Created by Joseph Brown, Drew Calhoun, Alexis Cox, Samantha Hostetler, and Sam Meurer under the direction of Dr. Andrea Davis (Spring 2020)
Created by Joseph Brown, Drew Calhoun, Alexis Cox, Samantha Hostetler, and Sam Meurer under the direction of Dr. Andrea Davis (Spring 2020)
Critical Archives is a Digital History Seminar that examines archives as sites and sources of history. As sources of history, archives preserve, contextualize, and ensure access to cultural heritage. As sites of history, archives are institutions generated from places of power that frequently replicate the logic of information gathered for the purposes of political, social, and economic control. Attuned to these institutional legacies and their impact on the production of history, activists, scholars, and heritage professionals have developed new methods for creating and interpreting archives. Critical Archives explores these methods through historical scholarship, archival theory, and digital humanities practice.
During the first half of the Spring 2020 semester, students worked with community members and specialists across campus to develop the foundations for a collaborative digital collection tentatively titled the Arkansas World War II Correspondence Project. Due to the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the collection could not be completed. Instead, we worked together remotely to develop and implement this alternative project. Using experimental methods of peer-review, collaborative writing, and iterative design, this new project communicates our collective understanding of Critical Archival Studies to public audiences.
When working with archives, one must consider how they are institutionally supported, what policies they are shaped by, and the types of audiences they serve. In Paper Cadavers, Kirsten Weld addresses these concerns through an examination of the the secret archive of the national police of Guatemala. Although initially a tool of terror instituted under the direction of the United States during the Cold War to support counterinsurgent forces in Guatemala, the archive has become a tool of social reform. Following its discovery by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office in July 2005, the archive has been used in human rights proceedings against members of the national police who used brutality against innocent Guatemalans. Documents that were once stored haphazardly, have been organized and preserved with respect to their cultural, historic, and human rights values. Through its history of changing institutional support, policies, and audiences, the national police archive in Guatemala has transformed from a tool of terror to one of postwar justice.
Weld, Kirsten. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
A web archive is an archive constructed by web crawlers of select portions of the World Wide Web. In Ian Milligan’s book History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web Is Transforming Historical Research Milligan describes web archives as incredible, yet daunting sources for historical research. The scale of web archives presents scholars with technical challenges. One of the largest challenges scholars face is a lack of knowledge about the internet. In order to effectively work with web archives, Milligan suggests historians need to have basic algorithmic literacies and digital skills to understand the nature of digital information and learn how to use data analysis software to process large collections of data. Web archives also present new legal and ethical challenges related to copyright, user privacy and cultural norms. Archivists must be able to discern how to approach information that is personal or contains copyrighted material as well as comply with the rules and regulations that companies have about their users’ personal data. For example, the Geocities web archive exemplifies how digital platforms can be crawled, preserved in a web archive, and accessed by users. The Geocities platform, which lasted from 1994-2009, allowed users to create their own webpages. It was acquired by Yahoo! in 1999, and was the third most-visited site on the World Wide Web. When Yahoo! announced their plans to shut down the site in 2009, a team at the Internet Archive dispatched several deep collection crawls in hopes to preserve this important piece of internet history. However, web archivists have run into issues of ethics and privacy regarding materials located in the archive. Milligan uses the example of GeoCities in which he came across very intimate and personal posts that might not be ethically sound to include in the archive. Milligan provides that web archivists and those accessing the web archive must be cautious and intentional when accessing and analyzing the archive to avoid ethical issues.
Internet Archive: GeoCities Special Collection 2009. https://archive.org/web/geocities.php. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
Milligan, Ian. History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web Is Transforming Historical Research. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019.
