What is the role of the digital humanities in the future of the archive?
Digital media definitely require new framings for our concepts of storage, archiving, vaulting, and retrieval. The Archive, its Foucauldian legacy in film and media history, and the Digital mutually affected the way we frame memory and history as well as the way we conceptualize our excavations into memory and (media) history. The archive took a major role in the clash between teleological and archaeological models of history, between narration of the past and the counting of the past – as the media-archaeological debate has been stressing for a long time. The Digital world, hardwares and softwares, stunningly increased the archival effect of what Thomas Elsaesser has called an “astonished turn towards the past” (Film History as Media Archaeology, AUP 2016): the emergence of digital media and their impressive and quick converging movement called for a plausible and intuitive backward jump towards the past, in order to rethink temporality in the search of a logic for such a massive and sudden transformation of the media sphere.
Early modernity – the obsessive quest for the origins – offered a simultaneous field of investigation and excavation of the present. The digital turn made urgent a random and stochastic access to the past, by fragmenting and exploding the linearity of its narration: according to this paradigm, something was missing for the scheme of continuity and cause-effect logic in history. Materiality and new media technology made patent an epistemological crisis.
Archive versus History
Accessing the past from the archive, it soon recalled the operative models of databases, networks, nodes: a way to count the past into diagrams, rather than to narrate histories. Media theorist Bernhard Siegert recurred to the compound “cultural techniques” in order to frame models of genealogical and archaeological access to the past. The grid – one of the models discussed in his book (Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, FUP 2015) – brilliantly epitomizes such a trend: locating the data into the grid, according to space and time coordinates, lets the historian access it through a code or random connection rather than causality. This crucial debate I’ve just recounted tells us the huge impact the digital turn had and still has on the humanities, concerning the way we access data of the past, how we locate data, how we excavate data, and where we excavate data. This “astonished turn towards the past” made data mining an imperative, and the circular re-activation and presentation of data through time(s) a symptom. Media preservation and presentation hold and will increasingly hold a major role in this frame. Media obsolescence and creative re-animation, media hacking, reverse engineering of past media technologies, media art, and media mining assumed the character of an active way to re-write history through the archive and the materiality of media—and a specific and active way to practice media-archaeology as Jussi Parikka and Wanda Strauven have proven.
Let us think on the work of Tom Jennings' The Story Teller, where the reuses of “ideas and obsolete material from media history, including a teletype machine, a papertape reader, and a speech-phoneme processing system” (Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology, Polity 2012) are characterized by a recurring mode that presents itself as a “process,” and active intervention into obsolescence and disrupted and fragmented temporality where the work of art or the medium are only points of immanence in transit: a time machine that is also repeated and subject to variations.
Media art becomes media history or archaeology: Jenning’s gesture is an archaeological (and genealogical: The Story Teller is about Alan Turing) excavation into the archive. How could/would the digital affect this process, and how could digital media preserve it? How to preserve this archaeological gesture?
Data and Meta-data
As a scholar who works in a film and media preservation Lab at the University of Udine, I would further discuss a crucial issue that is still largely missing from the debate. Media Preservation in fact raises similar issues. Re-visiting the data of the past, re-activating them, re-presenting and re-framing would be further enlightened by understanding the huge amount of information that digital media dramatically engenders and endangers: Meta-data, or How we’ve done it. Our archaeological or genealogical excavations into the past – in a way that could certainly be a media or moving image preserving operation as well as a media art intervention into the archive – deserve to be identified and re-counted also by the traces of the operation that brought past data/items to a new life; by the waste from the mining or reverse engineering operation it was subjected to; by the gesture of the preserver or the artist or the historian who played the role of operator or excavator.
How do we locate this information (into the grid)? And again, what kind of information is missing from this picture? How much information are we missing by excavating the past? Thus, how to preserve and present the “preserving gesture”? How to excavate and store the “hacking procedures” or the “reverse engineering procedures” (a sort of counter-instructions for de-construction)?
A first crucial step would be the “conversion” procedures of non-digital artworks or procedures or gestures into digital objects (or “information objects”). This conversion can only represent the complexity of the meta-data in the form of a documentary trace. Media artworks as well as Moving image preservation operations belong to a project (or “chain” of projects) and prove to be “archivable” only from a documentary standpoint, given their multidimensionality and material, conceptual, and progressive complexity (Cosetta Saba in Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art, AUP 2014): we are basically expanding and pairing the meta-data concept to the gestural and procedural operation of the media artist and the media preserver and archaeologist.
However, the methods we are currently recurring to in the digital archive documentation show structural limitations (as a matter of fact, just in the field of moving images preservation, the FIAF’s or AMIA’s forums are actively debating this issue). Meta-data is the discourse network we are actually feeding as media scholars, as media preservers, as media artists: it is the shadow-trace that still deserves to be fossilized, and the paradigm that is missing.
