Cardiff University, 9 December 2016
According to AS Byatt in her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession (1990), ‘Literary critics make the best detectives’. Why is this case? Perhaps it’s because literary critics are used to not just looking at a single text and extracting meaning from it: they also work with multiple texts and, following clues and leads, create links between them. They ‘join up the dots’ in these texts to make a critical case for or against something. If the literary critic is a detective then the evidence room, as Byatt would no doubt concur, is the archive itself. In Possession, Byatt romanticizes the archive so that the physical site of the archive, the evidence room, in conjunction with the documents the archive may contain, creates the powerful impression of being the source of all historical authenticity. This Romantic ideal of the archive suggests to us that it is only by delving deep down in to a special collections section of a research library, for example, can we ever have an ‘authentic’ experience with the past. Of course, we can never directly experience the past ‘authentically’ in this way (or any other) but it demonstrates just how powerful this sense of the archive has over our imagination.
The GW4: Remediating the Archive workshop, by bringing into dialogue special collections librarians, researchers and digital specialists, asked the questions: What happens when such archives are remediated (transformed into a different medium, in this case the digital)? What is gained and lost in this process? How can we improve such remediated archives? How can we better engage the public with these new resources? By fostering discussion among the delegates through highlighting special collections and archival holdings across the GW4 and providing an overview of recent and ongoing digitization projects based in the alliance, the day, through a series of talks and workshops explored the opportunities and challenges faced institutionally and by individual scholars working on such digital projects.
The day began with a keynote speech from Peter Findlay, the digital portfolio manager from JISC. In ‘Do We Need Digital Collections?’ Peter outlined the ‘current state of digitization’ in various organizations and sectors including JISC, Higher Education and Google. By providing this survey of digitization it became apparent that whilst we have become, as Peter noted, very adept at digitizing, we are not, however, as good at knowing what to do with it. That said, it is possible to show that digital work has ‘evolved’: where once it was just concerned with simple digitization, there is now a much more ‘strategic approach’ focused on user needs. It was a very revealing talk that at once celebrated digital work while at the same time highlighting concerns about the future of, and current, digital practice. For example, Peter observed that the UK and the US are very active leaders in digital programmes and that while much investment has been made in these digital projects, public funding is, unfortunately, drying up.
‘Things get lost in the auditorium of the world wide web, it’s our job to make sure they don’t get lost’, Peter observed. And it is, indeed, a big job. Whereas almost 100 per cent of a project’s title can be found in the top results of Google, only about 50 per cent of a resource’s content can be discovered this way. It is a vast challenge, but one that Peter and his JISC colleagues are more than aware of. As Peter has written in his own report of this event:
Audience feedback at the end of my talk suggested that a better understanding of past activities can inform current thinking. It helps to know that we have moved on considerably from the position of needing to just get stuff into digital form, to thinking much more carefully about what the reader/viewer might want to do with the resulting content in terms of identifying, selecting and utilising it for teaching, learning and research. Along the way we have learned so much. Digitisation can be undertaken in lots of ways, not just as part of large-scale publicly funded initiatives. What we need to do is to work out how best to encourage innovation in digitisation in order to facilitate standards-based smaller-scale initiatives. Jisc will hopefully find a new role in supporting these kinds of activities so that all the lessons it has learned over the years, from its many digitisation related initiatives, are not in vain.
In short: by understanding the past we can create a better future. Technology is changing so fast that it can feel difficult not to feel overwhelmed and to keep up with all the latest developments. Especially when, as researchers in the humanities, we are so used to working with a piece of technology that has a perfect user interface, holds data impressively (and in many different configurations) and has been around for around five hundred years. The book.
Perhaps there is only one group of people more used to working with books than humanities scholars and they are librarians. In the next session the librarians and archivists from the GW4 Special Collections Group showcased what was in their archival collections at their home institutions. Lizzie Richmond (Bath), Michael Richardson (Bristol), Hannah Lowery (Bristol), Alan Vaughan Hughes (Cardiff) and Christine Faunch (Exeter) all revealed how, in their own words, ‘discoveries are waiting to happen’ within the incredibly rich and diverse collections that are held by these universities. Lizzie Richmond discussed the AK Chesterton and Fascist Archive held by Bath University: Chesterton was the first chairman of the National Front and this collection consists of his political and journalistic writings, interviews with his colleagues and photographs. Hannah Lowery and Michael Richardson focused on the Bristol University’s exciting Penguin Archive, which tells the history through manuscripts, objects, books and photographs of one of the most significant publishing houses in the world. Cardiff University’s Head of Special Collections, Alan Vaughan Hughes, meanwhile, gave a talk about the significant media and journalism archives held at Cardiff alongside collections of material from the novelist Keith Waterhouse and poet Edward Thomas. Finally, Christine Faunch discussed the impressive Daphne du Maurier and William Golding archives held at Exeter. ‘Unlimited Research Potential’ was the theme that linked all these presentations, and indeed, the sheer wealth of material contained within the GW4 archives does seem to suggest that this is not mere hyperbole: it would take many many lifetimes to explore all these treasures and many more again to make sense of them.
