this is not a digitial archive
How digitized* changed historical research
Digitized archival collections are going nowhere. Any historian conversant with archival debates will be aware of this. The pressure for “more product less process” and the backlogs in many repositories combined with the economy of higher education in which access for consumers often trumps all other concerns means that digitizing documents and putting them online will continue to be viewed as a good thing by many powers that be.
For me, it often is. However, as a researcher, or rather as I learned to say among archivists, a user, of digitized archival things, I’ve realized a few distinctions that go beyond the focus on keyword searches that has characterized much debate over digitizing in archives.
In a physical archive, I sit, for as long as the staff will let me, patiently flipping item by item, through folder after folder, contained in boxes measured in linear feet. I do not open a folder, take one thing out, ignore the rest, and return the folder to its box. However, when working with digitized documents on the internet that is, de facto, what often happens. Digital collections aggregate content in ways meant to be consumed online. This might mean gathering items on a certain theme from disparate folders in a single collection, or combining items from multiple collections within a single repository, or even re-uniting items across repositories. This may be good, it may be bad, but it is definitely different than how documents are approached in a physical archive.
Online digitized archival documents are often enhanced by metadata. When this metadata appears, hyperlinked, alongside the digital surrogate on a screen, the viewer may click and jump to other similarly described documents. This sort of digital serendipity approximates in some ways the unexpected finds most researchers make when working in collections, but in very different ways. While I might stumble across an unexpected document while perusing the contents of a folder, maybe even the mis-filed, which always gives me a small thrill, I am still confined within the single collection. Traveling via hyperlink, the user traverses all sorts of boundaries, depending on how controlled the hyperlinked metadata is. This may be good, this may be bad, but it blurs the sort of careful consideration of provenance physical archive research encourages.
Finally, while digital surrogates may be enormously useful, especially in my case for machine reading of texts, or for visually inspecting, via the zoom!, that which my eye cannot apprehend, a surrogate is not a simulacrum. The material, the texture of the paper, which often gives clues to provenance, the aesthetics of the whole, particularly if items on a page have been digitized as discrete objects, the ineffable stains, smells, holes, tears, and smears that often offer more clues, do not digitize.
The question is not should historians use digitized archival objects. They will. Historians need to grapple with the implications of working in digital archival environments, rather than treating them as virtual equivalents to physical archives.
n.b. debate about digitized archival objects has been stirred up of late by the publication of The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast by Lara Putnam. See also Casey Schmitt’s post about Putnam’s piece.
*I’ve been asked if I accidentally omitted “archives” in this title. I have purposefully eschewed the phrase “digital archive” since as Kate Theimer notes, there are least four current applications: “for collections of born-digital records, for websites that provide access to collections of digitized materials, for websites featuring different types of digitzed information around one topic, and for web-based participatory collections.” [Kate Theimer, “Digital Archives,” in Encyclopedia of Archival Science, ed. Luciana Duranti and Patricia C. Franks (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), 158.]