Researching with Digital Archives

Archives and digital technologies are defined by ‘loss’. Archives, we often lament, are places of omission as much as they are places of preservation and recovery. Likewise, the classic distinction between analogue and digital technologies centres on data loss: whereas analogue recordings inscribe the real world’s signals directly, digital technologies sample and approximate these signals into binary on/off states. [1]

Digital archives contain the traces of both these ‘losses’. Deciding what to digitize introduces a further layer of selection and the process itself can raise difficult questions about the necessity of retaining physical originals. Moreover, the digital ‘copy’ of an artefact implies a further removal from an ‘original’, not only in terms of sensory experience but also in terms of the ease with which digital artefacts can be modified and separated from their collection contexts. Yet, the existence of this data loss might actually be said to free scholars and archivists; without any gaps to fill, contexts to imagine, or any ambiguities to argue over, the humanities would not be a very creative place.

In one sense, then, remediating the archive allows us to challenge ‘loss’. We might ask:

  • Can the collective digitization of different archival collections mitigate weaknesses in the historical record?
  • Conversely, how might we use digital technologies to better highlight gaps in the record or ambiguities in interpretation?
  • More broadly, what are the consequences and potential pitfalls of reusing and remixing digitized artefacts or generated data? Do consistent-looking file formats and catalogue organizations hide very subjective choices of inclusion and exclusion?

More proactively, by creatively remediating artefacts we might recover something of their initial contexts and meaning.

  • How can we use digital technologies to creatively place historical texts and objects in their original contexts?
  • What opportunities are there for presenting digitized artefacts in new contexts, ones which might better evoke their original meaning or enable them to make new meanings for contemporary society?

Finally, despite the undoubted influence of web technologies, our conception of digital archives has often been remarkably reliant upon analogies with the form and practices of physical archives. In this sense, digital archives could be said to ‘remediate’ the ‘losses’ involved in the very archival situation that they are sometimes positioned against.

  • What does the relationship between physical and digital archives tell us about living in a digital world?
  • Are there more radical ways of organizing digitized artefacts that move beyond the norms of collection-file-object structures?
  • How might we better ‘remediate’ the advantages of traditional archives, such as collection context, expertise and serendipitous discovery, into a digital form?
  • Have the digital practices of keyword search and tagging exaggerated the weaknesses of archives? Can we find ways of disrupting these dominant means of knowledge discovery? Are they in any way related to the perceived lack of ‘reflective societies’?

[1] Of course, both archival practices and digital technologies also hedge against other forms of loss by preserving materials from degradation and by increasing storage capacity.