Digital Historiography & the Archives [5/5]
papers delivered at the 2014 AHA conference.
Table of Contents:
Part 5: Michael J. Kramer, “Going Meta on Metadata”
Michael J. Kramer, “Going Meta on Metadata”
I once joked to an archivist with whom I work that all I do as an academic historian is add meta-metadata. Metadata, the descriptive information that accompanies the artifacts in a fully-developed archive (and which also incidentally often accompanies certain categories of digital file types) places a layer of information, provenance, ordering, and hints of thematic significance upon each object in a collection. In the digital domain, metadata often becomes crucial for wielding large amounts of information—many thousands of documents—effectively or fruitfully. Archival description in the form of metadata is of course a key aspect of what professional archivists do. Historians often come into the archival picture after the metadata is in place, using it to survey archives in search of useful materials and then to probe these archival sources for their interpretive significance, their stakes for particular historical stories, themes, issues, and questions.
To call what historians do meta-metadata is to go meta, as it were, on the intersections between what professional archivists and historians do, and how they conceptualize their practices both separately and in league with each other (and sometimes in conflict with each other). It is, in short to practice what our panelists call, in the roundtable description, digital historiography. Which is to say it is a way of more critically connecting archival theory and professional archival practices to historical theory and professional historical practices. More of this term—historiography—and its significance in a moment. But first I wish to make a few brief comments about the short but sharp presentations by Josh Sternfeld, Katja Hering, and Kate Theimer.
It is my hope that these mini essays themselves eventually find their way into the archives, whether those be the storified live tweet archives of the session, the official AHA archives, or the vernacular archives of your minds (yes, Kate, I am going to use the term archives more metaphorically and adventurously here, and you are allowed to complain about this!). For these presentations are important contributions to the archive of how we are to understand digital technologies as we all—historians, archivists, students, professionals, citizens—increasingly dip our virtual toes in digital waters and sometimes find ourselves with the distinct feeling that we might soon be drowning.
Our round table today is particularly focused on three keywords: digital, historiography, and the archives. There are other keywords that crop up as well in Josh, Katja, and Kate’s comments: surface, context, provenance, metadata, scale, appraisal, calibration, evidence, criticism. But I want to hone in on the three words in our roundtable’s title as crucial ones before opening up the conversation to all of us.
First, the digital. Josh Sternfeld’s wonderful suggestion is that we imagine a “quantum history” that moves beyond the scale of a sort of Newtonian historical middle ground in which evidence and convincing argument have largely stable properties and interact through mostly predictable and agreed-upon relationships. Going micro and macro have already become part of the historical repertoire, but I think Josh is correct to suggest that the digital affords new opportunities to revisit those strategies of analysis and think about how we might toggle, if you will, among them as we, as he puts it, “calibrate” our narratives in new ways. One way to do this is for historians to think more critically about the provenance of our sources, a term to which Katja draws our attention. Rather than treat evidence as transparent access to the truth, we might consider the how’s and why’s of the origins of our “evidence” from their starting point right through to the generations of archival creators, maintainers, and interpreters. We should also remember that the archival objects are often surrogates (a wonderful term that Kate invokes) of a sort for what actually happened in the past. The bedrock of historical interpretation, these archival sources are themselves but representations, and usually partial or distorted ones at that.
So we will need to consider their provenance into the very moments, structures, forces, and people whom they represent and who did the original representing. Historians and archivists alike have been doing this for many years, of course, and traditions of historical and archival thinking and methodology have as much to bring to the new digital domains as digital technologies do to these respective fields. One also thinks of how digital history’s “quantum” turn, as Josh Sternfeld asks us to imagine it, offers an opportunity to revisit the notion of the long durée and the macro-historical Braudelian ideas of the Annales School. Similarly, digital technologies might allow us to rethink the concepts of “microhistory” as we might fix our attention on the “dark matter” of cultural minutae as they register in the world of data, networks, and digital infrastructures. Katja’s notion of source criticism, drawn from her reading of the nineteenth-century work of Johann Gustav Droyseen, bespeaks the productive effort to draw upon past ideas to grapple with current digital challenges and opportunities. So too does Kate’s insistence that we use the word archives with care and precision—and perhaps not use it sometimes.
