Two meanings of “archival silences” and their implications

Several weeks ago I was aware that there was a flurry of discussion among the digital humanities crowd about “archival silences.” This occurred shortly after I had posted about the differences between the way archivists use “archive” and the way digital humanities people seemed to be using it, so I suspected that “archival silences” would similarly not mean what I am accustomed to it meaning. I’ve had time to return and read through some of the digital humanities posts, and as you might imagine, doing so was quite illuminating.

First, when I hear the phrase “archival silences” my initial assumption is that it refers to gaps or “silences” in a body of original records (in which “body” can be defined in many ways). A good example of this usage is “Women and Archival Silences” by Yvonne Perkins on her Stumbling Through the Past blog, and Rodney Carter’s Archivaria article “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence.”

My starting point for understanding the digital humanities discussion was the post “Editor’s Choice: Archival Silences Round-Up” on the Digital Humanities Now site. I worked my way through the various blog posts cited, trying to understand as best I could what each author meant by “archival silences.”

But first, a caveat. I am not proficient in the language and practices of the digital humanites community. I am a spectator, doing my best, as time allows, to try to understand how my audience of archives and archivists fits into this scholarly community. So as I try to wrap my brain around the discourse of another discipline, I hope any digital humanists reading this will forgive me if I commit errors of understanding–forgive, and of course, correct.

So, with that caveat out of the way, I will attempt to break the discussion down into the simplest possible terms. DH Now cites a post from Ted Underwood first,”Big but not distant.” Underwood does not explicitly mention “archival silences” but he provides some context by discussing the kinds of data digital humanists use for their research–so-called “big data” versus data based on smaller collections. A key issue is how or where they can get their hands on data, which will be on ongoing theme in the discussion.

Katherine Harris (who participated in the discussion about the use of “archives”) is the next thread selected by the DH Now editors. Based on her post, “Big Data, DH, and Gender” along with the Storified Twitter conversation “From archival silence to glorious data,” I come to the conclusion that “archival silences” is being used to refer to materials that are not represented in the data accessible to these scholars for research. In other words they are not represented in the digital collections that have been marked up in ways that make them useful for this kind of research. She writes:

Nevertheless, the big data sets that are in play in this conversation (on Twitter and here in this post) in both projects are ones that were created by other institutions. If the traditionally marginalized authors are marginalized now because it’s no longer sexy or innovative to digitize and mark-up those collections, then how have we far have we really come? Are those recovery projects then marginalized because they bring nothing innovative to Digital Humanities?

If I am correct, then in this usage “the archives” is equal to those resources that have been digitized and made accessible to digital humanities scholars. This is clearly very different–critically different–from saying that there are materials that are absent from the  documentary record. Interestingly in the Twitter conversation captured in Storify, @laurenfklein references a book by Michel-Rolph Trouillot which outlines the distinctive ways in which voices from the past are silenced. This shows an awareness (as one would expect from scholars) that the reasons for silences in “history” are complex. Given this understanding, I find it all more troubling to see this shorthand equation of “archives” with “that which has been digitized and marked up.”

The conversation continues with Adeline Koh in a series of two blog posts on the subject “Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism.” In her first post Koh states: “these two posts are concerned with a more specific silence—on race and colonialism in the nineteenth century archive.” Later it becomes clear that the “nineteenth century archive” referred to are those materials that have been digitized and made available online. It is this “silence” that Koh seeks to remedy with her project, “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen‘.” Clearly there is no silence in the physical archives (or more likely, special collections), since Koh has material available to digitize.

Lastly (in terms of the items cited by DH Now), Roger Whitson contributes in his post “DH, Archival Silence, and Linked Open Data.” Again, the way I’m reading it Whitson uses “archives” to refer exclusively to sets of data or digitized marked-up resources.

Thinking through not just what appears in archives but also how those archives work and how we can use the data to make better archives is, to me, the same conversation. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to code, but rather that scholars should understand how digital archives are put together and participate in building and rebuilding those archives

So, what does this examination tell us that we didn’t already know? What, if anything, is important here? We already know that many scholars use “archives” to mean a wide variety of things other than the standard (American) archival definition. Even Richard Pearce-Moses states in his notes on this definition: “In the vernacular, ‘archives’ is often used to refer to any collection of documents that are old or of historical interest, regardless of how they are organized.” And we have seen have many people (including archivists) may refer to digital collections of surrogates as a “digital archive.” So the inconsistent use of “archives” is a horse that is already out of the barn.

