Spinning the archival records

Although the digitization of archival records can enable primary sources to become easily accessible, in The Politics of Digitization Mary De Meo argues that digitization is not without limits. There is an immense amount of archival records waiting to be digitized, but the institutions that hold them are often underfunded. They simply cannot afford to pay archivists to do the work necessary to get everything onto the web. De Meo unpacks this further by pointing out that, because there is this backlog and a limited number of people to tackle it, what does get digitized are usually the dominant historical narratives and major events. Women, minorities, LGBTQ+ are put on the proverbial waiting list.

This is reminiscent of what Keith Negus talks about in his article, The Work of Cultural Intermediaries and the Enduring Distance Between Production and Consumption. Negus uses the example of the music industry to illustrate who cultural intermediaries are. He explains that they are the accountants and business affairs executives who decide which artists are given contracts to put out an album on a record label. When you step back and look at who largely makes up these “cultural intermediaries,” it becomes clear that these are privileged white men of a similar class and background. Their choices in music that they present to consumers are based on financial and personal interest. The financial department of museums and cultural institutions can be thought of similarly. Because of financial concerns, they choose to digitize the records that will get the most play—pun intended. Even the archivists, like business execs, are largely white and/or people who had enough societal cachet and a support network to go to grad school.

Despite this bleak reality, the intersectional marginalization of archival voices is noted in the public humanity community. Many people in the field are working to rectify this issue. Lauren F. Klein in The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings explains how crucial metadata can be as a way to bring suppressed voices to light in database searches. She cites a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Heming, one of Jefferson’s slaves. Since Jefferson does not explicitly explain who Heming is to him, Heming’s identity and societal position has the potential to be lost. As a researcher, how would you search for Heming without using his name? How would you find the voice of one of Jefferson’s slaves without the word “slave” being recorded in his letter? Thus, the type of metadata needed to accurately bring these voices to the forefront can only be done by archivists, who understand the need to make these stories accessible and searchable.

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As I followed some of this year’s National Council on Public History (NCPH) on Twitter, I noticed how digital historians brought up diversity issues in many of the conversations taking place there. Not only in regards to the archive, but also to the predominantly white demographics of public historians. On Lyra Monteiro’s Twitter feed, I noticed a photo of numerous post-it notes stuck to a whiteboard. Each little yellow square includes a simple message on how to fight marginalization. But, perhaps even more important, these handwritten words, deliberately scrawled by many different hands, show us that there are public historians out there who are fighting hard to change the narrative of digitization.

About ykristyn

Grad student at Rutgers-Newark, lover of comedy, the Upright Citizens Brigade, LGBTQ+ & women's history, feminism, oral history, graphic novels, road trips, and falling asleep to Murder She Wrote. Find me on Twitter: @ykristyn and @QueerNewark
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1 Response to Spinning the archival records

  1. sheridanleighsayles says:

    Lots of interesting points as always! 🙂
    Another challenge with digitizing materials that the record article hints at is copyright. Whenever archivists handle relatively recent materials, we need to be cognizant of privacy issues (unless the donor has signed everything over to us) and also who owns the copyright of materials. In my work with the Lautenberg collection, for example, we have a lot of interviews that we’re trying to decide whether or not we should digitize because we do not *technically* own their copyright–the news stations that hosted the interviews do. (We have format issues that are keeping us from digitizing them anyway, but that’s beside the point.) Because, even though the odds of us being sued for copyright infringement are slim to none, the copyright librarians will have a field day if we even attempt it. (And trust me, they’re scary)


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