This week, Trevor Owens (IMLS) posted a draft of an essay he is contributing to A Companion to Digital History, with an eye to receiving comments and discussion that could improve the essay draft. Owens’ draft of “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History” interrogates how the digital shift within archives affects the work of historians.
At this point, historians have access to an ever-expanding wealth of digitized versions, or digital surrogates, of a selection of primary sources through online collections. At the same time, an explosion of born-digital materials is being produced and collected at unprecedented scale (websites, the contents of a hard drives, collections of emails, digital video and photos, etc.). While these new forms of sources are emerging so to are notions of digital archives. Organizations like the Internet Archive, and projects like the September 11th Digital Archive, and the Rossetti Digital Archive have emerged with the archive name attached. However, each of these varieties of digital archives represents a somewhat different vision of the nature of the concept of an archive.
So, what happens to history when the basis of its sources and evidence becomes increasingly digital? Similarly, what happens to history when it’s archives become digital? Backing up a bit, given how the very form of archives as institution is anchored in the management of paper documents, what does it even mean to have a “digital archive”?
Owens’ piece goes on to discuss a range of issues surrounding digital history, including digital source criticism, questioning selection of materials for digitization, investigating context of digital sources (historical and processes surrounding digitization and search), and the definition(s) of a digital archive. The draft closes by pointing out the “key questions of source criticism are the same irrespective of if a source is digital or not.”
Sources don’t speak for themselves. To that end, historians have developed and deployed techniques for interrogating and understanding sources based on their properties and the context of their creation, use and management. In this essay I’ve worked to explicate some of the work necessary for historians to continue to be as rigorous in working with digital sources and archives as they have been with their analog counter parts.