Digital Archives

What are digital archives? Advantages and disadvantages? How they can change with the times, both adding new collections and with new technology? How will digital archives be preserved? These are the questions that this week’s readings endeavor to answer.

First, we must understand what a digital archive is and isn’t. In Jennifer Guiliano’s A Primer for Teaching Digital History, she wrote in Chapter 8: Archives, Exhibits, and Collections that historians use “the word ‘archives’ to mean any collection of documents,” which in the author’s opinion is misleading since not every digital space that houses sources can be held to or meet the standards of an archive (133). Instead, Guiliano uses the terms “digital historical representation,” “digital collections,” or “digital exhibits” because the terms respect the work of archival professionals while “still achieving our goal of creating historical scholarship that leverages digital collections and databases” (134). In “Critical Digital Archives: A Review from Archival Studies,” Itza A. Carbajal and Michelle Caswell, who are both archival practitioners, define digital archives as “(1) born-digital records (such as emails, Word documents, and tweets) that have been selectively collected by archival institutions or organizations and preserved and (2) analogue records (such as those created in paper, analogue film, and other nondigital formats) that have been selectively” digitized, collected, and preserved (1104). Furthermore, the authors believed that it is not 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). As the world and its sources become increasingly more digital, historians, archivists, and other professionals are still grappling with how to define “the digital archive.”

In creating a digital archive, many aspects should be considered, such as its organization and infrastructure. Jefferson Bailey’s article “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives” traces the history of archives from the French Revolution to the present-day. Bailey focuses on the term respect des fonds, which is the “the principle of grouping records by the administration, organization, individual, or creating body in which they originated,” since it emerged in the creation of new archives in France after its revolution. Bailey examines the term while also detailing its uses and effects on digital archives. Bailey found through examining several case studies that in rethinking respect des fonds, practitioners “gain a better awareness of the extent to which the material affordances of paper records have had an undue influence on how we conceptualize and practice grouping and describing collections.” For instance, arrangement of objects in a digital archive is “no longer a process of imposing intellectualized hierarchies or physical relocation; instead, it becomes largely automated, algorithmic, and batch processed.” Bailey’s article shows that archivists cannot just transfer their practices of preserving, labelling, and cataloguing objects from the physical archive to the digital one.

Similar to Bailey’s article, Jerome McGann’s “The Rationale of the HyperText” also emphasizes how to arrange and catalog digital archives to ensure they operate correctly. McGann shows the importance of the HyperText by stating is allows “to navigate through large masses of documents and to connect these documents, or parts of the documents, in complex ways.” This statement means that each document can be connected to another document. From a researcher’s perspective this is highly helpful as one can find and read sources faster than if the HyperText were not present. Both Bailey and McGann’s articles shed light on the technological organization of the digital archive in a way to ensure its effectiveness.

Another aspect that one must consider in the digital archive is what will be placed in it. Archives – both physical and digital – have been criticized over time for prioritizing collections primarily from straight, white, wealthy men. Archivists, activists, historians, and others have called for creating a more inclusive archive. For instance, “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia” by Kimberly Christen highlights the efforts of Indigenous communities with scholars, technical consultants, archives, and others to create solutions for making their cultural sources available to their community as many of them lack reliable access to the internet (21). Specifically, Christen details the efforts from the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive in Tennant Creek, Northern Territory Australia. The project’s purpose was to create a “digital archive to house returned digital materials as well as newly produced digital content” (22). Christen concludes that “this type of virtual repatriation is beneficial for museums and archives” and local Indigenous communities as it not only adds their stories to the archives, but allows the community to more easily access their history (25). Additionally, in “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories” by Jarrett M. Drake, it describes how archives should highlight African American voices already in the archives before they can properly document the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. Drake states that the archives must accomplish these two tasks before properly documenting BLM: “their complicity in upholding patriarchy, white supremacy, and other structural inequalities” and “must build trust with the people, communities, and organizations around whose lives the movement is centered, a trust they should pursue not under the guise of collection development but under the practice of allyship.” Drake states that archives should examine their locations & their accessibility/inaccessibility, business hours, and the finding aids to ensure that they are highlighting the materials already in the archives pertaining to African Americans and their history. Similar to Christen’s article, Drake also highlights the importance of working with the community to add and highlight stories that have been obscured and missing in the archives and to make the archives more accessible to that community, such as hosting events and creating a welcoming space for all. Both of these articles not only highlight the importance of adding more sources and stories to the archives, but working with communities in regards to both physical and digital archives.

