Digital Archives: Kimberly Christen “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia”

Link to article:

In Kimberly Christen’s article “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia” we see how digital archives and communities can work together to overcome problems often associated with traditional archives. Christen starts out the article acquainting the audience with the fact that certain restrictions that surround traditional archives make it harder for people, especially Indigenous peoples, to access archival material related to their communities. Three challenges given are distance, poverty, and education and these are similar to challenges articulated in Jarrett Drake’s article. Christen then goes on to point out that digital archives can overcome these challenges by increasing accessibility, but then shows that there is such a thing as too much accessibility. To combat this Christen shows that community based archives built and curated with the community that archivist work with may be the key to helping share Indigenous artifacts while allowing control to remain with the Indigenous communities, barring stronger measures such as repatriation of artifacts.

To illustrate this point, Christen writes about a project that she worked on called the Mukurtu Project. The goal of this project was to create a digital archive for the Warumungu-kari community in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory Australia that would allow for community based sharing with the Indigenous community and the outside world that was built and controlled by Warumungu-kari community customs. Some of the things that Christen had to keep in mind when working on this project are interesting as they relate to things that we as historians must remember when dealing with communities that have been negatively affected by structural inequality. First, the digital archive website had to be user friendly as the Indigenous community had low literacy levels and low levels of skill with computers. Therefore, simplicity in the user interface was key to making it accessible not just for viewing but for uploading content. Second, the website and archive itself was built to Indigenous community protocols and customs with community stakeholders involved in the entire process. This means that the Indigenous community was able to “take back” control over their history and artifacts by building a space that was dictated by their customs and not those of oppressors.

As a result, the website that was created was built to allow for community participation along community lines. What I mean by this is that the Indigenous communities involved were able to create a space that they could upload, share, and comment on familial artifacts and engage in community preservation of culture and history on their own terms. One thing I found when reading the article is that the user interface requires that an person create a profile that then puts them into a certain status that decides level of participation and viewing based on Indigenous customs. A person could be an community member, traditional owner, or elder. What struck me the most about these levels is that all could participate in uploading and commenting, but the levels decided certain viewing and editing privileges according to the custom of the community. An example of this is that only elders can edit/view certain sacred objects. In addition, men and women are only allowed to view certain artifacts and cannot view artifacts that are identified with the other group. As for non-community members like ourselves we would only be able to view things that are designated as “open” in the archive which means anyone can view the object. The author closes by saying that this has allowed community members to share and engage in dialogue with each other and the outside world.

Digital Archives: Jarrett M. Drake Article on “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archive Repositories

Link to the article:

In the article “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archive Repositories by Jarrett M. Drake we find the concept of archives viewed through the lens of community based work and the Black Lives Matter movement. This article reflects briefly on Drake’s experiences with helping to implement a community based archive in Cleveland on the subject of police violence before moving on to the subject of traditional archive repositories and the Black Lives Matter movement. Drake explores what archives need to keep in mind before engaging in work centered around community activism and social justice movements, and he highlights the Black Lives Matter movement as a central point of the article.

First, Drake notes that two preconditions must be met before he thinks traditional archives should begin to take on work related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Drake tells his audience that they must confront their own institutions complicity in structural inequality and to build trust through allyship. This was something that I found interesting in that this is exactly what archives are now trying to do for all collections, and is part of the larger idea towards understanding how historians have been complicit in structural inequalities most often associated with the “academics in ivory towers”. It also points to problems that digital archives are currently facing when it comes to working with communities. I thought that one thing that was most interesting is that Drake is saying that these are things to consider for archives that are going to work with movements and communities such as Black Lives Matter, but he believes that independent community archives should take precedent over more centralized institutions. This brings up one question that I had on my mind as I read this: What does everyone think of the idea of limiting who can do what when it comes to archives?