For me, it is the casual equation of archives with the universe of accessible digital information that is troubling. Yes, I’m sure all of these scholars understand that the true universe of archives includes an incalculable volume of analog material that has not and probably never will be digitized. But to equate the problem of material that hasn’t been made digitally accessible with the problem of material that does not exist in archival collections . . . . that concerns me even if the problem is purely a semantic one. (A less troubling semantic issue is the lack of distinction between published and non-published source material. Much of the data referenced in the discussions appears to be drawn from books and other published, and therefore non-archival, sources.)

The distinctions made by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (as summarized in the book review cited above) are important ones. They can have different causes and they usually are imposed by different actors. Trouillo lists as the causes for the silences in “the making of history”:

  • there is a silencing in the making of sources. Which events even get described or remembered in a manner which allows them to transcend the present in which they occurred? Not everything gets remembered or recorded. Some parts of reality get silenced.
  • there is a silencing in the creation of archives — the repositories of historical records. Again, choices are made, accidents occur, judgments made, and some of our recorded past is silenced. At times this archival silencing is permanent since the records do not get preserved; other times the silencing is in the process of competition for the attention of the narrators, the later tellers of the historical tales.
  • the narrators themselves necessarily silence much. In most of history the archives are massive. Choices, selections, valuing must be done. In this process, huge areas of archival remains are silenced.
  • finally, not every narrative becomes a part of the “corpus,” the standard historical narrative received and accepted by various groups as the past. This “corpus” will be different for professional historians, critical readers, the general public and so on, but only a handful of narrations become the final produce: “history.”

The “archival silences” referenced in this recent digital humanities discussion are of that last type. The materials that have been digitized and marked-up serve as a kind of  “corpus” for this group of scholars. It is this corpus that is incomplete, and for the foreseeable future always will be. And it may be that the rest of the factors contributing to silence also exist; it is possible that there are also what I would describe  as “archival silences” in the corpus of digital humanities data.

What concerns me is that in this adoption of vocabulary the depth of the universe of true archives may be lost. How absurd is it to think there may come a point for some scholars at which the difference between the two meanings of archival silence may be elided, and that which is not available digitally will become equated with that which does not exist?  I am no scholar, but I believe there has been a wealth of discussion in archival studies about what we call “archival silence.” I am not the person to bring that wealth of archival discourse into the digital humanities dialogue, but I hope someone with that kind of understanding does so soon.

Regarding questions about why some materials (again often published ones) have been digitized and others have not, this is an area where archivists and librarians have experience and expertise. Archivists, by definition, understand the challenges presented by the need for selection and the preferencing of some materials over others. I think our profession has something to add to these discussions.  It is time, I think, for some archival voices to start speaking about archival silences.

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34 thoughts on “Two meanings of “archival silences” and their implications”

  1. “to equate the problem of material that hasn’t been made digitally accessible with the problem of material that does not exist in archival collections. . . . that concerns me” – Exactly!

  2. Fantastic post, Kate.

    I’ve been very impressed with the activities of a number of the Digital Historians whose projects I have seen, in particular with the Invisible Australians project – . I am slightly in awe of the tools they are bringing to digitized material in order to examine the records in depth.

    You are spot on when you state that digital history is (seemingly) dependent on what is already digitized and are drawn to published texts. This is perhaps a generalization based on my limited understanding of the filed, and dipping into some of the #dayofdh posts shows that there are those who are working to get material transcribed (see, for example,

    It makes me wonder what Digital Historians think about how the material ends up online. If they do at all…. Again it is hard to avoid generalizations and there will be some very engaged historians, but I have to wonder if the notions of “if it isn’t on the web it doesn’t exist” has entered into their mentality. I wonder how many digital historians are working with, or even talking to, archivists or special collections librarians.

    With the explosion of interest in technological approaches to primary sources I think there is real opportunity for archives to work with digital historians.

    Digital historians can work with archivists to get the material they want digitized. In particular, for those wonderful historians who have grant money that can be used towards digitizing material for them to run their fancy algorithms on. I’ve heard of at least one example of this (at a Provincial Archives, I think) but I can’t recall exactly what the situation was. Rather than waiting for the archives or google to scan the material, they can work with the archivists to identify useful material to be scanned (their funding bumping it up the priority list). Of course, they could also approach the archives even if they don’t have funding and, depending on the archives’ resources, they might be able to make it happen. This means that records that are not a high priority from the archival perspective (those greatly in demand documents with ‘high research value’) might be digitized and then made available to a global audience.

