My non-born digital collection, not archive

When I began collecting images for my Omeka test site, I assumed it would be pretty easy and would take very little time. After all, the Encylopedia of Virginia has a lot of great pictures that I wanted to use and Google image is amazing and can always lead you to incredible sources, right? Not so fast.

I spent a lot of time looking for quality images that were of the time period that I wanted and one that was not a tiny file that would get only as big as a thumbnail on my site. Additionally, and especially when I began the search, I found images that were credited to a high quality source like Library of Virginia or Library of Congress. I wanted those images! In some ways, the image file seemed less credible if it didn’t get it from a credible source, much like the way historians filter through their research sources. I started going to those sources to try and find the image there in an attempt to find out more information for the meta-data and find a larger picture file. It often felt like a wild goose chase as I tried to navigate each website’s interface and attempt to enter the correct search terms that would result in the picture I wanted. This may all be superfluous work. The jury’s still out. What do you think? Did anyone else take a similar journey?

None of the artifacts I posted on my Omeka site were born digital. Each item is a photograph that has been digitized or an actual object that has been digitally photographed by someone else and uploaded to the web. In this regard, my site is very different from the born digital archives that we explored. Those sites, like the Sept. 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank relied on individual creators to submit their photographs, stories, emails, videos, etc. In some ways, this form of collecting seems easier because the builder of the site can (hopefully) somehow interact with the creator of a photograph and insure quality metadata. I cannot possibly hope to interact with the photographer who captured moments of civil rights activism from 1863 to 1954.

At the same time, I do not have to worry about soliciting items from people and hoping that they upload their contributions. This seemed to be especially a problem for the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which expected a lot more submissions than originally received. Despite the tediousness of my (possibly flawed) search process, I am able to go and seek out the things I want, provided they exist digitally. Additionally, because the events my site is interpreting are all over sixty years old, there is a much better chance that related photos and objects are digitally available than the items solicited by born digital sites.

When I first began collecting items for this week, I didn’t think much of calling my site an archive. I didn’t really plan on using the term, but also didn’t have qualms about myself or other digital historians loosely using it. Really, who cares if it’s an archive or a collection or a group of stuff? However, especially after reading Kate Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context,” I now better understand why there is an issue calling digital collections an archive. Theimer’s reminder that archives preserve the context of a group of letters or other artifacts along with the notion that archivists often do not select or curate specific groupings is in direct opposition with many digital projects. Most digital projects, including my own, curate specific groups of items to make a point. Most of these items, especially ones that are not born digital, are copies of the artifacts, whereas archives typically contain the original versions. I now have more respect for the term “archive” and will think twice about using it myself or when I confront it in works.

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1 Response to My non-born digital collection, not archive

  1. Justin Broubalow says:

    I definitely agree with you about the born digital archives seemingly have an easier time collecting sources. One can cut out a lot of intermediary work when it comes to doing digital history on a topic that happened in a digital world. Hoping that someone else got some funding and digitized a source that you’d really like to have is a bit more daunting than crowd sourcing items that others likely have sitting on SD cards that can be easily uploaded at no cost.

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