Readings in DH, January 2015

Hering, K., Kramer, M. J., Sternfeld, J., & Theimer, K. (2014). Digital Historiography and the Archives. Journal of Digital Humanities, 3(2). Retrieved from http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/3-2/digital-historiography-and-the-archives/

This paper presents a series of interlinked blog posts that question the notion of the archive in the digital era and query the way the word “archive” is used in everyday parlance. It asks whether we can call a simple collection of digital items an archive? And is this a collection of digitised historical materials (surrogates)? Or is it born digital items?One argument is that what is now called a digital archive might have been called a collection, an edited volume or an exhibit in the analogue era.

Either way it is important to look at the context of these information sources. This could include information about provenance (the context of the record). Lack of provenance is sometimes a problem in the analogue archive, but it is suggested here that this problem is exacerbated in digital archives. It is easier to reproduce and fragment items in a digital archive – meaning that items can become detached from their provenance. The idea of provenance is linked with source criticism in history, which is about assessing the “genuineness and authenticity” of historical sources. Here the idea of digital historiography is useful – it is seen as an interdisciplinary examination of historical practice as it interacts with digital technology.

Context in a digital archive can be about who put the collection together and why and how the material was selected/chosen (archival practice involves making choices about what to include, and what to exclude, in an archive). Context can also include questions about whether the material in the archive is a subset or an entire collection. Metadata of course holds contextual and provenance information in a digital archive. But it is also important to know how the metadata prepared, and to understand that it is not merely descriptive but also interpretative.

It is also important to look at how the archive, in the general sense, is curated and accessed:

“Particularly in an era when both corporations and the government are using large, ‘official’ digital archives for data mining of human individuals, we need to assert that the archive should be understood as a kind of commons, not a tool of totalized mastery and secretive information. Transparency and privacy must be renegotiated in the new technological structures of the digital archive.”

Quantity and scale are problems for researchers working in the digital era. Using large datasets necessitates the development of skills of selection, the definition of scale and appraisal. The concept of appraisal is one borrowed from archival theory, it “provides the framework to interpret the results of analysis conducted along the quantum spectrum”. However, the paper argues that experimentation, trial and error, is the only way to develop new methodologies that allow for effective work at this new scale (this is called “calibration”).

Hering et al. emphasise the need for researchers to interact with information professionals such as archivists in order to engage in discussions about the creation of “critical contextual information for sources, reference resources and repositories”. In the digital era it is necessary to to understand the construction of the digital archive and how this relates to how research is carried out and generated.

This paper provides some interesting starting points for thinking about the digital archive. One addition, perhaps, would have been to look at the role of such an archive from a disciplinary perspective other than that of archival studies and history.