Blog Post

Theory of the Archive

Hi all,

Since I'm a little tentative about what we're supposed to be doing here, I'll tell you a little bit about an archive project that we're doing at the University of Texas, and how it might possibly relate to the group's individual/collective interests. In material terms, we're creating a digital archive for our Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL). In a purely quotidian sense, this involves finding a way to record and represent a lot of old junk--posters, training manuals, decaying VHS tapes, trophies--in short, material artifacts of the most traditional sense. That's probably not especially interesting to anyone else, and there are a number of journal articles out there dealing with best practices for the technical work that we're doing, so that's not really the focus here.

A second task that we noticed along the way, however, was an issue of narrative constraint. What do you do when the story you want to manage exists as a PB Works page, a Wikipedia page, and as a fragmentary history in someone else's corporate training manual? This (competely real) situation got us thinking about archival narratives in a far less concrete and more theoretical sense. What I'm suggesting is that the very restraints that online media remove--constraints of time, space, and access--are exactly the same things that make any narrative meaningful in the first place: rhetoric, discourse, and narrative (whatever differences we choose to draw between them based on our individual understanding) are in fact ways of talking about boundary conditions. No limits equals no story.

Since I'm not technically skilled and the technical questions mostly have good answers already, this is the research question that I'm interested in investigating: how to we theorize a digital archive--whatever its scope and content--that is simultaneously maximally accessible and effectively constrained enough to present a focused, cohesive archival narrative. What moves do we have to make to contain the informational sprawl that leads people into internet black holes of wasted time and irrelevant material? How do we order discourse when we thought we were doing everyone a favor by removing traditional barriers?

If this question/these questions pique/s anyone else's interest, I'd like to hear about it. We might come up with some kind of a group blog or other format in which we collaboratively work through this theoretical question with the aim of eventually applying it to our more particular and individual academic projects.

 

 



 

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5 comments

Hi Jeremy,

I am excited by your questions here - "how to we theorize a digital archive--whatever its scope and content--that is simultaneously maximally accessible and effectively constrained enough to present a focused, cohesive archival narrative. What moves do we have to make to contain the informational sprawl that leads people into internet black holes of wasted time and irrelevant material? How do we order discourse when we thought we were doing everyone a favor by removing traditional barriers?" - and am intrigued by your conclusion "What I'm suggesting is that the very restraints that online media remove--constraints of time, space, and access--are exactly the same things that make any narrative meaningful in the first place: rhetoric, discourse, and narrative (whatever differences we choose to draw between them based on our individual understanding) are in fact ways of talking about boundary conditions. No limits equals no story."

My work interrogates similar quesitons but is more on the flip-side: One of my quesitons is How do we create sustainable, archivable digital scholarly work?

I think these perfect issues for us to discuss here and hope the others will share similar experiences and/or research questions!

Amanda Starling Gould

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I am coming at this from a similar direction though it may not seem so at first.  I am an African American historian beginning a project on the history of African Americans in New Mexico. The question of how to present whatever the final product will be is an interesting one for me.  I know I could simply write an article or a book about it, but it seems to me that some kind of online project piques my interest most. I have also been in contact with a group which like to establish an New Mexico African American museum but as yet has no money or space to do so.  The obvious answer would be to establish an online or virtual museum and archive for much of what they have collected so far. So your question of how to "curate" objects into a narrative digitally is an interesting one to me as well as you. How do you go from what to others may seem like junk to what will be history digitally presented? The track record of digitally created history archives is not great.  As you know any digital archive has to be continually maintained.  The history profession does not have many examples of a properly maintained and frequently used historical archive.  My colleagues in the history profession are mostly kind of stick in the mud types and the digital historians have a hard time gaining traction in the profession. It would be fun to kick around a few ideas of how this could be done.

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An interesting question.  I come to this from outside Higher Ed, and am not an academic. My perspective is that of co-founder and co-director of an academic/public history hybrid, Marine Lives.  We are working with high definition digital images of English Admiralty Court records from the period 1650-1669. These we are transcribing, linking and annotating collaboratively.

