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.

One Reply to “Defining Digital Archives”

  1. Thanks for all the info in this post! It was a very nice summary of the articles. I found it so interesting that these two fields were at such an impasse over the definition of “archives” It was painful to think about how much time and energy went into the battle to define the term rather than putting their combined effort towards more useful endeavors to push the field forward. I understand the desire to be right, but this takes it to a whole new level.

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