Curating (Con)Text: Making Invisible Hands Visible

The texts assigned in preparation for Dr. Neal’s presentation on The FSU Postcard Archive present several questions: What constitutes scholarly production? What ideologies are implicit within archival methodologies? How might specific perspectives or modalities be privileged? Who (and what) is included in archives? In archival work? Who has access? Lastly, what are the ethical implications of digital archives?

James Purdy, in the beginning of his article “Three Gifts of Digital Archives,” briefly touches on the first question: how is scholarly work determined? He argues that “decisions about what texts count are often based on whether the texts fall on the appropriate side of the “scholarly/non-scholarly boundary” (Purdy 33). This directly connects with our discussion on the Stephen Ramsey and Geoffrey Rockwell chapter from Debates in the Digital Humanities. With increased technical innovation in areas of research and scholarly production, the lines between academic inquiry and tool-building are increasingly blurred. For Ramsey and Rockwell, this blurring illustrates the epistemological nature of such work: tool-building and knowledge-building can be the same practice. “Things” can be theories. Writing just before Ramsey and Rockwell, Purdy highlights a similar perspective. Digital archives (what Ramsey-Tobienne refers to as Archives 2.0) resist traditional archival methodologies, making apparent what types of scholarly practices are privileged. The inability to search by image in many archives can prove limiting for multimodal texts. Thus, engaging in archival work necessitates a careful consideration not just of what tools we use, but what perspectives, values, and ideologies shape how those tools are used.

Cara Finnegan’s article in Rhetoric and Public Affairs speaks to a similar concern. In her search for the sharecropper image, she assumes that the man is the subject of the photograph; however, archival classifications label the photograph under the tag “shack.” In doing so, she notes, the ideology behind the method of categorization is made apparent. But as a rhetoric and composition scholar, she is primed to notice those moments in her research; in Sammie Morris and Shirley Rose’s chapter in In the Working Archives, the archivist and rhetorician posit that scholars within rhetoric are often far more concerned with the archival process, the negotiation of meaning and circulation of text, than those in other fields. I hesitate to concur wholeheartedly with their claim, but their work illustrates yet another way in which specific values and perspectives shape how archives function.

Perhaps most troubling is the initial assertion by Morris and Rose that in a perfectly organized archive, the classification system would be so intuitive that the archivist’s work would remain completely invisible. While they argue for making such work visible, it appears to stem more from a desire to recognize the dedicated archivists than to expose ideological systems that color and shape how archives are formed. The problems posed by Finnegan, Purdy, and Ramsey-Tobienne suggest that closer study of how archive classification systems are formed is vital. Purdy argues that how we shape our archives has lasting ramifications for rhetoric and composition as a discipline. Archival work, particularly digital archival work, can allow for productive change in the field, from the inclusion of “othered” perspectives to the increased participation of those traditionally marginalized in archival work. Neal, Bridgman, and McElroy note this in their article, “Making Meaning at the Intersections.” They intentionally chose to err on the side of granting access to more rather than fewer participants.

This prompted yet another of my questions on access: while digital archives have the potential to blur the boundaries of archival research and writing, and engage users as active contributors, digital archives still have the potential to further essentialize. Archival work is fraught with ethical concerns—how are artifacts, individuals, and communities represented? Morris and Rose link the origins of archives to the French practice of respect des fonds and the notion that “to protect the integrity and authenticity of archival records by retaining the nature of the relationship that exists among records by the same creator” (53). Despite this, however, archives have also been used as tools of colonization, where indigenous cultural artifacts are taken from their communities and contexts and subjected to Western epistemologies. At times, it might be necessary to challenge and question the linkages and terms assigned by early curators.

With this historical context, issues of ideology become ever more critical. When archives divorce text from context (as all must, to a certain extent), essential meaning may be lost.  Morris and Rose’s admonition to “First, do no harm” in terms of engaging with physical artifacts strikes another meaning here.  What might a “Do no harm” archival methodology look like? Would the relatively open access of the FSU Postcard Archive fit such an approach? What might be different when engaging with other culturally sensitive materials? In “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Marisa Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis craft their own decolonizing imagining for their work with digital archives of indigenous materials. Ramsey-Tobienne suggests that “decentralized curation may…more closely align or reflect the stakeholder’s cultural values and taxonomies” (23). In some cases, as with the FSU postcard archive, such decentralized curation might prove useful. In others, like in Duarte and Belarde-Lewis’ work or Ellen Cushman’s Cherokee archives, specific agency has to be held by the indigenous community. A decentralized model with completely open access might not be entirely appropriate given the nature of the artifacts. One thing is certain however: these strategies have the potential to help stop the division between text and context within archives.

Ultimately, though my questions remain, I think Ramsey-Tobienne gives us an excellent place to begin our discussion with Dr. Neal. She writes, “archives 2.0 are less about technology innovation and more about a radical change in our thinking about what archives can or should do and our role as users/researchers of these spaces” (24).

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.

Morris, Sammie L, and Shirley K Rose. “Invisible Hands: Recognizing Archivists’ Work to Make Records Accessible.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition Eds. Ramsey, et al. pp. 51-78.

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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