Digital Archives: What are and aren’t they? (Readings 5-9)

For the second half of this week’s readings, we will be looking at articles that ponder the more theoretical aspects of digital archives, and whether it is even appropriate to call digital collections “archives.”

The first article, The Rationale of HyperText, Jerome McGann highlights his vision for the optimal digital archive, one composed of hypermedia, and which incorporates both visual and auditory elements. In making the case for his hypermedia archive, McGann points out literary limitations that inhibit non-digital archives, such as the need to create new editions, which can be inaccessible to readers. Hypermedia, McGann argues, circumvents such difficulties by allowing readers to easily navigate through large masses of interconnected documents. Additionally, he lays out several design decisions that current projects should consider, such as the utilization of hypermedia in terms of the largest and most ambitious projects goals, as opposed to the project’s limitations, and that projects should be designed in the most modular and flexible way, so that changes in hardware and software have minimal impact upon the project. (McGann)

The next reading, What do you Mean by Archive, by Trevor Owens, seeks to understand the variety of meanings that “archive” takes on, depending on the context. One meaning of archive regards its usage in an organizational context, where the purpose of the archive is largely as a “place in the organization that is required to retain and organize records of the organization…In this case, a big part of the the work of an archive is to make sure they are keeping around only what is deemed to be useful for particular future use cases.” In this context, the archive is very selective. The second context Owens highlights is the archive as a “particular kind of collection.” Usually, these kinds of archives are collections of papers that center around a specific theme or person. The third context is as a context menu in computing. In this case, the archive is more of a back-up to an original copy of a document, but is still relatively accessible. The fourth, tape archives, are the physical, magnetic tapes, which many institutions use as their cheap, rudimentary forms of back-ups, ones which are the most unresponsive, and least likely to be accessed. The fifth context, web archives, are organizations and programs, such as “Wayback Machine,” which crawl the internet, saving and storing copies of websites. Finally, there are digital archives, like the September 11th Digital Archive, which are crowdsourced, and largely follow the format of McGann’s hypermedia dominated digital projects. As a whole, Owens’ article highlights the difficulty in defining “archive,” and how that meaning can change depending on what medium it is based in. (Owens)

The third article, On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born Digital Archive, by Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, investigates the laptop and hard drives of Susan Sontag as a case study of born-digital archives. In doing so, the article highlights several drawbacks and benefits to born-digital archives. One of the main points that the article argues is that in born-digital archives, there exists a paradox in that they have to balance the need to preserve hard drives and files in a manner that protects them from degradation, while also allowing them to remain relatively accessible. Additionally, digital archives suffer from unique challenges, such as the need for old programs and documents to be converted into a format that modern programs and software can make use of. However, the authors argue that the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks, and point out that digital archives are far more spatially-efficient than conventional archives, with boxes and boxes worth of documents being possible to condense into a single laptop. (Schmidt and Ardam)

The fourth article, Archives in and as Context, by Kate Theimer, makes the case for why digital collections do not constitute legitimate archives, and why people in the digital humanities might make that mistake. For instance, she points out that often, people in the digital humanities call their collections “archives” because the objects are selected. However, she argues that there is more to archives than just a selection process, and instead, maintains that “an archives is a repository for the historical records of its parent organization.” Furthermore, she lays several fundamental principles of archives, such as “provenance,” “collective control,” maintenance of the “original order imposed by the source of records,” and that the objects be “primarily original or unique materials and not published ones.” Since digital collections do not adhere to these strict guidelines, Thiemer believes that they should not be referred to as “archives.” (Thiemer)

The final article, Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History by Owens and Padilla, explores some of the fundamental concepts of digital history, the unique challenges of digital history, and questions that one must ask when pursuing digital history. For instance, in one section titled “Digitized Primary Sources,” the authors discuss why an institution or organization might digitized one primary source over another. An example they give highlights that many institutions prioritize digitizing materials from before 1923, in order to avoid copyright issues. In the section “Born Digital Sources,” the authors define born digital sources as those sources that “started off digital; email messages, digital photographs, websites, databases, etc.” One of the hypothetical questions that the authors pose for born digital sources is “how were the sources created, managed and used, and how does that impact what one can say about it?” They note that these contexts behind the born digital sources can reveal a great deal about them, giving the example of a message sent that states “Sent from my iPhone.” Because of this, the existence of typos or briefness of the message can be explained. Overall, the article presents a broad inquiry into the nature of digital humanities, the methodology that is employed in creating digital histories, and the key questions that need to be considered when pursing digital history. (Owens and Padilla)

3 Replies to “Digital Archives: What are and aren’t they? (Readings 5-9)”

  1. Hi! Your summary was very interesting to read and I appreciate how clearly you outlined the readings. Trevor Owen’s piece really broadened my understanding of the multiple meanings of “archive” that I had not pieced together before. But then Theimer’s piece in particular fascinated me because I hadn’t even considered that because we have so many variants of archives that some might not necessarily be considered archives compared to others. For example the internet holds so many “archives” of a range of sources including ones previously published or commonly accessed and according to Theimer this does not constitute as an “archive.” The internet has broadened our access but it has also complicated the meaning of “archive”

  2. Thanks so much for such great summaries of these pieces. I wanted to talk a bit about Theimer’s piece. I really appreciated her ‘tourist’ analogy, and distinctions between archives and digital history. I think it is an important distinction for public historians to keep in mind. It also raises question about how and where public historians play into the ‘tourist’ analogy in relation to digital history and archives. It continually brings me back to the question surrounding the distinction between digital history and historians doing work that exists digitally. I really appreciate Owens and Padilla’s piece for providing me with a more solid understanding of digital history so I can continue to explore this question from a more informed perspective as I continue my education (and hopefully career) as a public historian.

  3. I also really appreciated Thiemer’s piece because it was very helpful in teasing out the sort of rift between the archivist community and the digital humanities community regarding the understanding of the “archives.” It is interesting to consider all of this week’s readings together. While Thiemer argues for a rigid interpretation of the archive, Bailey insists that the traditional principle of respect des fonds is not only historically misrepresented, but is no longer an adequate approach to archival arrangement altogether. Drake and Jules certainly approach the archive in a way that Thiemer would not support and Owens reveals further variation in the use of the word “archive.” These readings really challenged me to think about how I view the “archive.”

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