Expanding and Engaging the Archive within the Liberal Arts

Kent Gerber's picture

Digital Libraries are a convergence of digital humanities and archives because they are involved in selecting, managing, curating and preserving artifacts of cultural heritage. As the librarian responsible for Bethel’s digital collections of scholarship, history, and cultural heritage I’ve collaborated with our archivist to select and convert physical items from the archive to present in an organized and sustainable online collection. Once the items are online, I collaborate with faculty, staff, and students to work on curation, discovery, and exhibition through our website and digital management software and teaching and outreach on campus.

Digital humanities and digital library work is interdisciplinary and brings the contents of the archive into a broader context through digital collections that are well-organized, discoverable, and sustainable into the future for multiple disciplines, systems, and audiences. This means that digital collections and archives involve more than just traditional archival materials. This is particularly true in the context of a mid-sized liberal arts university where the scope is broader and less specialized. In addition to collaborating with the archives on campus, I also collaborate with the art galleries, special collections, natural history specimen collections, and campus entities like the International Study Abroad office who contribute reflective photo-essays from students who have studied abroad. On a larger scale, the digital environment requires collaborations with multiple disciplines and multiple cultural heritage institutions—which has become a meta-community called GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) demonstrated in the OpenGLAM. This convergence is also what can contribute to a dilution of the definition of the word “archives” as Kate Theilen discusses and pointed out by Cal Murgu in his entry DH and Digital Archives. The related concepts of “library” and “curation” are also subject to this same phenomenon being associated with a shallow “collection of items selected for a purpose” concept over the more comprehensive meanings. I find it helpful to use the Digital Curation Centre (DCC) Curation Lifecycle Model below, which shows the full range of activities and expertise involved in digital curation, as a common reference point with collaborators in order to clarify what we mean, and don’t mean, by "archive" in a digital humanities project and to determine the collaborative roles rather than overlook them or set them aside.

 

However, this convergence also affords greater opportunities for an archive to communicate its value by greater reach and use in research or teaching. At Bethel University, engaging in digital humanities through a collaboration between the Library and the History Department has extended the reach and impact of its archival collections. Digital archives have allowed students and faculty to more quickly research and explore certain themes within Bethel’s history and to respond to community events in a more agile way including memorials for colleagues who died. Access to the information has also allowed students, faculty, and staff to make more use of their own history including broader access to a biography of Bethel’s founder by administration, data mining of the full text of the student newspaper to determine the timing of a mascot change, and a faculty-student project resulting in a publicly-available resource exploring Bethel’s intersection with four world wars called Bethel At War. The larger scale of digital humanities work also impacts this work on a local level. An archive that was only locally accessible is now a regional and national resource through collaborations with the Minnesota Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of America to harvest and make these local collections more widely available.

These resources and projects also impact the behavior of the researchers themselves. Due to projects like these, scholars who depend on archives for their research are able to access important primary sources without as much extensive travel.  A 2012 report from Ithaka S+R found that historians physically visit archives less, have more focus in their visits when they do, engage in more information gathering instead of analysis when on site, and publish their research in increasingly digital formats.

Therefore, digital humanities can get the archives more deeply and widely involved in the activities of research and teaching and bring them into contact with a wider variety of disciplines and cultural heritage institutions.