Friday, October 12, 2012

Digital Archives through the eyes of not-yet-archivists

I am very happy to be posting this on behalf of the Creating Archive's class at Scripps College. The class professor, Jacque Wernimont contacted me last month to brainstorm ways the class could participate in today's activities. In addition to this post, several of the students will be posing questions on twitter using the #DayofDigArc hashtag. I would encourage anyone interested in helping to shape the digital archivists of the future to respond and encourage these students as they prepare to join us in taking on the future of archival work.

Happy Day of Digital Archives! We’ll begin with a bit of introduction: we are 13 sophomores at Scripps College in Claremont, California.  In Jacque Wernimont’s “Creating Archives” course, part of our Core Program, we are looking at the long history of archives and libraries, as well as archival theory in order to “problematize the concept of ‘archive’ as a transparent, natural, and neutral space.” For our final project, we’ll be using the special collections of Denison and Honnold-Mudd libraries to build our own “small digital archive“ (we are aware that this is a contested term for what we’re doing).

The gaps between digital and physical archives

When we first tried to define “archive,” the image most of us came up with was one of a dark, dank room in a basement somewhere remote containing a lot of papers.

photo: by joguldi (

As we began to read about the history of archives, we quickly realized how wrong we were. We found, as we’re sure you’re very much aware, that there are many different types of archives, such as digital archives, and we were shocked that we had never really encountered them before.

The technology of digital archives didn’t align with our clichéd idea of what an archive was, which left these archives in our blind spot. Maybe because of the historical gate keeping of physical archives, we also presumed that digital archives would be just as exclusive, requiring users to pay before accessing them. Having done a lot of online archive exploration since then, we’ve come to realize that our previous conceptions were wrong and that many digital archives are easily accessible for those with access to the Internet. Furthermore, we’re finding that digital archives themselves come in a variety of formats.

photo: Billy Rowlinson,

What we love about digital archives

As undergraduates we appreciate the accessibility of digital archives. Being new to the world of digital archives, we were surprised by how easily we could use these archives for research purposes. Not only are the formats often easier to approach than those of paper, but digital archives also give us access to material that previously was only available to people with Ph.D.’s or people who could travel the distance to visit a physical archive. With this expanded access to historical information, our research is richer and our positions are more informed.

Returning to the topic of format, we find tools like headings and search engines in digital archives a quick way to narrow down a search in a way that is more efficient than using paper archives. We never truly learned how to navigate libraries, paper collections, or archives in a way that allowed us to quickly find what we were looking for. Approaching these ‘brick-and-mortar’ archives and their unfamiliar technologies now at this age is a daunting task. We feel more at home in the digital context, where we can see connections to a number of similar and also seemingly disconnected topics. Navigation here makes more sense to us.

but, the thorns...

Although we acknowledge that digital archives are beneficial, there are parts that we are wary and unsure about. When archives are digitized, the physical properties of the originals are often lost. The translation process between the physical and the digital can omit information, changing the way one experiences the archived materials. There simply aren’t good ways to represent some facets of analog objects; there are material features that are not present, and paratextual elements that are transformed or missing. Further, the digital archive can have a funny way of seeming to have everything, while there may be things that are entirely - and silently - absent.

Value of digital archives in a larger context

Archives have power in political, historical, and social contexts. In the past, archives have produced their own truth (what was saved, written down, recorded was ‘fact’), and questioning that truth was difficult. The digitization of archives is changing the structures of power. The public access available through the Internet creates a check on the authoritative power of the archive. As a collective “policing force,” users help hold the archivist accountable for accuracy and justice. At the same time, digital archives seem much more proximate to one another, and to other information sources, further enhancing our ability to fact check claims. It’s easier to see manipulation side by side on a screen.

In addition to improving the credibility of the archive, digitization helps preserve history in the modern age. Digitization preserves material past physical degradation. Since we live in the Internet age, what is not digitized is even more likely to be forgotten; this makes the selection of what becomes digital an important factor to keep information in the public eye.

We know that many of you are archivists of born-digital content, not digital surrogates. We have a ton of questions for you about the status of ‘the original’ and issues around provenance, which we’ll be asking today via twitter. We find ourselves a bit overwhelmed by the amount of digital data that is being produced and we can see that there are political and ethical issues that need to be resolved around archiving digital materials. We will be looking to you for guidance on this in the future!

We wish we had known....

As students we wish that we had known more about digital archives, and that such archives were more integrated into our curricula. The continued digitization of archives and archiving of digital data is important from our perspective. Equally important, however, is the visibility of digital archives. We - and our peers - need to know that digital archives exist.

Part of the issue is finding the right media to reach us - it may surprise you to know that the majority of us in this class don’t tweet. We do, however, use Facebook. Many of us know about and use google scholar and we wonder if digital archives can finds ways to appear there more. We would LOVE to see an archive app - and we have great ideas about how it would function (let’s build it!).

While social media can help inform us about digital archives, we actually think it would be more helpful to have greater integration into the education system. We wish someone would have taught us about digital archives when we learned about the library as kids (we have fond library memories!). We would have benefited from learning not only about their existence, but also how to use digital archives in high school. We really think this education should come sooner rather than later, but we also think more information can be included at the college level. Some of us want more classes for undergraduates on archives and archival theory/practice. Others of us want to see this kind of knowledge integrated into our writing program.

We guess what we’re saying is that we are happy to be meeting you all now and we wish we had met sooner!

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