Digitizing archival materials

One of the fundamental issues that this project has considered is the nature of the methodological and philosophical changes that confront historians as our sources move from ‘page to screen’. In presenting our first archival digitization project, we would like to reflect on a key question for a digital age: what is the difference between an original and a replica? How does the process of digitization affect use of a document by a historian? And can we actually transfer this rich world of context to the digital realm? Dr. Jennifer Regan and Ms. Deirdre Wildy of Queen’s University Belfast addressed this question specifically in their presentation to the group on the Sir Robert Hart archive at QUB. In digitizing an autograph handlist and biographies of entrants to the four Inns of Court, we have therefore attempted both to replicate, to the extent to which it is possible, the physical experience of consulting Sir Robert Forsyth Scott’s MS, and to augment that experience by providing a searchable transcription and footnotes.

As interpreters of texts, historians analyze bodies of material, not merely the words on the page. The provenance and context of sources are just as important as the documents themselves. A given text might considered in terms of the circumstances of its creation and dissemination, its imagined and actual audience, and its reception by generations of readers. One of the phenomena that historians therefore consider is the afterlife of texts, many of which accumulate collections of derivative works and commentaries. Marginalia proves an interesting disconnect between the needs of historians and the general public: what to librarians and the public are considered defacement, historians consider a fascinating and invaluable source helping them to understand how the text was received.

In history, as Lorraine Daston put it, evidence consists of source material ‘hammered into signposts, which point beyond themselves…to states of affairs to which we have no direct access.’ (quoted in Sentilles, ‘Toiling in the Archives of Cyberspace’, Archive Stories, p. 140). History relies not, as many assume, on allowing archival material to ‘speak’ for itself, but on a fluid process of interpretation and re-structuring to explain trends, themes, and changes over time, giving meaning to the specific in the context of a larger body of knowledge.

This has often meant relying on relatively scarce material: but now marginalia and ephemera are being collected at ever more astonishing rates. Academic users of the vast archive of digital material might be forgiven in thinking that this will lead to a crisis of abundance: but there are still biases in terms of what is being collected. All of this means that historians need to develop new methodologies for searching, and a new understanding of how to detect the silences that this apparent cornucopia of information conceals. As Reneé Sentilles points out, ‘archives are about more than the physical gathering of artifacts under one roof… Our relationship with sources changes as they become more accessible, more abundant, and less tangible.’ (‘Toiling in the Archives of Cyberspace’, p. 136). Therefore historians analyse context equally with text: just as ‘mastery’ of secondary literature is crucial to this fluid process of interpretation, archival collections themselves must be analysed. And the social life of information will only become more relevant with born-digital archives. Books (and other sources) are not just ‘containers’ that can be discarded once their content has been extracted, so preserving “ancillary” aspects of the book during digitization is extremely important – aspects such as colour, condition, original location, and contextualising information become more, and not less, important as more of us rely on digital copies of original works.

The archive or source is a critical part of the historical narrative: both lens through which we see historical events, and limit on what we can learn about them. Historians need to engage with the ways in which such sources are being ‘translated’ into new media in order to keep our methodological ‘windows’ into the past open for the next generation.

NB references are to Sentille, Reneé. "Toiling in the Archives of Cyberspace,” In Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette Burton. London: Duke University Press, 2005.


Leigh Denault