In the continued debate about digital history, and the historian’s role therein, particularly in regard to the problems of performing or “doing” history in the Information Age, there arises a debate over the fundamental meaning and importance of an archive. As, Cohen and Rosenzweig said in Digital History, “the history web is both more and less than a good historical library” (23).
I am something of the opinion that “doing” history and being a historian in the traditional sense, essentially means going to archives, examining the special primary sources within, and ascribing meaning to the documents in a larger historical narrative. To me, it is the “hide and seek” aspect of archival research that I get the most enjoyment of out pursuing academic history, and plays a fundamental reason for why I (despite having currently thin professional credentials) describe myself as a historian. There is still some thrill to thinking I might be the first to view such documents, discover the missing link in a chain of historical events, or provide some new worthwhile academic interpretation.
I agree with Kate Theimer, that there are “fundamental principles that separate traditional archives from many of the collections created by digital humanists” online. Moreover, Theimer importantly suggests a “more rigorous assessment” of digital sources, that will encourage “a greater understanding and appreciation” of the important distinction between archives and digital historical representations – “separate intellectual products created from archival sources”—like Google books or Wikipedia.
While I certainly agree that digital technology has drastically increased both the user base for archives, and the access to historical sources and data, it does not necessarily lead to a more knowledgeable user. I would again stress that the skills of a historian become doubly important when it comes to providing interpretive nuance, as well as, discovering, evaluating, and contextualizing digital sources.
For me, the most important aspect derives from when Jefferson Bailey mentions, archival bond, the “network of relations that each record has with the records belonging in the same aggregation.” – “a web of documentary co-dependencies that presumes an inheritance and relationship between records based on functional proximity.” This relationship is of fundamental importance for the historian to utilize a document in a way that furthers the historical narrative without perpetuating falsehoods.
Moreover, navigating archives demands learning certain skills and knowing the particular ways in which document sets have certain meaning based on the “the principle of original order.”
Finally, based on some of the important distinctions Trevor Owens describes, I would add a few final thoughts. First, I think traditional archives, as in record management, will continue to dominate as something like professional enclaves, particularly for historians. Second, is the particular importance of crowdsourced material like September 11th Digital Archive, and digital archives like the The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Such digital resources are of paramount importance for researchers. As Guldi and Armitage explained, those “streams of electronic bit comprise, to a great extent, the public context of our time” (Guldi 111). Such resources provide unprecedented ways for historians to continue their role “arbiters of data for the public, and investigator of forgotten stories” (Guldi 113).
Third, I see no clear point to the type of born-digital archive Jeremy Schmidt & Jacquelyn Ardam describe. That is not to say that there is no importance to the files of Susan Sontag’s computers in themselves, but in light of the previously mentioned open-source type archives, there seems little point in hiding such digital information strictly within the confines UCLA Library Special Collections.