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

One Reply to “Digital Archives”

  1. You made a great point about the Bailey article here, “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.” How far does this observation go? How much more additional training do physical archivists need to become competent digital archivists? Would there need to be a completely new training regiment or degree?

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