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The Digital Archive and Open Access Scholarship


January 20, 2015 by chuber1

The major theme in this week’s reading was looking at the ways in which  digital tools and digital processes of knowledge are reshaping the way that history is done.  This paradigm shift is explored in looking at how we create and use digital archives, as well as how we access and write history.  In exploring how the digital revolution has impacted the way in which we do scholarship, each author asks us, as members of the academy, to examine how we can better use and understand those tools.

In terms of looking at digital archives there were several readings that asked the readers to critically think about digital archives, from how they were complied to how they are used.  The readings that looked at this were from History in the Digital Age,  and included chapters 3, 5, 6.  Each of the authors explore the ways in which archives are created, and how this creation and mediation effects the ways in which we find information and interpret it.  In their chapter “ On collecting, cataloging and collating the evidence of reading”, in History in the Digital Age, Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey explored the process of creating the digital archive.  They called on readers to think about digital archives are created and how that can create deliberate and inadvertent biases in the information that we use to base our scholarship off of.  In this chapter ,Crone and Hasley look at how archives compile digital data and ask several questions about the collection of material, from questions about the selection process, to who found the material, to the sample size of the data collected.  They argued that in looking at the answers to these questions we can see how the shape of the data can influence the possible kinds of interpretation.   This chapter calls us on as digital scholars to become more aware of the biases that can arise from digital archives and use that awareness to better use those archives

Brian Maidment’s essay, “Writing History with the digital image”, in History in the Digital Age,  looks at the ways in which the digitization of the archive have changed the ways that historian’s interact with images.  Maidment looks at how the digital version of a object can further decontextualize it.  Maidment  is also concerned with the conflation of plenitude for comprehensiveness. While archives are working towards digitizing as much of their collection as possible, there are still a great many images and documents that are only in analog form.  Maidment calls on us as researchers to become more aware of  the need to go and dig through the archives as more information is digitized.  He also calls on us to remember that what we are viewing digitally is  not raw data, but an object from the past that very often had been removed from its original context.

The readings from Writing History in the Digital Age and Clio Wired looked at the idea of open access scholarship.  These readings primarily look at the impacts that Wikipedia and informal publishing like blogging have affected the way that history is viewed publicly as well as how these new digital forms have impacted scholarly work. The authors of these various chapters seems cautiously optimistic that these new avenues can challenge and compliment work being done in more traditional media.

One of the major concerns of Roy Rosenzweig, Alex Sayf Cummings, Jonathan Jarrett, and Robert S. Wolff  the issue of scholarship behind the pay wall.  The big question that is asked is that if most academic scholarship is unavailable to the public how can we expect it to influence public perceptions of the past.  While all of these readings agree that the pay wall is problematic none of them seem to propose an alternative system that would allow scholars to be paid for their work, while disseminating it more widely.  I think that this is one of the major questions of the digital age.  In a world where it is easy to get knowledge for free how can we expect people to pay for  it regardless of quality.  Also in a world where knowledge is becoming increasingly crowd sourced how do we make the case for expert generated input in a field that is based around interpretations.

Another concern is how memory and history intersect in many crowd sourced digitally created historical works.  Robert S. Wolff’s chapter from Writing History in the Digital Age, entitled “ The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” posits the idea that popular productions of history are very often more about memory than history.   Wolff argues that, “ Memory is often owned; history interpreted.  Memory is passed down through the generation; history is revised.”  While he is keen to point out this tension in the creation of popular history he does not go into deep depth how we as historians can use the intersection of history and memory to find new ways to interpret the past.  Oral history deals with these tensions as well, since the vast majority of the raw data of oral history is the telling of the remembered past by people who experienced.  In oral history memory is looked another way to interpret the past that does not negate the historical record, but in fact can lead to new questions and interpretations of the past by examining history and memory in conjunction with each other.

The other arena of open access scholarship that was explored in the readings was that of blogging.  In there essay on blogging entitled “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging and the Academy“, Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett look at the ways in which a blog can be a useful tool for scholarship instead of a hindrance.  One of the major points that I found interesting was the way in which blogging can be used to create scholarly communities and be a testing ground for new ideas.  I had not thought about how blogs could be used to stimulate discussion between peers on topics.  It is also an interesting way to allow people to glimpse beyond the paywall and see the current historiography debate on certain topic.


  1. kdaly3 says:

    This is especially relevant for those burgeoning historians preparing to leave the world of academia, but who still want access to university resources such as JSTOR, but will too often be unable to access them. This cut-off would have been more difficult before the advent of the internet, though lately it has been changing, though there still is the question of credibility and “correctness” of interpretation. I think this is where the field may go next, using Writing History in the Digital Age as my primary example; as the study of history moves closer to incorporating and embracing digital resources, the study of history will slowly but surely move towards having a larger online presence, as long as a system of standardization and peer-review can be enacted. Though this is all speculation, it is difficult to see the discipline moving away from the possibilities of this method.

  2. nsakas1 says:

    I think that you certainly pulled out the overall argument of each reading this week. The reading by Brian Maidment does raise some important questions. One question certainly is how is scholarship affected by the digitation of objects in archives? The fact that these objects are taken out of context certainly presents the problematic aspect of digitization. However, the reading does not take into consideration some of the positive effects digitization of archives presents. For one it allows researchers access to sources that otherwise would have been out of the question. This in itself can contribute to greater historical scholarship. Further, digitization of archives gives access of primary source material to people who otherwise do not have the means or the ability to attend an archive in person. This fact alone adds to the democratization of history which we as public historians often strive for.

  3. Adina Langer says:

    Chris, you do an excellent job of synthesizing the themes from this week’s readings. You also ask some tough questions: “In a world where it is easy to get knowledge for free how can we expect people to pay for it regardless of quality. Also in a world where knowledge is becoming increasingly crowd sourced how do we make the case for expert generated input in a field that is based around interpretations.” I think that the seeds of the answers to these questions lie in your thoughts about the mindful creation of digital archives and the relationship between history, memory, and community. What roles do you see for professional historians in the digital world?

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