Making sense of uncertainty

On Monday 4th April 2016 I attended the International Conference on Literary Archives, held at the British Library under the heading ‘Archival Uncertainties’. The talks were insightful and varied, and generally had a theoretical rather than practical angle. This complimented the theme as it suggested that we are as yet unsure on the forms literary archives will take now and in the future, and how archivists can effectively preserve and provide access to them.

The panels I attended addressed the opportunities and issues afforded to archives in the digital world. The key ideas that came across were as follows:

  • Traditional archival descriptive fields and standards do not adequately express or represent the complexity of literary archives
    • Literary works can now take multimedia and multimodal forms. Catherine Hobbs, Literary Archivist at Library and Archives Canada, suggested that archivists need to be open to literary aesthetics in order to preserve the ‘multiple-canonical perspective’ literature is created in now. The archivist needs to be aware of the techniques used to create literary works and the technology needed to sustain it. Hobbs asserted that the exposure and publicity of a work, as well as the audiences it reaches, has changed in the digital world. Traditional archival descriptive fields no longer adequately express the content, its iterations and context.
    • Alexandra Kardoski Carter, Special Collections Librarian at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library spoke on the difficulty of making legacy finding aids and descriptions available using open-source archival description and access software because of their reliance on archival standards which do not effectively represent the scope of the literary archives in their collections. They also found that an intellectual structure was imposed on the material.
  • Technology enables new ways of presenting archives
    • Jeremy Boggs and Purdom Lindblad from the University of Virginia asserted that content management systems don’t always fit the material they should contain. They introduced the use of rich-prospect browsing as a way of presenting digital literary archives. This approach presents a whole collection through a representation of every item which can then be organised by the researcher.
  • Digital archives enable enhanced disaster planning
    • Having multiple digital copies of a work in different locations safeguards the work from being lost. Emmanuela Carbé from the University of Pavia said the university kept two encrypted copies of selected digital works in Pavia, and another copy over ninety kilometres away. This doesn’t help if the formats they are kept on become unreadable though – only migrating the digital object into a stable format will do that.
  • The original experience of a work can be lost in migration and emulation
    • Dene Grigar and John Barber from Washington State University both argued that digital archives do not always provide an authentic rendering of works. For me personally, this conjured up suppressed memories of studying Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’. I would argue that as soon as a work is presented in the public sphere, the intended meaning of a work is lost and everything is open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Kate Pullinger from Bath Spa University suggested that not all works are produced for posterity, and in fact there may be something ‘beguiling’ about a lost work. While this may be so, and indeed there will always be a number of works that are lost because of their volume and our limitations, I do believe that if we preserve a work that at one stage was envisaged as ephemeral, this simply adds to the enduring lifecycle and meaning of the work rather than takes anything away.
  • Online projects bring together archives and expertise that could not be brought together physically
    • Members of the Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium, an online project to create interactive digital archives of Victorian life writing, affirmed that their digital collection of Victorian archives could never have been consulted together in one space.  The collaborative nature of the project meant that resources could be shared and thus they could afford to do more and had the skillset to do it. They also asserted that each project has required new ways of thinking and presenting archives and digital initiatives have enabled them to continually adapt and progress in how they appropriately display the content.
  • Digitisation boosts awareness and visibility of the collection
    • Digitisation projects can provide remote access to collections meaning they can be viewed by a wider audience than could ever visit. It can also provide a surrogate for fragile or particularly-valuable items. Further, even if a collection cannot be made available online in full, significant parts of it can be which will give an idea of what the collection consists of. Anna St.Onge from York University, Toronto spoke about a project to digitise selected parts of the archives of Lady Victoria Welby. St.Onge consciously chose what she believed to be interesting parts of the archive, thereby moving away from the traditional view of archivists being impartial and instead attempting to actively shape and inspire research and interest in the archive. This was interesting as it showed how archiving is evolving and responding to new technology.

As is evident from the above, the conference gave me a lot to think about and broadened my knowledge of current digital initiatives as well as uncertainties surrounding how to keep digital archives. It is certainly an exciting time to be involved in archival practice as it attempts to move forward with technological advances.

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