What’s an archive? What do digital collections mean for archivists?

Owens, What do you mean by archive

According to this 2014 blog post by our very own Dr. Trevor Owens, there has come to be a good amount of disagreement about what is meant by “archive.” The emergence of digital humanities, and how people use the internet, have greatly contributed to the proliferation of meanings people associate with the term “archive.” 

In this blog post on the Library of Congress website, Trevor breaks down many of the ways people define (or, at least, use) the term. Trevor noted at the start of the post that the goal here wasn’t to define once and for all what is and what isn’t an archive, but to foster understanding across the interdisciplinary world of digital humanities. Further, he invites readers to add via the comments how they understand archives (and a bunch of people responded, including in a mysterious and intriguing post from 4 years after the original publication!).

Trevor outlined various types of archives, from the mundane (IMHO) to the sophisticated. By mundane, I mean related to everyday life — the versions of “archive” that most people are likely to encounter on a regular basis, especially when computing. “Archive as in Records Management” is what it sounds like; an organization’s records that they’ll need later on. It could, I think, be your dentist’s office or your local mechanic. “Archives as in ‘Right Click -> add to Archive,” describes the type of archive you find in your web application such as an email account. The ability to store backups of emails, for example, is a form of filing that has developed as a result of the immense digital capacity computers provide us. Interestingly, this function is less similar to records management processes used by those who work with paper and, therefore, have more limited space. Finally, I’d include “Archive as in ‘Web Archive.’” This refers to archives of the web, á la the Wayback Machine. This is a bit different than the others I included in this category as it’s not something that is, I believe, commonly used. However, I included it here because it is similar to the archive feature of a web application (such as an email app) as it functions as a kind of interwebs backup. 

The remaining categories were more obviously related to disciplinary understandings of archives. “Archive as in ‘The Papers of So and So’” refers to collections of a person or organization that accumulate over time. These represent “fonds” or “a particular name for a collection that are the result of the ongoing work of the individual or organization.” In the case of the “Archive as in ‘Tape Archive,’” the term refers to a system of storing materials on reels of tape, which inexpensive and efficient. Finally, “Archive as in ‘Digital Archive’” such as the the Bracero Archive and the September 11 Digital Archive, might be deemed “artificial” by some archivists, but Owens argues that they shouldn’t be. He points to the methods of curating these digital archives as those used by The American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress. He also points out that digital archives are more often viewed this way — as intentionally collected items that don’t accrue over time in a “natural” way.

Manuscript Division stacks with acid-free containers. Manuscript Division Slide Collection

There remains the lone “Notions and Considerations of “The Archive.”’ By this, Owens means the theoretical use of the term, such Foucault’s using it to refer to historical records as a whole. This usage also likely frustrates archivists as it conflicts with archival practices.

Phillips, Close Reading, Distant Reading: Should Archival Appraisal Adjust?

While Owens helps us understand the range ways people understand archives, Meg Philips, who works at NARA, grapples with the implications of Digital Humanities for archivists. She wonders how archivists should (if at all) change what they do in response to new methods used by Digital Humanists and the types of questions these methods raise. In the end, she seems to land on that archivists will still “decid[e] what is worth permanent preservation,” but with new questions in mind — ones that deal with systems and large corpuses. She posts some questions to help consider how archivists can do their work with both distant and close reading in mind. I included the last in her list because it questions whether this tension between archival methods for distant and close reading is even actually new:

  • “Is there a meaningful difference between trying to support computational research and actually just keeping everything?  (Perhaps this whole discussion is just the modern version of the old tension between historians who want to save everything and archivists who are trying to put their resources toward the most important materials.)”

Schmidt & Ardam, On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive

“On Excess,” by Schmidt and Ardam, provides us with a case study of the challenges that born-digital archives can present. They examine how to approach Susan Sontag’s digital life, which was donated to the UCLA Library Special Collections after she died. Amazingly, researchers can visit the collections and use a computer that is a complete recreation of the files and folders contained on Susan Sontag’s computers. While this allows the user to explore aspects of her life that she shielded from public view during her life, the complete access may be more illusory than it seems.

Susan Sontag

Archivists and researchers working with such a vast born-digital collection face multiple challenges. For one, there’s the challenge of making the contents accessible while leaving as little trace of intervention as possible. The archivists accidentally let dates of some documents update. Since technology changes so rapidly, preserving a computer in time requires interventions that allow for access but may seem at odds with preservation including updating hardware or working with outdated software. The comprehensive collection can be difficult to navigate. As the authors point out, one may search the title of the book she wrote, but who’s to say she didn’t use an abbreviated title at times?

Thinking across these three articles, it seems like all the authors are doing what Sontag tried to do: to deal with the “excess,” “material plenitude,” and “sheer crowdedness” of life. She used lists of varying lengths to make order. Digital Humanists might use computational analyses to gain insights into a period or literature that a narrower approach might preclude. As a starting point, we should try to understand what each other means by “archive.”

History of Bilingual Education in DCPS + Omeka.net

For this project, I would like to create a digital collection of DCPS policy and curriculum documents relating to immigration, immigrant-origin students, and the language of instruction in the twentieth century. If I undertake this project, I would plan to digitize relevant documents from the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives using Omeka.net. I am interested in finding documents that pertain to language rights, bilingual education, and Americanization programs in DCPS. I went to the Charles Sumner Archives and have identified documents and leads that I think I should be able to digitize and upload. According to the archive’s policies, researchers can request approval to digitize and distribute items from the archives.