    Also, an area where their ‘archive’ could really help to fill archival silences is when historians gain access to materials that are not in institutional repositories. By scanning and making available collections of correspondence, diaries, photos etc. or by conducting oral histories or doing other field work with under-represented groups then their voices can be added to the larger cultural archive. Whether these are then placed in a formal archives or just online, this could go a long way to address certain silences.

    The archival silences that are introduced because records are not deemed worthy of the effort to digitize are astounding. It can have the same effect of not creating finding aid or even of not accessioning records in the first place – the records, and therefore those who are discussed, are invisible to the researcher – as Katherine Harris notes. Working with records digitized by archives or others does give the historian an opportunity to bring amazing technologies to bear on the records that are available to be able to tell certain stories. However, I believe there are bigger silences yet to be addressed which will require historians to become more engaged with their archival colleagues.

    I look forward to seeing what digital historians have to say about this post.

  3. Hi Kate,

    Very timely article indeed. I am concerned too about these whole discussions about archives and “digital archives” in the Digital Humanities field where archivists are absent. I don’t think we have been ignored on purpose but we, again, are invisible in the processes and we need to take a more proactive approach to get involved in this discussion. There are several ways to get involve. I am “attending” a webinar today by National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), on Digital Pedagogy as it related to Digital Humanities. This webinar are attended by a lot of faculty in different universities and it is a great place to learn about the issues that DH scholars are dealing with and also, and more importantly, a place for archivists to advertise and advice scholars of our roles in creating all these digital content that they want to work with, and to share the real limitations on depending on only digital assets for research. They had done other webinars and “archived” the presentation so I recommended exploring the site and attend any of these DH events.

    Also, there is the THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp where scholars & tech people interested in DH can get together and learn together about how to harness technology for digital humanities research. Anyone can do a THATCamp and we are thinking to do one here in UConn this year. This is something that librarians, archivists, IT personnel, etc.. need to get involved too, to outreach our own scholars about our role in this evolving field.

    Thanks for starting this discussion Kate!

  4. Agreed.

    And, of course, it’s important to remember that this was just one “slice” of a discussion among a few digital humanities people. The field is very diverse and so the ways they approach and work with original materials are too.

    I also wonder how many DH people are, as you say, “working with, or even talking to, archivists or special collections librarians.” I posted the question on the Digital Humanities Questions & Answers site and got few responses: Ironically, Brett Bobley’s link to the list of NEH-funded DH projects illustrates one of the problems I noted–because the word “archives” is used to describe so many of the digital products created by the projects, it’s difficult to locate projects that actually involved archives (in our sense). I am also curious how many projects involve the active participation and collaboration of archivists and special collections librarians, beyond their participation in providing the raw materials for projects and assisting/advising on digitization.

  5. I don’t really see this as any more troubling than your earlier post about the casual way scholars use the word archives. In this case, the DHers are explicitly trying to problematize “corpus” in Trouillot’s sense, making sure that digital collections – which are the archive (loose sense) for digital scholarship (because you can’t do digital humanities on things that aren’t digital) – are seen as unreliable and incomplete and not a corpus. Basically, it’s a discussion about how what’s been made available in digital forms can distort the results of digital scholarship.

    I’m deliberately avoiding using the term “digitize” because as rgscarter uses it above, it presents a misunderstanding of digital scholarship. Simply scanning and putting documents online is not necessarily useful for digital scholarship: will items be OCR’d or otherwise put online in a way that facilitates text-mining, will items be properly interoperable with other digital material (metadata but also containers – I don’t think ContentDM facilitates much digital scholarship), and so on. There are a lot of considerations and they can be expensive (there is a political economy of digital collection silences, such as Katherine Harris worrying on Twitter about whether or not she can afford to use TEI).

    Your jump from DH/archival silences to the role of archivists in digital scholarship seems to be more the point of the post (it at least makes sense of the underlying anxiety). What does active participation of archivists mean? I’m currently working on a digital humanities project where I happen to have a good deal of relevant subject knowledge in addition to the librarian skills (primarily metadata) needed for this project. The prof behind this project has more than enough subject knowledge and so my role is providing raw materials and assisting/advising on metadata. The fact that I have a strong background in codicology helps with the metadata, but it’s not essential to the success of the project. What more is needed? Are you asking to be a scholar? If so, do your own scholarship, make your own digital projects. If not, what are other roles – roles that are native to archival expertise – that are needed for digital scholarship?

