Defining Archives: A Context Standard

Practitioners and theorists are posing many fundamental questions about the archival profession. Where is it heading? What are its core principles? Is it in jeopardy of becoming obsolete or even ending all together? The questions of what the archives profession is and what it means to be a member of it relates to how we define the archives itself. The articles for this week focus on this definition and the activities and functions entailed when using the word “archive” or “archives.” Archivists claim jurisdiction over what constitutes an archives and are fending off perceived misuse of the word by digital humanists, philosophers, businesses, and everyday people. This defense is part of archivists affirming their authority to decide what it means and their unique fitness to perform this work. At the same time, the changes of the digital era are challenging the applicability of archival theory. In this atmosphere, one wonders about the importance of arguing for a single definition.

A Professional Defense of Archives

Professionalization of many occupations in the United States occurred during the Industrial Revolution, a period of uncertainty similar to the changing digital economy that we are experiencing today. As Burton J. Bledstein demonstrated, starting in the late-nineteenth century, groups such as architects, accountants, etc., created professional standards, organizations, and schooling to establish themselves as professions and to gain authority within a specific field. They aimed to define a “coherent system of necessary knowledge within a precise territory, [and] to control the intrinsic relationships of their subject by making it a scholarly as well as an applied science.” Sounds familiar right? It should, because this is almost exactly the same path that archivists followed. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) formed and sets the standards for the profession, the MLS degree (and the legion of other acronym permutations) has become a standard job requirement, and archival science is both a scholarly and applied science.

achievement (1)

Acknowledging the current state of archives is more complex than I make it out, the situation largely seems positive profession-wise. However, as Trevor Owens demonstrated, other groups have (increasingly so with the advent of digital world) and continue to use the word “archives” under their own definitions and undermine the archivist’s professional authority over this term.

It is here where many, such as Kate Theimer, reassert the definitions established by SAA based on the traditional notions of an archives. These definitions focus on the ideas of controlling materials based on provenance, original order, and collective control. She asserted that “many other kinds of professionals (and non-professionals) select or collect materials, preserve them, and make them accessible” but the archivist’s value stems from doing these tasks based on the tenets referenced above. She fears that historical context will be lost by basing archival practice on other ideas. Theimer is emphasizing the importance of the archivist’s role both to inform the public that this information needs protection and to demonstrate it is the archivist that should be doing it. While it is reasonable to defend these tenets in a societal and professional sense, the historical context of the theories and the emergence of digital materials calls them into question.

A New Digital Order

Jefferson Bailey wonders how much the archival profession should be relying on Respect des Fonds (made up of provenance and original order) in his essay “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives.” Bailey revealed the theory’s contested past, showed that Respect des Fonds was born in a specific historical moment in France, and was merely a simplification of standards for new archivists, one that was never completely implemented there. He further demonstrated that multiple theorists have challenged these principles, complicating the idea that the archival core values are static and unchangeable. Additionally, Respect des Fonds becomes increasingly problematic when applied to born digital material.

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords

Bailey asserted that analog records have clouded the possibilities of describing records and that digital materials do not function in the same way. For instance, original order is unobtainable on magnetic disks that store information in multiple places with no inherent order. He did not dispute the utility of original order and provenance but instead believes “it is time to revoke their privileged place in archival discourse and revisit the true goals of arrangement and description in light of the capabilities of digital records.” With all the problems with archival theory, why defend it so vigorously in the defense of the definition of archives?

You Say Archives, I Say Archives

It makes practical sense to defend the traditional idea of archives for professional reasons. Archivists have not been at the fore of handling digital material and part of this defense is reaffirming the archivist’s place in roles that would traditionally fall into their purview.  Digital humanists and IT departments attempted to fill the void in recent years, handling the preservation and access to digital materials in novel ways. Though these groups have different understandings of an archives than the traditional archivist, should the archives profession fight them if, as Bailey demonstrated, the archival ideas prove problematic? It is my belief that we should be learning from each other.

As Jaime demonstrated in her post, there are multiple ways to display and examine the context of a record just as Bailey stated that “the multiplicity of meanings possible with digital records can be better realized through an ongoing interrogation of archival traditions of arrangement and description.” Similarly, what I argue is for a multiplicity of meanings for the term archives, depending on the context of which it is used. The term can mean something and be useful in one field just as it serves its purpose within the archival field itself. I agree with Bailey in that the archival core notions need a reexamination. Archivists should embrace this complexity and learn from the other occupations to grapple with the digital material its terms of art are failing to fit. While it may feel wrong to allow other fields leeway into the archivist’s professional territory, failing to do so and learn from their innovations puts the archivist down a path where they could have no profession at all, relegated to only a mention in an archives somewhere.

