The digital and the archive

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week thinking about (digital) archives. This quarter I am taking the first part of a two part class called Women Who Rock Digital Scholarship. Organized as a part of the Women Who Rock Research Project (chaired by Sonnet Retman and Michelle Habell-Pallan), this course will help produce a collection of digital oral histories for the WWRRP.

As preparation for the course, we’ve spent a good deal of time learning how to use digital recording equipment. Initially intimidating to me, I’ve now just become frustrated, for both times I’ve recorded, I haven’t been able to capture any sound! What a tragedy.

At the same time, I’ve been writing a proposal for the NEH Advanced Institute on Spatial Humanities and Deep Maps. Ryan Burns and I applied for this summer institute together, and spent a lot of time thinking about how digital geo-spatial technologies (or the geoweb, in our case), can impact the humanities. We wrote a bit about our experience with Mapping Youth Journeys, and how the students struggled with finding spatial materials. Lacking a substantive digital spatial archive, students had to weave together their own stories using what maps or photos they could find. What would a digital archive have contributed to this exercise? And, alternatively, how do we place the maps that these youth produced? They are not being archived. They are not even being made public. So, while there are now new digital materials in the world, knowledges produced by middle school students, these do not inherently serve as an archive.

On a different note, while the WWRRP isn’t making direct use of digital spatial technologies, it is simultaneously raising questions to me of time, memory, and what we compromise by creating an archive. In our intentional decision to build an archive of oral histories, decisions come into play of power and politics. We as knowledge producers are choosing what goes in the archive, whose stories are told, etc. On the flip side, the seemingly democratic form of youtube or “the digital” (not a true archive, but all of web 2.0)… is, falsely, seen as without politics. When we look back historically on this era, what will the archives we create now say about this time period? And how will that compare to the crowd-sourced, “democratic” web materials that dominate much of popular discourse about Web 2.0?

I find this particularly interesting right now because of my own technological snafus with digital recording material. As the technology is seemingly more accessible, (but still very difficult to master! and expensive!), what experiences get documented, and which ones never do? As many of the older women in our GWSS class explained, they are excited about music and social justice, but are intimidated by the technology. Without understanding the contexts and social implications of technology and the digital age, it is easy to fall into a false trap of thinking the digital to be inherently democratic. But those who do not feel comfortable picking up a camera are not going to document their experience. Equally tricky then, would be politicizing and challenging the academic’s instinct to then go “in” and document those stories for “them”.

A tricky situation, it seems. I have no real claims to make here, but have been mulling these things about in my head for the better part of the week, and felt it time to put them on ‘paper’. (Ah, but again, the digital. Paper is obsolete!)

One response to “The digital and the archive

  1. You raise some interesting and valid points. Accessibility to technological tools in this digital age can be difficult; there are financial, gender and age based limitations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *