Beyond Meaning: Archives as Sites of Knowledge-Making

James Purdy, in his discussion of the three new gifts archives grant, notes that a knowledge of archives and their new gifts is necessary for taking advantage of new opportunities (37). The three gifts he discusses, integration of writing/researching and of collaborators’ ideas (38-9), customization of content by not only archivists but also by participatory community members (39), and accessibility of the temporal and spatial nature (40), seem to be foregrounded in the digital project we will be focusing our discussion on this week: The Postcard Archive at FSU. As Michael Neal and his coauthors discuss in “Making Meaning at the Intersections: Developing a Digital Archive for Multimodal Research,” the digital archive of postcards enables registered users to participate by contributing postcards they would like to preserve and add to the archive, along with comments on these cards and transcriptions of any handwritten message included on the card.

Based on the Kairos article by Michael Neal, Katherine Bridgeman, and Stephen McElroy, the FSU postcard archive embodies and performs (I have chosen these words deliberately in hopes that they do not misrepresent archivists as knowledgeable experts and contributors from the community as novices) the knowledge of all three gifts: there exists integration between the information provided by users, contributors, and archivists, customization can be done by archivists and by users with registered accounts acting as participatory community members, and the archive retains accessibility through the usage of tags. Its web-based presence means that aside from temporary closures for maintenance, the archive is available for viewing and for contributions anytime and anywhere. And from the fact that Neal et al.’s article demonstrates plans for the integration of other interactive elements (plug-ins), there remains an attempt to create the consumer buy-in that Alexis Ramsey Tobienne highlights the necessity of (8). This brings into question whether or not the various intersections that operate within and among digital archives go beyond generative spaces of meaning-making (per Neal et al.) and even beyond exploratory spaces for developing and building on methodologies (Ramsey Tobienne 9). Throughout points in the readings for this week, I saw archives as functioning for sites of knowledge-making.

Much of archival work, and some of the knowledge that grows out of it, seems to rely on classification, which Cara A. Finnegan refers to as “a deliberate process” (119). Using images, she explores the task of categorizing photos by their subject matter and ultimately asks, “…if a photograph of a down-but-not-out man is not a picture of a man at all but really is a picture of a shack, what does that suggest about the archive and what it privileges?” (119). In raising this point, she demonstrates both the polysemic nature of words and archives (119) and also the subjective nature of archivists and those who contribute to archives. Neal et al. refer to these tags as “teriministic screens” that in some sense shape how users interact with and locate information. These tags are not wholly the development of the archivist-researchers, however; they are a reflection of the “terministic screens” the visitors and viewers bring with them to the archive. Ramsey Tobienne refers to tags as indicative of or guiding forces in “navigational and participatory choices” (19), and I see both at work in the Postcard Archive, which remains a collaborative digital space for meaning-making. In this instance, the knowledge that collaborators bring with them shapes the ways in which visitors can encounter artifacts and build knowledge from or around them.

In some cases, however, knowledge is created not of the subject matter but of archival work itself. Finnegan’s exploration of images shows an acquisition of knowledge in terms of the classification of works within that particular archive. Likewise, an example provided by Ramsey Tobienne highlights the importance of building knowledge about archival work, particularly in terms of those who founded the archive. The University of Michigan Bently Historical Library developed a prototypical digital collection called the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections that, as it developed, was upgraded by its founders to include several interactive features like user-generated tags and comments that added new possibilities for searching (8). Although Tobienne highlights the fact that the prototypical nature of the digital collection made it extraneous to the department and its mission statement, and eventually, due to new projects, the interactive features were removed and the Polar Bear Expedition reverted to a digital collection (9), I question whether or not a gap in knowledge. Admittedly, institutional pressures to continue other, newer projects seem to be at play. However, while the project was not essential to the library’s mission, that does not erase the possibility that the interactive features were beneficial to (certain populations of) users.

Institutional attitudes seem to function at a certain level to constrain the possibilities of archival growth, but the same could be said (I think) of the terministic screens that archivist-researchers and users utilize in their construction. This touches on some of Dr. Ellen Cushman’s work, which was the subject of a reading group in Fall 2016. During her campus visit, she specifically discussed the decolonialization of Native American artifacts, which had been ordered according to a westernized epistemology. This parallels, in some ways, the case Mary Leigh Morbey raises in “Killing a Culture Softly: Corporate Partnership with a Russian Museum.” When IBM developed a second version of the Hermitage Museum’s website, the company utilized a design that had been used for similar websites (273). In placing the development of this second website in the hands of an American company, the Hermitage risked their own objectives being subverted (275). Throughout the development of this website, IBM placed its own standards and goals at the forefront of the redesigned Hermitage museum website. IBM “maintain[s] a significant amount of control over the ways in which the product is sustained” (276). Choices in language also reflect this control; the website uses American English instead of British English, the latter of which the Russian translators utilized (276).

To tie this back to archives and knowledge-making, rather than demonstrating the collaboration espoused in this week’s readings, IBM imposed their own standards of language (Russian was included as a second choice) and design at the expense of Russian ways of making meaning—and possibly of making knowledge. Rather than collaboration, this exercise demonstrates a control over information that Neal et al. and the other archives from this week’s readings seek to avoid by permitting registered users to contribute. Viewers and contributors both bring their pre-existing epistemologies and terministic screens with them to these digital scenes of meaning- and knowledge-making, as do archivist researchers, but in archival work, the imposition of certain arrangements may result in a disrupted knowledge-building. process, or even a misrepresentation that leads to the generation of false knowledge. Archives have the potential to be sites of change in methodologies, as well as showcases and embodiments of polysemic meaning(s), but they should strive, in their collaborative efforts, for an awareness of alternative epistemologies and arrangements. While total inclusion is likely an impossibility, such an awareness can make archives more productive sites of collaborative knowledge-making for users and for archivists alike, both in terms of building knowledge of the various artifacts and collections there and in terms of archival construction itself.

Works Cited

Finnegan, Cara A. “What is This a Picture Of? Some Thoughts on Images and Archives.Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1, Spring 2006, pp. 116-123.

Morbey, Mary Leigh. “Killing a Culture Softly: Corporate partnership with a Russian Museum.” Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 21, no. 4, 2006, pp. 267-282.

Neal, Michael, Katherine Bridgman, and Stephen J. McElroy. “Making Meaning at the Intersections: Developing a Digital Archive for Multimodal Research.” Kairos, vol. 17, no. 3, Summer 2013.

Purdy, James. “Three Gifts of Digital Archives.” Journal of Literacy and Technology, vol. 12, no. 3, Nov. 2011, pp. 24-49.

Ramsey Tobienne, Alexis. “Archives 2.0: Digital Archives and the Formation of New Research Methods.” Peitho, vol. 15, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2012.


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