Our next session showcased archival projects that researchers in GW4 were working on. The first speakers were Robert Bickers, Jamie Carstairs, Simon Price from Bristol University who talked about their work on Historical Photographs of China: The Journey towards Sustainability and Utility. The Historical Photographs of China project began work in 2006 as part of an AHRC funded project on the History of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service into an initiative that locates, digitizes and publishes online photographs of China held, largely, in private hands outside the country. There are now 10,000 photographs online (a quarter of the total) and the materials are ‘crowdsourced’ from families living outside China. It is a fascinating project, both valuable in research and historically significant.
Next to speak was Jennifer Batt, also from Bristol University, who talked about her project, Datamining for Verse in Eighteenth-Century Newspapers. Over the course of the eighteenth century, tens of thousands of poems were published in newspapers printed all over the country. Yet, as Jennifer observes, these poems are very rarely mentioned by scholars of eighteenth-century literature. In collaboration with the British Library Labs team, this project is an ‘experiment designed to discover how far it is possible to datamine the British Library’s digitized collections of newspapers to recover and map this complex, expansive, ephemeral poetic culture that has been lost to us for well over 200 years.’ It is a vast undertaking but one that could have very serious implications for how we can study ‘ephemeral culture’.
Following on from Jennifer was Mark Burden (again from Bristol) who talked about The Cambridge Platonists at the Origin of Enlightenment (1660–1730) project. The aim of this work is ‘to produce an online sourcebook for the writings of Christian Platonists in England in the seventeenth century.’ The editing is done using XML, and is based on first editions of the texts, of which there are a ‘considerable number of copies in Bristol University Special Collections and elsewhere in the south west and Wales’. Again, it is very ambitious project, but one that could help us to shed light on our history in an engaging way. After Mark, Rick Lawrence from Exeter spoke about The Digital Research Prospectus at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery. Lawrence, who is the Digital Media Officer at RAAM, provided us with a very entertaining overview of what this collection contains and how they are using the web to promote their important work.
The final two speakers in this session were myself (Michael Goodman) and Carrie Smith, both from Cardiff. In my talk I discussed the challenges I faced working on my doctoral project, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive whilst providing a demonstration of how that archive works. Carrie, meanwhile, talked about ‘Teaching with Archives’. As part of a third year undergraduate module Carrie gets her students to work with the Edward Thomas archive held at Cardiff University’s Special Collections. What makes Carrie’s work so compelling, however, is that she gets her students to make short documentaries about this archival material. As Peter Findlay writes about Carrie’s work:
By producing the videos students, have been able to explore, in detail, an item from the collections and were able to cross-reference it to the published work of the author. They are engaging with the physical, but also reproducing material digitally and making links between resources such as photographs, correspondence and drafts of manuscripts. Most of their outputs will be in digital form so questions arise as to how we retain links between the originating archival content and the resulting scholarly outputs.
It is these questions that Findlay raises, which makes working with archives (both physical and digital) such a challenging and intellectually rewarding practice: what is the connection between the digital and the physical and how can we articulate it meaningfully? Carrie, by getting her students to engage with these type of questions at undergraduate level, is not just allowing them to develop new skills, she is also enhancing and enriching their critical understanding of what knowledge is and how it can be disseminated.
The final part of the day focused on three different discussion sessions led by some of the GW4 project co-investigators: ‘Theorizing the Digital Archive’, led by Bristol’s James Freeman, ‘Teaching with Digital Archives’, led by Nina Parish from Bath and ‘Developing Digital Archives’, led by Gary Stringer (Exeter). Each workshop began with each leader providing an overview of the pertinent challenges and implications of working on this particular aspect of the digital. For example, James asked ‘how can we use digital technologies to creatively place historical texts and objects in their original contexts?’ – or can we? Nina Parish asked to consider, like Peter Findlay earlier in the day, ‘what is the of primary sources – why use digital archives?’ and ‘what are the differences between accessing content on and offline?’. After these brief introductions we split up into groups and talked about our own experiences in highly stimulating discussions that revealed the passion everybody in the room had for this sort of work.
The archive is what Michel Foucault described as ‘the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events’. The GW4: Remediating the Archive was a unique event. It brought together people with vastly different research interests to celebrate, discuss and think about collaborating on future projects together. At the same time it also exposed how all archives whether physical in the romanticized AS Byatt sense, or in the much more ‘postmodern’ digital sense, are constructs: as historically specific and of their cultural moment as the documents that they contain.
Thanks to all for coming!
— Michael John Goodman