Accessing the (In)Accessible: Considering Digital Databases and Archives

Sarah Lozier, Critical Digital Humanities


I recently taught a class of undergraduates how to take advantage of digital databases when conducting research.  I introduced them to a veritable arsenal of scholarly digital databases -- JSTOR, Project Muse, and the MLA bibliography.  Following this introduction, a student came in to class raving about how phenomenal JSTOR was: full of journal articles from multiple sources, a useful search algorithm, easy to navigate, and the subscription fee wasn't "too bad."  It was this last comment that sent me into a spiral of questions, beginning with my initial incredulity that this student had paid for JSTOR, rather than just using the university library’s Web VPN client, which would have allowed her access “for free.” This line of questioning eventually brought me to the research question driving my post today: What did my own initial reaction of incredulity (a reaction mirrored by nearly every colleague I shared this story with) expose about my assumptions of access?  Are this student’s “mistake” combined with these assumptions symptomatic of larger implications regarding where we situate ourselves as university-based scholars along the access- and skills-based digital divides?  How does this two-tiered basis for a problematic metaphor for digital technological literacies further complicate our ability to see past our assumptions about access?  


That the general reaction to a student paying for access to information housed in a digital database was one of shock is telling.  At the very least, this reaction suggests that even as we critique the rhetoric of democratization and free information in the digital age, we still understand and assume a certain level of "free," easily navigable access to information.  Further, that this assumption of freedom and availability is one that has become naturalized to those of us on the "right side" of the skills and access divide, suggests that there is more nuance to this "access" divide that we usually consider.  As other posts on this forum indicate, we continue to critique and understand the "access"-based divide as one in terms of hardware.  That is, it is those classes of people without access to physical computing devices that we place on the "wrong" side of the divide, unable to access information.  This understanding of the divide carries the implicit assumption that the information accessed by the hardware is still free, that we are not divided in terms of access to information, but in terms of access to access.  What my student demonstrates, however, is that even with the requisite hardware, the information remains inaccessible without access to a network (in this case the library VPN).  If we consider this question of access to digital databases in terms of access to archives of information, then this question of accessing a network becomes more clearly one based in the problematics of institutional affiliations and the power dynamics thereof.


The hegemony of the Archive has been traced by various thinkers, perhaps most memorably by Jacques Derrida with his quip that "there is no political power without control of the archive."  Philosophical quips aside, as scholars we likely have plenty of personal anecdotes about the mess of red tape to untangle to gain access to the highly controlled space and information that both constitutes, and is housed in, the archive.  As a pre-doctoral scholar who is rarely granted access to physical archives, I will freely admit that this red tape makes the digital archive that much more appealing.  But what this appeal masks is, of course, that my key to the digital archive has only been granted through my tuition or teaching assistant labor, that there are more levels to “access” than we realize.  Regardless of my navigational skills, digital literacies, and computer, without my affiliation to the university, my access to these digital databases, to this seemingly "free-er" information is gone.  Focusing on material bases for the divide, though useful and necessary, perpetuates the assumption that the information itself is easily accessible.  Therefore, even as we focus on exploring, questioning, and bridging the various digital divides across skills and hardware- or connection-based access, we need to further consider those very structural and institutional grounds that grant us access.  What nuances are contained in the very term "access"? To what digital and analog networks do we need to be granted access before we can even think of accessing the information?  Is the digital database actually that much more available or accessible than the brick-and-mortar archive?                           




Works Cites:

Derrida, Jacques.  Archive Fever.  Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.  Print.


Image on front page by Alex_Pink and avalable on Flickr. 


Your discussion makes me think that it would be more accurate if we spoke of digital divides rather than a digital divide. While our cultural monolithic conceptualization of access in the digital divide is one that is concerned with economics, you bring up a good point about the importance of our physical space and the role it plays in building or collapsing the digital divides. I don't think that pluralizing the term will solve all of our problems, but it can at least start us on the track of thinking about more manageable concerns in the quest for access than a term than implies it is a singular problem is able. Thanks for the food-for-thought.

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