Digital Archives and the "Unauthorized" Scholar

Proposal Type: 
Panel
Proposal Title: 
Digital Archives and the "Unauthorized" Scholar
Abstract: 

Much scholarship has thoughtfully analyzed the possibilities digital archives present to researchers and focused on the importance of educating students in the practices of using digital archives.  Few, however, have situated students as active contributors.  At a time when so much work in the digital humanities has emphasized the collaborative and interactive possibilities of digital platforms, the work on digital archives has not correspondingly emphasized student contribution and construction.  What, then, is the purpose of and the possibilities for students as active contributors to digital archives?  In this panel, we present three answers to this question and generate discussion among panelists and conference attendees on the platforms for and methods of involving students in archival contribution.  

Proposal: 

In recent years, scholars in both history and composition studies have examined the increasing predominance of digital archives, taking note of the possibilities and limitations digital platforms offer for archival researchers.  Janine Solberg, in “Googling the Archive: Digital Tools and the Practice of Historiography,” Jessica Enoch and Jean Bessette, in “Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities,” and Barbara L’Eplattenier, Wendy Sharer, Lisa Mastrangelo, and Alexis Ramsey, in their collection Working in the Archives, all consider the mixed responses to digital archives as contrasted to traditional, physical archives.  

While this scholarship has thoughtfully analyzed the possibilities digital archives present to researchers and much historical scholarship (Kuhn, Johnson, and Lopez, 2010; Halbritter and Lindquist, 2012) has focused on the importance of educating students in the practices of using digital archives, few considerations students and digital archives situate students as active contributors.  At a time when so much work in the digital humanities has emphasized the collaborative and interactive possibilities of digital platforms, the work on digital archives has not correspondingly concentrated on contribution and construction.  What, then, is the purpose of and the possibilities for students as active contributors to digital archives?  In this panel, we will present three answers to this question and generate discussion among panelists and conference attendees on the platforms for and methods of involving students in archival contribution.  The first speaker will consider the “unauthorized” archivist in digital archives, making a case for active public involvement in the preservation of the past. The second and third speakers will then present two classroom models in which students actively contributed to archives of course materials, organizing and defining archive contents and revising institutional documents.

Speaker 1: The Unauthorized Archivist

Traditional archivists, through the selection and preservation process, give historical value to a disembodied collections of materials. Digital archives complicate this task by both enabling preservation on a vast scale and blurring the distinctions between the professional archivist and the indiscriminate collector. I aim to discuss the role of the unauthorized archivist and their efforts toward digitally preserving the past. The unauthorized archivist is a contributor to the archive who acts independent of accreditation; this definition refers to those without institutionalized archival training including, but not limited to, antiquarians, collectors, storytellers, and, yes, even scholars. The barriers to a vocation in the digital archive are significantly lower than those of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, but the products of these nontraditional archives can be equally valuable to the researcher. Encouraging students to engage in archival work empowers them to “establish and maintain control, both physical and intellectual, over records of enduring value” (Society of American Archivists 2013).

Historians of the American counterculture have made significant use of projects undertaken by unauthorized archivists, notably The Realist Archive (http://www.ep.tc/realist) and The Digger Archive (www.diggers.org). I will exhibit these websites, discuss their origins, and analyze their contributions to scholarship to show the little-explored potential of nontraditional archives. These unusual archives serve as examples for students who seek to contribute their own projects to the existing array of digital sources available to the academic community.

Speaker 2: Course Blogs as Critical Archives

The organization and categorization of archives reveal much about the ideologies of archivists, and the disciplines and institutions that support them; digital platforms mediate the possibilities for both archivists and researchers in reading and constructing the archive.  Solberg argues that researchers must “cultivat[e] a critical awareness of technology” and how it mediates our understanding of archival texts (158), while Masters, in “Reading the Archive,” asserts that “a researcher’s investigations gradually assembles the archive, while in turn the archive shapes the research and the researcher” (55).  As digital platforms make archival research more accessible to all students, it is important that they learn to be researchers capable of critically reading archives as interpretive constructions.  

In this discussion, I argue that students may best learn to such research skills by acting as archivists themselves. I will present a classroom model in which students used a course blog to collectively categorize, comment on, and organize course readings and student texts.  Analyzing the blog archive constructed by students and their reflections on this process, I demonstrate that treating course materials as an archive allows students to collaboratively consider how archived texts are defined and shaped by researchers.  

Speaker 3: Recognizing BlackBoard as a Classroom Archives

This discussion centers on how to make first-year composition students contributors to a classroom archive through the common course digital tool, BlackBoard. Davis and Hardy explain how students negotiate the technologies of BlackBoard to participate in composition courses. In their implications for using this tool, the authors argue for encouraging active engagement by students, such as using the discussion board to address topics and issues in the course. Although there are ways for students to collaborate with one another on BlackBoard, it is not usually viewed as an archive. Frequently, students view the documents posted on BlackBoard by their instructor and use them in order to fulfill classroom assignments. This connection to the digital tool positions students as passive receivers.

I argue that students can become contributors to a classroom archive by revising an institutional text located on the course site and reflecting on these changes. Students individually revise one course assignment prompt already posted on BlackBoard to reflect students’ questions on the assignments and what could be clearer for them as they work through their essays. Then, as a class, we work together to revise the prompt and add the new prompt to BlackBoard. Students can then reflect on the changes made from the old assignment prompt to the new ones in the digital archive we have made as a class.

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