Now that the digital archive has been created, how does one preserve it? Professor Trevor Owens’ book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, and Carbajal and Caswell’s article discuss this idea. Owens wrote the book as a “basic introduction to the issues and practices of digital preservation” and provide a basic framework for digital preservation (3). The book describes the author’s 16 axioms on what digital preservation is and is not (4-9). Owens structured the book as a conversation between the author and reader in the hopes that the book “will be of use to activists who want to start practices to ensure long-term access to their records, or scholars, who want to make sure that their work has a life beyond them” (11). In addition to the 16 axioms, the book defines what digital objects are, challenges and advantages to digital preservation, and managing and arranging digital archives. In his conclusion, Owens outlines what he believes are the challenges to digital preservation in the future, such as fast-evolving technology, how certain industries will drive the newest technological inventions, and climate change (187-200). Carbajal and Caswell discuss many of the same challenges in their article, but they also highlight copyright issues (1113), adapting in providing new collections to engage with existing and new audiences (1114), and historical debt, which is the labor of re-doing another person’s work in the archives, such as new cataloging and new finding aid (1113).

All of these readings show us what a digital archive is (or isn’t), how they should be written in code, what objects and collections they should have, and how to preserve these digital archives for future generations. In an increasingly digital world, these are valuable tools and skills to know as historians and scholars.

-Meredith Jackson

Digital History Practicum: Digital Archives

For our practicum this week, we’re looking at four digital archives to go along with the readings about digital archival practices. 

9/11 Digital Archive

This archive was created with help from New York institutions like CUNY and the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, as well as the Roy Rosensweig Center for History and New Media. It was created shortly after 9/11 and was accepted for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2003. While it has been updated a few times since, it definitely seems outdated compared to other things we see on the internet today. Here is a quick overview:

  • As you can see from the above image, When you first look at “items,” it is just a list of everything in the archive with no real way to filter it.
  • They have featured collections that include still images, scanned documents, and video testimonies. This at least helps to group things together.
  • The search function can be helpful, but you really need to know what you’re looking for. There is no advanced search option, only sorting the search. 
  • There isn’t a lot of information or metadata for a lot of the items so some things are definitely missed. 
  • Only images have a preview with the search function, as you can see here:

Overall, it’s a really great repository, but it’s maybe not the easiest resource for research.

Bracero History Archive

This archive is also part of the Center for History and New Media, along with NMAH, Brown University, and UT El Paso. It is dedicated to collecting oral histories and artifacts related to the Bracero program. Because people in the community contribute to it, a lot of items don’t follow the best practices. Some things about the archive:

  • It offers a video tutorial for navigating the archive and conducting oral histories, which make it user friendly. It also has a lot of great teaching resources and suggested reading.
  • The search function does not work super well. There is an advanced search option, but that depends on information being filled in on the items. Also, once it brings up search results, you can’t sort them.
  • Oral histories don’t always have transcripts or metadata.

It is a good archive to browse and learn. It can be a really good teaching tool. 

Shelley-Godwin Archive

This is an archive of select manuscripts of the Woolstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley family of writers. It has a lot of university partners as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is useful for the very specific purpose of analyzing the writing process. 

  • The archive has an introductory video for that shows you how to navigate.
  • It has manuscripts and transcriptions to track the drafts of Frankenstein, among other works. The image below is an example of what it looks like.
    • However, some are just images of the manuscripts with no transcript.
  • You can go page by page and read the manuscripts and see where changes were made.
  • Each of the works has a detailed description and includes a lot of metadata.
  • There is currently no search function.

I think this is a really fun tool to play with, and can be a good teaching tool, but may be difficult for research.

Rosetti Archive

Like the Shelley-Godwin Archive, it preserves the complete writings of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a 19th century Italian poet and artist. It is run by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA. 

  • You can sort alphabetically or chronologically, and there is a timeline view of  his work, as seen above.  
  • For each item there is context and description of the work. They include a lot of metadata that make things easy to find.
  • The archive is kind of hard to navigate and involves a lot of clicking and scrolling. It also keeps opening new tabs.
    • The manuscripts are sorted by individual page, which makes them hard to read.
  • Search has a lot of categories and can be very helpful when looking for specifics. However, you can’t sort or filter the results.

Again, this can be very interesting for a Rosetti scholar and as a way to get an overview of his works. 

Digital audio: Oral history and sound studies (Feb 22)

Oral History and the Digital Revolution:

Toward a Post-Documentary Sensibility

Michael Frisch

The first reading was published in 2004 and serves as an introduction to the potential oral history that will soon become. As it is from 2004, it is dated but much of the predictions of what oral history would be were accurate. Oral histories, like everything else, became widely available and accessible as a result of the information and technology boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. The author, Michael Frisch, writes to share all the ways recorded histories can be reinterpreted and constantly relevant using digital search and cataloging tools. He briefly talks about the difficulty archivists face in how to catalog and indexing oral histories.

