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!

3 Replies to “Notes on Critical Digital Archives by Carbajal and Caswell”

  1. Great job picking out key points. I found this article really interesting. I personally also thought that digital archiving would be more sustainable since its not using as much paper and other physical documents. Learning how digital archiving is effecting the climate change with multiple servers in order for it be accessible to everyone is fascinating. The question is how do we make digital archiving more sustainable, while still remaining assessible to everyone?

  2. Emma, like Sherrell, I was also super surprised that digital archives are not more sustainable than physical archives. The whole digital realm is so confusing; it reminds me of bitcoin and NFTs also not being sustainable. How is that possible??! It is literally a photo online… anyways… it boggles my mind. It also really got me thinking about my own digital footprint and how I sometimes keep the files that I do not need to keep anymore.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to make digital archiving more sustainable? I tried to search some methods online, but the only suggestions people had were deleting files that are not needed and uploading “low-footprint versions” of the documents (smaller files, etc.). However, the last suggestion makes me nervous; wouldn’t that affect the document and therefore, the ability to analyze it?

  3. Emma,
    I totally agree with you in regards to the section on sustainability. I think that will be one of my biggest takeaways from this class is that making things digital does not mean they are more sustainable. However, even though I think that the environmental impact is a problem, digital archives help with access. In my research, I found that archival material that wasn’t digitized was a huge and sometimes insurmountable roadblock.
    Another thing I really liked that this article pointed out was that digital archives can have a more equitable distribution of materials. When I was looking for digitized versions of black magazines I found that not many places had physical magazines but a lot of places had either microfilm or linked to a digital copy. Microfilm is not very accessible but the digital copy was accessible AND in color.

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