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

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