When working with collections, one must first consider who gathered the collection and why. Were the materials collected by an individual for personal use or by an institution preserving records of the institution? As seen in Marisa Fuentes’ book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive, this could be an institution collecting data for political control. In her book, Fuentes examines collections of court records, inventories of property, and descriptions of punishment and profit from the British Caribbean Archives. These collections were created by the colonial government as a system of power. Fuentes shows how this political structure was used to control the population of their colonial territories. Fuentes further reveals the violence of urban slavery and how racial, gendered, and sexual identities were constructed under this system. Through her case studies, Fuentes demonstrates how this system created silences in the archival record and explores methods for “reading against the archival grain.”
Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
When working with archives, one must interrogate the terms of inclusion and exclusion and evaluate how these terms shape subjectivities within a given collection. In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes about different methods of documenting history which can contribute to the absence or presence of specific narratives. Historical memory is shaped by these documentation methods and can give and take power from cultural subjects. To exemplify the tensions between inclusion and exclusion of certain narratives, Trouillot uses various examples such as Christopher Columbus’ colonization of America, the Haitian Revolution, and the Holocaust to question how historical facts are created, assembled, and narrated. Trouillot shows that silences can emerge when narratives are given power and/or left out of historical archives. Consequently, this affects the way history is written and how events are remembered and perceived. Trouillot combines theory with historical analysis and social commentary to bring attention to how historical methodology can give power to certain subjects while excluding others entirely.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Description is an archival method that promotes using clear identification methods to promote organization and accessibility of archival materials. There are standardized description methods, like Dublin Core, that institutions implement in their archives; however, there are many archives and collections that challenge these standardized practices. The Arizona Queer Archives (AQA) was created by the University of Arizona at the Institute for LGBT Studies. The creation of the archive is based on principles outlined in queer theory and practices in order to effectively represent the LGBTQI community. The archive challenges traditional description methods as they seek to have an archive that is “for, by and about us (LGBTQI).” Users of the archive can upload and tag materials with descriptions already listed on the site, or they can create their own tag word that users can search for. AQA allows input from its community in order to shape and organize their materials so LGBTQI community can be recognized and represented through the perspectives of its community members. The Mukurtu project is another example of a digital project that uses non-standardized description practices. Mukurtu (pronounced MOOK-oo-too) is a content management system (CMS) designed with an emphasis to preserve cultural heritage and to allow creators to regain control and access of their materials. Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation Kimberly Christen explains, “The colonial collecting mission has left a living legacy of cultural materials that are displaced from their home communities and often-times contain wrong, misleading, derogatory, or offensive metadata, that gets continually and endlessly circulated once those collections are digitized, put online, and then scraped up by aggregators.” Mukurtu fights against this history by allowing indigenous communities to organize their individual and collective histories through description and metadata that accurately represents their communities.
Arizona Queer Archives. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://azqueerarchives.org/.
“Home.” Mukurtu CMS, https://mukurtu.org/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
“Mukurtu CMS: An Indigenous Archive and Publishing Tool.” Humanities for All, https://humanitiesforall.org/projects/mukurtu-an-indigenous-archive-and-publishing-tool. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
Custody is an archival method that refers to the care and control of archival materials, especially for security and preservation. Digital technologies have allowed archivists to return physical collections to the original record keepers and create digital copies that can be housed in the archive. This allows ownership rights to revert back to the creator to ensure continued community use and stewardship. As an example of this post-custodial method, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda is a partnership of the University of Texas Libraries and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. KGMC documents and memorializes the victims of the Rwandan genocide. KGMC has created a collection of hundreds of unique digital video recordings of genocide survivor testimonies and local court prosecutions of accused perpetrators. Entering into this partnership, UTL recognized that it held significant socioeconomic advantages over its partner KGMC. To avoid any abuse of power, the KGMC retains ownership of all materials, while UTL makes secure digital copies of these recordings. UTL provides the descriptive and technical infrastructure that will not only protect the material against loss, but also supports the ongoing educational and outreach programs of KGMC. Furthermore, UTL provides training to the KGMC staff, which ultimately boosts the sustainability of the KGMC programming, documentation, and preservation efforts.