    What I’m getting at is that a lot of scholars in general and a lot of digital humanists specifically have really positive feelings about library and archive professionals, but these feelings are vague. We’re information specialists and so can bring something to the table about information. Well, isn’t it incumbent on us to promote specific skills that are needed on digital humanities projects to the digital humanities community? What can archivists (as archivists, not just as individuals who, e.g., happen to know how to code, too) bring to the work? It’s not incumbent on digital scholars to automatically know how to appreciate us; it’s up to us to show them why they need us. Developing a critical dialogue with actually existing digital scholarship – where it succeeds, where it fails from the perspective of the archivist – might be a starting point.

  6. Hi John,
    I admit I used the term “digitize” as a short hand. Naturally, providing metadata is a vital part of the process. For text, using OCR or providing transcription may be necessary for others to use the data.

    I have the feeling this is why many of the DH projects I have seen are using printed sources as the basis for their work- transcription is labour intensive. Using manuscript material can complicate the work immensely. Other creative approach are needed for using photographs and other non-textual material. However, even OCR isn’t foolproof (see

    You say that archivists need to demonstrate their value and I see that, in part, this is in the provision of metadata and other contextual information. If digital historians enter into a dialogue with archivists, they can have input regarding the processes used and the metadata supplied. They can work with the people doing the scanning to help ensure that digital objects are optimized for text mining etc.

  7. Here’s the archival silence that haunts me the most. The Australian War Memorial has a large collection of letters from enlisted personnel (especially from the First World War) sent families and friends at home. These have been collected by the AWM since the mid-1920s. The replies – the letters to soldiers from wives, mothers etc – are not there. They may not have been kept by the soldiers (who often aren’t able to carry large amounts of stuff with them); they may have been lost after the war; and on the whole they have not been sought by the AWM.

    In casual and not so casual ways the vocies of the men ‘at the front’ have been priviledged over those who wait at home. You can write the history of those who waited at home – it has been done – but it is a lot harder.

    This is a true, almost irreversable archival silence and it happened long before we ever started to think about digitisation.

  8. This is an interesting continuation of the conversation about archives. But, there seems to be a tacit implication that Digital Humanists don’t understand the history of “archive,” especially as it relates to the library as an institutional domain and the role of special collections people. Much of the DH in literature started from collaboration between libraries and bibliography/textual studies/book history scholars. In fact, Ken Price writes up an interesting article in Digital Humanities Quarterly about the very nature of “archive” and its problematic meaning. I’ve just finished an encyclopedia entry on “archive” for a Johns Hopkins UP project. This is all just to say that on my end of the scholar’s spectrum, “archive” is a loaded word.

    For those who attended the NITLE digital pedagogy workshop, you may have noticed that one of the highlights suggested by both Jentery Sayers and I were collaboration with librarians!!

    And, just a final note, the work that I do on 19th C texts is possible *only* because I created my own archive of literary annuals. No other library thought the books worthy of a significant collection and/or archive of the production materials associated with these books. This means that no significant library is going to create digital surrogates of them. The books lack a voice in the library — hence its silence. The record of publications in early 19thC England is inadequate without these books.

    As a Digital Humanist, I have the utmost respect for those who come from the library side and hope that others value the contributions (beyond service!) that these professionals provide.

  9. This is a timely post. Uppermost in a historian’s mind must be the limitations of the data source(s) that they are using, whether it be analogue or digital. There will always be something missing – how will that impact historical analysis and conclusions? Perhaps it would be a good discipline for historians to write about the limitations and impact of our data sources on their work for every project they are engaged with.

    There does seem to be a lot more digitisation of published material than handwritten material for a good reason. Published material is easier to convert to machine readable formats. It is when the written word is machine readable that the powerful tools developed in the field of digital humanities can be used to maximum advantage.

    You ask what archivists can bring to the field of digital humanities. It would be useful if archivists could develop skills or knowledge about how to digitise handwritten material more effectively. Perhaps archivists could help to foster crowd transcription of digitised material in their archives? They could develop a community of transcribers attached to the archives who they can mobilise when a new project comes along.

    There is a big untapped resource in our communities of potential transcribers who I’m sure would love to contribute to these projects – elderly people. Elderly people have the skills in reading old forms of handwriting and many are interested in historical records whether through genealogy or local history or some other interest. What can archivists do to encourage elderly people to do this work?

  10. I’ve started to write replies here a half dozen times and killed each of them. I’m not sure what constitutes a productive intervention at this point.

