Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Reflections on “Archives-Based Digital Projects in Early America”

· October 10th, 2019 · No Comments

by Molly O’Hagan Hardy

Molly O’Hagan Hardy’s article “Archives-Based Digital Projects in Early America” appeared in the July 2019 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.

If this article succeeds, it is because the composition of it, like the projects it describes, are the result of back and forth, give and take, what we often call “collaborative” production but which often feels more “iterative” to me. This essay began as a synthesis of the white papers I had read for the 2018 WMQ & EMSI workshop; the synthesis then morphed into my introductory remarks at the workshop. These white papers were the responses to a series of questions I had created, so I fully admit to stacking the deck, to asking the participants to think through a series of questions that I had deemed most germane to conceptualizing as well as producing archives-based digital projects. The participants rose to the occasion mightily, and the points of overlap were not only easy to find but an intellectual delight to draw out.

The iterative nature of this work did not end with the workshop, however. Rather, it continued and even amped up in the editorial work that was done to the essay. In general, I consider myself fortunate when it comes to writing instruction: my grade school teachers had us diagramming sentences, and my high school teachers never left a grammatical error unmarked. In undergraduate, my professors not only engaged with my ideas, but also insisted on refined style. In graduate school, my mentors pushed my thinking, and worked with me to construct careful scaffolding to support my claims. I have since published in a number of journals where editors and reviewers have helped me to clarify my ideas, to consider other points of view, and to avoid sloppy sentence structures. In short, I have been the benefactor of much instruction and careful editing over decades of writing, but this good fortune hardly prepared me for the wealth of attention lavished on my writing by the WMQ staff. 

The editorial team checked, rechecked, and triple checked every quotation; they tested, retested, and then tested again every URL; they considered, reconsidered, and then finally considered every piece of punctuation. Moreover, the general and managing editors pointed out the slightest inconsistencies in my argument, noted every instance of redundancy or repetition in my verbiage, and drew my attention to the multiple meanings that I might be unintentionally creating through vague language or inexact references. To say that this article is better because of their attention to it seems like an understatement; it is more accurate to say that this article never really existed as such until the WMQ team went to work on it. 

Had I world enough and time in this article, I would have liked to have taken on questions of sustainability and preservation more thoroughly by examining different models of institutional commitment to ensure (or not) a project’s afterlives. I do talk about preservation as a, if not the, key to legacy work, and I attempt to draw out such connections in moments such as “Legacy was, and in many ways still is, the defining value of brick-and-mortar archives, which traditionally strive for preservation of the past to access it in the present and ensure its future” (473). In a detailed footnote, I then look at the ways in which a handful of special collections libraries dedicate themselves to preservation. What I do not do, and what I would have liked to have done, is to detail more how this work is done and what role digitization does and does not play in it. The contingency of much of the labor that produces the projects as well as the fact that the projects are hardly ever rendered complete would have been a way into a more detailed discussion of sustainability. I make a nod to this when I write, “the group repeatedly addressed how existing institutional and grant-funding structures value and, at times, devalue or fail to recognize our work” (460), but I could have gone into a much more detailed look at how special collections outreach and collaboration mean that they are not always the best at sustaining digital projects for a whole host of very good reasons.

Since the completion of the article, a subgroup of the larger Maintainers community of interdisciplinary scholarly and practitioners who identify themselves as “Information Maintainers” have issued a white paper “Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care.” The paper advocates for a reconsideration of the care work involved in preservation, but it prefers the terms “maintenance” over “preservation” to capture the dynamic nature of such efforts. The Information Maintainers write, “Maintenance is not the opposite of change … and its primary aim and value is not to uphold stasis. We view acts of repurposing and revision or reuse as part of maintenance” (14-15). This refiguring of preservation would have been a useful point of engagement for me to think about in relation to special collections libraries, and I will share one brief reflection in closing.

Questions around maintenance take on a unique character at many special collections libraries, and institutional records are often the last to get processed. Those who work at such institutions are the first to ignore the flight attendant’s sage counsel to be sure that your Oxygen mask is secure before assisting others. The service-oriented nature of these institutions often means that they prioritize other collections over their own. In addition, it can be hard to secure external funding to catalog institutional records because grant-funding agencies tend, I suspect, to think of processing one’s institutional archive as a kind of naval gazing. And I am not only thinking here of paper-based institutional archives: once email enters the scene, most special collections libraries that do not have a robust university IT department behind them are totally at a loss for how best to preserve the correspondence upon which those of us who study histories of collecting, cataloging, and bibliography rely. I agree wholeheartedly with Roy Rosenzweig’s apt description of the current scholarly moment — history is indeed in abundance — but I wonder if in the churning out of that abundance, we might be inadvertently sublimating the history of the making of history, that is the history of building and maintaining archives. Without such archival institutional histories, without knowing what was digitized when, how, and why, I fear that we will never be able to answer Rosenzweig’s call for the abundance to yield “better or more thoughtful history” (Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age, 7).

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