Why this discussion matters: part one
Everyone knows words can be slippery things and language evolves. Words mean different things in different contexts and people adopt and adapt words to suit their own needs. So in some ways, my ongoing effort to discuss the meaning of the word “archive(s)” seems rather like a fool’s errand. But then I see news stories like this one about the failed BBC project that cost the British public 98.4 million pounds:
It added that confusion about the technology and problems with getting the system to work had also been to blame, including “confusion within the BBC about the use of key terms such as ‘archive database’ and ‘digital archive’.”
Last month in Toronto, I gave a talk in which I debated with myself “Everything is an Archive Now: Good Thing or Bad Thing for Archives?” My conclusion was, naturally, that it’s both. One aspect of the downside is that groups who have to work together—like archivists, scholars, and information technology professionals—often mean different things by the same word and may not know that they are talking past each other (often assuming that their meaning is the commonly understood one). I also talked about this a bit in my remarks at the AHA about the problems with historians and archivists not necessarily sharing the same vocabulary when it comes to “digital archives.” Trevor Owens will be posting an excellent piece on The Signal blog about the many meanings for different professionals and I think it will go a long way to starting a discussion about how these meanings relate to each other (UPDATE: Trevor’s post is now up.)
But I want to dig a little deeper into the “archival” meaning of “archives” and how that relates to the various ways in which we see “digital archives” used. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss some other reasons this discussion is one that I keep returning to.
What is an archive or an archives?
In the definition of “archives” in A Glossary of Archives & Records Terminology (2005), Richard Pearce-Moses noted that the word (either “archive” as a noun or “archives”) can refer to:
- a body of materials that is being preserved
- an organization or part of an organization
- a physical place
It is this first sense in which I think we see the term being used in broad sense in the media and in everyday usage. Any collection of stuff that people are keeping can be an archive or an archives. Any place where such stuff is being kept may be referred to as an archives. The organization or group who brought it together and is preserving it may also be called an archives. That all seems reasonable in a broad, common sense way.
And so this extends logically to the usages of “digital archives,” which we see used to mean:
- a body of digital materials that is being preserved
- an organization preserving that digital material
- the place in which the digital material is stored
One interesting twist in the broad usage of “digital archives” is that the emphasis is often not that the digital materials are being preserved, but that they have been gathered together and are being made accessible on the web. Thus, those adopting the term may be thinking more of their “digital archives” as a virtual place in which materials can be accessed or as the organization (even if only an organization of one person) responsible for gathering the materials and making them accessible. But often in “digital archives” it is digital copies of non-digital materials that are being assembled and made available in the “archives” while the original non-digital copies are being preserved (and made accessible) in a variety of physical libraries and archives and by a variety of archival organizations.
Another aspect of this usage may also be that people perceive a key aspect of archives to be selection (or curation) and therefore a group of materials that has been deliberately selected and brought together qualifies as an “archives.” In this sense, it’s really the function of the archives as an organization that selects what materials to add to its holdings that’s being invoked, although perhaps unconsciously by those creating these “digital archives.” (I included some discussion of this in my article “Archives in Context and as Context” in the Journal of Digital Humanities if you’re interested.) And, of course, there are also “digital archives” in which copies of born-digital materials are being preserved as well as being made accessible. As I noted in my AHA talk, the term is applied to a broad range of uses. And very possibly many of those using it have never actually given much thought to in what sense their collection, site or project is an archives. If the moniker seems to fit, why not use it?
But what this broad usage of the term means is that it is often difficult for a user to know whether or not a digital archives also adheres to one additional aspect of the Pearce-Moses’ definition:
- “the professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations”
Archives and digital archives—collections, organizations, and places—that are administered in a manner that adheres to the professional discipline of archives are different than those that do not. (For anyone who”s not familiar with the basic tenets of that professional discipline, I also gave an overview of them in the “Archives in Context and as Context article.) Note I did not say that they were better, but different. It’s arguable whether the word “archives “ was ever commonly understood to be synonymous with a collection, organization, or place administered in adherence to the discipline of archives, and I’m sure evidence can be produced to show the word has always been used in a broader sense. However, I also feel sure that the broadening of the usage we have seen in the digital age has diminished whatever common understanding there was.
So that is the world we live in, as you all know. The world in which archives and digital archives are used to refer to virtually anything, and are sometimes used by people who believe their usage is consistent with professional practice in their field—and it may be—but that usage has nothing to do with adhering to the professional discipline of archives. This means, as I concluded in my remarks in Toronto—that archivists and all related professionals need to be very clear in our communications with each other about what we mean when we talk about “archives.” (And Trevor Owens’s post on The Signal will help facilitate that.) In my personal experience, the burden for initiating that communication falls primarily on archivists. More often than not it is the archivist who must query and probe to determine what a scholar or IT professional means by “archives,” usually in the course of a discussion about what requirements or functionalities an “archives” needs to have. Not every archives or digital archives needs to adhere to the “professional discipline” of archives, but it’s a discipline that has much to offer in this field and one which we as archivists should continue to promote actively and vocally.