The Walt Whitman Archive – Greene 4
Mark A. Greene
4What other issues or questions relating to The Walt Whitman Archive most intrigue you?
Mark A. Greene
Director, American Heritage Center – University of WyomingPast President – Society of American Archivists
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I give a great credit to The Walt Whitman Archive co-director Kenneth Price for taking a critical look at the costs associated with an endeavor such as his.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 [M]any people, myself included, have described our site as free, yet a considerable amount of resources continue to go into its making. I want to explore that conundrum. … When users visit a deep scholarly archive on the web they are experiencing the (mostly real) benefit of displaced costs. Instead of money being spent by the user at the point of contact, money is spent elsewhere along the line: by universities in the form of faculty time, equipment, graduate student assistance, and internal grants; by external funding agencies; and, in our case, curiously, by more than one publisher. … We might ask: Is what the Whitman archive has done a sustainable model for the production of other full-scale scholarly editions on the web? We have been fortunate with grants, publishers, libraries, and generous universities. But if it requires such a constellation of good fortune to produce an electronic scholarly edition, do we have a sound economic model in place? As the questions imply, I don’t think we do.[ref]Kenneth M. Price, “Dollars and Sense in Collaborative Digital Scholarship: The Example of the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive,” TWWA (2001).[/ref]
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Yet for all his candor, and the importance of that candor, he does not take the next (and even more difficult) step of analyzing the project’s benefits as well as its costs. Saying such an online archival endeavor is not sustainable is, in part, to say it does not (cannot, I will suggest) provide sufficient benefits to sustain continuing such costs. For me this is part of a larger question about how and why we allocate archival resources. I have no particular bone to pick with the Whitman Archive; I have raised similar concerns about the disproportionate staff and monetary resources devoted by bricks and mortar repositories to literary collections as a genre, congressional papers as a genre,[ref]Mark A. Greene, “Appraisal of Congressional Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society: A Case Study,” Archival Issues 19:1 (1994), 31-44. Republished in An American Political Archives Reader, Karen Dawley Paul , Glenn R Gray , and L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin eds. (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009), 181-96.[/ref] university records as a genre, state/county/local court records as a genre, and general store records as a genre[ref]Mark A. Greene, “From Village Smithy to Superior Vacuum Technology: Modern Small Business Records and the Collecting Repository,” Archival Issues 23:1 (1998), 41-58.[/ref]—all categories of records I believe are represented disproportionately in repositories and given disproportionate attention by archivists.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 An argument that resource expenditure is disproportionate requires some comparison. As my then colleague at the Minnesota Historical Society wrote in 1998,
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 while politics is an important component of Minnesota history, it is at least arguable that its importance is not so great as the resources that the Society has devoted to documenting it. Neither the stack space nor the staff time is sufficient to swallow Congressional collections whole and still be able appropriately to document business, recreation, family life, etc. for Minnesota. We had to ask: ‘Do we really need 116 feet of material to document Congressman Tom Hagedorn’s eight years in office when we keep 110 feet for nearly seventy years of the St. Paul Area United Way?’[ref]Todd J. Daniels-Howell, “Reappraisal of Congressional Records at the Minnesota Historical Society,” Archival Issues 23:1 (1998), 36.[/ref]
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This was hardly a precise comparison, to be sure, but it was an early attempt to ask archivists to consider the theretofore reflexive resource allocation required to document congressional service to the nth degree compared to both the opportunity costs and the relative benefit (to a repository’s users) of shifting resources to other acquisition, processing, and preservation goals. It is not that Hagedorn’s congressional tenure was value-less nor that the United Way’s records were objectively more valuable, only that we had never before considered the relative costs and benefits.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Such comparison is no easy matter, granted. It might be abstractly valid to ask whether it is a good allocation of resources to develop an exhaustive online archives for Walt Whitman when there are not such efforts underway for, say, Theodore Roosevelt,[ref]At least so far as I can discover, though I did not perform a truly exhaustive search.[/ref] but the fact is we have no mechanism to determine, in any way that is even vaguely acceptable on a wide scale, whether one historical figure is more “deserving” of such a site than another. And even if we did, we don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that the more deserving figure would automatically generate the structure necessary to solicit and manage the resources that might then be available. And if we succeeded in identifying such mechanisms there would still loom the matter of judging relative quantity and quality of use of the sites—use being, I believe, the “end of all archival effort.”[ref]Theodore R. Schellenberg, The Management of Archives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 108. I have pursued the idea of the centrality of use to archival work most extensively in “’The Surest Proof’: The Use of Business Records and Implications for Appraisal,” Archivaria 45 (Spring 1998), 127-69 and later in Greene and Meissner, “More Product, Less Process.”[/ref]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 So is this a purely rhetorical exercise? I don’t think so. As difficult as these questions are to answer with precision, they remain necessary questions and there are pieces of answers available once we start asking. My plea is that we do start asking, that we do start expecting to define quantitative and qualitative measure of the costs and benefits of such projects and, by extension, of our bricks and mortar archival endeavors as well. Not only do I think we owe it to our constituents and funders, I also believe it will increasingly be demanded by our administrators.
This is a really smart essay that raises some fascinating points. What I find most intriguing is the way that you present pragmatic questions–such as, how does one fund these projects?–as being intimately connected to more philosophical questions, such as, whose material deserves to be archived and why?
Your comments in this essay about how we determine who we do (and don’t archive) made me think back to one of your earlier responses to the roundtable questions where you suggest that the Whitman Archive be more transparent (and provide more current data) about how many people are actually using the site. How might this data about who is using these sites help to address the question you raise about “whether one historical figure is more ‘deserving’ of such a site than another”? I don’t want to suggest that archivists base their decisions on site traffic alone (which would, in effect, turn digital archives into a twisted version of scholarly “American Idol”); rather, I think what I’m saying is that this data needs to be on the table as these decisions are made and these issues are debated.
I definitely agree with you (and Edward) that these issues need to be directly addressed by scholars. An essential part of justifying the costs of digital tools and resources will probably be how they fit into a greater scheme or strategy for serving researchers and the public, which will require us to ask difficult questions. Should we determine what gets archived based on scarcity of existing archives (filling a gap), availability of material for archiving (opportunity), or demand from researchers? Should we bias resource expenditure towards more “popular” topics, leaving others underdeveloped? The role of funding is important from another angle as wel: if a topic is more likely to attract financially well-backed researchers and sponsors, it is probably more likely to be worked on than one that has a dubious audience or one with less financial clout. What role should we let money play in these decisions?
Indeed, an issue that we raised in the LAIRAH report was related to Evan’s comment here. How do we decide what gets funded: things that have broad or deep usage? Thus do we allow an informal canon to develop and fund things that have a lot of usage, say on Shakespeare, WWI, Civil Rights etc because these are the subjects that lots of people are interested in and study at school and university? Or do we fund a resource that might have many fewer users who are expert, and who depend on this for their research, and may indeed make deeper and more complex use of it? Perhaps the Whitman Archive is the ideal mid point: it presents resources that are usable by a broad community, but are also important for expert scholarship. I think in future we need to think a great deal more about these issues. Indeed as a result of our work people applying for money from funding bodies for the humanities and cultural heritage are now increasingly asked to discuss possible types and levels of use in their case for support. But I still don’t think we have solved the broad vs deep issue.