The Debate about Digital Archives

This week we focused on archives in the digital world and the very diverse ways we think and use the term “archive.”  This is explained by wonderfully by Trevor Owens in “What do you mean by archive?  Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers.”  We use the term ‘archive’ on a daily bases to mean saving our emails or to mean the department of records management at our jobs, or to refer to an online collection of materials.  To me, the term archive still conjures up images of stacks of dusty, crinkled papers, neatly stored in rows of boxes.  Even in the 21st century, my thoughts do not immediately think of digital archives – collections of selected related materials brought together.  Apparently these online collections are creating quite a controversy.  Should online archival collections that are gathered over time from many locations be considered true archives?  Or, are they “artificial collections,” meaning they were collected not in the manner or order in which the creator intended, and therefore lack the context in which they were created.  I, like Owens, would argue that these online collections are true archives.  How are these collections online any different than those collected by historical societies, museums, etc. around the world?  The digital archives under debate are ones that collect materials from many different locations and present them together on one digital archival database collection.  Does it really matter where the physical items are located so long as it is properly cited in the archival collection?  Don’t these types of digital archival collections make research much easier when many things relating to a similar topic are stored (and easily searchable) in one location?  I think Owens, quoting The American Folklife Center, does an excellent job summarizing how I also view digital archives, “Digital archives hang together as “a conscious weaving together of different representational media.”  This definition works, in my opinion, for both digital and traditional, “regular” archives.

I did not expect this to be such a contentious topic.  Kate Theimer argues, however politely worded, that digital archives are not equal to “regular” archives.  What I found so shocking about her argument is her reasoning.  She states, “The archivists’ definition [of archives] is more specific, and therefore in my opinion conveys greater meaning.”  Archives are not suppose to be areas of selection they are suppose to be areas of preservation for items considered to have value.  But what I think Theimer fails to address is that archivists do make selections.  Archivists decide what is kept and what is not and these decisions are based off a collections management policy and the objective standards of the archivist (although that is a subject also under debate, see Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot).  From my understanding, both digital and “regular” archives make selections, one just relies on the physical items to live in many places instead of within one institution.

This image came from the  WTC Black and White Photos Collection from The Septemer 11 Digital Archives.  It is part of collection of 21 black-and-white photos to show the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the clean-up efforts.  The photos were taken by Steve Levine in October 2001.

This image came from the WTC Black and White Photos Collection from The Septemer 11 Digital Archives. It is part of collection of 21 black-and-white photos to show the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the clean-up efforts. The photos were taken by Steve Levine in October 2001.

Perhaps it is time for some examples of digital archives.  This week we took at look at The September 11 Digital Archive, the Bracero History Archive, and The Shelly-Godwin Archive, all of which are examples of digital archives.  Archivists are also concerned with preserving context – what made the document valuable or useful for the creator.  Archivists like Theimer believe this context and authenticity is not present in digital archives.  If a description is provided in a digital archive, like I noticed in these digital archive examples, is that not considered context enough?  There is one thing I can agree on with Theimer.  She argues for more communication between digital humanists (including digital historians) and archivists concerning where their fields meet.  Certainly this debate will help fuel more communication and maybe help both digital archivists and traditional archivists find a common ground.

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2 thoughts on “The Debate about Digital Archives

  1. Alexandra,

    I think you make some great points here and I’m happy that at the end you included Theimer’s plea for greater communication between digital humanists and archivists–that was crucial to my understanding and blog post too. I found your argument about archivists making selections really interesting and I liked your quote,

    “But what I think Theimer fails to address is that archivists do make selections. Archivists decide what is kept and what is not and these decisions are based off a collections management policy and the objective standards of the archivist…From my understanding, both digital and “regular” archives make selections, one just relies on the physical items to live in many places instead of within one institution.”

    To me, this suggests that a larger issue might be at play here; I think there is a problem understanding that the field of history is evolving and that online presence is crucial to history at this point in time. This makes digital archives more relevant than ever and in my opinion, equal to regular archives. I think that some archivists who share Theimer’s viewpoint may struggle with this fact which would account for comments about “regular” archives having “greater meaning.”

    Justifications like yours show that all collections are important to history whether they exist in print or online. Hopefully this point can be better understood with greater communication between archivists and historians which hopefully will also lead to collaboration between the fields to enhance all types of archives.

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    • Hello Samantha,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on history evolving and the need for greater communication between digital humanists and archivists. Naturally, I agree with you in that digital archives are as important as physical archives. How can collaboration and communication between these two fields be improved? The articles we read for this week were the start of this much-needed communication, but they fell short when it came to suggestions for, and examples of, action and improvement. It is my hope that as we enter the professional world, we can enact practices that encourage collaboration and communication, and change how history is presented.

      Like

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