    Some DHers collaborate with archivists and work on projects that contribute to archival practice; many don’t. Some DHers read the archives literature; lots of them don’t (there are, after all, lots of things to read in the world). Some DHers turn up at venues like SAA and RBMS; more turn up at other venues elsewhere (travel budgets only go so far). And so on. I don’t see that situation changing, except but gradually.

    Speaking only for myself, I try to do my homework. I am not an archivist, but I have spent time reading in the archives literature, been to professional meetings, and most importantly worked in hands-on ways with practicing archivists, both in my classes at RBS and on funded research projects. I’ve learned an awful lot. I’ve also tried to demonstrate some of the value of having a digital humanist (“domain expert”) at the table when formulating policy and workflow around the kinds of born-digital materials that are important to me. I hope I’ve had some success at that, but I’ll leave it to others to judge.

    Mostly, though, the more I read posts like this the more I think we’re going to be stuck on “DHers don’t get archives” for a while, because it makes for a good storyline, it’s an effective way of stirring the pot, and of drawing lurkers out into comment mode (QED). If that’s where we are then I guess that’s where we are.

  11. Archives is and always will be very political, and archives need to take its role of ‘outreach’ to increase represention very seriously – for examples of good practice, take Birmingham Archives and Heritage and two projects happening now – Children’s lives (the stories of children in Birmingham throughout history) and Paganel Archives ( creating a community repository archive in a primary school). Both projects are recognising ‘Archival Silences’, digital and archival, both actively seeking to address it.

  12. Matt,

    Thank you for persevering and commenting. I also worked on several drafts of this post, trying very carefully to make sure that it was not the kind of post you seem to feel it was. I don’t think I made sweeping generalizations about the entire field, but if I did, then I apologize. Obviously you have made extraordinary efforts to understand the archival discipline. I don’t know how common that is, if you say it is not uncommon then I respect your assertion. Personally, I have not seen much evidence of it, and it certainly was not displayed in the series of posts that were the subject of my post, or indeed in many of the comments posted here recently by digital humanities practitioners.

    I’m sorry if you think the point of this post is that “DHers don’t get archives.” The point is that some DHers, particularly the ones who wrote the posts under examination, are not demonstrating that they do, based on what they write. The point is that terminology that has a distinct meaning in our field is used differently in the DH community. I attempted to explain that difference for my audience, which is the archival community, and discuss some possible implications of this different usage. To me, that seems like a very reasonable approach to trying to get more archivists engaged in the dialogue, which is the request I make at the end of the post.

    I don’t think it’s unfair to assert that some DHers don’t “get” archives, and by “get” I mean understand the principles, practice, and terminology in the way that a trained archivist does. I think I’m on safe ground there. So if archivists want our body of knowledge and our point of view represented in these discussions, then we have to be aggressive in seeking out and participating in this kind of discussion, as I have tried to do here. If I had not done so, how many digital humanities readers would have known about the way “archival silences” is used in our literature? I’m not confident that all of them would have been familiar with it. How important is that? I guess that depends on your perspective, but as an archivist who thinks DH is an important part of the future of scholarship, I think it’s important.

    You may think that there’s nothing for me to be concerned about, and I respect your point of view, so that’s encouraging news. But I hope that you will return the favor and respect my point of view, based on my expertise and personal experience, and not brush aside my concerns, as I think you seem to be doing. I didn’t write this post to “stir the pot.” Unless by that you mean point out something that I think should be of concern to my profession and encourage people to engage to work on mitigating it. If that’s “stirring the pot,” then I will continue to do so.


  13. I might note, in a post that seems to be about policing disciplinary concerns, that not all digital humanist are historians, as much of the above assumes. In fact, the majority of the individuals involved in the archival silences stream are literary scholars. This is true of the majority of digital humanities work. Historians are in the minority. I don’t really have a problem with that, but I realize that we historians ask different questions of our source in different ways than our colleagues in literary studies ask. I would suggest that in order for us to have a full conversation, we need to be aware of the ways that everyone’s disciplinary backgrounds and methodological approaches shape the way that we use the ever-evolving language that is at the heart of this post and the previous one on the mis/use of “archives.”

  14. Kate,

    This is in some haste as I have to run off to a meeting. I too am uncomfortable with the way some of the DH cohort discuss the notion of an “archive(s),” what it means “to archive” something, and so on. I agree that there’s a lack of engagement with the professional literature and its traditions of praxis. That’s to say nothing of more particularized (but still basic) concepts like arrangement and description, provenance, fixity, authenticity, and of course we could go on. I’ve spoken to that too, as I think you know; and I have no problem including the notion of “archival silences” in that laundry list.

