Digital Humanities and the Archive

As a librarian working in special collections and a relative newcomer to the digital humanities field, I really enjoyed this week’s readings and posted sites. I think it took looking through the sites, in particular, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) to understand what the field of digital humanities is and how I can approach projects not only as a librarian/archivist but as a digital humanist.

A simple definition of the traditional role of an archivist is one who acquires a collection, processes it with respect to ‘original order,’ and provides access to the public (usually through finding aids). In recent years, archivists have taken a more active role by collaborating with scholars across the disciplines to digitally “re-archive” (ECDA) existing collections and reassemble them to highlight alternate views of history from often underrepresented subjects/groups. The ECDA calls it “decolonizing the archive.”

An example of decolonizing the archive is in the ECDA’s Embedded Slave Narrative Collection. The team took works that were created by the European colonials in power and examined the text to find stories from the slaves themselves. These stories were extracted and authorial credit given to the slaves, like in “Clara’s Narrative.” While the team kept Bryan Edwards as an author for his work History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793), they also assigned Clara as an author for her narrative that appears in Edwards’ book. This digital archive has essentially given Clara and many of the slaves and indigenous people of the Caribbean a voice in the archive and Caribbean history.

The concept of decolonizing the traditional archive is such an interesting way for archivists to get involved in digital humanities projects. I don’t think this is something we could/should do by ourselves, so collaboration is key. While we believe that the original collection is of value and should be preserved, we understand that it may not create an authentic account of what happened. Therefore, we should be looking at what critical voices and experiences are missing and partner with digital humanists to recover those once silenced voices for a new digital archive.