Organizing the [Digital] Archives: March 24 Readings #1-4

This week, we take a look into the conceptualization of digital archives. Digitizing archival materials and expanding public access through the internet allows archives the power to expand the accessibility and usability of their archives. However, as Spiderman will attest, with great power comes great responsibility.

Mr. Stark trusted me. I am not gonna let him down. : boy, bye | Tom holland  spiderman, Tom holland peter parker, Tom holland
Tom Holland’s Spiderman, Marvel Cinematic Universe

In our first reading for this week, Jefferson Bailey argues that the advent of digital archives bring the opportunity to reexamine and reimagine the organization of archives. Bailey begins his article, “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives,” by exploring the origins of respect des fonds, which is a principle of grouping records according to the generating bodies or donors. Respect des fonds seeks to preserve provenance of physical documents by grouping them by agent of transfer. The origins of this archival management system date back to the French Revolution, as records of the monarchy were destroyed and systematically reorganized by the revolutionary government. Digital Archives present an opportunity to reconsider Respect des fonds because, in the digital world, arrangement is “no longer a process of imposing intellectualized hierarchies or physical relocation.” Rather, it is automated by a computer system. Digital Archives have the ability to draw attention to collections’ inter-related nature and facilitate more dynamic exploration. While researchers still romanticize physical archives as the ideal place for research, Bailey argues the Digital Archive has the potential to alter the ways which we organize and access information.

The authors of the next three readings focused on the ways that archives can and should engage in community activism. In the first of these readings is “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia” by Kimberly Christen. While the digital archive has the ability to democratize access to archival materials, Christen argues that aboriginal Australians still lack access to archives where their culture’s histories are stored and shared. Christen details her work with the Mukurtu Project, which strove to make a new management system using Warumungu systems of knowledge and cultural protocols. The resulting digital archive categorizes users according to how much access aboriginal cultural protocols would allow them. For example, some sacred object are only accessible by elders. The archive’s website is navigated by clicking on photos which indicates categories. The Mukurtu Project demonstrates one among many possibilities for imagining digital archives that effectively collaborate with indigenous and aboriginal communities.

In “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories,” Jarrett M. Drake tasks archives with responsibility approaching the preservation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He defines two tasks which archives must carefully consider. First, Drake argues that archives must confront their roles in upholding the patriarchy and white supremacy through two problems. To do so, he suggests evaluating the accessibility of archives and whether the Black lives matter in the existing collections. Secondly, Drake argues that archives must build trust with the people around whom the #BlackLivesMatter movement is centered. This trust, according to Drake, must be built from a perspective of allyship, which focuses on making room for the impacted to be centered and heard. While Drake believes that independent, community based archives are the best repositories for preserving the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he believes these steps would help traditional archives be more responsible in their collecting.

Lastly, Bergis Jules writes in “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism” about the centrality of social media in today’s social activist movements. Jules argues that social media allows for an unprecedented amount of unfiltered experiences to be preserved in vivid detail on widely accessible platforms. According to Jules, the ability of any person with a cellphone to record anything is empowering. Social media is able to record the raw and personal reactions of individuals in social protest in astonishing numbers. With all that potential, Jules argues that it is necessary to develop preservation tools for this wealth of information and data that also respect people’s right to express themselves publicly.

All of these readings present arguments on how information on the internet challenges the historical uses of the archives, the ways they are organized, the people represented within then, and the people who use them. Do you know of any archives which take innovative approaches to organizing their information? What other considerations should archives make when attempting to document ongoing social movements?

10 Replies to “Organizing the [Digital] Archives: March 24 Readings #1-4”

  1. Hi Emily! I was really interested in how these readings discussed the connection between archives and activism. Drake argues that archives need to recognize how they are a part of the issue and they need to build trust with the community, while Jules delves into the power of social media in activism and how it is important to preserve the information social media can capture in these movements. With all of this, I am thinking that digital archives are a positive tool for social movements, especially with the idea that historians and others in the humanities are activists themselves. There is still work to be done, as Drake points out, to ensure that these digital archives are responsibly and adequately documenting activist history yet I think there is a lot of potential here.

  2. Hi Emily! I really enjoyed your summarization of these first readings. The final one by Jules on social media preservation I found particularly fascinating. First, I think the possibilities of using social media as a source of millions of primary sources to document social movements and the like is a wonderful opportunity and something that would contribute greatly to the study of such movements in the future. Personal experiences are always limited but not in this day and age. Though it did occur to me that social media members’ privacy should be considered and I wonder in what ways or what steps would be taken to do this. I see that Jules acknowledges this and says it shouldn’t be seen as a barrier but an opportunity, which I’m inclined to agree with, but she doesn’t dive into any solutions for this, because something like this would definitely cause privacy concern if guidelines weren’t outlined and followed.

