A different kind of “archival silence”: “we are in the middle of a selective recreation of inherited culture”

This has been making the rounds on Twitter this morning, and it deserves a wider audience. Tim Hitchcock, a professor of 18th century history in England, has posted “A Five Minute Rant for the Consortium of European Research Libraries.” He eloquently voices his concerns about issues of selectivity and bias in what materials from archives, special collections, and research libraries are digitized and made available online. Here’s a teaser, in case you need one, to encourage you to read the whole thing:

Without serious intent and political will – a determination to digitise the more difficult forms of the non-canonical, the non-Western, the non-elite and the quotidian – the materials that capture the lives and thoughts of the least powerful in society – we will have inadvertently turned a major area of scholarship, in to a fossilised irrelevance.

I believe Hitchcock’s concerns relate to the type of “archival silence” discussed by some digital humanities scholars, as well as in a previous blog post here (Two Meanings of “Archival Silences” and Their Implications). But Hitchcock goes further. As I interpret his remarks, he is critiquing the rush to digitize certain types of materials as well as those that most easily lend themselves to certain types of uses:

we have allowed our cultural inheritance to be sieved and posted in a narrowly canonical form; the siren voices of the information scientists: the Googlers, coders and Culturomics wranglers, have discovered in that body of digitised material, a new object of study.  All digital texts is now data, that date is now available for new forms of analysis, and that data is made up of the stuff we chose to digitise.   All of which embeds a subtle biases towards a particular subset of the human experience.

Archivists must digitize materials that they think people will find interesting and use. And often they must make an argument or present a case to support their selection of materials. Hitchcock is correct that perhaps too often it is easier to defend a decision to digitize “nationally significant” materials. And I think he is correct that it is part of the responsibility of archivists to ensure diversity of the digitized record as well as the diversity of the materials we collect. And it is incumbent on scholars to recognize the limited nature of that which has been digitized compared to that which exists in the archival record, to go back to the “archival silences” discussion.



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One thought on “A different kind of “archival silence”: “we are in the middle of a selective recreation of inherited culture””

  1. This made me wonder how this issue can be addressed. There is already inbuilt bias in the collections from which digitised records are made, but we don’t want to amplify that bias in the digitisation processs. It sounds like archives need to establish a formal policy which provides a framework for all their digitisation projects and to which all projects must comply (if they haven’t already done so). This issue should be tackled in that framework.

    This is a suggestion from a non-archivist so may be hopelessly unrealistic. I don’t know how this solution would stand up against the power of money.

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