Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Limitations of Digital Archives


This week we’ve been talking about digital archives of cultural objects and how they get published online, as well as the reactions they can cause in the cultural groups themselves and other audiences. Digital archives are intended to allow easy access to research materials, but by delving deeper, we can see that there are limitations to what is published online, as well as the issue of what, exactly, gets published, and what it can say about the whole archive.

In Amy Earhart’s article, she talks a lot about how what is included or excluded from an archive can reveal a lot about what the archive is about- intentional or not. She gives the example of MONK (Metadata Offer New Knowledge), which combined the contents of several other archives to form an archive that could provide a visual analysis of the literature and documents that came from the American 19th century. However, in doing this, they overlooked the fact that the majority of the documents were not written by people of color, and thus only provided one general perspective of the time period: the predominant view of white culture. Other archives that attempted to address the issue of not having content written by people of color found that many of the texts have been lost. There are several excuses for this, mainly that the digital world was viewed by many of its authors/contributors to be free from the classifications of race, gender, or class, and thus would not address such things. However, this also highlights issues within the digital humanities field, particularly that of selection (of what goes online) and historical structure. Thus, scholars of the digital humanities are attempting to address these issues by, as Smith says, “construct[ing] a digital canon that will weigh content and technological choices equally.”

In Jerome McGann’s article, he also talks about the limitations of online archives, as well as how essential they are. He describes online archives as being enormously helpful to scholars all across the globe, who can access things digitally and thus conduct research more easily. But he also states that there are limitations to these archives, mainly because of its scholarly design of the texts. There are many texts that haven’t been published online because they are hard to attain, are too costly, or are lost.

The Real Face of Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 6.14.56 PMWhite Australia is an online archive that is intended to show the overlooked immigrants in Australia, and how the majority of the people are not white at all, but of a different race. However, while the archive is intended to show this, it does not have very much information beyond the fact that it is depicting all the overlooked members of “White Australia.” Clicking on the pictures doesn’t yield very much information, so getting to the point of why this specific person was included in the archive is difficult.




  1. Andrew J. Rocha

    October 1, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I think you hit a lot of the main points of both texts and you really focus on the fact that archives do not really have a lot of information on the people of a differing gender and race besides that of white males. And I think your example of “The Real Face of White Australia” is an excellent point. The intentions of the archive might be in the right place but there doesn’t seem to be the information that a researcher or student might be seeking.

  2. I really like your examination of the Earhart text, and I think you struck right at the heart of the issue. Her discussion of how racially unequal online archives are just reminds me of other aspects of the Humanities, like the literary canon, and how whitewashed things are there, too. The online realm of the Humanities is supposed to be something that crosses racial boundaries, as you mentioned, but when every race besides white is underrepresented, that doesn’t really help anyone. It’s a shame that the field is still so exclusive, even in an online world open to sharing with everyone. I liked the example you used with the Invisible Australians archive, too, as Andrew pointed out in his comment. It’s like the archive is attempting to make up for the lack of people of color in online databases, but only on the most basic level.

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