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Creative Difference Between Digital Humanists and Digital Archivists

Creative Difference Between Digital Humanists and Digital Archivists

     Kirschenbaum in “The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary” makes a series of arguments that simultaneously challenges and accepts a rigid ontology of archives, as codified by the Open Archival Information System. Based on their series of suggestions for collaboration, they argue that there is a clear delineation between digital humanists and digital archivists in terms of temporal perspective, collections expertise, cyberinfrastructure development, and humanist methodology. Yet, at the same time, they recognize the fluidity of digital archives by making a series of claims about its constitutive and discursively represented nature. For example, they draw upon Ernst, who makes an argument about the flattening of semiotic events due to the ontological status of data. Their argument about signification is decisively a Derridean and Foucauldian one that emphasizes the role people play in developing the world around us. In other words, Kirschenbaum’s position operates in this liminal category where they believe it to both be true that meaning and significance is derived discursively through relationality and that there are material differences that ought to be recognized.

     That was super interesting to me because while it seems like a paradoxical position, it is a source of reflexivity for Kirschenbaum. It results in a perceptually mature understanding of digital work. For example, they claim, “I want to go a step further and suggest that the preservation of digital objects is logically inseparable from the act of their creation.” From that premise, they argue that the material differences between digital humanists and digital archivists is rooted in the differences in how digital objects are preserved/created by each group. Perhaps I am misconstruing their position, but that is what I got out of the piece. In any case, it seems to follow that Kirschenbaum recognizes those historically contingent differences as a reason to step back and evaluate what each group can bring to the other’s work. The ability for Kirschenbaum to recognize the experientially constructed strengths and weaknesses of each group’s skillset in their future endeavors is a critical tool for those working in the digital humanities and digital archives. 

     As a side note, this is the first result that comes up in google for the search "database vs archive:" The key point of departure here is searchability, which was not thoroughly discussed in today's readings on digital archives.

Cited: Matthew Kirschenbaum's article "The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary," hosted on


1 comment

Just a side note to your very good post -- I have more to say about that -- but that top result you linked to is really interesting ... "At first, a database and an archive seem shockingly similar. While both, ultimately, can be ways of preserving information or sources, the primary difference is in search ability. Historical (social studies related) databases offer the ability to search through the records, much the same way that you can search through the Internet with a Boolean search engine. Archives, on the other hand, are simply a collection of documents posted, or linked, in a website. Rarely are they searchable." :)