1: Archival Interactions

The desire to increase access to documents—whether the limitations of accessibility derive from language, location, authority-based, or other issues—is not new to the archives. A quick search for the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, for example, provides straightforward information about how to conduct research remotely via their digitized collections. A more specific model of this means of curating researchable information can be seen through the digitized collection of Hemingway photographs, which can be found here. Notably, this use of technology creates both positive and negative effects in regards to changing an artifact’s medium. Here, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” comes to mind because, in essence, Benjamin’s work argues against the idea that any semblance of an aura is lost as an artifact is transferred from one medium to another because the reproduction is entirely different from the original and the aura is merely a social construct. Questioning whether this sense of provenance and privilege carry over into digital spaces is an idea I will return to later. Contrasting this oversimplified explanation of Benjamin’s idea, some archival researchers such as Malea Powell, for instance, emphasize the need to experience the physical archive—to experience the original—because seeing and feeling the artifacts in person inherently conveys a stronger sense of realness, a connection to the imagined aura. This feeling may simultaneously invoke a stronger desire to respect the archive. Powell discusses an archival experience in her article “Dreaming of Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories” in which a physical manifestation of the artifacts’ shared aura appears, causing the material to materialize. Charles Eastman, the man whose letters Powell held, “step[s] from a photograph on the table beside [her]” (Powell 120-121). Thus, the understanding of and reverence toward the collection’s ties to a real past necessitate physical interaction with the artifacts—at least in Powell’s instance.

In turn, interactions with a digital archive are severed from the latter experience; digitized works are entirely new representations of something, irreverent to aura and original creation. Therefore, digitizing artifacts also dehumanizes them to a degree because of the lost connection to material reality in the new digital space. For example, stepping into the JFK Library and holding photos of Hemingway cannot equate to viewing these same photos online, and the reproduction creates this chasm. The loss of texture, smell, and possibly access to notes on the backs of photos or other artifacts represent instances of digitization’s limitations.

Furthermore, another limitation for the researcher that occurs post-digitization is that not all pieces of a collection may be available online, which could occur for a myriad of reasons such as the library not having the necessary funds to completely digitize all of the artifacts, restrictions on the artifacts, or other institutional conflicts. While there are many examples demonstrating the negative aspects of digitization, however, digitization efforts carry many positive traits as well.

In archival work, one specific affordance of digitization is this notion of increased access as technology helps eliminate existing barriers. The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) is currently working to digitize essays from prisoners so that there is less general confusion around the topic of mass incarceration and its effect on the incarcerated. More information can be found here.  Because of its time-consuming nature and separation from the project’s ultimate goals, the digitization process allows volunteer transcribers to assist in reading and retyping submissions. Typing the prisoners’ essays permits search tools to work within the various essays’ contents, which could let someone search for a specific word across the database. It also removes any difficulty found in discerning a person’s unique handwriting. Thus, in order to help the project, volunteer transcribers need only two basic skills: reading and typing. Really, though, the reading portion is less important than typing since no interpretation or criticism needs to occur. This notion of labor without literacy is not new to the digitization conversation. Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan’s article “Father Busa’s Female Punch Card Operatives” addresses this dynamic in relation to the women who “via computational methods, [worked to produce] a concordance to c. 11 million words of Thomas Aquinas and related authors” (Terras and Nyhan). The project coordinator, Father Busa, “chose women who did not know Latin, because the quality of their work was higher than that of those who knew it (the latter felt more secure while typing the texts of Thomas Aquinas and, so, less careful)” (Terras and Nyhan). In this example and the APWA experience, labor proves more beneficial, while literacy may be a stumbling block to productivity.

As someone who volunteers for the APWA, I know that not all of the submitted essays are easy to read and/or type, which in some cases is because the essays include drawings or were written in creative—maybe confusing—ways. One example of a creative format is an essay I viewed that was written in a spiral shape. In this instance, perhaps the original delivery must be maintained in order to convey the essay’s full ideas. Perhaps even the argument is buried in the form itself. This example is an instance where ethics and the archive’s goals may clash because what could be lost through digitization? What could readers be missing because of a standardized format? How can the tools accommodate individuality while still productively adding to the searchable database?

By allowing anyone who applies to transcribe the essays, the APWA disperses the authority of their project, if only marginally. This dispersion obviously allows for a more collaborative, open approach to their academic endeavors. Could this inclusion harm the project? The APWA does not blindly accept the transcriptions from volunteers into their permanent archive, but instead skims over the transcriber’s work before officially accepting the digitized version. This screening ensures volunteers are respecting the chosen essay’s original content and delivery. Also, as mentioned before in relation to Father Busa’s project, expanding the project to include volunteer transcribers does not rely on the volunteer’s literacy, but rather their labor. So, through reviewing the transcribed document before adding it to the database, the APWA ensures volunteer labor is well-intended and accurate.

In one essay I read for this online archive, the author used the word “Amerikkka.” Questioning whether he coined the term himself or was contributing to a larger conversation, I chose to enter the term into Google’s Ngram Viewer.

Notably, while Ngram displays the word’s rise and fall in usage, it lacks any further information. Therefore, the graph shows the word’s rise in popularity between 1985 and 1996, which could be attributed to the release of Ice Cube’s album, “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” in 1990, but because Ngram only shows trends in popularity, this connection remains purely speculative. Following this search, my curiosity led me to Twitter. Using Twitter’s search tool, I found many tweets connected with “#Amerikkka.” This satirical spelling was neither created by the man who submitted an essay to the APWA nor confined to conversations about Ice Cube’s album. Instead, this term exists as a part of a larger, tenser conversation that can be accessed via Twitter.

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