Archives in Context and as Context

By Kate Theimer in Journal of Digital Humanities

Approaching the field of digital humanities as an outsider is an interesting experience. It is best compared, I think, to being a tourist in a foreign country for which there are no reliable guidebooks. It is a country in which the language is almost the same as the one you speak, and yet words are used to mean somewhat different things. It is also a relatively young country, still trying to define its national identity.

As an archivist, attempting to learn more about this foreign country of “Digital Humanities,” I am struck with how often its citizens refer to the “archives” they or their colleagues create. To continue the tourist analogy, imagine that the country I come from is the nation of “Archives,” and that it has a longer history than that of the country of Digital Humanities. The nation of Archives has well established national principles. It is a small country, perhaps, and not a powerful player on the international stage, but its citizens are quietly proud of what they have managed to accomplish with such a small national budget.

And so I, a tourist from the country of Archives, visited the foreign land of Digital Humanities and quickly realized that something a bit odd has happened to my treasured national heritage. When I questioned digital humanists about what they meant when they use the word “archives” or questioned the appropriateness of using it to describe various collections, the responses varied from befuddled confusion (“I’m not sure what I mean”) to a strenuous defense of the different usage. Given the emerging importance of digital humanities as a scholarly field, I thought it would be useful to explore this disconnect and so perhaps shed some light for both archivists and digital humanists about what each may mean when using this common word.

Archivists have become accustomed to the adoption of “archives” by information technologists as well as the general public to refer to things which we archivists would not call archives. So it is not the adoption of the term by digital humanists that is noteworthy, but that its meaning in certain contexts has been altered by scholars, many of whom have experience working with archives as traditionally defined. And yet it is these scholars who have chosen to describe the collections they have created as archives, seemingly in all sincerity that their usage is appropriate and not in contradiction to the practice of archivists. What could account for this disconnect?

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