Digital and Pre-Digital Archives in Societal Systems

It can be easy to look at archives as an unbiased, somehow pure repository of information, but, of course, that’s not actually possible. In order to have an archive, you need to have an archiver. No matter who the archiver is, they will always have personal biases, and no matter how consciously they remove those personal biases from the act of archiving, they will always have an impact on what does and does not get archived. Any level of consciousness of personal bias will leave some amount of unconscious bias. A good example for thinking about how bias affects archives is bias about gender. There is information about women that is now lost to us where we do have information about men because of the biases about gender of those who were responsible for making sure that information was preserved–whether or not that task was considered archiving at any given point.

Orlando plays an interesting role as an archive within this dynamic of bias driving archiving and the preservation of information. It is an archive devoted to restore and collect information against the trend of a particular bias that has existed. That is not to say, of course, that the people running Orlando do not have their own biases–how could they avoid that?–but it does a lot more to attempt to recover from the errors of other archives. This extends the meaning of the archive from a means of preservation to a means, also, of restoration or recovery. Orlando, by its very existence, challenges the traditional notion of archiving.

The fact that Orlando is a digital archive plays no insignificant role in how it expands the function of the archive. Part of the function of restoration is, here, duplication of information from other sources. As archives collect primary texts, only a single physical archive may contain the original primary text itself. While it is certainly possible for physical archives to contain copies of items, digitization streamlines that copying process. The step of printing is obviously skipped, but the method itself of accessing a digital archive is what streamlines the process most efficiently. Digital access effectively solves the problem of being able to only have a limited number of people view an archive item at one time.

Orlando’s particular topic of British women’s writing is of particular significance to how the archive functions within societal systems of privilege and marginalization, particularly due to what digitization provides. Where the biases of archivers traditionally served those societal systems, Orlando works against those power structures by compensating for that problem. Could we, perhaps, see digital archives work against other such power structures in society? Is there, perhaps, historical information about transgender people and nonbinary genders that could be recovered and collected? Gender essentialists problematically argue that nonbinary genders were invented only recently; however, genders such a two-spirit, and others tied to specific cultures, are known to have been recognized and expressed since long before Tumblr was even the seed of a concept. It would be fascinating and extremely significant for a hypothetical archive, like Orlando has done for British women writers, to recover and collect all the information it can about nonbinary people around the world in antiquity.

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