Kelleher, Christian. “Archives Without Archives: (Re)Locating and (Re)Defining the Archive Through Post-Custodial Praxis.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, no. 2, 2017, https://journals.litwinbooks.com/index.php/jclis/article/view/29.
“Welcome to Genocide Archive Rwanda.” Genocide Archive Rwanda, http://www.genocidearchiverwanda.org.rw/index.php?title=Welcome_to_Genocide_Archive_Rwanda. Accessed 3 May 2020.
By understanding the subjects in the archive, as well as the users accessing your collections, you can make critical decisions on how to provide access to different types of archival information. Trevor Owens explains in his book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, that there are multiple ways to offer access to the public. Some professional archives create custom interfaces with detailed descriptions. Others allow rapid access to their materials through bulk download. With bulk data, users can expand the meaning of the archive by taking the lead in designing interfaces to the collection that other individuals may access and interact with. More than a matter of scope, access can also refer to the types of archival materials available to the broader public. Some archives, for example, aim to give voices to marginalized groups and allow community members to be involved in the decision-making process: what materials are collected, how these materials are described, and who is given access to these materials. For example, The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) states that its mission is to “create a more inclusive society by giving voice to South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving, and sharing stories that represent their unique and diverse experiences.” SAADA places emphasis on acknowledging the importance of South Asian immigrants and communities of the past, strengthening their communities in the present, and inspiring discussion about their role in the future. SAADA has created a community-based archive that empowers South Asian Americans to make decisions about what information is important and available to the community. This empowerment has allowed South Asian Americans to write their history beyond what is prioritized in archives created by larger mainstream institutions. In addition to marginalized groups, archives can also be used to represent and protect at-risk populations. A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland was created to showcase police brutality in the city. The archive allows community members to share their first-hand accounts of police violence in the region through narrative, oral history, image, audio, and video. Due to the sensitive material involved, the archival team prioritizes collecting as little donor information as possible in order to protect the community it is fighting to represent. Through the inclusion of records in varied formats and perspectives, the archive is able to collect stories of its subjects, the marginalized and unheard, while fighting for healing, accountability, and justice.
A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland. https://www.archivingpoliceviolence.org/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.
Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian, vol. 36, no. 4, 2014, pp. 26–37, doi:10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.
“South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA).” South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), https://www.saada.org. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.
Trevor Owens. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
When working with digital archives, one must consider the different types of preservation frameworks that shape our engagement with collected materials and how this engagement influences research. In The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, Trevor Owens introduces three preservation frameworks (artifactual, informational, and folkloric) and explains how each can be carried into the world of digital preservation. To exemplify artifactual preservation, we can look at the reconstruction of the CERN homepage. The CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) homepage served as the primary entry point for web users during the rise of the World Wide Web. Due to its significance in web history, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) reconstructed the original homepage and relaunched the page allowing people to interact with the page exactly how users did in 1990. This type of engagement allows researchers to engage with the physical medium to better understand how the web was experienced in 1990. To exemplify informational preservation, we can look at the The MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) Archives. The MoMA collects and preserves the museum’s historical records and primary source documents about art and cultural histories. In particular, the MoMA Archives houses an image database (MAID) that includes a wide range of materials such as letters, images of artists and their art, installation photographs of exhibitions at the museum, etc. These images document the key informational features of these works. This type of engagement allows researchers to understand key points of these works without being near the physical medium. To exemplify folkloric preservation, we can look at the The American Folklife Center and its collections.The American Folklife Center was established by the Library of Congress, and it is one of the largest archives of ethnographic and cultural materials from the United States and around the world. This archive houses various collections including materials such as oral histories, audio and visual documentation of art practices, and extensive cultural expressions. This type of preservation allows researchers to access the variability of expressions across cultures and mediums.
CERN. “Home of the First Website”. European Organization for Nuclear Research. http://info.cern.ch/, Accessed 26 April 2020.
MoMA Archives Image Database. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/archives/, Accessed 26 April 2020.
Owens, Trevor. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
The American Folklife Center. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/index.html, Accessed 26 April 2020.