    The article I have forthcoming in a DHQ special issue on “the literary” seeks to address this; it’s an expanded and more rigorous version of the talk and paper you’ve seen.

    But for the sake of advancing discussion here, here are some projects with which I’ve been involved which include both DH people and archivists, as well as other disciplinary specializations:
    (Included archivists, DH faculty, and DH center staff; was on the list of projects Brett sent you.)
    Included iSchool personnel, archivists, DH, computer science
    Project personnel include iSchool faculty and DH; numerous practicing archivists on advisory boards

    I absolutely consider all of these to be digital humanities work, and I hope they also make some contribution toward archival practice.

  15. Sharon,

    I hope it’s more about expressing disciplinary concerns that policing them! But thank you for that important reminder. I would guess that literary scholars are probably less likely than historians to have been exposed to archival theory and practice, so that’s all the more reason for archivists who want to make our perspective part of the dialogue need to get involved. And, to clarify, the reason the ways words are used concerns me is that it represents (I think) how those concepts are framed by those outside the archival discipline. If someone is using a word that’s central to my profession in a different way, I want to understand what they mean by it and make sure they know what I mean by it. If I could wave a magic wand and make people used different words for things, I’m sure I would, but the best we can do here in the real world is to try to make sure we understand each other’s perspectives. And right now I think, with all respect to Matt’s point of view, that the archival perspective is not well represented.

  16. Hi Kate:
    Thanks for stirring the pot with this post! I think it identifies a number of sticky places in our ongoing dialogue with digital humanities. As an archivist collaborating with a team of historians on an online project many of the issues being brought up in the comments here have interesting parallels in my experience in the project.

    I still have some ideas percolating in the background but this discussion has really helped identify some areas for development for a panel presentation that our project is giving at an upcoming project.

    Briefly, I find what has been the most rewarding in working on small-scale online projects is that the historians I work with really grow to appreciate how important their role is in identifying ‘hidden’ archives out in the community and letting us know that they exist. Since they’re involved in the early stages of acquisition, they appreciate how much time and effort is required to process materials and make them available to researchers.

    And just a quick response to Ann-Marie Conde: I hear you! We have several archival fonds in our holdings acquired from families who served in WWI and WWII. Only a few include letters that were written by loved ones back home. I find one particularly poignant as it was only preserved because the woman’s son was missing in action so the authorities returned the letter unopened (see: I wonder if this “silence” is more a reflection of bureaucratic practice of the armed forces, rather than a shortcoming of our current archival institutions?

  17. This is an interesting discussion but I’m somewhat dismayed about the assertion (or accusation) that those of us who wrote about archival silences don’t understand nor have read the body of work on “archive” theory and archival practices. Perhaps instead you could think about it as complicating archive theory. As Matt Kirschenbaum states above, there are some literary scholars who are steeped in archival work, archive theory, and archives themselves. And there are others who are continuing with the fashion of re-using, re-mixing, and revising the concept of archive for their own purposes. But, this is an incredibly hotly debated issue in literary scholarship — one that is problematic. Instead of declaring that those who wrote those posts are ignorant, perhaps we can look a bit deeper to draw the conversation together with shared vocabulary?

  18. Within our field (Special Collections/ Archives), the history of digitization (broadly speaking) began with grant-funded, heavily curated, boutique-style digitization projects of primary materials, and then moved to mass digitization (mostly of printed books) when Google started pouring (more) money into it.

    Keeping in mind, of course, that many smaller and medium-sized institutions didn’t necessarily have a solid, well-funded digitization program to begin with (which is another “silence” to add to the discussion), and may have had more difficulty competing for grants…

    The big question that comes to mind for me is whether we have somehow borked ourselves — and a decent portion of the online historical record–through our approaches to digitization.

    Have we really created a good idea of what exists in our collections for our user base?

  19. Like Matt, I’ve started a bunch of responses to this post and comments, but am struggling to add something productive to this conversation. Let’s see how I do…

    To me, the problem is deeper than semantics or a question of complicating theory; it involves professional identity, the nature of academic (for lack of a better word) discourse and the way funding opportunities are structured.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the archival profession (at least in the US) does not have a strong tradition of theoretical thinking which aligns with other contemporary streams of thought. This has a couple of implications. First, there’s a certain segment of the profession that’s just not interested in theory. Then there’s another part of the profession (which admittedly includes me) that is very attached to the theory that we do have, and gets very defensive when it senses even the slightest implication that archivists don’t think about what they do on a theoretical level. It’s obviously not that simple, but I think it’s fair to say that archivists have a complicated relationship to theory, and it seems to me that it’s at the root of why there’s a lot of eye-rolling from archivists every time a conversation like this happens.

