“Born Digital”

It is only natural for preservationists and historians to be skeptical of projects which are “born digital” and never make a transition to analog resources. It presents a drastic shift in how historians think about resources and what it means to preserve information and objects. It also comes with a number of significant drawbacks and challenges, first and foremost the manipulation of data which can take place in online formats that are not sufficiently protected or maintained. However, there are some online archive projects which I believe demonstrate just how useful and worthwhile “born digital” content can be.

The April 16th Archive is a project organized by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and preserves the memory of the “Virginia Tech Massacre,” which took place on their campus in 2007. The site is filled with primarily images but also some text sources which relate to the event itself but primarily memorials and memory of the event. The site if frankly not very well constructed. Powered by Omeka, many of the entries do not contain any actual items, text or images and entries are too frequently riddled with random strings of gibberish that presumably are files someone tried to import but which were not translated. The website stands as a testament to “born digital archives” not in execution but in theory. This site stands as a testament to community-oriented and immediate collection of resources for preservation. Especially in emergency situations and the immediate aftermath, preservation of materials is difficult to do. By creating what is effectively a crowd-sourced archive that affords community members – those who have the most stock in the preservation of memory concerning the shooting – the opportunity to contribute and aid historians. Things which would otherwise not be preserved – primarily signs and the ever-ephemeral impromptu memorial – live on at least in photographs through archiving projects of this nature. The major drawback in this regard is quality – quantity may not be lacking, but the people taking these photographs do not have high resolution cameras not the intent to preserve, for example, the name of every last person written on a memorial wall. Therefore, information is still lost and the archive is still insufficient compared to a coordinated archiving project with the necessary equipment and skills.

The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank suffers from similar issues. The website contains many useful images, but oral histories and videos simply redirect the viewer to other sites and are not available directly. This website does something differently from the April 16 Archives, which is in my opinion neither good nor bad but different. Where the community gets to comment on and preserve the tragedy indirectly by donating what is important to them in the former, the latter provides the opportunity for contributors to directly comment on and provide personal accounts on submitted objects. While in most archives no such personal account would be directly attached to the resource, the purpose of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is, as the name suggests, to preserve memory: that is, not only scenes from the natural disaster but how it and the aftermath was experienced by those directly affected and those who came to aid. Again, this project would be nearly impossible to organized on such a scale without the use of crowd-sourced, born-digital content creation.

4 thoughts on ““Born Digital””

  1. I think the biggest issue facing the April 16th website is maintenance. As you mentioned the problem is quality not quantity. The intention of this website is good but there does not seem to be anybody working behind the scenes to make sure that everything is accessible to the user. Crowd-sourcing to create these projects is very important but somebody needs to take the lead to ensure that they remain of good quality.

  2. I thought the 9/11 digital archive did a much better job of crowdsourcing responses than the two archives you discuss above. I would like to know the different ways the people working on these projects went about their work. My guess is that the 9/11 project had a vision and went about collecting and archiving in a strategic way, where as the other two (especially April 16 one) just accepted anything and everything that was sent to them.

  3. I find this question about balancing quality and quantity interesting. This week’s readings talk about how these born digital archives have made the archival process more democratic by opening it up to anyone interested and with something to contribute. I do believe that that is important but where do we draw that line where we decide as historians to decide what is and is not quality? Maybe some possible solutions are having a transparent process where the site indicates how it will judge the submissions or by allowing all content to be added to the site but only certain quality images to be highlighted.

  4. I think your point about images of signs and informal memorials is interesting. I was thinking the opposite– that this material probably was professionally photographed and archived, and that what made this material “born digital” is that they are photographs not taken to preserve the sign itself, but the photo-takers experience of the sign, in its original context.

    That is, there’s a significant difference between a photograph of a “Classes have been moved” paper sign photographed taped to a classroom door and uploaded from a student’s cell phone, that same physical piece of paper in a folder in a box in a physical archive, and a professionally digitized version of the paper. So I disagree with your idea that these photographs allow ephemera like that sign to “live on,” however haphazardly documented. To me, the point is not to preserve the sign– the point is the photograph itself.

    It’s true that the photographers did not have the equipment or the intent needed to preserve every person written on a wall, but I do not at all think that that makes this archive insufficient compared to a professional archiving project. It only means that the uses of that lopsided photograph of half the memorial will be different than a professional and complete picture.

    I believe there’s valuable information related to the sheer experience in the community member’s picture: what they chose to focus the camera on, what other pictures they took, what kind of camera they used, when they took the picture, what was left out, etc., that make the use of their picture different from simply preserving the memorial. We would probably agree on this: ideally, community members’ photographs and professional photographs would both be preserved (although I assume they are, just not on this archive).

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