Archives, Digital Humanities, and the Latina History Project at #MLA16

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One of the most dynamic conversations charging the atmosphere at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention has to do with how archivists and academics relate to each other, both practically and theoretically.

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The excellent panel #s258, “What We Talk about When We Talk about DH: Interdisciplinary Vocabularies,” has been a highlight of the conference so far for me and many other attendees.  Panelist T-Kay Sangwand, Digital Scholarship Librarian at UCLA, encouraged scholars to stop asking “what is the archive?” and to start drawing on terms that have already been established in archival theory.  Angel Nieves, Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, on panel #s280 titled “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics” called for educators to incorporate critical theory into the very foundation of digital humanities projects, rather than “sprinkling” it on top.  (Thanks @ShawnaRoss for tweeting this talk.  See Nieves’ position paper here.)

I presented this morning on panel #s460, “The Digital Humanities and the Archive.”  (Huge thanks to my fellow panelists for a great panel and discussion!)  I used the example of the Latina History Project at Southwestern University as a point of departure for a discussion of role digital archives can play in theoretically informed, community engaged, multidisiplinary higher education.

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I’ve talked and blogged about the nuts and bolts of the project elsewhere, but in response to calls from the Twittersphere, below I’ve included the part of my talk on the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities.  I look forward to continuing the conversation during the rest of the conference and beyond!

On bridging archives and academia:

“I’d like to tap into current scholarship on archives, higher education, and the digital humanities, in order to think about how the encounter with digital archives can enhance critical theoretical engagement in contexts of humanities study. Recent scholarship by Lauren F. Klein, Lisa Darms, and Kate Eichhorn, among others, suggests that there is a rift between archives and academia. Klein, Darms, and Eichhorn all use the term “invisible” to describe the labor of the archivist from the perspective of the academic. Klein considers that “As scholars, we do not see the labor involved in… the development of the encoding standards and database design that allows us to perform our search queries… [T]his digital labor remains not only invisible, but also unacknowledged by most humanities scholars.” In an editorial introduction to the latest issue of Archive Journal, archivist Darms reinforces the point that archival processes and practices remain “invisible to the theorists most likely to write about [them],” while co-editor Eichhorn validates concerns archivists have expressed about “their invisibility in contemporary scholarly, activist, and artistic discourses on archives.” Eichhorn regrets that the archival turn (so expertly theorized in her own seminal book on the topic in terms of feminist studies) is enacted by academics in such a way as to “celebrate ‘the archive’ and all the things that ‘the archive’ apparently encompasses (politics, desire, longing, death, memory, history, and list goes on) in lieu of grappling with the material questions that archival practices invariably raise.” Is archival practice so alienated from humanist theory?

Certainly, it is crucial that scholars cultivate awareness of and respect for the labor that enables access to archives as the raw material of humanities inquiry. Projects such as the LHP and the proliferation of others like it do important work to expose a rising generation of scholars to the work, craft, and expertise involved in the archiving process. Yet to bridge the perceived divide between archivists and academics, it is also necessary to recognize the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities. The notion that archivists operate “outside academe,” as Eichhorn terms it, fails to account for a growing field of scholarship produced by archivists and associated archives and library staff that intersects with the digital humanities, race and ethnicity studies, and feminist studies, among other fields. I resist the idea that the material conditions and practical pressures that impact archival work impede unique theoretical perspectives on the scope and significance of the archive. On the contrary, it is exactly these material conditions that premise some of the most socially and theoretically engaged work in the field of archival practice today, with implications for humanities study.

Archival practice has long encompassed scholarly and teaching components, but the designation in 2012 of an annual pedagogy issue in the Oral History Review, as well as recent pedagogically-focused articles in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage, American Archivist, and Libraries and the Academy, suggest increasingly important roles for archives and archival stewardship practices in higher education. Scholars such as Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon suggest that involving undergraduates in digital archival stewardship allows students to grasp the interpretive nature of metadata creation, which is an important exercise in critical thinking. Jill Goodman Gould and Gail Gradowski, in an article titled “Using Online Video Oral Histories to Engage Students in Authentic Research,” indicate that guiding students in incorporating oral histories in multimedia projects provides an engaging exposure to primary sources that equips students with skills in information literacy and primary source research—both areas marked by experts as priorities in twenty-first century higher education. And Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson emphasize that participating in oral history initiatives provides students with opportunities to hone skills in collaboration and curation, both key principles of digital humanities practice.

A related body of scholarship points out the utility of digital oral history stewardship methods not only for teaching, but for community-driven research, as well. Fresh takes on archival provenance informed by critical theory, such as Joel Wurl’s work on ethnicity and Michelle Caswell’s on survivor status as forms of provenance, emphasize the values of multiplicity, counter-narrative, and the contingent, constructed nature of historical narratives. In our work on the Latina History Project, the very process of “grappling with the material questions [of] archival practice” has exposed students to the ethics and politics of archival provenance, which in turn has meaningfully informed our examinations of analogous issues of representation, privilege, and inequality in studies of Latina history. Moreover, training students in digital archival stewardship offers an intimate encounter with the theoretical notion that values and ideology are embedded in the acts of curation and metadata creation. This exposure allows a natural transition into broader conceptions of constructed, contingent nature of history and memory making.

With the central question, as Lisa Darms formulates it—“how we can become better collaborators?”—guiding contemporary archival practice, it is clear that digital oral history stewardship has something to offer the community-engaged digital humanities classroom not only in terms of digital skill-building, but also in terms of education in critical theory. Feminist and critical race theoretical perspectives provide useful guidance for reading archives against the grain, between the lines, and with an eye to perspectives that are not represented, in order to contend with the legacy of archives as institutions of hegemonic power that represent the interests of groups that dominate in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and/or class. In archiving and curation processes for the Latina History Project, the theory and practicalities of digital archival stewardship are heavily entwined. Students have opportunities to apply critical theoretical principles they are learning in class to an immediate context. If, as archives theorist Joel Wurl proposes, an archived community is an enfranchised community, student collaborators gained an immersion in the causal relationship between oral history documentation and the conditions of social equality. Digital archival practice thus has an important role to play in interdisciplinary higher education attuned both to digital skill-building and to currents in critical theory.”

 

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