 

 

All the World’s Digitized and the Men and Women Merely Bloggers…

How does digitizing texts impact the way we conduct research?   Michael Whitmore and Jonathan Hope believe that a literary criticism revolution is at hand, one in which scholars will discover new patterns and arrive at new conclusions.

Their 2007 article “Shakespeare by the Numbers:  On the Linguistic Features of the Late Plays” (from Early Modern Tragicomedy) first notes that the idea that genre is a nebulous concept, one that has changed over time.  Qualitative observations alone cannot accurately determine texts’ themes since commentators have different standards will  disagree among themselves.  How, then, can we create a widely acceptable means of analyzing?

Whitmore and Hope propose that we rely on a “quantitative analysis of linguistic features” (136).    Programs such as Docuscope take literature that has been digitized and allow scholars to search for key words and verb tenses.  With this raw data, they can more clearly decipher diction and stylistic patterns.

The article examines Shakespeare’s last seven plays, which various commentators since the 1870s had discribed as “romances” or “tragicomedies” (133).  Yet the First Folio, published in 1623, did not break them into a distinct group.  What elements within these plays caused later critics to see patterns that Shakespeare’s first editors evidently did not?

Whitmore and Hope broke plays into 1,000, 2,500, and 7,500 chunks (to allow for a larger sample size), ran them through Docuscope, and discovered that the later plays had unique linguistic characteristics.   1)  Verb Tense:  these plays more often used the past tense and referenced the past.  2)  Asides:  they also had more instances of characters’ speaking to the audience or referencing outside events.  3)  Use of “to be”:  characters more often used both forms of the verb “to be” and verb tense ending in “-ed.”

What does this raw data suggest?  The authors argue that the prevalence of the past tense reveals the past’s importance to the present, the asides enhance the “dreamlike” ambiance of the the plays, and that the “to be” usage shows a preference for telling, rather than showing, the audience about events and people.  Thus, Shakespeare used these linguistic features to create “focalised retrospection” (153) and the quantitative analysis reveals specific reasons why the later plays comprise a distinct group.

However, Whitmore and Hope are less aggressive with their general conclusion.  They note that such analysis complements, but does not replace, traditional qualitative commentary.  The door is wide open, though, for other scholars to use quantitative analysis with myriad other works.

How did you respond to their article?  Do you think quantitative analysis of the type they used on Shakespeare’s plays can tell us more about texts and authors’ intentions than we already know?  Or are they over-hyping its potential?

PhilaPlace

PhilaPlace.org is an attempt by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make local history into a unified experience – one that takes place both on the internet, as well as in the streets around you.  Utilizing the power of Google Maps, scholarly historical writing, oral histories, photographs, and user generated content, PhilaPlace.org aims to fill a niche somewhere between walking tour, museum, and archive.

The site’s authors explain that “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”

There are several ways to access the information stored at PhilaPlace.  A menu offers users the choice to interface the site by using a map of Google map of Philadelphia, by topic, by collection, or by checking out what’s new on the blog.  Browsing by topic or collection yields direct access to a wide array of information, detailing nineteenth century race riots, local newsletters, local celebrities, and more.

The map interface is one of the more innovative features of the site – it promises to put the historical events covered by the site into geographical relationships with each other, bridging the gap between historical walking tour and reading a detailed book on local Philadelphia history.  A map of modern Philadelphia is featured prominently on the site’s home page, and the intent seems to be that users can access the historical information by clicking on pinpointed links on that map.

PhilaPlace is subtitled “Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods.”  The site features input and oral histories from the people who know the city best – its lifelong residents.  It also allows users to submit their own stories and memories about city locations.  In this way, PhilaPlace strives to be more than a simple archive – it is actually documenting history, adding new information to the historical record.  It is not meant to be a passive experience, but more a celebration in which users are invited to take part.  At the time of this writing, there are forty-two interviews featured on the site, and other parts of the site promise to incorporate other user contributions as the site grows.

The blog has not been updated since September.

