Archive, bro

I’m still a newbie to the world of digital humanities (DH), gradually wading into its tide of terms and tensions. At this stage, as I stand ankle-deep, I couldn’t help but think that some of the contention surrounding terms like “archive” come from the many uses it has.

As Trevor Owens points out, the word itself is already stretched and multivalent, ranging from tape decks on a bottom shelf to a specific philosophy of preservation and presentation, a philosophy that Kate Theimer explains eloquently.

But even more directly in the realm of DH scholarship and work, “archive” serves multiple meanings and plays off similar terms, like “database” or “collection” in different ways. More generally, it seems to serves as both repository and tool. In other words, it is a place to  preserve texts and contexts, drawing from a variety of sources, like the Walt Whitman Archive, but it also must present this information through coding, interfaces, and an effective use of metadata.

In particular, the potential that this presentation allows distinguishes DH archives from more traditional archives, in that it brings in both human and nonhuman participants into rather intimate, hybrid contact. Done effectively, it echoes the sort of “ice-skater’s dance” that Alan Liu describes in “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” in which human and machine can co-construct and co-discover knowledge  together. But done poorly, a digital archive is rather like a grandparent’s attic, filled with a wealth of fascinating odds and ends, but buried and scattered.

At the most basic level, digital archives offer entry points that many physical archives simply cannot. Any individual with a computer, Internet, and basic software and hardware requirements can find images of Shakespeare quarto’s or texts of Charles Brockden Brown. Many resources are open access, further liberating gate-keeping constraints.

But even here, a potential issues arises: navigating the wealth of information that these archives and their closely related cousin “database” can hold. In a physical archive, one often has archivists to help answer questions, dig through drawers, and spout out witty anecdotes about Brockden Brown. Here, one is at the mercy of the interface, its algorithms, and whatever metadata or guiding information the site architects have included. And as Liza Potts points out in “Archive Experiences,” “While these systems hold a veritable treasure trove of knowledge, they are crippled by their user experiences.”

Beyond this interface-interaction issue, one also has ethical dimensions. Formerly concentrated, secure materials–under the watchful eyes of a select set of trained scholars–are cast broadside into the web, a completely new space and set of practices. As Tarez Samra Graban, Alexis Ramsey-Tobienne, and Whitney Myers argue, “When historical metadata migrate from print to online spaces, rhetoricians must (re)define open and access so as to more ethically reach wider publics.” With new storage and displaying of data, we must consider new ethical challenges, which physical archives do not. Some of this could be taking private papers and making them public. Or, it could be bringing information to  wide audience.

The collecting, digitizing, and coding of historical and/or rhetorical documents plays a major role in this step, with different types of coding or architecture allowing for different potentials, as Charles Cooney et. al describe. In some low-tech spaces, one simply has images and a clunky page-turning feature. Others allow complicated word searches, data-mining, or connection-finding, the practices that can contribute to distant reading and other research options. These potentials can make better use of the sheer breadth of storable material in some databases and archives. This organizing begins at the step of data-entry and continues through smart use of the tools.

Even more dynamically, Jenny Rice and Jeff Rice point out how these digital archives and databases can include new selections of texts: “Pop-Up archives,” which “create a digital space that memorializes and highlights the temporality of network connections, the fragile and momentary ways agents affect one another.” Through apps and immediate community engagement, researchers can create “archives” that do not stress stability and long-term storage, but the networked nature of texts, contexts, agents, and rhetorical practices. Rice and Rice use the example of a farmer’s market, where different narratives and objects come into a “gathering” of mutual meeting.

This more rhetorical, ecological understanding of “archive” seems particularly divergent from traditional or mainstream notions of archive. One would have a hard time maintaining such archives without digital technology: piles of reporter notebooks, rotting produce, photographs of faces and exchanges, recordings scattered on different tapes. This offers a new use of archive. Casey Boyle offers a similar reinventing of “edition” in “Low Fidelity in High Definition,” moving from “critical” to “rhetorical” editions.

Setting my focus on Rice and Rice’s reworked “archive,” I am still curious about two things. First, what one gains by maintaining the term “archive,” or if any word could replace it. And second, what people can do with such an archive.

Regarding the first question, I’m not sure what other term one could use. While such an “archive” lacks the permanence and historical ethos that most would associate with archive, it is a rather organic compiling of a particular historical moment. It is not based on an institution, but it is based on a significant rhetorical ecology. Physical materials and engaging narratives informed this ecology. Stories. Histories. Lives. Practices and materials. Such elements comprise most archives. Here, they just have a different form, focus, and (potentially) purpose.

Regarding the second questions, what people could do with such an archive, I am not sure. But I think that’s why it’s cool. It’s something new, using digital technology to capture and potentially explore humanity in a new way. With its focus on lived-practice, such an archive has the capacity to enrich the community and provide helpful anthropological or ethnographic data for research. Moreover, the use of apps and an accessible website gives the interfaces that may ease the acquisition and use of such information.

In sum, while many uses of the term “archive” create contention, I think the potential these new uses offer and their unseen next steps not only justify the terms’ use but highlight the dynamic possibilities of language expanded by technology and creative human practice.

[Image: “The National Archives” by Samuel Silva]

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