    I’m probably going to get myself into serious trouble with the next paragraph, because I’m about to make some generalizations of the overly sweeping variety, but here goes. As I thought more about this, I began to wonder if the way in which we’ve been trained to read and argue (particularly in the humanities) doesn’t have a lot to do with this. I’m not a scholar of education and can only speak from my on own experience, but I know I was implicitly taught to read a text for internal inconsistencies and dissonances. So I wonder how much of conversations like these is less us arguing semantics and more us doing what we’ve been trained to do, which is pick an argument apart using its internal logic. The nature of academic discourse, which values saying something new (and letting everyone know you’re saying something new), doesn’t really help either. I realize this is a deeper problem than any of us can solve, and has a lot to do with funding opportunities, but it’s worth at least acknowledging.

    So what’s the way forward? Inspired by conversations with Bethany Nowviskie, Mark Matienzo and others and Richard Sennett’s recent book The Craftsman, I’ve been thinking recently a lot about archivists and DHers as craftspeople, an idea which seems to me to offer a way both for archivists to deal with our theory problems, and also to flip this conversation into something more interesting and positive than arguing over terminology. We have a lot in common: our professions are often misunderstood; we all deal with raw materials of primary sources; we trade in the production, maintenance and transfer of ideas; what we do is fundamentally creative and involves both physical/technical skill and intellectual engagement.

  20. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, of course, but this is what bothers me about contemporary archives, and why I don’t think “archival silence” in any of Trouillot’s senses is a misnomer: a focus on digitizing existing archives obscures the fact many organizations and most individuals no longer produce “paper” trails. The best practices and habits we develop for electronically re-imagining (re-imaging) physical archives are what our born-digital archives will be by default. If the silences of digitized, paper-backed archives are not authentic, they are, at the very least, specters of the silences-to-be in the truly digital archives we will (hopefully) create of today’s bits and bytes.

  21. Kate, blog posts and Twitter conversations are shorthands, small pieces in larger conversations–and those conversations have more temporal depth than the 48 hour time span of March 3-4, 2012. Also, the digital humanities community (to the extent that there is such a unified thing) is especially visible because it uses Twitter and blog posts and DH Now to communicate. I assure you that there are many thousands of humanities scholars across a variety of disciplines who use and have used the words “archive” and “archives” for many decades now, in ways that you may or may not find comfortable. Somehow–and I don’t think you intended it–your post here seems to cross the line into criticizing the subset of humanities scholars who, as it turns out, are especially friendly to the concerns, insights and ongoing achievements of archivists and librarians as compared to their not-so-digitally-aware peers.

    But what I really wanted to comment on is Lynne’s point, just above, about the potential disservice we’ve done ourselves in the way we’ve gone about digitization, from boutique collections to mass digitization, with nothing in between. Thanks for such a useful summary of the problem!

    Consider this “about the collection” page from one of the 1990’s-era projects that form most of the Library of Congress American Memory site:

    Votes for Women: About the Collection
    About the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection

    In particular, I am struck there by the presenters’ peculiar problem of needing to distinguish between the actual collection and the digitized one, without much good available language to draw on. I am also struck by some of the choices made, as 10,000 pages out of 65,683 possible that comprised the physical NAWSA library as donated to LC were selected for scanning:

    The selection process required the editor to seek the best balance between the following considerations:

    Represent the variety of opinion and strategy within the woman suffrage movement in the United States.
    Provide a reasonable sense of the larger NAWSA collection at the Library of Congress.
    Include valuable but not well known works.
    Exclude works for which reprint editions are widely available.

    I’m sure this made a lot of sense in 1992-1993 to E. Susan Barber who is credited with making the selections (see here for her editorial note) but it doesn’t make any sense at all for current users, few of whom are likely to stop and read these explanatory framing materials. The “works for which reprint editions [were] widely available” in 1992 are–because of their popularity, importance, wide usage in courses, prior citations–precisely the ones most 2012 users will hope to find on this site. The online collection/archive fails to deliver what most users need and also presents a skewed picture of the NAWSA book collection.