He argues that the oral history field was previously dominated by documentaries as the primary mode of utilizing oral history, but with technology, that authority will be quickly democratized. His prediction of rapidly developing technology moving from tape to CDs to begin fully digital was completely accurate. He mentions the start of digitization of oral histories began as archival projects uploaded to websites such as Holocaust survivor histories and other university-led efforts to broadly share stories. He argues that researchers did not have the tools to quickly evaluate oral histories as audio recordings and preferred text transcripts that can quickly be looked through. Again, he predicted the emergence of digital tools such as time stamps to quickly reference moments in audio recordings. Although dated, this is a very good Oral History 101 for the 21st century that thoroughly predicts the potential impact digital tools will have on returning the value of audio and video recordings.  

Designing an Oral History Project:

Initial Questions to Ask Yourself

by Doug Boyd

The second reading is very straightforward “How To” guide for conducting oral histories. The author, Doug Boyd, takes the reader through every step of preparing, conducting, and preserving oral histories. He goes into preparation for the “point” of the interview. What do you want to get out of it? What is your project? Questions like these will narrow your outlook and questions when conducting the interview. He also goes into the importance of audio and visual recording equipment, the compatibility of each with the other, and the budget limitations for the best available equipment. Each section starts with a different header or questions prompting the next step in conducting oral histories. He also touches on the importance of digital storage and working with an archive to preserve the file for future use and comments that the importance can often be underestimated. Finally, he discusses using caution during and after the interview as you are handling sensitive and personal information. Ethical questions must be asked on how it will be used and if the subject is comfortable with it.

Digital Video Preservation and Oral History

by Kara Van Malssen

The third reading is highly detailed descriptions and guidance on how to choose your camera, how to save your files, and what all of those letters at the end of file names mean (yes, they actually mean something). If you are not familiar with file names and sizes, this reading will be very difficult to understand and should be used as a reference for future problems with files. The reading goes into the details of how best to save files and discusses the different levels of quality of the file when using the camera, types of files, and method of storage. I will not pretend to thoroughly understand the nuance of files and all that it encompasses and hope that I will not need to know it in the future. However, as we live in a digital age and will most likely encounter issues caused by not heeding the advice in this reading, its importance cannot be understated.


Jonathan Sterne

The fourth reading starts by contrasting MP3 files with WAV files, noting that MP3 dominates cyberspace as the optimum file for audio because it is more compacted. It also details the benefits of compression as it rids the file of unneeded audio details to optimize the recording and saves space. The reading then goes into the history of saved audio and the progress its made since the 20th century. It examines the development of audio files from a traditional military focus to a corporate capitalistic view. The reading defends MP3 as the dominant file for audio files and goes on to predict that although it has been continually challenged by competitors, it has stood the test of time and, at the time the reading was published, still remains the go-to audio file. Whether that remains true to this day in the midst of streaming services and sites like YouTube, we will see.

HiPSTAS and Grant Proposal

The fifth reading is of the High-Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS) website and their NEH grant proposal in 2013-2014. The site’s goal is to make audio recordings that predate the digital age readily available and relevant to ongoing and future research. Audio files are becoming decreasingly utilized as scholarship shifts towards the seemingly endless modern audio and visual files. With their decrease in popularity, the chances of preserving dated audio files also decreases leading to the HiPSTAS mission. The site offers tools and software to assist researchers in accessing, preserving, and contributing to audio file research. The grant proposal is to conduct two rounds of academic training and recommendations on tool development in support of digital scholarly inquiry in sound. The proposal is very thorough and outlines a lot of the same information found on the sites’ “About Us” page. Their effort is to promote the use of sound collections by current and future scholars including graduate students, librarians, and other professionals who might be interested in learning more about the subject.

The amount of details set out in the proposal is also interesting to observe for anyone considering writing a grant proposal. It sets clear objectives, methodologies, and audiences in a comprehensive fashion that ultimately was successful. The project set out to preserve sound recordings and was successful enough to build more tools such as Adaptive Recognition with Layered Optimization (ARLO).