To continue, two concepts that traditional archives must look into are, as Drake articulates, the location and language of the archive. On location one point that is similar to the Kimberly Christen article is that one must consider how do people access these archives in addition to physical location. I find this interesting as it is something that digital archives constantly struggle with as to how the public can access their archives with things like poverty, internet access, etc that are sometimes by-products of structural inequality. I also thought that the ideas of surveillance in a traditional archive were something that could be applied to digital archives in terms of user profiles, IP addresses, and user data ownership. Second, the language of the archive was interesting in that finding aids were part of the problem. Drake explains that the people who often work with and founded the material around Black Lives Matter are not the “cis-gendered white males” that traditional archives often cater towards. Rather, it was Black women who were members of the LGBTQA+ community and their stories are often in archives but not told by them. This relates to digital archives in how searching and cataloging are accomplished.

Finally, I wanted to explore Drakes idea of building trust through allyship and how this may relate to digital archives. Before going into this it would be useful to define what exactly an ally is so that we can see how traditional and digital archives may start working towards this process. Drake offers an definition by the Anti-Oppression Network which states that allyship is, “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people…allyship is not an identity [but] a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust…allyship is not self-defined [but] must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.“(Drake 2016). To this end, Drake insists that building these relationships and maintaining them is the only way that traditional archives can accurately and critically share material related to Black Lives Matter and in a certain sense the Black community at large. This made me think of how digital archives and how they might try and build these relationships with people and communities that they work with.

Notes on Disrespect des Fonds

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

This essay discusses the respect des fonds, an archival theory that dictates how documents and materials are organized, and how it relates to born-digital archives, a space where traditional archival thought does not necessarily hold the same weight as in traditional archival settings. The main question of the article is, “how will traditional principles of archival arrangement and description be challenged or modified to account for born-digital materials?” Quite honestly before reading this essay I had not thought all that much about how archives are organized.

Respect des fonds is an archival theory that outlines the way materials and documents are grouped in an archive and in the article is further defined as: “principle of grouping records by the administration, organization, individual, or creating body in which they originated. Respect des fonds mandates that the records of the creating entity not be mixed with those of a different entity. It prioritizes the “organic” nature of archival records, identifying the locus of their generation, and the evidence their consolidation provides about that originating body, as essential to preserving and maintaining context.”

This essay looks at the social context in which respect des fonds was created, the limits of the theory, new models that attempted to address critiques of des fonds, how born-digital materials must go beyond the limits of the theory, and the potential for reinterpretation of respect des fonds. The archival theory was developed in the 1800s in France in the wake of the French Revolution as a result of shifting politics and the necessity for order in creating new Archives Nationales. The organizing principle of des fonds is the origin or creator of the document because of the need to “know where it was created, in the framework of what process, to what end, for whom, when and how it was received by the addressee, and how it came into our hands.” Even after its creation in France it was not widely used but it really took off in Prussia and the Netherlands.

Since the early 1900s there has been a rise in criticisms of des fonds because the order is not always clear, can be reorganized, and reconstructed. There was also a discussion of usefulness, because des fonds was sometimes a confusing system was it always useful? “Fonds could also be mixed or “broken” into multiple transfers to an archive, making reconstitution difficult.”  (This reminds me of the article we read in Craft, Ann Laura Stoler, Against the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-15.) New models were developed out of critiques of des fonds, “by forming new ideas about how order or grouping can evidence archival authenticity, identity, and meaning.”

         One theory developed in response to criticism to des fonds is the “series system,” an alternative that instead classified by function/use that was created by Peter Scott. Luciana Duranti developed the “archival bond” which “identifies a web of documentary co-dependencies that presumes an inheritance and relationship between records based on functional proximity.”

Another theory is the parallelismus membrorum, the similarity of parallel files.” This theory was developed in the 1980s by Michel Duchein and is a theory referring to structural patterns in grammar, Bailey uses the example of “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This theory is based off of the “contextual relations that exist between records of different fonds, the network of meanings that stretch across the archive.” In the same vein as parallelismus, is a theory called “parallel provenance” created by Chris Hurley. This theory is “built around composing different things from the same particles combining things in different ways to produce a variety of views of what they look like in aggregate…not so much about identifying a different creator as recognizing manifold content.”