There is an existing archive which contains the physical documents - the National Archives in England - where the documents fall within the class HCA.  Nevertheless, the digital collection of transcribed, linked and annotated documents and images we are creating is arguably an archive in itself.

We as a volunteer group of academic historians and enthusiasts are acutely conscious of the poor record of maintaining digital collections, and indeed the poor record of getting the collections used in the first place.

So many of these collections have been created on the back of one-off digitisation projects, and warmed with the flush of foundation or other academic grant money. The day the grant money finishes, the academics move on to their next project, and a slow death of neglect begins. Entirely predictable from the way the archives were created - theuy have no community support, and no institutional ownership.

We - the MarineLives leadership team, advisors and academic partners - are still finding our way, but we start from a commitment to create something which will be here and used in one hundred years.  We have joined the Digitised Manuscripts to Europeana (DM2E) project as an associate partner, which will ensure that our data are ingested, preserved and maintained for the long term by the Europeana Digital Library.

Two observations on the discussion around the original blog posting.

Firstly, in the case of the MarineLives digital collection, we distinguish carefully between the underlying digital images coupled with their textual transcriptions, and further linkages and annotations we and others may subsequently add to these images and textual transcriptions. Of course the original manuscripts exist in the form they do as a result of certain legal and administrative practices in the C17th and subsequently, but neverthless it is important to keep a very clear digital separation between this corpus, and additions to the corpus made in the twenty-first century. This is true for storylines or narratives which we and our users may wish to develop to help guide the user or browser through the material - there are of course a near infinite number of potential storylines, and the storylines which users will develop in thirty years are likely to be different from those they do now. To me that is the test of the power of an archive, that it can generate such a multiplicity of storylines, and that these are mutable.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that a digital archive stands a greater chance of survival if it is built collaboratively, rather than top down, and its is embedded as it is developed in the academic and general user community. We are making our transcriptions publicly available as they are done under a CC by 3.0 licence, and are making the material Google searchable as soon as it is in a reasonable state.  We are also working with doctoral candidates, early career scholars, and public historians of all ages (school students to retirees) to explore what they need from such a collection, and are adjusting what we are doing in response.

For anyone interested in our content and our technology platform (which is a tailored version of the opensource product Scripto, developed by George Mason University with an NEH grant), please take a look at MarineLives-Transcript.

 

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In the course of conceiving a digital archive you have to establish - or dissolve - barriers to its use like copyrights. Do not ignore - and rather memorialize - the message of Aaron Swartz, that many universities - particularly, in fact, those with great prestige like Harvard and MIT, survive on restricting access to their research via copyrights and through corporate publishers (even their own, like Harvard University Press). The critical question is how to track "peer reviewed" documents and other evidence, and how to make those reviews as available as the documents themselves. If you don't, the archive won't even be a library; if you do, it will outgrow most libraries in both content and process.

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I personally love old archives and have been to them on three continents in the pursuit of various projects. I have begun to think of what I do as a historian as creating a network of archived materials, proposing a narrative about them and presenting them to the world. The new world of digital archives has made this possible from my computer (with the pro's and con' of not traveling to them) but has not changed the basic function of my work. 
There are two (at least) levels of questions here: how do we create digitlal archives, maintain them, and promote their use either by academics, curators, or the general public. The original question and the last response address that level, raise more questions and suggest some paths to answers. This is well and good.

I want to take our discussion to a second level as well. Once created how do we get materials out of our digital archives or indeed our dusty physical archives to a wider audience who may never even use such archives. Yes this seems like a question for academics but I feel that it is more than that.  It is a question for curators and archivists too. At my former college once the former librarian retired we brought in a new one who transformed the library from a warehouse of information to a service agency whose goal was not just to preserve the materials but to facilitate their use. This ethos affected not only the general collection but the special collections/archive departments who took it as their mission not only to make their materials easier to use but to create exhibitions that publicized their holdings. It is in this mode I also want us to consider the orignal question: what narrative(s) do our archives telll and what narratives do we want them to tell? Some narratives may be unconscious or subconscious and we don't want them to become the exclusive ones so that they limit future ones that may arise. Becoming conscious of them and conscientious about them seems to me to be the first step.

 

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