“The web has put the ‘novice in the archive,’ but it has not taught him or her what to do there.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig 47)

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.”

See for example, the rules explaining the War Department decimal system or hints for searching State Department central decimal files.

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.


2 thoughts on ““The web has put the ‘novice in the archive,’ but it has not taught him or her what to do there.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig 47)

  1. I thoroughly agree that it is the knowledge and skill of the person accessing the archives that determines proper use and the propagation of correct knowledge. Simply making these resources available does not mean that the information will be circulated in an intellectual, or even a temporally regular, fashion.And it is only with true knowledge of the archive and how it has been traditionally organized and managed that information within an archive’s hallowed halls may be properly understood. This is why I appreciated your mention of Jefferson Bailey’s quote summarizing the archives relationship to context, “network of relations that each record has with the records belonging in the same aggregation.”
    The concept of aggregation was completely foreign to me prior to the readings in this unit and, ironically, I have spent extensive time in various archives. The fact that archival materials are grouped by source and NOT by subject (as most laypeople would assume) demonstrates the essentiality of historical context when using primary source material to establish or bolster a particular historical argument. All good history is essentially a well-researched, well crafted argument and the only way to achieve a nuanced interpretation (as you put it) is through the apt integration of appropriate primary sources.
    That being said, I also agree with your sentiment that traditional archives will most likely remain a setting frequented only by historians and not the everyday man. The historic distinctions that characterize a brick and mortar archive coupled with the specialized knowledge that working/ utilizing resources from an archive entails suggest that only people who have taken the time to be trained in such archival technique should truly be granted access.
    I am not advocating for a push towards making archives exclusive to only historians. However, the debates surrounding what constitutes an archive, how these distinctions affect the use of its holdings, and the general ignorance about these long-held distinctions exemplify the great need for basis education about archives in America.


  2. danielledulken says:

    Your synthesis of the readings is astute. I appreciate your cautions regarding user limitations despite digital technology’s access. It touches on the debate of “a shared authority” and pokes at the publics ability to thoughtfully contribute to the study of history. Although I tend to lean in favor of co-creation with the publics, I appreciate a perspective that helps me value my degree. You’re right to point out we are trained to provide “interpretive nuance, as well as, discovering, evaluating, and contextualizing digital sources.”

    Similarly, though I understand your hesitation to embrace the born-digital files of Susan Sontag, I find the collection very exciting. Perhaps it’s because I am thinking of the computer not only as a tool for research, but also as a model of public history. It’s true, keeping the contents under lock and key at a singular repository is not an effective way to share a historical collection. However, in the same way exploring textual documents in an archive allows you to play “hide and seek” in hopes of connecting overlooked relationships, I think the same can be gleaned from a perfectly preserved born-digital collection for two reasons. First, there is opportunity to play detective and perhaps think like Sontag. Maybe while thinking about her music playlist and emails, suddenly a list she created has more meaning. Of course the archivists preserved the computer and therefore must know the contents intimately, but I would argue no more intimately than an archivist at NARA knows their subject. Secondly, would you rather read a transcript of a document from the State Department or engage with it as an artifact? Yes, the transcription saves you time, but isn’t interpreting the nuance and discovering, evaluating, and contextualizing the source in the flesh what drives historians?

    – Danielle


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