Cheeseman – Question 5
5How do digital representations of archival materials change our perceptions of those materials, and in particular, aspects of those materials not considered previously editable or archivable?
Teaching Associate and Honorary Research Fellow – University of Sheffield
Project Leader, Sandpit – Furnace Park
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Some of my answer to Question 4 is relevant here, especially in relation to mobile apps and GPS, which have brought a spatial dimension to archival material, affording it a direct connection to space, which perhaps was not possible before. In turn, this obviously makes it easier to welcome physical space, buildings, and location-specific material into the archive.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Thinking more about my experience with digital archives created by social cataloging than the artistic performances and app-based work I have done, a number of issues arise. Firstly, the extent of crowdsourced labor has created huge digital representations of latent, abstract archives. In format-focused sites such as LibraryThing (books) and Discogs (recorded music), this gives the researcher (and the market) access to very large, if format-limited, data sets that allow researchers to perceive connections between items that would not be possible otherwise. In more open-ended, non-format-specific websites that support social-cataloging behavior (such as Facebook, YouTube, and blogs) it produces digital representations that verge on the psychedelic in their variety and scope. Such sites afford the researcher insight into personal and emotional data concerning archival material, in addition to public critique and commentary. By enabling social cataloging, all of these sites also provide insight into popular archival interests, beliefs, and practices. One can consult the popular archive in order to read the popular archivist.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Having said this, I would also like to challenge the implication of the question, which seems to assume that digital representation can only enhance our perceptions. Elements of social cataloging like tagging can be extremely confusing, inconsistent, and frustrating. More worrisome, though, is the sense of power that websites such as Facebook and YouTube afford the user by positioning them in the role of archivist. Although this can be liberatory, it can also be interpreted as a simulacrum of control, with media corporations having far more power over users’ perceptions of material than appearances suggest.1
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Furthermore, the ease of making a digital representation and the simplicity of social cataloging has meant that the digital archive of popular culture materials is huge, maddeningly repetitive, and extremely difficult to navigate or map. A side effect is that one almost begins to devalue the content and meaning of the material, adopting instead an attitude that information alone, and the production of information, is enough. Finally, I am concerned with the restrictions that being digital impose on embodied research, specifically the way in which it flattens the physicality of the archive by distorting dimensions and eliminating senses such as smell, touch, and taste.2 Like most researchers this is not so much of a problem because my interests are based around texts that can be easily represented in terms of sound and vision. I would, however, like to conclude by registering my fear and awe of the aspects of the digital that accentuate the already ghostly qualities of both printed representations and archives themselves.