Critical Digital Archives
Brown University, United States of America
Critical digital archives are digitized collections of vulnerable archival materials, often produced under conditions of political or environmental urgency. Because of the urgency of their creation and the vulnerability of the materials, these collections are often digitized with limited funding, short timelines, and under the supervision of individuals who lack formal archival training. Yet given these same conditions of urgency and vulnerability, the indefinite delay of digitization is often considered unacceptable. This is especially true for collections that reflect histories of marginalization, oppression, and violence. As with many justice-oriented projects, knowing circumstances are imperfect, we move forward anyway.
It is my contention that the spread of critical digital archives calls for a new paradigm of archival theory from within the humanities. As Michelle Caswell has argued persuasively, humanistic archival theory has had little interaction with the intellectual work of professional archivists, largely because we have treated archival practice as a feminized service profession rather than an intellectually rigorous pursuit. This leaves us ill-prepared to take on the work of digital archiving, to the detriment of our projects and the frustration of our archival collaborators. One solution might be to place digitization work exclusively in the hand of archivists. Yet in the context of U.S. universities, I have found that faculty leadership is essential to maintaining the long-term investment required for the creation of a sustainable collection. The community relationships and specialized knowledge of humanists are also vital to the ethical description and dissemination of digitized materials from vulnerable collections.
In this talk, I use the case of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional de Guatemala (AHPN), a digital collection hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, to articulate a role that faculty can play in advocating for critical digital archives, supporting sustainable archival practice, and educating for and with digital archives. Through these three forms of intervention, I argue for a more constrained role for faculty members in the digital archive. At the same time, I will show that this approach can enable more effective collaborations that better allow us to achieve the goals of preservation and dissemination which motivate the digitization of critical archives. This approach allows humanists to leverage our considerable theoretical training and institutional power towards a more collective archival good.
"We Demand Increased Exposure of All Documents": African American Student Protests and Increased Access to Archives via Digital Collections
University of Michigan, United States of America
Following a monumental Twitter campaign begun by students at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2013, students of the Black Student Union set forth to address major issues that were presented. Several members traveled to the university’s major archive to research the history of the Black Action Movements at U-M in order to obtain knowledge and inspiration. Upon visiting the archive, they encountered challenges in accessing materials. Although the archival materials had been, strictly speaking, accessible, some of the rules seemed restrictive compared to how they had been available previously. Materials were scattered across several different collections--making them hard to find--and located on the University’s North Campus after some had been removed from a more accessible location on central campus. Placing them on a more remote location of campus left many students feeling that they were increasingly difficult to access.
This ultimately led to a protest coinciding with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2014 where members of the Black Student Union bore witness to racial issues on campus and called for more minority inclusion on campus Due to their previous experiences, as one of the seven demands they made of the University, they called for easier access to materials considered critical to their identity at the University. “We demand for increased exposure of all documents within the Bentley (Historical) Library. There should be transparency about the University and its past dealings with race relations.”
In response to this demand, the Library digitized the records of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, which detailed the Department’s history, as well as archival material relating to black activism and organizations of interest to black students, faculty and staff. The Library Information Technology department within the University Library enables preservation and access to this digital collection along with over 250 other digital collections. All told, this student-initiated effort took more than eight months to complete, and today all University students, faculty, and staff may access digitized content from any location. In the process of responding to the protests and building the collection, the University and those working there gained knowledge and established ties that may not only facilitate better relations going forward but also aid in the development of similar digital collections as needed in the future.
Bringing perspectives from those involved with the Black Student Union and the Department of Afro and African American Studies as well as those who helped to create and will maintain the digital collection, this presentation highlights the positive outcomes and collaborations that resulted from this process as well as issues encountered along the way and limitations that restrict usage of the digital collection to only authenticated users rather than open to the public.
Our story will be useful to those organizations that wish to continue to improve access to information, especially that which sheds light on histories that may be uncomfortable or sensitive. It also sheds light on the many issues involved with digitizing archival materials, including privacy and copyright issues we encountered.
Sounding Spirit and Readux: Cultural Paratext and Augmented Facsimile in Digital Scholarly Editions
Emory University, United States of America
Understanding significant gospel, spirituals, and shape-note music songbooks from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries involves looking beyond text and music to paratextual elements ranging from music notation system to format and page dimension to evidence of use that are important markers of these works’ cultural context. Yet most recent approaches to digital music editions, and digital editions generally, erase these markers of bibliographic form, centering new digital renderings of encoded music and text in the user’s browsing experience. In this paper, I discuss the NEH-funded forthcoming series of digital critical editions of vernacular sacred American music books from 1850–1925, Sounding Spirit, which employs Readux, a new platform for annotating and publishing digital scholarly editions developed by Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), which emphasizes books’ bibliographic forms in their digital expression. Readux is a Django/Python application that builds on the Mirador image viewer and IIIF protocol to augment annotated digitized books with transparently rendered text in a seamless digital interface. By retaining bibliographical forms in digital (music) editions, new critical editions can better subject to analysis technologies of print that meaningfully express these works’ contexts before and after the turn of the twentieth century, a time of great dramatic demographic and cultural change that shaped intersections of race, religion, region, and music in the United States. This presentation articulates the value of an approach to digital editions that centers cultural paratext through augmented facsimile and describes the Readux platform that enables Sounding Spirit to adopt this approach to digital critical editing.