Unconference Critique Digitale

Panel 3, Session 1 Basel

Do., 21.10.21, 15.45 - 16.30

Title:Transparency and democratizing archives by digitization

Can digitisation make archives more transparet and democratic?

Starting point for this question are discussion about colonial archives in postcolonial studies, which insist that historians should not only practice “source criticism” but also a kind of “archive criticism”, that addresses the biases of colonial archives. Ann Laura Stoler and others have suggested to study archives themselves as cultural artefacts; Carolyn Hamilton suggests to study archival records with a focus on their backstory, biography and life in the archive; and Michel-Rolph Trouillot importantly points out how silences are created in processes of archiving. How can digitisation contribute to making such biases and silences recognisable?

Digitisation is often thought of as a tool for democratisation. Here I would like to draw attention to a couple of issues that make the democratic aspect more complicated: First, digitisation of archival records and museum collections of material from the Global South needs to be thought together with the issue of restitution, as there is a tendency for digitisation to be used as an alibi for restitution (“digital restitution”). Second, a digital divide still exists and needs to be taken into account in digitisation projects. Third, digitisation of existing analogue collections tend to reproduce exclusions inherent to them, through practical issues like language (e.g. if catalogues are in German but collections are relevant to non-German speaking communities).

One quesiton that is connected to this points is how new modes of collaboration between archivists, historians and the public are ushered in by digitisation, as digitisation allows for a wider circulation of archvial records and for their reappropriation by various publics (including practices that might “decolonise” colonial collections). Digitisation also sparks more citizen science projects, which are both challenging and promising for collecting institutions.