Much of what I have heard about digital humanities has been unfavorable. Its effect on the archive is considered equally undesirable. Tristram Hunt, newly minted director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London expressed his disdain for digitizing historical documents, noting the bibliographic study of the book as text as a more effective way to study history. Could the progressive, yet still ambiguous, identity of the digital humanities be provoking this negative relationship? As an archivist herself, Kate Theimer seemed apprehensive about the world of digital humanities, comparing herself to “a tourist in a foreign country.” Her article, “Archives in Context and as Context,” discusses the issue of disconnect between archives and digital humanities. She proposes that perhaps it is merely the evolution of the word “archives” when used in digital humanities discourse that makes this relationship seem incompatible. But Terrence Lockyer, in his blog A Phrontistery, debates this affiliation, summarizing that “too much discussion is in terms of polar opposites: libraries or online archives, e-books or print, digitized sources or physical ones.” Why does this relationship between the digital humanities and archives seem antagonistic? Why does one connote the destruction of the other? Maybe we should think of the relationship between digital humanities and the archives as more of a constructive and valuable, interdependent coexistence: essentially, symbiosis.
Digitizing the humanities allows for access to history and culture that others may not otherwise have. In effect, this remediation would aid in educating more people with primary sources available via digital collections. If somehow the original 95 Theses or one of its copies were found well preserved from the 1500s, historians should not be kept from viewing this artifact because of logistical issues. In this age of swift information sharing, where news travels through the Internet within minutes of its occurrence, digital humanities could aid in publicizing this artifact quicker and with little further damage to the actual document. It could be used to educate people all over the world more efficiently and effectively while allowing documents to stay preserved and minimally disturbed. Darwin Online is one such project that gives open source access to Charles Darwin and his many manuscripts. Without digitization efforts, these writings may have stayed relatively obscure and only studied by those who knew of its existence, and could travel to the location where these records were held. The Blake Archive is another project that has beautifully digitized many paintings by William Blake. Although the works are undoubtedly retouched or refined, the images still convey some of the history behind the works and the culture it represented.
With this objective, the field of cultural studies has the potential to expand more rapidly than before. Genealogists working with archives could more easily share their collections amongst their peers. The general public interested in researching familial ties could visit one archive and have virtual access to many more records that are digitized and shared between libraries, without having to travel to remote places. Digitized genealogy collections of the U.S. National Archives include census and military service records, along with immigration and naturalization records. These records are open to the public and can be searched by anyone online. Although part of the experience of realizing family lore and kinship comes with travelling to the place formerly inhabited by one’s ancestors, it does come at a cost that not all can afford. The availability of these ancestral records online circumnavigates this logistical issue.
Additionally, increasing hostilities throughout many regions in the world have seen ancient artifacts irreparably damaged. If those archives are not evacuated properly, primary source history could be lost. The destruction of the National Library of Sarajevo in the 1990s and the 2014 bombing of an Armenian church in Deir el-Zour are two examples where books were burned, historical sites toppled, and countless documents and photographs reflecting the heritage of people had been ruined. Although the physical copies are essential, a digital repository with a backup of primary source documents could have aided in preserving first-hand accounts of historical events we only read summaries about in history books or websites. While the reverence of seeing the authentic document in person is arguably not the same as seeing a historical document digitally, it would still serve the purpose of educating the casual user. What better way to learn about ancient civilizations and their effects on current cultures than with documents written by the people immersed in that society?
Although digital remediation of the archives is no match for having the actual artifact in hand, knowing it had possibly seen hundreds of years, it is a reasonable and viable repository to preserve traditions, culture, and heritage. A number of natural and unnatural events can occur at any given time that could significantly impact these special collections. Moving into a more digital world, it seems appropriate that history as a discipline, along with its archives, adapts and co-arise with the digitization of the humanities so as not to become relics themselves.
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