Born-digital materials however necessitate different treatment in digital archives because of the nature of the material. Reading this section kind of made me feel like a comp-sci girlboss even though I had to read it a few times because I don’t fully understand technology. Anyways! Bailey introduces digital bits, “the bit, the binary, the magnetic flux reversal of the spinning disk that is the origin of the digital object,” which is one of the ways that digital records can complicate the des fonds theory. Digital bits are altered/reconstructed every time the file is opened “(for instance, a file’s “last opened” date)” will re-order the digital bits and the digital material order. Ambient data is another way that digital materials are more complicated than analogue materials because most users are unaware of the ambient data stored in a digital interface. For example, ambient data is made up of temporary files and multiple identical files that are hidden and thus complicate the linear order of files. This makes the origin order of des fonds difficult because digital files are not always ordered in a linear sense the way physical documents can be. In the digital interface the way users access and look for sources is a physically different experience as well, they are not looking through boxes and files but can instead search key words and descriptions. So while original order and provenance can be used for organization it is not the only way for users to access documents.

The author concludes that digital archives are a great time to rethink respect des fonds and “revisit the true goals of arrangement and description in the light of the capabilities of digital records.” Digital archives present new ways for users to search for documents and gain access to different types of related material. The space is there for a different and multifaceted organization system that is built off of but not limited to respect des fonds.

Notes on Critical Digital Archives by Carbajal and Caswell

Critical Digital Archives

         In this article, the authors Carbajal and Caswell set out to define what “digital archives” are from an archivist’s perspective, outline how historians should think about digital archives and how to use them. The article focuses on seven themes and debates about digital archives and records that are present in recent scholarship including: materiality, appraisal, context, use, scale, relationships, and sustainability. I personally found this article very helpful; it is a great introduction to digital archives and all that goes into creating, maintaining, and interacting with them. Essentially, how to do digital history better! Each section is ended with questions to help historians think about the way they interact with digital archives in relation to materiality, appraisal, etc. and were very insightful!

         Some important definitions: archival studies – a sub-field of information studies that deals with records that represent “human activity that travel across space and time” (1103). Records and “recordness” – “notions of evidence; conceptions of provenance; methodologies for determining historic value; ways to create pathways for user retrieval of relevant materials; and issues surrounding the representation of records through descriptive tools, such as finding aids and catalogues” (1103). Born digital records- records like emails, tweets, Instagram posts, Word and Google docs, etc. that archivists have collected and preserved. Focus on things that are done/created in a digital space. Analogue records- physical records like Newspapers, paper, films, etc. all things that are not digital and have been collected, selectively digitized and preserved by archivists (1104).


         The authors emphasize the labor and maintenance that digital archives require. In the opening paragraph they joke about the moment historians realize just how much goes into creating and maintain a digital archive in an ethical and sustainable way. A group of files does not count as a digital archive unless “there is a plan for preserving them across space and time, maintaining the context of their creation through metadata, and ensuring continual access to present and future users” (1105). This is all made possible through labor, people have to digitize, transcribe, contextualize, describe, and preserve them. It also requires “natural, human, and financial resources” and because these resources are limited it can be difficult to maintain archives in a sustainable and ethical way. Lack of funding is also one way silences are created in archives. The authors point out that because resources are limited, most digital archives represent and serve the wealthiest communities (1106). The authors also remind us that archives are not neutral, they are political, and they silence.


         All archives create and perpetuate silences. Even before the archival stage, not everything is recorded, not everything is then collected, and then out of what is collected not everything is preserved, described, and contextualized. When archivists are appraising records, they are determining what has and will continue to have value (1107). Value is determined by the goals of the archive, is not objective, and in turn creates silences. Digital archives magnify these silences because the digitization for analogue documents is not a neutral process. What is digitized is determined by resources and the institutions and only documents that archivists believe are the most important or most valuable will be digitized.


         Metadata contains the context and descriptions of the documents and items and is an important part of the digital archives. Metadata is essentially “data about data” and is better understood in categories “administrative, descriptive, technical, structural, and preservation” (1108). The authors also discuss “historical debt” which is the work done to redo work previously done (1110). Archivists today are stuck with “historical debt” because people previously pursued cheaper or incorrect approaches. “Historical debt” also stems from archivists redoing work to correct problematic/offensive descriptions and incorrect language in archives to make a more inclusive and accurate archive (1109).


