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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Not just archival nerdery

I recently came across a fascinating article by Andrew Paul Janco on Dissertation Reviews about the use of digital archive collections - which would appear to be curated selections from a range of different archives, rather than what the Wellcome Library is doing with Codebreakers and the forthcoming Digitising the Asylum project, in which entire collections are being digitised wholesale and made available online.

I was cast into a certain amount of gloom to discover that a problem I had encountered with academics developing digital resources, that they did not seem to think it necessary to include the references of the documents they were using, is far from unique and that the documents are thus detached from their original context and not readily traceable back to it.

Janco posits that this is because of the
public-history model where digital archives function more as virtual museum exhibits than as research archives.  While this provides important access to primary sources, advanced undergraduates and graduate students quickly grow frustrated by limited collections that show little promise for original research or do not lend themselves to innovative research methods.
This seems to me not only sad, but bad practice. When I edited an anthology of extracts from published texts some years ago, I included the relevant publication details, including edition and page references, such biographical details as I could glean on the authors, and so on - I didn't just present bits of texts without anchoring them. And books are usually a lot easier to access than archives.

While it is doubtless useful to bring individual documents into juxtaposition with other contemporaneous documents on related matters, it does risk losing important contextual information on the individual documents, especially if where they come from has been occluded in the process. Just an archival reference can tell you something about a document, though I'm never sure whether anybody but archivists who carefully construct references to reflect hierarchies within the archive appreciates this. A reference number is not only a means of locating and retrieving an item within an archive, it contains encoded information as to what collection, what part of the collection, what subsection, etc etc. As Janco usefully points out:
archives have a detailed finding aid and have been organized in ways that allow researchers to identify what kinds of materials are held in the collection and where to find them.  It is impossible for a researcher to read every page in an archive, so he or she depends on archival organization to assess a collection, to understand its origins, its possibilities and limitations.  Knowledge of the materials as a collection informs how we find materials, evaluate their authenticity and their usefulness as historical evidence.

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