• Session Proposal: Activating the Archive

    I would like to propose a session on the question of the digital archive.

    At a panel at HASTAC 2011 (see hastac2011.org/schedule/conference-program/ and scroll down to Sessions D3 (Lightning Talks) – Rackham West Conference Room), I was struck that all of our digital humanities/history projects were driven by questions of how to design, use, and produce new historical knowledge from digital repositories. Intersecting dilemmas, goals, concerns, and ideas kept arising among the presentations. These suggested to me that there is an important discussion to continue to have about how archives might be transformed for the better in the digital age. This discussion might include what past practices should be discarded, what we should (pardon the pun) preserve from analog archival traditions, and most of all how we might reimagine the archive in the digital medium.

    Here are a set of questions that might serve to shape such a session:

    • Does the digital create new possibilities for archival study? There are the obvious possibilities of wider, more democratic access to the archive. There is the opportunity for quantitatively studying “big data” of archival materials. But how else, as historians, might we reimagine the archive—and the power of the archive—for the digital age? What might the archive look like in the digital realm? What might it be able to do (or not do) as compared to the analog archive?
    • What new theoretical questions does the digital archive raise? Do we need to rethink the boundedness or porousness of the archive, the authority of it, the nature of archival materials in the virtual realm?
    • What are the new methodological issues that digital archives present? How might historians contribute to the design, interface, and tools used to arrange, access, and make use of digital repositories (a good recent book on this topic is a collaboration between an archivist and a historian, Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg’s Processing the Past: Contesting Authorities in History and the Archives)?
    • Might previously separate parts of the process of “making” history—the archive, the research workshop, the publication, and the scholarly conversation/debate that follows publication—intertwine and interact in new, productive ways?
    • Does the digital archive bring us back to core historical questions about connecting evidence to argument in compelling ways (that’s a leading question, I admit, since I think it does)?
    • In the digital medium, does the archive, typically the precinct of primary sources, provide a starting point, a launching pad, for new modes of historiography to emerge?

    Michael Kramer,

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  1. t.hitchcock says:

    Can I add a question to this proposal? One area I am currently worrying at is how the digital archive (in its several forms) maps onto to new forms of historical writing – is the technology of the archive determining?

  2. Great questions. The questions I have that could be folded into these topics involve the technical needs historians have for archiving their research, particularly regarding the functionalities of digital repositories and content management systems.

  3. mjk says:

    Great points! These two ideas seem related to me in the sense that the technical questions of repository functionality (certainly content management systems, but also searching, manipulating and literally “touching” virtual artifacts in ways that one could not do with the actual objects, interface design, layout, publishing possibilities, communications and social media interactions) speak directly to the issue of historical writing: what kind of narratives, arguments, interpretations, curations, arrangements of historical materials will we pursue? Thanks! Michael

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