I’ll start off by disclosing that I am not an archivist; my perspective is informed by the time I’ve spent in archives as a researcher, and the work that I’ve been doing recently on digital historiography. In a way, I’m an outsider looking in. That being said, historians are introduced to and respect deeply the elements of archival theory that make their work possible, including provenance, authority, and context. I’m also aware that digital technologies have profoundly impacted the way that historians search for, perform, and disseminate research. In particular, historians are increasingly expecting, on one hand, to find primary sources on the web, and on the other, are encouraged, by funding bodies and institutions, to make material available online. This, in turn, has placed added pressure on archivists to allocate increased resources to improving catalogues and item descriptions, and provide full-text documents or high-resolution images whenever possible. The relationship is reciprocal. Practicing digital humanists have taken it upon themselves to develop curated online repositories using a variety of platforms to meet this demand and to support open access initiatives. While this practice is generally positive, I believe that considering an online repository as tantamount to an archive — gestured by our use of the “digital” qualifier — requires some critical attention.
In the most recent edition of the Debates in the Digital Humanities (available online), Jentery Sayers published a thought provoking piece titled “Dropping the Digital.” In short, Sayers “ruins” the digital humanities through ruination, a technique whereby a text is manipulated and subsequently compared to the original text to identify differences and confirm or refute previous assumptions. Sayers “drops the digital” from a corpus, and combs through the product in order “to examine how its absence shapes meaning and interpretation.” Ultimately, Sayers’ essay encourages us to be reflexive about how and why we append “digital” in qualifying research. The way I see it, a comparable act of uncritical qualification is occurring on the web with the recent explosion of so-called “digital archives.”
The proliferation of low-barrier of entry and low cost digital repository and content management systems, like Omeka and DSpace, has led to the creation of hundreds (if not thousands) of online repositories housing digital artifacts. Artifacts are digital copies of analog materials, or repositories of borne digital documents, or both. Importantly, non-archivists often create these repositories, they are open access, and are sometimes referred to as “digital archives.” The final point requires attention. How does “dropping the digital” from “digital archives” inform our understanding of these online repositories? How are they different from the “physical” archive that we are so familiar with?
Perhaps this is all just a natural shift in what the word "archive" means to people, prompted by digital methodologies and tools. However, I’m in agreement with Kate Theimer as she argues that the colloquial use of the term “archive” to denote simply “a purposeful collection of surrogates” is problematic due to “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.” Indeed, the act of archiving is not simply an arrangement of curated artifacts; materials undergo a strict process of appraisal according to principles of provenance, among others. And while archival institutions are not without criticism*, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves of what we’re overlooking when we co-opt the term “archive”, a term laden with symbolic meaning, for our digital repositories. Without a doubt, the digitization work that we undertake in cooperation with institutional libraries and community organizations is significant and worthwhile; however, the very act of attempting to create a “digital archive” is deeply informed by a value system embedded in Western ways of knowing. Ultimately, the creation of digital collections will continue, as it is a trend fueled mainly by principles of accessibility and is therefore commendable and much needed. However, humanities scholars that are turning to and creating these digital resources must think critically about why and how they are created, and how they might affect new scholarship and knowledge.
* See, for example, Wood, Stacy, et al. "Mobilizing records: Re-framing archival description to support human rights." Archival Science 14 (2014): 397-419.
The role of the digital humanities in the future of the archive is in play across the humanities. Approaching this matter as a rhetorician, my primary interests are in two related questions. How, as rhetorical critics, may we uncover the rhetorical dimensions of the archive and articulate this rhetoricity in conversation with our colleagues across the humanities? And, as critics who also teach rhetoric, how may we involve students in forms of archival participation and production? This post responds by offering what I see as key rhetorical practices for the future of the archive, while also routing readers to other scholarship in rhetoric and the digital humanities that accounts for these practices further.
Considering the Rhetoric of Digital Archives
Implicit in the practices discussed here is an understanding of digital archives as rhetorical formations. Rhetorical critics have advanced this understanding with respect to both brick-and-mortar and digital archives (Biesecker; Finnegan; Haskins; Morris; Stuckey). As Charles Morris explains in introducing the Rhetoric & Public Affairs forum on archives, the archive is “a rhetorical construction” (113); it “significantly influences what we are able to study, to say, and to teach about rhetorical history, and what we do, as rhetors, with its holdings in our scholarship, in our classrooms, and in the streets” (115).
While all archives are rhetorical constructions in these ways, the rhetorical features of digital archives are distinctive. They are marked, as Ekaterina Haskins writes, by a “promise of representational diversity, collective authorship, and interactivity” (405). Digital archives do not always deliver on such promises, of course, and the promises themselves are not without their own problems. Of particular note to teachers of rhetoric, though, are the pedagogical possibilities afforded by the accessibility of digital archives (Purdy; see also Graban, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myers). Most obviously, students may use digital archives to conduct primary research on diverse forms of rhetoric. But as Jessica Enoch and I argue, it is important that we train students as both researchers and critics, helping them to uncover “the rhetorical properties many sites exhibit: archival selection, exigence, narrative, collaboration, and constitution” (219).
