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Digital Archives

Before these readings, the limit of my expectations of archival finding aids was simply that the full text be online. Having a few items digitized, like the handful of Maury letters at the Swem Special Collections, was a bonus. There are, after all, a number of archives where the most you can hope for is the title of the collection and the number of boxes. Now I wonder why it never occurred to me to think about the potential of linked data for physical archives’ catalogs.

I’m intrigued by the potential of the Social Networks and Archival Context project, if only because I like the idea of any database which helps track historical social networks. The prototype holds promise, especially in the multiple ways to browse and explore, but wandering through it I found I wasn’t always sure where I was going. Picking one name from a list of correspondents seems to display “what collections has this name” rather than that person’s contextual data, which I find frustrating. Still, it is a prototype, and they seem to have found a way to deal with the multiple name iteration issue (Dolley Madison vs. Dolley Payne Madison vs. Dolley Payne Todd, etc).

Names are just one of the many moving parts that I would imagine cause trouble in any sort of massive linked archival data project. Perusing a 2007 D-Lib piece written by the some of the Polar Bear Expedition team, I was pleased to see them talk about reusing metadata, but surprised at some of the challenges. They write that the flexibility of EAD ended up making it more complicated to merge collections; the solution was (inevitably) to normalize the data, and implement a controlled vocabulary. They were working from one institution, which leads me to wonder how much work it would be to normalize the data from multiple archives, not to mention get all those institutions to agree on controlled vocabulary.

Clearly, the potential of digital work for archivists is more complicated than I thought. There is, however, a great deal of overlap with the work other digital humanists are doing, and therefore room for collaboration. As archives put even some of their collections online in digitized form, it opens up the possibility for historical contextualization and even small exhibits (going back to what I talked about last time, with the link between exhibits and collections).

A final, somewhat tangential thought, brought up by the readings and a comment at the March DCHDC meetup about what is an “archive” makes me think about the difference between archives which are putting their already-organized collections online and born-digital archival collections. Can something which remixes or blends archival material from different institutions be an archive? If it’s not an archive, what is it?

One Comment

  1. Though not the main point of your blog post this week, I think that the idea you mentioned in your first paragraph about access is very thought provoking. Why should you be satisfied with just collection names and box numbers. I think that this problem has less to do with digital time, skill, and money than with problems about who the archive is really for. I know that the readings from this week as well as the readings from when we talked about professional standards talked about this problem with regards to archives, but I think that before we can deal with issues of controlled vocabulary we need to deal with the fact that archives and archivists do not see general, amateur public access as a priority. Could it be I’m just annoyed with snotty archivists here in the last few research weeks of the semester? Possibly.

    But I think that a born digital or linked archive would still be an archive. I’m not sure it is the type of material collected which makes it an archive, but rather the act of collecting. In the case of the linked archive it would still be an archive because it is bringing the information together. Not all items in every archive are 100% unique, so its a continuation of old media practices with new media forms.

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