         This section deals with who uses digital archives and the realities of people using sources, artifacts, and documents outside of their original contexts (1111). The metadata of documents includes the context of that item, “when, where, and from what perspective that information was collected” (1111). The danger of digital archives is that people can take documents out of context and use them in a crude way that does not reflect the intention of the original document. The authors also highlight how digital archives can negatively impact some users, “especially users who have been denied access to or autonomy over their own cultural property because of colonialism and capitalism” (1112). The authors remind historians to consider who is benefits from the archive and how it can impact certain communities. I thought this section was particularly interesting!


         The scope and capacities of the digital world are always changing and evolving. Archivists, digital historians, and librarians are constantly faced with new technology that can improve the digital humanities and archives. But these new technologies come with learning curves, more labor, more pressure to keep up, and the need to increase the pace of labor (1114-5). The authors argue that we should work to engage practices that we already exist or approach archival work in a “radically different and people-centered way” (1115). They also introduce the idea of “slow archives” which entails creating boundaries in digital archives to be more ethical, inclusive, and accessible to user communities and not exploit laborers; “slowing down to create a necessary space for emphasizing how knowledge is produced, circulated, contextualized, and exchanged” (1115).


         This portion of the article discusses the relationships of custody of documents, consent from communities, and care. In traditional Western thought when objects/documents are given to an archive there is a transference of custody from the original owner/creator to the institution. “Post-custodialism” is a more recent way of thinking about ownership of objects/documents where “archivists will no longer physically acquire and maintain records, but that they will provide oversight for records that will remain in the custody of the record creators” (1115). This idea of stewardship dramatically shifts from the tradition of taking documents out of their communities of origin and is representative of a partnership or relationship and care. I found this section really interesting as well!


         This section was very eye opening. I feel like we hear so much about digital archives and yet I knew absolutely nothing about how they are maintained and the environmental impacts they can have. The discussion of sustainability and digital archives stems from recent discussions about climate change. Before reading this article, in my mind, digital archives were the more sustainable option, but man I was wrong! I thought that because digital archives do not require climate control for material objects and need much less space, they would be more sustainable. But it takes a lot of energy to preserve documents on multiple servers that are available to people all over the world forever (1117)! Like all things funding is necessary for digital archives to be maintained and often the more sustainable options are more expensive and not available for institutions with limited funding.

Critical Digital Archives

         This whole article has been how the authors envision a critical digital archive one that “emerges from those theories, practices, and projects that critique the current state of digital archives and enact meaningful changes to that state” (1119). In essence an archive that is ethically responsible for what they collect, how they collect it, how they pay for labor, how they interact with communities, and how they preserve and maintain the archive. “Focusing, listening, and acting differently, with careful intent and care, can counteract the incessant need for new, more, and bigger digital archives” (1119). The authors are calling historians and archivists to think critically about how they use and support digital archives with a focus on being sustainable, ethical, empathetic and compassionate for the communities they work with. I really enjoyed this article and feel much more knowledgeable about what digital archive means! I am really interested to hear how much you all knew about digital archives before reading this article and how you feel about them now!

Notes on Trevor Owens, “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History”

Main Topic

In his article, Owens explores the possible challenges scholars may face as physical objects and systems they use for research become increasingly digital. He also offers critical questions for scholars to ask while working with and interpreting digital documents and archives.

Owens’s Main Questions: What happens to history when most of its sources and evidence becomes increasingly digital? What happens to history when its archives become digital? What does it even mean to have a “digital archive”? (1)

I think the best way to break-down this article is to highlight its important sub-sections. Here they are below:

Digital Source Criticism & Provenance

When a historian studies a physical letter from a historical actor’s collection in an archive, it is safe to assume that “it represents a perspective that the author wanted to communicate” (2). However, when a historian begins to look at someone’s emails, the author’s perspective cannot be as easily understood in comparison to the letters in a collection.

The historian must take in account how people used email during that period of time, and the different “features and functionality” the variety of email clients created (2). Ultimately, if a historian comes across a digital source, it is important to fully understand and consider “the ways a given source was created, why and how it was preserved and why it has been stored” (2).