Digital Ethnography Toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework


The next reading focuses on the subject of ethnography, particularly the emergence of digital ethnography. Hsu is an ethnographer that started her journey by observing and recording cultures by examining them in person, however, with the emergence of technology, ethnographers’ subjects are now easily accessible through social media. Social media allows ethnographers to broaden their research to include virtually everyone in the world. With this new technology comes a shift in the academic field which allows it to grow into a digital branch. Like other readings, this one has been quickly dated as it was published in 2014. Academic fields grew at a slower pace than technology so Hsu recognizes this by arguing the viability of digitalization as a tool to support methodology and theory. At the time of her writing, the field was still assessing how best to use this new digital tool so Hsu provides her opinion on how it can best be used.

Hsu focuses on computers as tools for scalability and Intermodality (or multimodality). Scalability is the ability of computers to identify and calculate trends at a scale never before possible. It can be used as a filter and tool “to rethink how we sample culture”. Intermodality is the convergence of different contexts and data to discover new patterns and relationships. This previously would have been extremely difficult to accomplish without the help of computers. Digital maps are an example of how you can track similar trends or relationships in things like music and location. The combination of scalability and intermodailty is what she terms, augmented empiricism, the closest thing to empirical precision ethnographers can discover to make sense of huge amounts of data that can then lead to the most impactful questions.


Audacity is a free, open source audio editing and recording application that was initially released in 2000 and is still being very actively updated today, most recently updating to version 3.2.4 on January 7, 2023. Although it isn’t necessarily the nicest looking audio editor compared to paid applications like Pro Tools or Adobe Audition, it is completely free and has the same level of quality and functionality. Audacity also has a level of available support and community contribution that makes it simple to figure out if you’re new to working with audio, and to improve with outside plug-ins that can be easily found and downloaded through the Audacity website.

The home screen of the Audacity website

Once you get to the home screen, to download Audacity you can either click the button down towards the bottom or use the dropdown menu at the top to select the correct operating system. From there, simply install it like any other application, it doesn’t require an account or anything like that to download or use. Once it’s downloaded, open it up and it will look like the image below.

This is what an empty Audacity window will look like before anything is imported or edited. At the top there are controls for playing and recording audio, editing audio, and tracking input and output volume levels. At the bottom are various timecodes to know where in the audio you’re at.

If you’re recording audio to edit in Audacity right away, you can record a new track of audio through either your built-in computer microphone or an external mic by pressing the red button at the top. If you’re importing audio you’ve already got to edit, you can do through the “File” dropdown or with a keyboard shortcut.

Once you have audio imported or recorded, there are a ton of tools that can be used to cut, remove, add effects to, and otherwise edit. At times, some keyboard shortcuts for can be hard to remember or intuit, but practice will certainly make perfect the more you play around with the application, and all of the dropdown menus show applicable shortcuts next to the specific action. The “Edit” menu shows simple clip editing tools like copy, paste, and splitting or silencing clips. The “Tracks” menu is the simplest way to add and sort your audio tracks. The “Effect” menu contains the same types of effects that would be found on any paid audio editing software. The newest update has also separated these effects into clearly defined, standard effect categories instead of having them in one long list, making them much easier to find.

To see an example of what a basic multi-track sound edit can look like, the gallery below shows different stages of an oral history clip that I cut together. There are several tracks with separate titles, that can be color-coded and edited together across tracks or while one continuous clip using the envelope tool.

If you’re new to audio editing and don’t know how to put things like these effects to good use, there are manual and quick help options in the application’s “Help” drop-down, as well as forums and guides on the website.

The Audacity forum contain several categories and subcategories that questions and discussions can be housed under, the main umbrellas being: help, discussion, special interests, and programming.

These forums offer a space for users to help each other out in a bind, but also—since Audacity is open source—space to discuss changes and additions that folks have made on their own that could be implemented in future updates. The main Audacity website also encourages community contribution, stating on the home page that “All are welcome to contribute to Audacity by helping us with code, documentation, translations, user support and by testing our latest code” and guiding users, developers, and translators to pages that provide more details on how they can help Audacity continue to improve. One of the most visible sites of outsider contribution is the Audacity Plugins page, which can help expand options available to audio editors of all types by making new effects created by others easily downloadable. This is especially helpful for people doing more heavy duty sound recording and editing for music, audio dramas, and sound design for videos and films. This page is a great resource once you get the hang of the more than adequate set of effects that come with Audacity upon downloading if you feel an itch to play around with more complicated or specific effects.

All in all, Audacity is an easy-to-learn audio editing application that has the same level of functionality as similar paid, industry standard programs with a remarkable price tag of $0. For basic work especially, it is simple to record, import, edit across tracks, and export your audio, and it has the capacity to be used for much more in-depth detailed work if you want to get the hang of the effects and other tools that are available. That it has been so actively updated for over two decades means that it also on track to continue improving basically indefinitely. The community support functions facilitate continual improvement to the program, the creation and sharing of new add-ons by outside users, and active forums that can help users learn from each other. While it may not be the most *aesthetic* of programs when you first open it up, the available effects and other tools provide a professional experience with a nonexistent price tag.


