What is a Digital Archive?

The topic of this week’s History and New Media class is archives. By exploring works by professionals such as Trevor Owens, Jerome McGann, Kate Theimer, Jefferson Baily, Jacquelyn Ardam and Jeremy Schmidt, and Butch Lazorchak, our class sought to discover what digital archives are and what they have to do with the public.  

With this being said, I wish to focus on the first question — “what are digital archives?”

Unfortunately, our readings for this week revealed that there are many different definitions for the term “archive.”   According to Trevor Owens:

Public historians and other humanists have been exuberant about the possibility of providing broad public access to primary source documents and the contents of archives. In this context, the use of the term “digital archive” has become a bit fraught. This week we figure out what different folks mean by the term in different situations and explore some exemplars of different notions of digital archives and their potential as modes of public history work.

Since different professionals refer to the term in different situations, it is first important to note and understand what the traditional definition entails. Let’s take a brief stroll through the readings in an attempt to understand the traditional definition and how a digital archive differs.

In her article Archives in Context and As Context, Kate Theimer describes an archive as

Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control.

So, how does this differ from a digital archive?

Trevor Owens wrote on the dichotomy in his article entitled What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers. In an attempt to open a dialogue between various professionals on the uses of the word “archive,” the author described seven uses for the term including archives as in records management, a collection of papers, an electronic archive feature on programs such as email, tape archives, web archives, digital archives, and archive theory.  In each of these descriptions, the term “archive” is used differently. However, the important one to remember in answering our original question (what is a digital archive?) is Owens’ description of a digital archive:

At this point, there are a lot of digital collections that are using the term archive that don’t necessarily square with how archivists have been using the term. For instance, the September 11th Digital Archive, the Bracero Archive the The Shelley-Godwin Archive are good exemplars of some of the diversity of this usage. In each case, an effort was undertaken to bring collect or bring together related materials…The origin of this usage is anchored in Jerome McGann’s work on the Rossetti Archive, which McGann had developed grounded in a theoretical perspective of the potential that hypermedia brought to allow for the creation of new kinds of archives. Alongside this usage, “digital archive” has also been used as a term to refer to born digital materials processed as part of a more traditional notion of an archive… [Thus,] digital archives hang together as “a conscious weaving together of different representational media.”

To sum this up, Owens explained that a digital archives blends different representational media together. This differs from the traditional definition of an archive because it focuses on the process or activity of the archivist/digital humanist rather than on the type of materials themselves.

Kate Theimer, again, weighs in on the debate in her article My talk from #AHA14: A Distinction worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations” by describing a digital archive as

digitized analog historical materials… These may be topically based—assembled from holdings of many repositories… Or they may be all from one repository…These collections may be created by archivists, librarians, historians, passionate amateurs, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies.  Because these digital historical representations are created by such a wide range of sources, it’s critical to know about the context of these collections—including who assembled them, what their purpose was, and what criteria they used.

Unfortunately, in addition to the dichotomy between the traditional archive and the digital archive, there is also a difference between a digital archive and a born-digital archive. Whereas the definition of a digital archive is as described above, a born-digital archive, according to Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam in their article On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive, “is composed of documents that began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form.” In other words, not all materials within a digital archive originated as digital materials.  Some materials undergo a transformation into digital formats in order to be made available and accessible for viewers online.

With all of this being said, let’s recap.

The question we are trying to answer is “What is a digital archive?” While this may seem like a simple question to answer, it actually requires a discussion on the definition of the term “archive.” Unfortunately, the use of the term is fraught.  As you saw above, different professionals use the term differently. Whereas traditional use of the term refers to mostly paper-based materials coming together in a repository, a digital archive refers to materials coming together through different representation media.

The dichotomy even goes a step further. Not only is there a digital archive, but there is also a born-digital archive. While closely related, this type of archive contains materials that originated in digital forms rather than undergoing a transformation into a digital format for accessing online.

In the end, if ever my classmates and myself are asked to explain what a digital archive is, we can rest assured that our answer will be grounded in the work of Owens, Theimer, Schmidt, and Ardam and we will be versed in the professional debate surrounding the use of the term “archive.”


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