Ah, now to that loaded word: archives. Why the popularity of this term? Why also the pressure on this word now? This pressure comes not merely from the new representational and methodological qualities of digital technologies; it also comes from a longer running inquiry into the power of representation, particularly of the state’s uses of official recordkeeping to wield power, secure legitimacy, obscure facts, and govern its citizens and so too those deemed non-citizens by tracking them as individuals or transforming them into abstract demographic statistics. This longer running inquiry into the power of the archives, their ability to wield knowledge in service of hierarchy and control, tilts me more toward using the digital to open up what we call an archive rather than limit it (yes Kate, I know I’m throwing down the gauntlet). In an era when large, “official” digital archives are being used to data mine human individuals on social media websites and erode privacy through government spying, we need to consider other kinds of imaginings of the archive that are not as totalizing, that are more quirky and messy and unofficial. The digital seems to make these possible too, if we let it. However, how we develop and use these kinds of archives within the urge for standardization in the digital arena becomes a great challenge.
Historiography, the last term from our roundtable’s title, offers a key starting point for archivists and historians alike, I think, in trying to broaden what the archive might be and do in the digital domain in relation to history. There are some real differences here professionally between archivists and historians that we need to consider. After all, what archivists, as I understand their training, are taught to call objects, artifacts, documents, items historians, by contrast, refer to (sometimes with far too much unquestioned essentialism and with an air of exploitative plundering) as sources. For archivists, the goal is to preserve, describe, and provide access to archives for a broad range of users, from professional historians to private archive owners to the public at large. For historians, the goal is not only preservation or multifaceted access, though it can be those things; it is most of all to mine archival material for interpretation. These two approaches—archivist’s and historian’s—can go together, of course, but they only do so through slightly different imaginings of the stuff itself in the archives and the uses to which it should be put.
On this count, I think, historiography provides a way to grapple with the connections and divergences between archivist and historian. While there is a digital historiography that modulates between different levels of digital scale and appraisal, text and context, source preservation and source criticism, as our panelists have all pointed out, there is also a more traditional use of the term that can be brought to bear on our conversation. That is the way in which historians have used the word historiography to refer to what we might call the history of history itself, which is to say the history of historical interpretations of the past. If methodology, something that the three presentations are all concerned with, is a way to approach primary sources in archives, then historiography has usually been about secondary sources in the field of history itself.
But what, I wonder, would it mean to address this understanding of historiography within the digital domain? It would mean, perhaps, rethinking the relationship between primary and secondary sources in new ways, not just going to the supposedly pure sources, fetishized as they are in the field of history. It would also mean contextualizing them within ongoing conversations among historians both past and present, and taking a stand within these ongoing conversations.
In shifting from thinking about digital history to digital historiography, then, there is a different kind of provenance at work too, much as there is in archival work and theory. This is a historiographical sequence not of object ownership, but rather of interpretive ownership. It is far more contested kind of ownership of course, in a good way. It forces us to ask questions such as: which historians have looked at these archival things before? What sources have been ignored and why? What did historians have to say about archival sources and why? How did they temporalize them, contextualize them, conjoin them, or distort them? What methods and preoccupations, interests and worldviews, shaped their interpretations? These questions are meant to suggest that within a historiographic context, within thinking about the history of historical interpretation, we need to grapple with continuities between and among generations of historians and also, of course, debates. We also need to think carefully about voices left out of these conversations and the kinds of questions and themes that drive them as well as the well known established voices. We need to confront the whole assemblage of the history of history, which is grounded not only in readings of primary sources in archives, but also readings of secondary sources outside the archives.
Or better, yet, we might think of various historiographies themselves as archives. They may not be encased in walls or stacked in boxes on shelves, but they are sure enough constellations of materials brought together with a provenance secured and documented in literature reviews, encyclopedia entries, the background sections of articles and books, and in footnotes and endnotes. If primary sources exist as one kind of archive requiring more careful attention to methods of access and analysis, secondary sources are also an archive of sorts, brought together through interpretive practices, characterizations, and interventions in the field of history itself. What a digital archive might do is provide a space for bringing these two kinds of archives into play with each other. It can articulate them to one another. A digital architecture for a new imagining of the archive might be able to provide more dynamic linkages and movements among, on the one hand, materials being used as primary sources—put to service to represent the past as best as it can be factually reconstructed—and, on the other, materials being used more primarily as secondary sources.
A new kind of useful fluidity might emerge among linked open-source archives and scholarship using the materials in those archives. The digital archive, with an expanded notion of what it does, has the opportunity for enriching history by more dynamically linking primary sources and their subsequent interpretations, and in doing so, of raising the question of what a source is exactly, and how we appraise, to use Josh’s term, the relationship of evidence to argument, sources to interpretations and ongoing conversations. Within new kinds of digitized settings, historiography can flourish as a key part of archives themselves and the historical narratives of the past they inspire.
In this sense, maybe history is just meta-metadata. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Table of Contents:
Part 5: Michael J. Kramer, “Going Meta on Metadata”