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.”

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