Personal Digital Archives & the Digital Humanities

In my ongoing efforts to talk archives to non-archival crowds (as well as get better at public speaking in general), I presented a brief talk at a DH roundtable event that was part of the Practices of Memory Graduate English Association conference in NYC. Slides and text below. The talk format was as a Petcha BlahBlah [name changed slightly since the correct term is trademarked apparently] which means 20 slides that auto-advance every 20 seconds. So if my ideas seem half-baked, I partially blame the format and partially blame my ideas actually being half-baked.

About three slides into making my slide-deck I thought “sweet jeebus do I hate most slide-decks, including my own.” So I scrapped them. Being obsessed with The Noun Project, having recently been to an Iconathon, and planning some icon-ing in the near future, I decided to do an all icons slide-deck. I think it turned out okay. Afterwards, one person said that the slides made her ponder how the icons in each slide tied into the point I was making at that moment. She meant this as nice, constructive criticism, so I just sort of nodded and said “uh-huh,” but since that translational act between, say, .svg/.ppt and idea/interpretation is part-and-parcel of the talk’s theme (such as it messily is), in my head I was thinking something more along the lines of “fucking awesome.”

The tl;dr version (if such a thing is possible for a 6.5ish minute talk) is trying to think through some of the similarities in the movement between personal digital archives and community memory and the similar “reduction and abstraction” (Moretti) that occurs in some DH work as well as the related overlaps in how we aim to recognize the technological mediation in personal digital archives and the “tool awareness” that often crops up in DH talk. Not particularly insightful points, I realize, but, well, it was fun to make an all icons slide-deck at the very least.

First, here is a gallery of the slides, in all their iconic glory and the slides with rough text talking points are below that (make sure to read it in exactly 6min40sec for full verisimilitude — just kidding):.

Slides + text:


Slide 1: [Intro. Thanks to Jane Van Slembrouck and Sarah Cornish (organizers)]. My talk considers some of the confluent themes between personal digital archives and the digital humanities


Slide 2: I’ll start off with traditional function of archives. Archives historically have served to document and validate transactions and evidence: they preserved legal claims, property rights, and other governing functions and they served as storehouses and authenticators of regal or bureaucratic legitimacy


Slide 3: What this meant was that archives primarily documented institutions and their functional and procedural occurrences; when they did have personal archival material, it was the collections of notable participants in those institutions or famous authors or social figures (aka the great man theory of history)


Slide 4: This conception of the archive changed however with ideas attendant with the New History movement, and thinkers like Jacques Le Goff and Howard Zinn, which highlighted the absence of the voices of everyday people and local communities from the historical record and sought to reorient the archives to capturing more socially and culturally meaningful artifacts — documenting “history from below”


Slide 5: So when we think about personal archives, we are reminded both that the archive itself is a shifting, evolving abstraction — in “a continuous state of becoming” as archivist Heather MacNeil says — but also how it is shaped by and actively shapes how we as individuals choose to remember — archives are acts of memory making and tools of making memory (remembering)


Slide 6: The personal archives of today, however, are primarily, if not exclusively, born-digital. They are created, distributed, stored, deleted, and manipulated using a tangled, hidden matrix of hardware and software, much of it ephemeral or beyond our control


Slide 7: Personal digital archives, then, have inherent risks: susceptibility to loss or deletion, an abundance that makes them hard to manage (they are often managed by “benign neglect”), and they are stored on fragile, obsolete, or invisible media


Slide 8: But personal digital archives also have certain affordances, certain “good” qualities, like embedded metadata (think of file creation or modification date, geolocation information, format and creator details); they are also easily created, copied, and shared


Slide 9: But beyond their risk and rewards, the key point, I think, is that personal digital archives are technologically mediated. The code, the interface, the device — they all have an often veiled influence on how we create personal digital archives. Networked technologies play an often overlooked role in constructing and navigating social networks


Slide 10: The key tension, then, is that those individual acts of memory making and making memory are now inextricably tied up a shifting, dynamic landscape of technology and media in a way they weren’t previously. And that has meaning for how we interact with and conceptualize the archive


Slide 11: Concurrent with this trend in personal digital archives has been the emergence of digital humanities within academia. Digital Humanities originated not just from the increased access to digitized and born-digital historical or primary-source content, but also from the act of using computational tools to undertake tradition scholarly research and interpretation


Slide 12: DH has lead to a re-examination of the core methodologies of scholarship and pedagogy at the heart of the humanities. At the same time there has been the broader “archival turn” across scholarly disciplines in which the archive is itself interrogated and the formation, use, and meaning of the archive is investigated


Slide 13: But DH is hard to define, and so for simplicities sake, I’ll go with the recent description by Joanna Drucker and others in D_H as “an array of convergent practices” – both analytical and pedagogical, but practices that also include acts of creating collections, interfaces, and tools


Slide 14: In a similar sense, Stephen Ramsay uses the term “reading machines” — its the title of his book — and I think this nicely captures the twin characteristic of DH work, that it is both a study of content which is machine-generated (data, digital images, encoded text) but also an act of using machines or algorithms to perform a process analogous to the traditional act of reading


Slide 15: Also in DH scholarship we find the idea of “distant reading” — studying large corpora of texts or objects to find emergent patterns, mining text to examine trends, but also using digital tools as wayfinders to find outliers and exemplars. I’ll point to the work of Franco Moretti and his book Graphs, Maps, Trees as a seminal work in this vein


Slide 16: In this framework, the individual item is modelled, visualizaed, charted as a point within an aggregation. But there is an anxiety here, one often voiced in DH work, about the influence of digital tools in creating those models. This anxiety comes from a recognition that one is studying what the machine read but isn’t always entirely aware of how the machine read it


Slide 17: The DH community, then, often acknowledges that the questions they are asking haven’t changed — questions of identity, expression, memory — but that digital tools and technologies have altered the ways in which they ask those questions


Slide 18: So some parallels and overlapping ideas between personal digital archives and digital humanities: we have an array of interdependent technologies in creating and managing personal digital archives and at the same time an array of convergent digital practices in performing DH work. And I think these tensions bear similar characteristics


Slide 19: This tension between individual memory and technologically-mediated digital archival artifacts mirrors the tension between humanistic inquiry and an awareness of how digital tools and texts are influencing that analysis; in both cases we are moving between the idiographic and conceptual and the individual and the network, but on pathways forged by digital tools and media


Slide 20: So, in conclusion, I’m interested in the the loose & messy correlations between these parallels and tensions – on the one hand we have the movement between personal archives and community memory along with the role of digital technologies in creating artifacts of personal meaning and memory; and on the other hand a similar tension between “reduction and abstraction” in DH work and a self-awareness in the DH community about how digital tools are shaping and transforming interpretation.

[Post scriptum: I think I need to take a break from the BlankityBlank & the Digital Humanities title/talk format. Less yack, more hack and so forth. We'll see how that goes... & the Digital Humanities. Oh no!].

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