reflections on a HASTAC 2011 digital archives panel.

Janice A. Miller, Patchwork of History (August, 1996. From American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Lands’ End All-American Quilt Collection. Published in The Quilt Index, Accessed: 12/30/2011).

There were many insights to be had at HASTAC 2011, but I most enjoyed participating in a panel of lightning talks that all explored issues involved in the creation of a digital repository. At Session D3, the presentations raised many promising possibilities and challenging questions about the nature of the digital archive.

Justine Richardson showed us the Quilt Index, which seeks to create a searchable, database of over 50,000 quilts held in both private and public collections. The project is remarkable on two fronts. First, it seeks to create a rich set of descriptive texts ranging from traditional metadata to scholarly essays linked directly to archival objects. Second, as one might imagine the quilts are intensely visual; the joint project has focused on how to make the digital versions of the quilts as beautiful and accurate as possible and to make the images themselves searchable. What the Quilt Index has become is a patchwork of patchworks, a powerful tool for seeking out patterns among the patterns of quilt makers.

Eric Hoyt showed us the process that has gone into creating the Media History Digital Library. There were a number of important qualities to Eric’s project. First, it has a strong DIY quality. Eric showed us how a box of silent-era movie magazines in someone’s closet goes into his car trunk and to the center he and others use to scan the materials, then online. As with the Quilt Index, this archive is an act of both recovery and linkage. Among other amazing contributions, it brings access to materials thought lost. More importantly it reunites complete runs of publications that had been scattered to the winds (or to the hands of various collectors and archives).

Lynn Rainville’s relational database of genealogical information about African-American families in central Virginia during the antebellum and postbellum time periods. It works toward two related goals: to increase access to the past for individuals seeking to discover their own genealogies and to create a large dataset of information about community formation during the nineteenth century. Lynn showed us the painstaking work involved in trying to translate fragmentary information (often the surnames of enslaved individuals in the antebellum period were not recorded) into a modern database. Once again, this archive was an act of recovery and linkage and revealed how the archiver must make choices and decisions when there are lacunae in the historical record in order to seek out patterns.

Maria Cotera‘s project, “Chicana por mi Raza: Reunifying the Archive, Recreating the Activist Network,” sought to create an archive in an unusual place: the interstices between existing archives and histories. Focusing on Chicana activists in the Midwest, the digital archive recovered a historical topic. These activists have been marginalized in both the history of feminism and the history of Chicano/a activism. Caught in the upswell of activism during the 1960s and 70s, they moved between different political and cultural circles. There crossing of bridges was crucial in its time, but it meant that their stories did not settle easily into archives sorted topically by feminism, Chicano/a activism, or region (since they were in the understudied Midwest). Cotera and her group use the digital to consolidate materials in this new space between activist spaces. They also build and extend their archive with oral history interviews.

Most fascinatingly, they attempt to reconstitute the counterpublic of 60s/70s activism itself. In doing so, they wish to use a digital repository as the framework for bringing past, present, and future into a more dynamic relationship. This is far more than just preservation, or better said, it brings the politics of preservation out into the open in intriguing ways. The archive takes on a new cast here: it not only preserves the past but seeks to create a new future. This goal raises important questions about what an archive does in the digital medium, from who controls it or is excluded from the archive as counterpublic to what kinds of technical tools are needed to foster vibrant, democratic debate grounded in the study of the past to think about contemporary dilemmas.

Most of all, the issue of archival authority—a vexing issue with a deep history in the field of history—emerges in a new light in the project. When archiving moves from the more static domain of the special collections stacks or the government office to the fast-moving, mutating spaces of the digital, can an archive house a movement whose very meanings and power are to be found in their interstitial, vernacular, and hybrid qualities?

Kevin Hamilton‘s annotated video archive of government-produced nuclear test and training films approaches this very same question, but from almost the opposite direction. Instead of trying to use the digital to render a lost history more official, instead of attempting to reconstitute, reunite, and make whole what has been tattered, torn, and fragmented, it seeks to take an official archive and turn it into an object of informal, vernacular study.

This has everything to do with the origins of this archive and its relationship to dominant state power during the Cold War. How, Hamilton asks, does one create an archive that does not replicate the “elusive” state power that the original collection expressed? How does one open up the archive rather than asserting hegemonic control through it? This is a pressing question as we move from analog to digital repositories and have the chance to rethink the very epistemological nature of the archive in its new medium. How do we transform the archival form into a forum?

Hamilton’s hypotheses included the position that we need to think carefully about metadata and commentary; we need to create archival access tools that allow for the traces of comments by all to have equal power to the original materials. In this way, the archive is not only of government-produced nuclear test and training films, but also of the experiences of such an archive. It might become what Hamilton called an “archive as argument.”

Learning about all these exciting projects, I wonder if a better phrase might be the archive as argumentation—as the space for dynamically linking evidence to interpretation. Making this connection between historical objects and their meanings is, of course, a core historical task. As digital repositories develop, part of our job as historians will be to consider and contribute to the theoretical framework for digital archives as well as the technical design of tools, interfaces, and layouts that allow the objects to tell our stories—and us theirs.