    To me, this is an archival silence whether or not the materials were originally manuscript or print, an “archive” or a “collection” or [in this case] a “library,” and whether or not American Memory is an archive or a collection or a collection of collections, whether or not Votes for Women in its online version is an archive or a collection or some other thing… because “archival silence” is a broad term that can cover all manner of instances when [compiled clumps of cultural stuff] that ought to be present or visible is missing or missing from view–and the markers of its missingness are also hidden or absent.

    At the same time, I am grateful that the Library of Congress made its digitization strategy visible, and in this unusual case, that it credited the choices to a specific editor/curator–recognizing perhaps that when such “archival” choices are made, they are fully interpretive acts. All of our cultural archives and collections are full of silences and many of those are interpretive–editors who corrected mistaken spellings or left out “private” information from published diaries; manuscript curators and processors who decided that they don’t need to keep this or that category of materials deemed irrelevant–envelopes that letters came in, for example; preservationists who “restored” old artifacts based on faulty information thereby removing original materials, etc. etc.

    All of which is to reiterate what others have said. It’s complicated, and this is where we’re at.


  22. Such a timely debate. Thanks, Kate. I’ve been pondering the primary purpose of archives: to serve our users. Some days I’m not sure about the value of investing too many resources in teaching researchers how “we” do things.

    Perhaps our great success is when we become invisible and mediate less often. To meet the needs of researchers, one approach is to adapt, to understand what words like “archives” and “digital” mean to our peeps, and adjust our vocabulary and behavior accordingly. (What Hillel said.)

    If we as archivists and librarians sometimes find ourselves out of the loop in the practices of digital humanities scholarship, there’s something to admire here about researchers and their intellectual autonomy. Then there are the archival collections that scholars themselves have located in the course of their research, archives that may or may not eventually come under institutional custodianship. Not to mention the volumes of materials that scholars have themselves digitized in the course of their research.

    As a profession, we regularly adjust to the needs of researchers. The movement in the 60s to support social history – similarly in the 90s to adopt MPLP and to digitize “plebian” archival collections comprehensively, and now to integrate born-digital materials – are great examples of how we continue to implement our long-standing ethical and intellectual principles to change practices for our users.

  23. I think we’re missing the point here…. Setting aside concerns of professionalism and teminology, I believe the real issue is that we’re not collaborating well enough to secure anywhere near the resources needed to create a critical or representative mass of sustainable online digital material, much less the kind of encoded full text that would enable the intriguing possibilities of data processing. The archival silences will always be much larger than the voices we can hear, the question will be who gets to talk and who is listening, and more importantly how many voices can be brought to the table for how long. The kind of project based funding that exists will only produce a very shallow and temporary data set. We should work together (Humanists and archivists, librarians and museum professionals) to increase the total investment in sustainable born digital collections so that many voices can be heard and interpreted for a very long time.

  24. Hi Kate my name is Hayley Dunmire and I am a student at the University of Calgary studying Hamlet in the Digital Humanities. I was wondering if I could use your blog post to base my argument on for my final paper which you can read if you wish on April 25.
    Here is a link to our class blog for you to check it out if you wish:

  25. Thank you for this wonderful conversation, Kate. I have been grappling with the issue of this divergent, contrasting usage of the word “archive” for some months now — and I am somewhat relieved to read that many archivists and digital humanists recognize the depth of the issue involved. It is not simple. As an archivist who is working on a doctorate focusing on special collections and interested in digital humanities, I find myself treading ever so carefully into the waters of digital humanities, all the while thinking through multiple layers of formal archival theory and practices. The distinction between an archive that a digital humanities scholar develops would seem to turn on quite different principles from archival papers that have been digitized for any one of a number of reasons — including simply an online exhibition of selected papers from the archives of…whomever, say Emily Dickinson. As an archivist, I understand the Dickinson’s papers or manuscripts are described and arranged accordingly to specific principles that professional archivists follow and have developed over decades. These principles haven’t achieved perfection yet — we do have the archival silence — the documents surveyed, thought unimportant and discarded — and perhaps for the wrong reasons — but the buzzwords partiality, impartiality and authenticity would cover a lot of ground. However, with the Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives, I feel at a loss. What specific principles are at play in selecting materials to digitize and encode for online access and study? Why name this cache of Dickinson resources, an archive/s or electronic archives? Why have digital humanists adopted the word archives and utterly blurred the boundaries between two distinct practices? I do think we need formal, traditionally arranged archives — and digital humanities scholars draw on these documents. As yet, I continue to suspend disbelief, read papers addressing this topic, attend seminars, and sustain an optimistic sense that these “roads diverged” will not require a choosing, but will meet, greet and complement the other.

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