Critical Questions for Digitized Primary Sources (pages 3-5)

  1. Why was this source digitized and not something else?
    • Some possible answers: copyright restrictions or an archive got the rights to digitize a specific collection or document
    • Scholars must examine the “selection policies” for what was digitized; this can limit the scholar’s ability to analyze or “make inferences” on the sources
  2. Is this copy of significant quality for my purpose?
    • It is important to know that when some items are digitized, aspects of the original document may be taken out, such as watermarks and dirt markings
      • With this in mind, scholars have to make sure that the digitized versions are the correct versions for their research question. Will the text of the document be enough for evidence? Or are the physical markings important as well?
  3. How did I find this source and how does that affect what I can say about it?
    • When scholars search their keywords into a search engine, millions of results can appear seemingly out of thin air. It is important for scholars to “work backward” from the digitized source to understand what it is original from and if it “representative of the collection it comes from” (4)

Critical Questions for Born Digital Sources (pages 5-11)

Born Digital: sources that started off digital, such as emails and websites

  • Owens believes that these types of sources will be the bulk of primary sources historians will have to work with to understand the 21st century
  1. What am I not seeing on the screen?
    • Metadata! Metadata! Some documents written in word-processing applications track and record every step of the creation and editing process, which can be accessed by looking at the document’s metadata, or the data that provides information on other data. Here, you will be able to find even more evidence and material from the source
    • Owens argues that this factor suggests a whole new set of skills for assessing primary sources digitally (beginner hacker vibes)  
  2. What is lost in how the source was/is rendered?
    • When files are uploaded and rendered on a computer screen, it may look and sound different than the true original
    • For example, the Way Back Machine does not truly capture what the site looked like at that point time. Many features of the original site were not replicated to the archive
    • Also, web browsers and popular websites go under so much change that it will most definitely look different throughout time
  3. How was the source created, managed, and used? How does that impact what I can say about it?
    • If a scholar is examining someone’s email, they have to “develop an understanding of what an individual’s practices and or an organization’s practices were around email” (9). Did they have specific tags? Folders? Or just let it go into one inbox?
    • Digital photographs also have multiple copies and forms. Some are edited for Facebook; some are edited for Instagram. Because of this, there is not really a master file or copy of the photograph
      • Further, scholars will have to take a look at the photo’s composition; did they use the front or back camera? These factors can also help “contextualize and understand how they were in fact created” (10)
  4. What role did search play in the original experience of content?
    • As Owens eloquently states: “the biggest challenge facing web archives is that it is very unlikely that anyone is going to be able to recreate the central mode through which web content is accessed and understood” (10). Basically, a Google search is different for other people throughout time
      • This forces the scholar to examine the role in which search interfaces and algorithms play in how others interacted with the content

What are Digital Archives? (pages 11-15)

As Owens states, digital archives mean different things to different people and in different contexts! Here are some types of digital archives and their definitions:

  • For digital humanities scholars, “digital archives” means “aggregated collections of digitized primary sources” (11)
  • There are also born digital archival collections, which house born digital materials. As Owen states, this type of digital archive is “generally a subset or a hybrid component of an analog archival collection” (13). However, since this type of digital archive is new, the practices for collecting, processing, and preserving these materials are still evolving.
    • Understanding how people organize, name and sort their files will become increasingly important as scholars look into born digital archives
  • Web archives are another type of born digital archives. They use tools like Heritrix to grab all of the content of a webpage and all the other pages that link to the site
    • These types of archives are consciously created, so scholars need to understand their selection policy
    • The archived materials are also not the exact copies of the content when it was grabbed off the original website
  •  Individuals can voluntarily upload their own primary sources to a digital archive, which can be seen through user generated born digital archives. An organization can “crowdsource” an archive to create a collection around a specific issue or topic
    • Since every piece in the collection is based on individual reflections and objects, making sense of the materials as a whole may be challenging for a scholar

“Given the rapid pace of change around digital technology it is likely that historians are going to need to increasingly focus on establishing and sharing techniques for working with digital sources. As information and ecologies continually shift it is going to be critical for historians to show their work in making sense of the stratigraphy of digital sources” — Trevor Owens

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways do you see History and Public History education changing, in order to keep up with these digitized sources and archives? After reading Owen’s piece, are there any skills you want to learn or would benefit from learning? 
  2. What are some of the issues a scholar may run into while using the different types of archives (born digital, web archives, user generated)? In addition to the racial bias of physical archives and collections, what types of biases can you see being an issue for digital collections?  

— Rachael Davis