking you on a journey of the fabulous toolbar the website has to offer.

The Toolbar!

First, we have the Archive tab, which is the most useful for research purposes. They currently have a total of 3209 items on this website such as images and even TONS of oral histories!! Within these subsections, you can look at all of the documents available, or you can browse for what you are specifically searching for within the four categories they outline: images, documents, oral histories, and contributed items. Unfortunately, the documents are not in alphabetical order, or in any seemingly logical order, making it a little had to use. Also, while the oral histories are great, it seems like all of them are in Spanish and they lack a Spanish transcription or an English/any other language translation. This makes it inaccessible for non-Spanish speakers.

This details the image section of the archive where you can see thumbnails and descriptions of each item.

The Teaching tab is a great tool for teachers and others who want to create lesson plans for their students! There are three available lesson plans on the website that are very diverse including using maps, photos, and primary documents to understand the Bracero program. They provide all the resources that are needed including obviously the documents in the archive, but also worksheets and grading rubrics for the outlined activity. They include lots of probing questions for the students that help them think critically about the program and the people who participated in it which is great!

These are the three less plans they offer. By clicking on each of them, you can see the extensive lesson plan along with materials and questions for your students.

The last few tabs aren’t as fun but they have some great resources! The History tab includes a selected bibliography as well as their full research bibliography for the website. These include scholarly books and articles that demonstrate their credibility in research, but also give researches a huge and great list of sources about the Bracero program. The Resource tab is also useful because it gives tutorials for how to use the website and how to add to the website’s archives and use Omeka for creating posters for the site and they give helpful tips on how to conduct an oral history interview for those who never have.

This is part of the Bracero’s bibliography to learn more about the topic

Finally, the About tab gives information about the history of the Bracero program for those unfamiliar. It’s similar to what I included at the beginning of this post, but more extensive. They also include their staff members and their backgrounds here. There is also the Partners tab which simply includes a list of their different partners that help make the site possible.

Although the site has some flaws regarding language barriers with their oral histories, this site overall is a very accessible place to gather documents regarding the Bracero program.

Disrespect des Fonds and Archiving Aboriginal Australia

Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives by Jefferson Bailey

What is “respect des fonds?” : A by-product of the French Revolution, where revolutionaries destroyed the archival history of the monarchy in the Bastille, but preserved records of their own actions in Archives Nationales.The segregation and classification of archival material was both chaotic and purpose-led during a time of political change, and became the basis for Circular no. 14, which posited that the archives were: “to form a collection of all the documents which originate from a body, an organization, a family or an individual, and to arrange the different fonds according to a certain order.” (3) Thus, the creatorled the classification of archive, and they were kept in the original order of accession. This became the Western norm for archival classification for centuries.

 respect fourth of july a capitol fourth 2019 GIF

What are the flaws when “respecting des fonds?”: 

  • Original order of accession is not the same as order of creation
  • Lack of context about past stewardship of archive
  • It privileges old methods over accessibility for many users

What are some alternatives? 

  • Peter Scott developed the “series system,” an alternative that instead classified by function/use.
  • Luciana Duranti proposed the “archival bond” which “identifies a web of documentary co-dependencies that presumes an inheritance and relationship between records based on functional proximity.” (5)
  • Michel Duchein proposed “the parallelismus membrorum, “the similarity of parallel files” in 1983 (5)
  • Chris Hurley and “parallel provenance (5)

What does this have to do with digital media? 

Interpreting digital objects is different than purely physical archival material, and “trails of ownership” as well as contextual material are contained within the file data. Moreover, new and digital ways of accessing archives like databases need not rely on the “fonds”—databases are mutable and responsive the research needs. “Disrespecting des Fonds” creates a new model and mode for the classification of archival material!

schitts creek seriously GIF by CBC
Des Fonds after reading this article:

Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia by Kimberly Christen

This article discusses the work done by Christen and others with the Warumungu community in Tennant Creek, Australia to create a digital archive that is responsive, mutable, and accessible to aboriginal Australians. Because it was difficult for aboriginal people to actually visit museum collections with community objects (despite their desire to do so), an alternative was necessary. So, archivists involved worked diligently to make an accessible platform that catered to the needs and requirements of a community with little experience using digital archives, low literacy, and religious needs (example: challenges in the display of sacred objects online).

Through community conversations, they created a visually-driven archive with settings for elders, male vs. female, members of different aboriginal groups, etc. Their major purpose was to create“a place where knowledge is produced, exchanged, and enlivened through dialogue.” (23) All in all, it is a great mix of community-based history, responsiveness and shared authority, and takes major steps toward the decolonization of the archive

Overall, I think this is a great lesson in community engagement and the need for responsiveness to individual needs when creating new databases or programs! What do you all think?