Digital history and the hidden archive

Two months ago an important conference took place at the European University Institute in Florence on Public History and the Media. Exploring a variety of forms of public history, the second day was devoted to the topic of ‘digital public history’. While the links between the two fields are fairly obvious they are of course not the same. As one participant put it: “Digital History is not the same as Public History *but* Public History needs Digital History”. 

Various projects that were presented or referenced during this day explored ways in which the public can be engaged in, contribute to, and co-author history. Thus the Philadelphia Public History Truck, “a mobile museum project which partners with Philly neighborhood grassroots organizations to explore local history”, enables new voices and audiences to be heard and engage in (local) history. The Europeana 1914-1918 provides an excellent example of enaging the public to create a new user-generated online archive/museum. Digtal history functions in an enabling way here: new voices/audiences and user-generated materials empower ‘the public’ in various ways. But clearly these are also new forms of creating history. 

Yet what does digital history enable with regard to archival historical research? Obviously the increasing availability of digital archives comes to mind here. But another dimension is the shift in perception of what our archives actually look like. The presentation of Cendari (Collaborative European Digital Archive Infrastructure) inadvertently put this question to the fore in clear terms. One of Cendari’s aims is to pay attention to ‘hidden’ materials, meaning traditional archives and/or their catalogues that are not easily accessible online. Yes, you read that correctly: those materials that for centuries have constituted the core of what historians base their work upon, and that are perfectly accessible in archives, are now labelled ‘hidden’. Not long after the conference I stumbled upon an even starker example: Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Enabling New Scholarship through Increasing Access to Unique Materials, “is a national competition administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for digitizing collections of rare and unique content in cultural memory institutions”. 

I am somewhat sceptical about the use of labels like ‘hidden’ though I fully recognise the good intentions of those using them. Yet it seems to me that labelling traditional archives as hidden semantically assigns them to a problematic status and a certain obscurity. There are at least two implicit assumptions at work when employing such terminology. The first one is that those materials that are available (or at least referenced) online have already acquired a privileged status versus those that are ‘hidden’ in ‘offline’ archives. The second one is that offline materials need to be made available or visible online in order for them to be used. Both assumptions merit some attention. 

As to the latter issue, online availability/visibility is clearly very important, particularly because materials that are spread over several archives, sometimes in different countries, can be brought together in a single digital resource. Yet it is also important to realise that many archival materials will likely never be digitised (see for example the Survey Report on Digitisation in European Cultural Heritage Institutions 2012 published by Enumerate) and that, moreover, not even all archives make their finding aids available online (which is especially, but certainly not exclusively, true for smaller archives). This seems to me an argument for giving preference to online cataloguing over digitisation (in the case of materials where neither is done) and also for linking online archives to offline resources.

With regard to the privileged status of online materials implied by the phrase ‘hidden materials’, there are several issues that come to mind. First is a question of politics/ethics: for a comprehensive account of a given historical topic it is imperative to make use (or at least be aware) of the full range of materials available to study that topic, whether these can be found online or offline. There is a paradox at work here: while digital (public) history can enable new voices to get heard and new resources to be generated, the awareness of the existence of offline archival materials can fall by the wayside. Moreover, digital archives are not neutral: as is the case for the printed source editions of old digitisation involves selection and by implication certain narratives are privileged. The primacy of online materials risks marginalising histories/voices that for whatever reasons are not represented online. Unless one believes that all archival materials will sooner or later be digitised (which I don’t) this situation will have to be addressed by equally promoting online and offline archives. One way of doing this could be for digital archives to reference traditionial archives (not only those on which they are based) and for ‘traditional’ archives to point to digital resources on their websites (not only their own). 

This brings me to a second issue, education, and another paradox: while we are still very much in a phase where digital skills need to become part and parcel of historical curricula and the historian’s mind- and skill set, the phrase ‘hidden materials’ suggests that a phase will come where we actually need to educate students about the existence of non-digital resources lest they be forgotten (there are some signs that this phase is already upon us and students are increasingly turn to online resources1). So attention to digital skills and online resources needs to go hand in hand with maintaining an awareness about offline materials. This is also important in order to prevent a situation where the online availability of resources starts to dictate research choices and historical research thus becoming overly data- instead of problem-driven. 

The question thus becomes how digital history can be instrumentalised to maintain and enable attention for existing, traditional, non-digitised, archives. This is not an old-fashioned plea to “return to the archives” nor an attempt to create an overblown dichotomy between offline/online archives and proceed to lament the demise of the former. The larger issue at stake is the shift from offline to online archives and its implications for doing historical research that IMHO needs to be thought through and addressed more.