Yale Workshop Review

Fifth Workshop: Diaspora and the digital

Yale University, October 23rd/24th, 2014

The fifth and final Diasporic Literary Archives workshop was hosted by the Beinecke Library and held at Yale University in the United States.  The focus of the workshop was on the digitization of archives in a global context, and the associated opportunities and challenges.  As with previous workshops, participants represented a variety of professional backgrounds – with archivists, curators, librarians and academics.  Local participants were joined by colleagues from Canada, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.

The workshop opened with progress updates from Trinidad and Tobago and Namibia.  Helena Leonce from the University of Trinidad and Tobago reported on the progress of a number of digital initiatives in her country and across the Caribbean region (H Leonce-Yale Workshop Presentation).  Veno Kauaria, the National Archivist of Namibia, spoke of how the writers’ workshops she has spearheaded in Namibia in response to her involvement with the Network are encouraging writers to see the value of their papers to future generations of scholars.  Her involvement with the Diasporic Literary Archives Network, she says, has had a profound effect on how literary archives are valued in Namibia.

The second session set the tone for the workshop by addressing the core issues of international understanding, developing a sensitivity around questions of location and the possibilities for collaboration.  Jens Boel, the Chief Archivist at UNESCO, opened with an announcement that UNESCO would be holding a symposium in February 2015 with the working title, ‘Safeguarding Documentary Heritage in Danger’.  The symposium will gather together 30-40 participants to analyse and discuss concepts, strategies and practices in order to produce an emergency action plan to prevent the loss of documentary heritage, and guidelines for safeguarding these materials.

Sophie Heywood provided an update on the ‘Archives en péril’ project, paying particular attention to the role that digital technologies are playing in raising awareness of the number, and locations, of endangered papers in the francophone world.  One outcome of this collaborative project is hoped to be the development of a programme at an Egyptian university to train professionals in the subject of preserving archives at risk.  On the subject of finding temporary homes for endangered archives, Trudy Peterson urged participants to consider the criteria used in the identification of ‘secure’ countries in which to hold the manuscripts of dissident writers who might attract unexpected interest from security agencies, for example.  She also highlighted the practice of taking security copies, either physical or digital, to locations outside the political reach of the state in which the originals are held.

Catherine Hobbs of Library and Archives Canada spoke of the importance of the geographical site of creation to researchers using literary archives.  The role of archivists in communicating this information is crucial, but as yet under appreciated.  Such information, she argued, is of particular importance to understanding and interpreting the work of dissident writers who may have worked under less than supportive circumstances.

The remainder of the workshop was broadly split into discussions around digital humanities projects, and those on born digital materials.  Lorraine Nero of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine noted that one of the biggest challenges facing digitization of material in the Caribbean is the question of maintaining the projects in the long-term, something that Alex Gil of Columbia University also brought up, particularly in relation to digital humanities projects in parts of the world where funding for the humanities is limited and uncertain.  For Nero, working in a region like the Caribbean, and without access to the sort of funding opportunities open to researchers and archival bodies in North America and Europe, collaboration to ensure that work isn’t being unnecessarily duplicated is key to maximising scarce resources.  The collaboration of multiple institutions in and around the Caribbean was also identified by Laurie Taylor of the University of Florida as instrumental to the long-term sustainability of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC).

Creating new methods of teaching using the resources created by digital humanities projects was discussed by several contributors.  Marijeta Bozovic and Peter Leonard of Yale University illustrated how they are using Yale’s Joseph Brodsky collection to teach innovative methods of research using digitized material.  Faculty at the University of Florida, University of Miami and Amherst College in Massachusetts have created a course using material on the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) that they deliver collaboratively across the three institutions.

dLOC and a multitude of other DH projects are providing the opportunity for students, scholars and in some cases, members of the public, to study archival material in geographical locations removed from where the original papers are held, and using forensic techniques too cumbersome for traditional archives.  For Neil Fraistat of the University of Maryland, such innovation must lead to greater public involvement in the humanities, something that is vital to its health and survival.

Despite the collective enthusiasm for digital humanities, there were some significant reservations.  Bonnie Mak of the University of Illinois urged participants to think about the human and environmental costs involved in the processes of digitizing archival material.  The process of scanning books and documents can involve hours of monotonous work, turning pages while hunched over scanning equipment, while the electricity required to power equipment and drives is often produced from non-renewable fossil fuels.  She also wondered who might be monitoring our use of online materials and the implications of such data collection.  Alex Gil suggested ways in which the digital age can create obstructions to keeping writers known.  As always, copyright and issues of privacy can present obstacles for researchers, but also for digital humanists wanting to create online versions of writers’ works and manuscripts.  However, Rachel Foss of the British Library noted that digitization can equally work to make available documents that might otherwise be unavailable to the public by redacting passages that the owner wants to remain private at present.

Born digital material is increasingly present within the acquisitions of contemporary writers’ papers.  As Gabriela Redwine of the Beinecke Library noted, many of the collections they acquire are of a hybrid nature, containing both digital and traditional archival materials.  Yale curators Nancy Kuhl and Melissa Barton noted that collecting institutions are as yet unwilling to weigh in publically on the financial value of born digital collections.  Valuation can be difficult owing in part to the fact that born digital collections tend to be less well organised than paper archives, and that it can be more difficult to assess the extent and content of them than traditional materials.  As a digital poet, Stephanie Strickland noted that current interest in literary archives still appears to focus on documents, either physical or digital, ignoring the creative process of coding involved in the digital literature formats that artists like she and keynote speaker David Jhave Johnston employ in their work.

Born digital collections can present both challenges and opportunities for archivists and scholars.  Translating multiple types of files from across the digital age requires imaginative technical solutions, often involving incorporating parts of older machines into modern ones.  Once files have been accessed, new and innovative tools are available to enable detailed forensic investigation of an author’s scripts.  Both the Beinecke’s Gabriela Redwine, and Donald Mennerich of New York University noted that there needs to be conversations between digital archivists and users to ascertain on the one hand what new research techniques are available for analysing digital materials and, on the other hand, what sort of information researchers would like to harvest from digital materials, given the right tools.  Rachel Foss’s experience with the Hanif Kureishi collection at the British Library has led her to be cautious in her use of some forensic techniques that may yield results that need to be viewed alongside the rather prosaic details of an author’s work habits and environment to give a true picture of the writing process.

Members of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network at Yale University

Members of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network at Yale University

While there are undoubtedly challenges facing all those working with archives in an increasingly digital age, the possibilities and positive outcomes for collaboration across institutions and borders should be highlighted.  In his closing remarks, E.C. Schroeder, the Director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, reflected on the achievements of the network to date and noted that creating the relationships that can lead to such collaborations should remain a priority among those working with archives.

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