Digital Historiography and the Archives

AHA Session 83
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Michael J. Kramer, Northwestern University
Desperately Seeking Context: An Exercise in Digital Resource Criticism
Katharina Hering, National Equal Justice Library, Georgetown University Law Library
The Twenty-First-Century Historian and Digital Archives
Joshua Sternfeld, independent scholar
The Audience

Session Abstract

Historians have tended to understand archives primarily as a service provided to support their research and scholarship, without acknowledging the independent role of archives in collecting, preserving, and contextualizing historical information. This perception has slowly begun to change. The digital medium has challenged historians to expand their knowledge about archives, and understand their function in generating scholarship and knowledge. What materials do archives collect and preserve, and why? Which materials are selected, and which are excluded? What are the driving forces and principles guiding the contextual information about collections provided by archives? Which political, social, economic, and cultural power relationships now structure the archives?

In many ways, such questions reflect the common interests found at the over century-old intersection of the modern archival and historical professions. Digital technologies, in both their ubiquity and accelerated pace of development, have drawn urgent attention to that relationship, while in the process redefining the landscape.  Not only has the digital medium brought heightened awareness of established archival principles and historical practice, but it has also introduced new lines of theoretical inquiry. Historians and archivists are beginning to work with sources of varying scope, format, and provenance, thereby challenging both archivists and historians to reconsider the limits of historical inquiry, the contextualizing properties of metadata, the design of access systems, and the engagement of new audiences.  In short, trends in digital scholarship and practices have contested our very conception of the “archive” as well as the role of the 21st-century historian.

Historians and archivists -- along with librarians, museum specialists, computer scientists, programmers, and many others -- are beginning to respond to these complex issues in various ways, including the proposal of developing a new framework called digital historiography.  For the purpose of this discussion, we propose one possible working definition of digital historiography as the critical, interdisciplinary study of the interaction of digital technology with historical practice.

In this roundtable session, we propose to discuss the role of the archives in critical digital historiography. Through a series of brief, thought-provoking presentations and an extended discussion between panelists and the audience, we will explore the theoretical and methodological questions raised by digital archives as they pertain to historical practice. How can archival theory inform critical digital historiography? How can information professionals, including archivists, collaborate with scholars to create critical contextual information for sources, reference resources, and repositories that will serve a diverse community of users composed of researchers, information professionals, educators, students and the public?

The roundtable discussion, which will be chaired by Michael J. Kramer, will be introduced by three brief discussion papers: The Archival Perspective and Digital Historiography (Kate Theimer),The 21st-Century Historian and Digital Archives (Joshua Sternfeld), and Desperately Seeking Context (Katharina Hering). We are hoping for an active and extended discussion with the audience, which include, we hope, historians active in the digital humanities, archivists, and any other attendants who are interested in the topic.

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