SoundCloud is a music and audio platform—initially launched in 2008—that is mostly used for music, but also features things like podcasts, demos, and any other audio that users and artists would like to upload and share. Audio can be streamed from their website and through an app that can be downloaded on phones, some smart TVs, and Xbox One, and anyone can make an account both for listening and uploading audio. To make an account, as a listener and creator, all you have to do is click on “Create Account” at the top of the home screen. You can enter any email you’d like to tie to the account, or sign in through a Facebook, Google, or Apple account.

The home screen on the SoundCloud website

While an account can be made and used for free, there are also several different paid plans available for the streaming side or for enhancing your ability to utilize the platform as a creator. The SoundCloud Go ($4.99/month) and SoundCloud Go+ ($9.99/month) plans are streaming-focused, and help contribute to their unique payment model for artists. There are three types of accounts for creators – Next (free), Next Plus ($2.50/month), and Next Pro ($8/month).

The paid plans allow for more track uploads, eligibility for payment, easier distribution with streaming platforms, opportunities for promotions, and advanced analytics, profile customization, and track management. The extent of these tools depends on what tier you decide to stick with.

The different creator plans on SoundCloud

When you create an account, it will automatically be on the free Next plan, so no need to worry about surprise charges or anything! Once you’re signed in to this free account, you can begin uploading by pressing the “upload” button towards the top right corner of the screen. From there, you can upload audio clips one at a time or at the same time to automatically turn them into a playlist.

The “upload” page on SoundCloud

There are a few things to note on this page. First, you can immediately choose to make a playlist of several clips as you upload them, and you can also easily select the privacy settings for the audio before you even upload them. Above the uploading window, it also notes how much of the 3 free upload hours you’ve already taken up, giving you the option to upgrade your plan or simply budget those three hours as you continue to make and upload clips. At the bottom of the window, it also notes the audio file types that are best for audio quality, which will help inform the recording and editing process in the first place.

You must add basic identifying info like a title when going through the uploading process, and afterwards you can head to the “Your tracks” tab to see everything you’ve uploaded and add more detailed descriptions and metadata, all depending on the level of detail you’d like to provide. Once the audio has been uploaded (if it’s been made public), it can be streamed directly through SoundCloud, but there are also many other sites that allow for adding specific SoundCloud uploads and playlists to be embedded onto their website, making SoundCloud a useful tool for not just posting audio on one sharing platform, but also for use on other platforms that aren’t themselves built for audio hosting and sharing.

For example, Word Press itself has a block type that is specifically for sharing SoundCloud clips, all you need to do is add the block and copy in the link for whatever specific clip you’d like to share. The clip to the right is one that I made for an oral history project I worked on in the fall, which I uploaded to SoundCloud after I finished editing it so it could be added to a StoryMap as the media tied to each pin. StoryMap is also an example of the benefit of using SoundCloud to upload your audio to, as StoryMap didn’t allow me to directly upload my audio clips or use links to them on OneDrive. They do, however, easily allow for copying in a link to a clip saved on SoundCloud.

A clip from SoundCloud as a block on Word Press

While it also isn’t necessarily the most important thing for us to consider about the platform, SoundCloud’s unique compensation structure for artists who’ve monetized their work is much more fair to artists than other streaming platforms like Spotify. SoundCloud pays based on the streams of their own work rather than creating an all-artist pot that gets put together and redistributed based on streaming share, leading to more direct compensation from consumers to their favorite small artists. While this may not play a role in our work directly, this payment model also shows SoundCloud is at least a more ethical streaming platforms than others, which is always worth considering!

Ultimately, SoundCloud is a very helpful distribution tool that is quite easy to use, whether you’re only interested in basic uploading and sharing functions, or are a creator planning to monetize your work directly through the platform and do more in-depth audience engagement and distribution. The free account is useful and straightforward on its own, and the process of uploading and sharing links to clips and playlists is incredibly simple. If the free account is not enough support as a creator, the paid accounts are also incredibly affordable, with the highest level plan coming in less expensive than most streaming services and other similar storage and file sharing subscription services. For oral histories in particular, if uploading and using short clips, SoundCloud is a tool that can easily be used to use your audio in non-audio based platforms like Word Press and StoryMaps, or even just to send samples of your work to others over email or text.