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Databases and Digital Archives

Databases and Digital Archives

Archivist Kate Theimer, in her essay “Archives in Context and as Context,” raises an interesting point about the relationship between a database and a digital archive. She argues that the term “archive” is a double entendre. Information technologists use “archive” to describe back up data; digital humanists use “archive” to describe collections of data. But such definitions, Theimer argues, are mistaken. For what she can follow in archivist’s meaning of “archives” is an organic relationship between materials and an understanding of how these materials are managed.

Theimer maintains that archivists aggregate materials that are inherently united in a process called “appraisal" (Theimer). The result is an “archive,” not a collection, which she defines as follows: “aggregates of materials with an organic relationship, rather than items that may be similar in some manner, but otherwise unrelated [i.e. a digital collection]” (Theimer). Here she is alluding to contemporary collections that often get misconstrued. Per Theimer, the relationship inherent in “archives” is summarized as follows: aggregates are ‘maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control’” (Theimer).

Price Lab for Digital Humanities' Etymological Database for Indo-European Languages 

Her closing argument conveys caution. Theimer shares a common sentiment with archivists. They fear that there is a lack of understanding of the relationship between “archives” and collections. Theimer summarizes the implications of extending the definition of “archives” to apply to digital collections as follows: “there is the potential for a loss of understanding and appreciation of the historical context that archives preserve in their collections, and the unique role that archives play as custodians of materials in this context” (Theimer). To mitigate this, she urges information technologists and digital humanists to take an archivist's approach to defining and understanding “archives.”

In an era where digital humanists are increasingly creating digital “archives,” Theimer’s argument has clear relevance. Shakespeare Quartos Archive, the Rossetti Archive, and the William Blake Archive are stark examples of digital collections of materials that are disconnected from their physical repositories. If academics are truly devoted to uniting the material of their projects, then perhaps they should start involving archivists in their scholarly endeavors.


1. Theimer, Kate. "Archives in Context and as Context." Journal of Digital Humanities 1.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.



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