Constructing and Curating Digital Archives as Rhetorical Production
With digital archives understood as rhetorical constructions, it follows that our pedagogies may invite students to participate in the production of archives as a rhetorical practice. This affordance is especially pertinent to digital spaces where, as James P. Purdy explains, “people can become both users and producers of archives” (34). Depending on the pedagogical goals of a course, students of rhetoric may collaborate to create relatively small-scale archives viewable only to members of the class; use platforms such as Omekaand Archive-It to invent more public archives; remix archival materials to compose anew; or contribute to existing archives 2.0 projects that invite crowdsourcing through uploading artifacts, creating metadata, and transcribing materials (Bessette; Enoch and VanHaitsma; Ramsey-Tobienne; Shipka, Hidalgo, Anderson, and Campbell; Theimer; VanHaitsma).
Closely related to the construction of digital archives, another crucial rhetorical practice is the curation of digital archives. As Krista Kennedy writes, curation “is a rhetorical, dynamic skill set”(7) and, particularly in networked spaces, curatorial practices of invention and arrangement rely on “distributed collaboration” (178). In another post with Cassandra Book, Meagan Clark, Christopher Giofreda, Kimberly Goode, and Meredith Privott, I share an example of how such practices may be utilized to curate digital archives in a graduate seminar on women’s and feminist rhetorics. Cory Geraths and Michele Kennerly describe another pedagogical example of digital curation from undergraduate public speaking courses. Whether in undergraduate courses, graduate seminars, or scholarly research, the curation of digital archives is a complex rhetorical process of collecting existing archives while simultaneously composing new ones and blurring the line between archivists and audiences.
Creating Digital Archivists through Rhetorical Education
By way of conclusion, I draw a final practice from Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice’s community-based pedagogical work with pop-up archives, which are temporally oriented less to the “permanence and longevity” of preservation and more to an ephemeral present of user interactions (253). Reading their discussion of how students acted as pop-up archivists, I am reminded that, when considering the rhetoric of digital archives as well as constructing and curating them with students, we are in effect creating digital archivists. “By working in the temporary network spaces that digital media allow for,” Rice and Rice explain, “students are enacting the work of archiving. What is created is not digital archives per se but digital archivists” (251, emphasis in original). In a similar vein, might the role of rhetoricians and digital humanists “in the future of the archive” be less about the future of the archive per se, and more about the creation of future archivists?
For the last several years, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that chronicle histories of Canadian feminisms and make them accessible to new audiences online. This work has included, among others, organizing my students to edit and expand the Wikipedia article on “Feminism in Canada” (and writing about the experience here) and contributing to the creation of Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism. These projects come as part of a long history of feminist activist archiving, putting documents and artifacts together to create formal and informal archives. These archives help resist conventional histories that fail to document women’s contributions, ensure that hard-fought battles are not forgotten, and work to help the next generation of activists learn from the ones that came before. Following Kate Eichhorn, “feminist practices of the archive cannot be easily disentangled from the rich histories of community-based organizing”—activism and the archive are often one and the same.
As more feminist activism is archived online, I wonder about the possibilities of the digital archive for the future of feminist activist archiving. That is, what is the role of the digital humanities in the future of the feminist archive?
There is much to be gained by framing online feminist projects as part of the digital humanities. For better or worse, digital humanities has worked to blur the boundaries of who gets to name, create, and define the archive, and what it means to house a collection. For feminist activists who might lack a background in archival science, projects in the digital humanities offer a roadmap, and provide a range of examples about what digitization might look like. Moreover, digital humanities has fought for recognition of these kinds of projects as legitimate sites of knowledge production, and the result has been new potential sources of funding support, and the reframing of volunteer labour as academic work—digital bricks on the road to tenure.
At the same time, I can’t help but think about what might be lost in understanding feminist archives this way. The establishment of digital archives of feminist activism is, in many ways, a continuation of the kind writing and preserving of histories that feminists have long been doing.
But by understanding these archives as digital humanities initiatives (with the university as their institutional home) there may be compromises in content, funding, and governance that limit their potential as sites of resistance. As these histories move to academic institutions—foregoing their place in activists’ basements, women’s centres, and feminist-run, DIY online systems—they may become sources for academic knowledge about activism, rather than potential sites of activism itself.
These concerns are not unique to the online environment. They are true for “brick-and-mortar” archives institutionalized in universities and government-run libraries and archives. At the same time, given the political climate for feminist activism (and general lack of government support), scholarly initiatives—online or not—may be one of the few remaining homes for collecting these histories. In fact, the projects I have been involved in (as well as other Canadian initiatives, such as The Orlando Projectand the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory)were largely academic initiatives from the outset, conceived and implemented by scholars in universities.
But maybe it is this entanglement—of activism and academia, of digital archives and digital humanities—that tells us what role the digital humanities will play in the future of the feminist archives. The digital humanities are one of the ways that archives are institutionalized, rendered legible, and expanded to new publics. As feminist archives go online, we must resist through compromise and creativity, ensuring the sustainability of our histories while paying attention to whether the archive has become a site of academic knowledge alone. And while we can address by blurring the lines between scholarship and activism—through activist-focused governance structures for example, or community-university partnerships—it is also naïve to suggest that the university-centered nature of archives that exist within the digital humanities can retain their radical legacy (however romanticized). The role of the digital humanities is, perhaps, to enable these longstanding entanglements and challenges to continue online, creating new, digital spaces for resistance, engagement, and negotiation.