Mussell – Question 5
5How do digital representations of archival materials change our perceptions of those materials, and in particular, aspects of those materials not considered previously editable or archivable?
Associate Professor of Victorian Literature – University of Leeds
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It is undoubtedly the case that the specific materiality of digital representations affects our perception of archival materials. One only has to reflect on how print culture has privileged certain kinds of material (books, say) or modes of representation (the verbal over the visual) to judge how the forms of digital media will affect our culture and society. When thinking about our non-digital cultural heritage, the important thing is to recognize the productive potential here, as new media allow archival objects to be imagined differently.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As I argue in response to the other questions, digitization is interpretive and creative. Those doing the digitization have to identify what it is about the archival object that they want to reproduce and then design ways to do it using digital media. As a result, digital representations are always different, even while they putatively reproduce the archival object, keeping some aspects of it, at least, the same.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This difference is too often dismissed as a sign of the digital representation’s deficiency. While it is the case that not everything about the archival object can be reproduced (how could it, and why would we need clones anyway?), this difference is an opportunity; it reveals what might be done with the digital representation, rather than being a mark of its failure. It is this difference, for instance, that allows digital objects to be distributed online, displayed onscreen, projected, printed, searched, collated, and organized within databases. By moving away from the archival object we learn new things about it.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The status of this new knowledge is contested. How do we know, people often ask, that the connections we uncover through searching databases are historically valid? Shouldn’t we return to the archive? The expectation is that there we will find the static archival object in all its richness. As I argue in response to Question 2, we should be wary of approaching the archive like this. Simply because they are objects, there are always aspects of the archive’s contents that will escape scrutiny, as the material is always in some way unknown. Perhaps more importantly, as historical objects their significance depends on what is currently known about them, a contingent body of knowledge that will change in the future. Finally, the historical objects within the archive are only a fragment of what once existed. We work with the remains of the past in the present in order to imagine what we can no longer have. The archive, in other words, is already a kind of interface, generating projections of the past. When we digitize, we change the interface and so, potentially, the past. I’d like to finish by suggesting that this is ok. Not all projections are valid. In some cases, arguments are best made with archival objects; in others, they can only be made with digital representations. What is at stake is the way we use materials, whatever they are, use in the present.
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