That is a shame, because the idea of linking history to Google maps is powerful.  I, for one, love knowing the ins and outs of my surroundings.  I love to walk and to bike, and I often wonder about the buildings and the people I pass on a daily basis.  PhilaPlace seems like a great model for integrating history into our daily experience.  Perhaps the next step is make the project more open-sourced.  A web 2.0 model could be an even more powerful, synergistic way to document the history of a big city like Philadelphia.  This site is already presuming that there are many people interested in sharing their expertise about local history – why not take advantage of those numbers and that passion?  Write the code, build the site – and then let them put the pins in the map, upload audio, video, photos, and their own stories, the way Wikipedia and Facebook do it.

The Digital Future is… Processing.

When can we stop asking about whether the time has come for the humanities to enter the digital age and start exploring how digital humanities started long ago? In The Digital Future is Now (Fall 2009), Christine L. Borgman calls upon humanities scholars to take the initiative to “design, develop, and deploy the scholarly infrastructure for digital humanities.” Borgman must not realize that these initiatives have already begun! In order to accomplish her goals, Borgman suggests looking at the successes and failures in eScience, including such plans as the National Science Foundation’s Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery. As a beginning point of comparison, she identifies six factors for comparison between science and the humanities. Let’s look through these six areas and the ways in which the Digital Future has already begun to be realized not only in science but also in the humanities.

1. Publication Practices: Everything is going digital, whether we like it or not. In the sciences, scholars have such sites as ArXiv.org to post and search through new papers on physics. Guess what? This site is sponsored by Cornell University Library. In other words, for the humanities to create similar sites, it requires institutional plans for such depositories. Do we have these? While Borgman argues that humanities journals are slow in moving to online publications, there are thousands available through such sites as JSTOR and Project Muse and, increasingly, other journals are moving toward electronic publication. Also, it must be understood that the kind of information historians want to access is not  limited to current experimentation/theorizing, but historical documents and primary sources. In addition to accessing these on sites created by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian, various universities have begun setting up their own sites. The University of Washington has a database on African-American history here. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent site of southern history sources here.

2. Data: Borgman spends quite a bit of time discussing different categories of data in science, including observational data, computational data, experimental data, and records. According to her argument, “we are only beginning to understand what constitute data in the humanities, let alone how data differ from scholar to scholar and from author to reader.” I have a suggestion. There are two types of data in the humanities: primary sources and secondary sources.  In other words, scholars in the humanities have always understood what constituted data, and they don’t complicate it any further than it needs to be. The fact that theory and methodology may be different from scholar to scholar does not complicate the situation, either. Now, in regards to accessing this data, as Borgman explains, intellectual property rights makes it difficult since scholars don’t own the rights to historical records they use and often need permission to print or reprint such documents. In other words, individual scholars themselves cannot take the initiative the way Borgman wants. These sources can only be made electronically public by those institutions holding the rights, which many are doing, as discussed above.

3. Research Methods: I suppose an important question in this section is whether history or the humanities can become as “open source” as modern science in such venues as in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. History can not easily be made open source, as Roy Rosenzweig so eloquently explained in this study on Wikipedia. Rosenzweig does question why so many academic journals are not being made available without costly subscription fees. However, in a field where publication is essential to progress and the hopes for tenure, do scholars in the humanities have the power (or desire) to challenge reputable (and, therefore, costly) journals and choose instead to give up any “prestige” by publishing solely on completely “open source” websites where they would be competing with anyone who has access to a keyboard? Who would be willing to moderate such sites, and without pay, in order to have it all available to the general public without fees? Indeed, modern writing in the humanities may never be fully “open source,” though primary documents can be placed more in the open. Borgman mentions the Perseus Digital Library but, as mentioned above, many other libraries have placed their sources online.

4. Collaboration: In the face of scientific collaboration, Borgman sees only the image of the “lone scholar” in the humanities. While it is true that individuals must conduct their own research, planning, and development of dissertations, the entire historical field is one of collaboration. Can any scholar write an argument  without addressing his/her critics? Are scholars allowed to ignore methods and theories of others regarding race, gender, class, religion, etc? I would argue that the entire field of humanities is one single collaborative work with thousands of scholars from the widest range of disciplines.

5. Incentives to Participate: In many respects this section is about disincentives more than incentives. Either way, Borgman concludes that “the digital humanities encounter most of the same incentives and disincentives for sharing data and sources faced by the sciences and by other disciplines.” Indeed, we all have the incentive to publish our findings and hope that we can publish them before someone else does. Having data available online rather than behind closed doors that only we as individuals have access to changes the game quite a bit, though we’ve already been playing this game for quite some time now.

