Archival Absence and Presence: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels at MLA 2017

By Charlotte Nunes
February 2017

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 5-8, over 40 sessions included the term “archive” in panel titles or keywords. As a librarian-scholar interested in how digital repository development determines the availability and accessibility of archives, I prioritized panels that addressed questions of archival absence and presence. At last year’s MLA Convention, conditions of inclusion and exclusion were front and center at archives-oriented panels across the conference (see my review of MLA 2016); at MLA 2017, archives panels extended theoretical takes on archival in/visibility, but with decidedly more attention to the technical concerns of archival inclusion in the digital age. What practical digital preservation needs—data storage, metadata creation, repository frameworks, etc.—must be met in order to render archives inclusive, accessible, and discoverable?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For archivists and researchers across these panels, the prospect of harnessing the power of “mass data”1 on the web is at once inspiring and daunting, accompanied by profound ethical considerations. Julia Flanders and Raymond Siemens, primary authors of a white paper issued by the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions, contributed to the panel “Extending and Expanding Our Consideration of the Digital Scholarly Edition” (#s271); the paper considers the potential of archives-rich, digital critical editions (such as the University of Würzburg’s edition of Goethe’s Faust) to enable macroanalysis of large-scale text corpora. Flanders pointed out that the physical book remains a useful metaphor for certain aspects of digital editions, while other functions and capabilities must be newly imagined.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 These functions hinge on the availability and discoverability of digital archives. Therefore, archives panels across the conference referenced Linked Open Data (LOD) and the semantic web in discussions about how to enhance the interoperability of digital archives. At “Acknowledging Boundary Conditions: Opening the Black Box of Creating Access to Digitized Collections” (#s347), for instance, Rachel Buurma discussed the “fantasy versus the reality” of Linked Open Data. Certainly, LOD offers exciting possibilities for interchange and discoverability of digital archival materials on the web, but what do we lose in terms of rich, skilled metadata? Questions like these drive efforts in digital-archives development to account for what the Committee on Scholarly Editions terms the “interdependence of micro- and macroanalysis”2 in digital scholarship.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Also related to issues of archival availability, several panels addressed how institutions mediate presence and absence in both physical and digital archives. In his presentation on childhood studies at the panel “Keep the H in DH” (#s316), Spencer Keralis noted that the increasing digitization of archival collections “amplifies and exposes” past collection-development decisions and priorities, making archival absences all the more visible. On the panel “Archival Boundaries” (#s798), Gabrielle Dean offered a thoughtful discussion of how the notion of “trash” frames archives: questions of what stays and what goes shape archival endeavors, and what might appear to be inconsequential “trash” in a given estate can provide quite consequential insight during the research process.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Many presenters related the availability—the presence—of archives directly to values of inclusion and equality. At “Teaching Borderlands at Thirty” Andrew Uzendoski discussed how teaching Chicana feminism from Gloria Anzaldúa’s archive of lesson plans, activity prompts, and lecture transparencies allowed him to effectively “turn the class over to Anzaldúa,” structuring the dynamic in class to counter white privilege. And at “Minimal Digital Humanities: Choice or Necessity?” (#s477), Anne McGrail urged that partnerships between community colleges and well-resourced campuses are key to promoting equity in students’ access to the advantages of training in digital scholarship. The discussion following “Recovery Work: Digital Approaches to the Archive” (#s453) reinforced the idea that supporting underfunded institutions in archives work is an avenue toward equality. From the audience, Gabrielle Foreman suggested that archival grant writing for under- or unfunded collections is an important form of advocacy.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Several panel discussions touched on opportunities to respond generatively to archival absence. Given that all archives are inherently incomplete, and with reference to the panel “Boundary Conditions in Humanities Data Visualization” (#s463), Elliott Shore asked from the audience how we can develop projects that creatively visualize gaps and absences in archival data. Other panels considered that archival absence is often a necessary component of digital archives that are sensitive to the needs of their stakeholders and constituents. (Documenting the Now, for instance, includes opt-out language for activists who do not want their social media activities archived.) The ethical question, as Hannah Alpert-Abrams put it, of “what should be archived, and what should be lost” must ground archival practice in the digital age. Speaking to yet another manifestation of archival absence in her presentation on the Reading the First Books Project (#s347), Alpert-Abrams pointed out how OCR (Optical Character Recognition) errors in the project demonstrate rampant Anglicization on the web. But, she argued, these errors yield important opportunities to improve non-English linguistic data models in the interest of creating machine-readable indigenous text archives.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 A host of other presenters also took on critical questions of archival presence and absence at such panels as “The Archive” (#s571), “Archive Thievery: The Archive, Memory, and Resistance in the Colonial Context” (#s64), and “Beyond the Gay-Male Archive in Nineteenth-Century Queer-American Studies” (#s266). Thanks to all the panelists and discussants who made MLA 2017 such a productive conference for archives enthusiasts!

  1. 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  2. “Considering the Scholarly Edition in the Digital Age,” MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions, []
  3. Ibid. []
Archival Absence and Presence: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels at MLA 2017

Charlotte Nunes

Co-Director of Digital Scholarship Services, Skillman Library – Lafayette College

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