Continued thinking about using archives for teaching, learning and research

When I was fortunate to be invited by, Anthony Mandal, Professor in Print and Digital Cultures,  to deliver the keynote at the recent GW4 Remediating the Archive workshop at the University of Cardiff, Wales, I decided to set out the current state of digitisation and its focus upon actual use of digital content by providing a survey of the activities of Jisc and other key digitisers over the years, starting with the Follett Report in 1993.

Audience feedback at the end of my talk suggested that a better understanding of past activities can inform current thinking. It helps to know that we have moved on considerably from the position of needing to just get stuff into digital form, to thinking much more carefully about what the reader/viewer might want to do with the resulting content in terms of identifying, selecting and utilising it for teaching, learning and research. Along the way we have learned so much. Digitisation can be undertaken in lots of ways, not just as part of large-scale publicly funded initiatives. What we need to do is to work out how best to encourage innovation in digitisation in order to facilitate standards-based smaller-scale initiatives. Jisc will hopefully find a new role in supporting these kinds of activities so that all the lessons it has learned over the years, from its many digitisation related initiatives, are not in vain.

During the day, we heard from archivists at Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Cardiff about archives which are online and those which are not, but probably should be. We also heard from students and academics about their interactions with archives both physical and digital. The conversation still focused on those old nuggets: standards, discovery and the re-representation of physical content in the digital realm; it’s different from print and paper but it’s clearly related.

Robert Bickers, Jamie Carstairs, Simon Price (Bristol) presented on Historical Photographs of China: The Journey towards Sustainability and Utility. Jennifer Batt (Bristol), explored Datamining for Verse in Eighteenth-Century Newspapers. Mark Burden (Bristol), talked about early work on The Cambridge Platonists at the Origin of Enlightenment. Rick Lawrence (Exeter), kept us royally entertained with his humorous delivery of a talk on the innovative Digital Research Prospectus at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery.

The two final talks were in my view particularly exciting. One, given by Dr Carrie Smith, Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Cardiff, demonstrated how teaching can be undertaken through the actual use of archives. She had set a module in which her students had produced a number of videos demonstrating how they had interpreted material from the Edward Thomas archive held at Cardiff. These digital testimonies are digital artefacts in themselves and Smith is concerned about how they get evaluated as there are no antecedents for judging this kind of digital output. By producing the videos students, have been able to explore, in detail, an item from the collections and were able to cross-reference it to the published work of the author. They are engaging with the physical, but also reproducing material digitally and making links between resources such as photographs, correspondence and drafts of manuscripts. Most of their outputs will be in digital form so questions arise as to how we retain links between the originating archival content and the resulting scholarly outputs. One student, Samantha Pallen, wrote of the experience of engaging with the archive:

However, I was surprised to learn the range of materials in the archive that fed into the final published poems; classically you imagine that a poem is written, edited through various manuscripts and then published, bish, bash, bosh. What I didn’t take into account was all of the materials that fall outside of this process, the photographs, the diaries, the correspondence with friends and family, which arguably have a greater impact on the creation of a piece of poetry.

By engaging in this way, students are learning about the nature of archives but are also questioning perceived wisdoms about what archives are for. Are they just stuffy places full of boxes, files and catalogues or are they living places in which we can get under the skin of our subject? Discussions surrounding the development of digital archives focused on how they could actually become better integrated in the lecture room. Can we create an environment in which digital evidence starts to be as important as the physical?

The other thought-provoking presentation was given by Michael Goodman, RA in the Cardiff University’s Digital Cultures Network, who demonstrated how his own production of a digital archive of images from 19th century publications, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, can form the basis for a PHD. Mikey said that there had been much criticism of his approach to the images as he manipulates them, rendering them different from the original which is exactly what he hopes to do; to re-render them for a new age of interaction.  Mikey also spoke of the possibilities offered by new media both in the 19th century and now with by the web. Enabling new audiences to engage with image, text and the discourse which is increasingly conducted on social media. Most striking for me was Mikey’s contention that scholars need to do their own digitisation which related to my allusion to a project called arHive which has gained support from Jisc as part of its Student Ideas Competition. The idea, of that project, is to enable those conducting research in archives to upload their own high quality images onto the cloud but in accordance with archival standards and policies. This is exactly the kind of imitative which could lead to a different way of building the digital archive. If everything can’t be digitised, due to various constraints, then perhaps parts of archives can be digitised by individuals. We could try to find ways of supporting this with a national infrastructure to facilitate best practice.

Late in the day, we were invited by James Freeman, Nina Parish and Gary Stringer to participate in a series of discussion groups to explore theorizing digital archives, teaching with digital archives and developing digital archives.  We were still talking at 5.30 on Friday afternoon; each layer of the conversation had led us deeper into an understanding that, working with digital archives demands a lot of thought, if we are to maximise their utility for future generations of researchers, teachers and learners.

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2 thoughts on “Continued thinking about using archives for teaching, learning and research

  1. Jan Everson

    Personally I have spent a lifetime in accessing documents in various archive buildings. However, I am now arthritic and can no longer walk well, so visiting archives now has become an obstacle course of how do I get there, can I afford the transport costs, can I access the building, get to the loos, never mind lugging notebooks and pencils and laptop. Now I find digital archives a great boon. I can still pursue my interests but in my “safe” surroundings. Both are needed so sections of the population are not disadvantaged.

  2. Peter Findlay Post author

    Thanks for your comment – sadly accessibility remains a problem for digital archives, as screen readers often do not work with the complex data they contain. It is, however, good to hear that they do work for you and that you are able to continue your research. I hope the archives continue to reap rich rewards.

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