6. Learning: This section is about “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning.” Um, basically everything we’ve already discussed above, except Borgman places emphasis on the need for a “common technical platform” for all the information to be available openly online. Well, given that the Internet is supposed to be one of the most democratic tools available to allow a multiplicity of viewpoints and platforms, is a single, common platform for the humanities really desirable? Perhaps it would be nice to create a platform for libraries and institutions to place their own links for the researcher to be able to find multiple sources simply by going to one site. Of course, there already are sites like this one, not to mention historical associations like this one.

The digital future IS now, though I think it’s been around for quite some time. What do you think?

Image found here.

The Good and Bad of Digital Media

How can historians effectively use the Internet to enhance both their research and how they present that research to a wider audience? Daniel J. Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web attempts to answer this question by examining the potential possibilities and pitfalls digital media presents to historians. Within their introduction, Cohen and Rosenzweig define the seven major positive aspects of digital media as:

Capacity: Digital media gives historians the ability to exponentially expand storage space for object or archival research. This expanded space also allows archives and museums share collections not on display in their institutions with the public.

Accessibility: By using formats such as online exhibits, web sites, and digitized archives historians can reach larger academic or non-academic audiences than ever before.

Flexibility: Digital media has allowed historians to move beyond the use of text sources to include other forms of media such as sound and moving images.

Diversity: The openness of the web has given beginning, amateur, or hobby historians that may not be able to publish in scholarly journals an outlet to present their work to a broader audience.

Manipulability: The use of search engines lets historians search across broad swaths of sources in a short period of time, this makes the research process much quicker than only using print sources and microfilm.

Interactivity: By creating online sources, historians can directly and conveniently interact with a larger audience.

Hypertextuality: The broad scope of the web provides an expanded ability to move from narrative to narrative quickly.

These seven aspects of digital media remain particularly useful for historians because they expand our research options, broaden our audiences, and give us the opportunity to engage in direct conversation with other academics and the general public. In contrast to these positive aspects of digital media, the authors also warn historians of the more negative aspects of digital history, including:

Quality: Because of the openness of the web anyone can publish low quality or historically inaccurate work.

Durability: As technology rapidly changes, archivists struggle to keep track of and preserve born digital material.

Readability: Online scholarship can reduce the readability of articles by overloading readers with images and sound clips in addition to an already dense argument.

Passivity: Many of the more interactive components in digital history have trouble using the computer to detect “gray” areas.

Inaccessibility: Many scholarly databases only allow access to institutions able to pay the subscription fees. Also, there is a substantial “digital divide” between those who can and cannot access the Internet.

After Cohen and Rosenzweig detail some of the pros and cons of digital media within their introduction, they go on to give a history of the field that uses several links to web pages to illustrate advances made in historically relevant sites. This first chapter not only provides useful information on the history of digital media, but also provides more specific examples of the pros and cons discussed in the introduction.

Throughout the reading, I thought the authors most effectively demonstrated the positive side of digital media by noting the ability to increase public accessibility to history through the use of the Internet. By illustrating how online archives, exhibits, and articles, can provide both historians and the general public with access to historical materials that otherwise may have been unavailable to them, Cohen and Rosenzweig make a very persuasive argument encouraging the use of digital media. In regards to the darker side of digital media, the authors best argue that as corporations become more involved in history on the web, the accessibility praised above becomes limited. This seemed particularly relevant in regards to databases such as JSTOR or Project Muse that offer incredibly useful services, but only to those institutions that can afford to pay the hefty subscription fees. By illustrating both the pros and cons of digital media, and by providing a background of the digital history field, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s work helps technologically inept historians ground themselves in the basics of digital media.

To build on this week’s reading, I have included below three links that illustrate ways in which historians, archives, and museums, have used digital media to reach a broader audience. The first link to the Valley of the Shadow Project discussed in the reading illustrates how historians can use the web to bring their research to the general public. The next link to the National Archives Digital Vaults demonstrates how online programs can help archives reach K-12 teachers. Lastly, the National Museum of American History’s site on their collections illustrates how museums can use the Internet to show the general public larger parts of their collection unable to be displayed in the museum. Happy browsing, and please share a few of your own favorite history sites as well!

Valley of the Shadow Project

National Archives Digital Vaults

National Museum of American History

– Kelsey Fritz