    1. Claire — you bring up an excellent point on privacy and social media. While the posts are publicly available, I don’t think that can count as consent for a person’s posts to be permanently archived. I would definitely be interested to see how this can be dealt with by social media archivists. I, personally, don’t know how social media archivists would approach this. At the scale that Jules describes, I am unsure how consent would be obtained from such a large number of people. Perhaps this would need to be done in collaboration with social media platforms?

  3. Emily, these readings and their comments on accessibility of archives made me think of the role historians should play in preserving and archiving indigenous sources. These sources were stolen from colonized lands and the cultures still do not have access to their own histories – what can we do to address this injustice? Is it about collaborating with indigenous groups or should the focus be on returning the sources to control of the indigenous people and allowing them to archive and store the material as they choose.

    1. Amanda this is such a good question to raise! It reminded me a lot of the work Rebecca Wingo is doing with indigenous communities. https://rebeccawingo.com/ She spoke to our seminar course last semester and really highlighted providing a community with sole access and control of their history, to then be shared as they desire. She spoke to building out an archive in the Crow people’s native language for them alone. I think the Mukurtu Project that Christen discusses is an interesting case study for how public historians can begin to work with Indigenous communities to provide them access and control over their history.

    2. Amanda– this is an excellent question. In my view, Indigenous and Native sources and artifacts are best returned to the cultures they were stolen from. I do recognize that it is important for the general public to be educated on the histories of native and indigenous cultures, especially when it comes to the history of colonization. However, perhaps it would be better for objects in these exhibits and other places to be “on loan” from the native and indigenous groups themselves. I think this would be a good way for native and indigenous groups to gain more control over their sources, while also collaborating with larger institutions to educate broader audiences.

      One thing I wonder about repatriation is whether or not Native and Indigenous groups should have to request repatriation in order for their sources to be returned. Is it enough that there is a process for native and indigenous groups to go through for the return of their artifacts? Or should institutions begin the processes themselves in collaboration with the native and indigenous groups?

  4. Hi Emily! Thanks for these great summaries! I found the last two readings discussed to be the most compelling–the #ArchivesForBlackLives and the “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism” pieces. I think Drake’s piece was very Trouillotian (that’s probably not a word) in its underlying concept of the “silences” in special collections libraries and archives due to their complicity in “upholding patriarchy, white supremacy, and other inequalities.” I really appreciate Drake’s exploration of the fraught relationship between the community and the archive, and the principles he offers for overcoming these “silences”–building trust with communities, allyship, and developing community-based archives–are so relevant and in line with the principles of public and community-based history. I also think Jules’ presentation of social media as “evidence of public engagement” was a really interesting notion. I think that privacy and sheer volume of material are the largest hurdles in terms of using social media to document historical moments.

    1. Hi Rebecca! I also found Drake’s piece to be reminiscent of Trouillot’s work– I think this quote from Trouillot illustrates this nicely: “the classification of all non-Westerners as fundamentally non-historical is tied to the assumption that history requires a linear and cumulative sense of time” (Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 7). The silences in archives links to the classification of non-Western sources as non-historical. How might adjusting our understanding of history allow for non-Western sources to be better preserved and interpreted?

  5. Thank you for this great summary of the readings, Emily! I thought it was fascinating to read about the ways that archives build trust in communities. Like Rosie and Amanda mentioned in their comments referencing The Mukurtu Project as well as concerns of focused public curation that Shaan mentioned in the post about the September 11 digital archive, it is really interesting to determine appropriate accessibility to digital archives. I also really liked your question about innovative approaches that archives take to organize information! I couldn’t think of any, but it made me interested to see how other archives organize their information. For example, I think it could be really interesting to see methods of how multilingual collections arrange information to improve accessibility for their patrons.

    This is kind of an aside, but Rosie’s reference to Rebecca Wingo also made me think about her work with the Digital Community Engagement book and the challenges of creating a set of best practices and guidelines, especially with digital community archives.

  6. Hey Emily! Thanks for pulling together these readings! I think all of these readings collectively have me thinking about power dynamics in academia and the concept of shared authority. To the point of moving beyond respect des fonds, which even at its root is about changing power dynamics and politics, it does make me think about the power dynamics of the internet and digital archiving more broadly.

    I think so often the web (and perhaps by extension the digital archive) is considered to be a tool that opens access to more people, or puts people on a more level footing. In some ways, I do think that is true. However, I also believe that the web and digital work has just as much capacity to further entrench systemic issues, cultural norms, power dynamics, etc.

    I’m really glad to see how digital archives have been used for activism and positive change, but I suppose the archiving of people’s words and thoughts (for example, from social media), especially in the midst of activist movements like BLM, has me thinking about the significance of how we have control over the categorization and definition these people’s ideas and actions within the archive. Although Drake points to community archives as the best place for allyship and trust to be built, which I don’t disagree with, I want think more about how we might best implement shared authority into this practice in larger archives, where people are perhaps more likely to look for such sources and where there is funding/resources to maintain and care for this important history.

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