I am interested, in part, because I am curious about how schools across the country responded to students whose primary language was not English. I want to learn about how (and hopefully, eventually, why) these responses have changed over time. I have read about the experiences of Latinx people in schools in the Southwest where they were often encouraged — or forced — to speak English. My father, who is Mexican American, did not really learn Spanish while his older siblings did. It was definitely not encouraged at his schools.

I’m interested in how power and language are framed in US history and across localities.  Part of what interests me about this, too, is how popular bilingual education is now, especially in Washington, D.C. Earlier, it seems, when the population was different, it was viewed as a problem because of the deficit framing of students in marginalized groups. I am curious to learn more about how bilingual education policies have changed and for whose benefit.

Moving forward, I hope to better understand how these policies and practices shape education of immigrant-origin students today to help determine what culturally sustaining pedagogies  might look like.

Based on the searches I have conducted, there does not seem to be much work done on history of bilingual education and immigrant-origin youth in D.C. Public Schools. There is an interesting organization called Story of Our Schools that works with DCPS students to research their own schools and create exhibits about them.  There’s also a great project (that I need to explore more) called Mapping Segregation that includes a section on DCPS. The archivist I spoke with at the Sumner Archives mentioned that she wasn’t aware of any work previously done about the history of bilingual education in DCPS. I would hope that this resource would be useful for historians of education, education researchers, teachers, and members of the community. For outreach, I would try to share this with my in-person and digital teacher networks. I wonder if the Charles Sumner Schools Museum and Archives might also share the project once I have made some progress. I could reach out to specific educators I know who teach about immigration and DC. One measure of evaluation would be the number of visitors to the website. I could follow up with educators I know to see if they use this in their courses. I would hope that this spurs new research on language of instruction in schools in DC!

Print Project Proposal: Mapping Racial Violence

How can digital media be used to convey and represent histories of racial violence in the United States? How do visual digital representations of these legacies of violent acts, especially those using mapping programs, affect public knowledge and understanding of these events? To better understand these questions and I more, I propose analyzing the EJI’s Lynching in America and “Mapping Violence.”

EJI’s Lynching in America project focuses on the history of lynchings of African Americans across the United States. The website features interviews with people whose families were affected by lynching, a film about a family’s journey to process the lynching of an ancestor, an interactive map, a report on lynchings, and a call to join EJI in the organization’s efforts working for racial justice.

“Mapping Violence” has a more narrow focus on Texas and on recovering acts of racial violence committed against Mexicans in Texas between 1900 and 1930. According to the overview sections of the website, the “Mapping Violence” team plans to continue to include instances of “racially-motivated violence” and to expand the ways in which visitors can interact with the content. The expressed intended audience includes researchers, K-12 and university educators. This website appears to have fewer resources behind it and is in the process of being built out. In addition to the map, the website features an overview and some background about the research the team is engaging in.

To understand the aims of each website, I would look at what information about the racially-motivated violence is included and how the incidents are represented. I would aim to understand the intended audiences of each website by analyzing the descriptions of the projects provided on their respective websites. To evaluate the extent to which their goals are achieved, I would consider the potential benefits and challenges of using digital media for humanities that Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss in Digital History.

Most relevant, I think, of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s characteristics are accessibility, manipulability, and nonlinearity. I wonder the extent to which these projects represent a greater diversity of authors due to the low bar to entry. Further, I wonder how visitors can (and cannot) manipulate data to lead to new insights. Does the nonlinearity of these websites promote visitor exploration and production of new understandings?

I would also like Martyn Jessop’s article, Digital visualization as a scholarly activity, to inform my analysis of these two projects. Does the framework that Jessop puts forth for methods of visualization as scholarly work apply to these websites? Does it help me understand their intended impacts?

Finally, I wonder if it would be useful to consider a theory of racial formation that considers the relationships between how minoritized groups are racialized. When I first thought about comparing these two websites, Natalie Molina’s work came to mind. I read her book, How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, for my final paper in the Historian’s Craft. She recently co-edited Relation Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice, which might provide a grounding for understanding how these two projects relate to each other.

Hi, I’m Elisabeth!

I teach high school history (mostly U.S.) and am a part-time History MA student. I am studying at AU because I missed being a student and I want to develop my research skills.

I studied European History in the redwoods at U.C. Santa Cruz (go banana slugs!) a million years ago. After graduating, I worked at a charter school in Boston then studied history education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I received an EdM in 2011. I taught history at the traditional public high school in Cambridge, MA until 2015 when I moved to D.C. For two years I worked at an international development organization on State Department funded projects supporting Iraqi higher education. During that time, I traveled to Erbil and Baghdad to help put on a national conference. I missed the classroom and history, so I returned to teaching in 2017. Lots of little careers so far!

I have a 1 and 1/2-year-old daughter and we watch a good amount of Sesame Street, so this felt right.

I am still narrowing my focus or my work at AU. For now I’ll say my interests include immigration and Latinx history and history of education. Oh, and how historians use memory and oral histories. I hope to deepen my knowledge base about immigration history with a focus on assimilationist education policies and community responses to them.

In this class, I am hoping to learn tools and approaches that I can use in my own research and in the classroom. I have been kicking around the idea of creating a collaborative and digital final project about a course theme or essential question to assign to my students — I hope this course helps me with that! I look forward to learning with you all this semester!