Two meanings of “archival silences” and their implications

Several weeks ago I was aware that there was a flurry of discussion among the digital humanities crowd about “archival silences.” This occurred shortly after I had posted about the differences between the way archivists use “archive” and the way digital humanities people seemed to be using it, so I suspected that “archival silences” would similarly not mean what I am accustomed to it meaning. I’ve had time to return and read through some of the digital humanities posts, and as you might imagine, doing so was quite illuminating.

First, when I hear the phrase “archival silences” my initial assumption is that it refers to gaps or “silences” in a body of original records (in which “body” can be defined in many ways). A good example of this usage is “Women and Archival Silences” by Yvonne Perkins on her Stumbling Through the Past blog, and Rodney Carter’s Archivaria article “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence.”

My starting point for understanding the digital humanities discussion was the post “Editor’s Choice: Archival Silences Round-Up” on the Digital Humanities Now site. I worked my way through the various blog posts cited, trying to understand as best I could what each author meant by “archival silences.”

But first, a caveat. I am not proficient in the language and practices of the digital humanites community. I am a spectator, doing my best, as time allows, to try to understand how my audience of archives and archivists fits into this scholarly community. So as I try to wrap my brain around the discourse of another discipline, I hope any digital humanists reading this will forgive me if I commit errors of understanding–forgive, and of course, correct.

So, with that caveat out of the way, I will attempt to break the discussion down into the simplest possible terms. DH Now cites a post from Ted Underwood first,”Big but not distant.” Underwood does not explicitly mention “archival silences” but he provides some context by discussing the kinds of data digital humanists use for their research–so-called “big data” versus data based on smaller collections. A key issue is how or where they can get their hands on data, which will be on ongoing theme in the discussion.

Katherine Harris (who participated in the discussion about the use of “archives”) is the next thread selected by the DH Now editors. Based on her post, “Big Data, DH, and Gender” along with the Storified Twitter conversation “From archival silence to glorious data,” I come to the conclusion that “archival silences” is being used to refer to materials that are not represented in the data accessible to these scholars for research. In other words they are not represented in the digital collections that have been marked up in ways that make them useful for this kind of research. She writes:

Nevertheless, the big data sets that are in play in this conversation (on Twitter and here in this post) in both projects are ones that were created by other institutions. If the traditionally marginalized authors are marginalized now because it’s no longer sexy or innovative to digitize and mark-up those collections, then how have we far have we really come? Are those recovery projects then marginalized because they bring nothing innovative to Digital Humanities?

If I am correct, then in this usage “the archives” is equal to those resources that have been digitized and made accessible to digital humanities scholars. This is clearly very different–critically different–from saying that there are materials that are absent from the  documentary record. Interestingly in the Twitter conversation captured in Storify, @laurenfklein references a book by Michel-Rolph Trouillot which outlines the distinctive ways in which voices from the past are silenced. This shows an awareness (as one would expect from scholars) that the reasons for silences in “history” are complex. Given this understanding, I find it all more troubling to see this shorthand equation of “archives” with “that which has been digitized and marked up.”

The conversation continues with Adeline Koh in a series of two blog posts on the subject “Addressing Archival Silence on 19th Century Colonialism.” In her first post Koh states: “these two posts are concerned with a more specific silence—on race and colonialism in the nineteenth century archive.” Later it becomes clear that the “nineteenth century archive” referred to are those materials that have been digitized and made available online. It is this “silence” that Koh seeks to remedy with her project, “Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen‘.” Clearly there is no silence in the physical archives (or more likely, special collections), since Koh has material available to digitize.

Lastly (in terms of the items cited by DH Now), Roger Whitson contributes in his post “DH, Archival Silence, and Linked Open Data.” Again, the way I’m reading it Whitson uses “archives” to refer exclusively to sets of data or digitized marked-up resources.

Thinking through not just what appears in archives but also how those archives work and how we can use the data to make better archives is, to me, the same conversation. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to code, but rather that scholars should understand how digital archives are put together and participate in building and rebuilding those archives

So, what does this examination tell us that we didn’t already know? What, if anything, is important here? We already know that many scholars use “archives” to mean a wide variety of things other than the standard (American) archival definition. Even Richard Pearce-Moses states in his notes on this definition: “In the vernacular, ‘archives’ is often used to refer to any collection of documents that are old or of historical interest, regardless of how they are organized.” And we have seen have many people (including archivists) may refer to digital collections of surrogates as a “digital archive.” So the inconsistent use of “archives” is a horse that is already out of the barn.

For me, it is the casual equation of archives with the universe of accessible digital information that is troubling. Yes, I’m sure all of these scholars understand that the true universe of archives includes an incalculable volume of analog material that has not and probably never will be digitized. But to equate the problem of material that hasn’t been made digitally accessible with the problem of material that does not exist in archival collections . . . . that concerns me even if the problem is purely a semantic one. (A less troubling semantic issue is the lack of distinction between published and non-published source material. Much of the data referenced in the discussions appears to be drawn from books and other published, and therefore non-archival, sources.)

The distinctions made by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (as summarized in the book review cited above) are important ones. They can have different causes and they usually are imposed by different actors. Trouillo lists as the causes for the silences in “the making of history”:

  • there is a silencing in the making of sources. Which events even get described or remembered in a manner which allows them to transcend the present in which they occurred? Not everything gets remembered or recorded. Some parts of reality get silenced.
  • there is a silencing in the creation of archives — the repositories of historical records. Again, choices are made, accidents occur, judgments made, and some of our recorded past is silenced. At times this archival silencing is permanent since the records do not get preserved; other times the silencing is in the process of competition for the attention of the narrators, the later tellers of the historical tales.
  • the narrators themselves necessarily silence much. In most of history the archives are massive. Choices, selections, valuing must be done. In this process, huge areas of archival remains are silenced.
  • finally, not every narrative becomes a part of the “corpus,” the standard historical narrative received and accepted by various groups as the past. This “corpus” will be different for professional historians, critical readers, the general public and so on, but only a handful of narrations become the final produce: “history.”

The “archival silences” referenced in this recent digital humanities discussion are of that last type. The materials that have been digitized and marked-up serve as a kind of  “corpus” for this group of scholars. It is this corpus that is incomplete, and for the foreseeable future always will be. And it may be that the rest of the factors contributing to silence also exist; it is possible that there are also what I would describe  as “archival silences” in the corpus of digital humanities data.

What concerns me is that in this adoption of vocabulary the depth of the universe of true archives may be lost. How absurd is it to think there may come a point for some scholars at which the difference between the two meanings of archival silence may be elided, and that which is not available digitally will become equated with that which does not exist?  I am no scholar, but I believe there has been a wealth of discussion in archival studies about what we call “archival silence.” I am not the person to bring that wealth of archival discourse into the digital humanities dialogue, but I hope someone with that kind of understanding does so soon.

Regarding questions about why some materials (again often published ones) have been digitized and others have not, this is an area where archivists and librarians have experience and expertise. Archivists, by definition, understand the challenges presented by the need for selection and the preferencing of some materials over others. I think our profession has something to add to these discussions.  It is time, I think, for some archival voices to start speaking about archival silences.

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