DTC 560 Blog 1/19 Archives

I chose to look in tandem at the Bracero Archive and the Slave Societies digital archive. While they share similarities, the approaches of these projects are quite different. When it comes to collaboration, there is a much clearer hierarchy delineated in the visual space of the Slave Societies digital archive than there is in the credits of the Bracero Archive. I much prefer the Bracero Archive’s way of giving each contributor equal spatial attention (though it is a much smaller group of people, as well). On content, another point that I will make further in my post is that the Bracero Archive is unfortunately a bit opaque as an actual interactive experience. The Slave Societies digital archive fares a bit better, breaking things down and explaining process, documentation, and providing a list of image scans which positions them geographically. Both of these archives resist browsing to a degree, but the Bracero Archive seems the worse of the two in this regard.

Honma’s article prompted me to ask the question, do these archives find, use, or constitute nonwhite systems of knowledge? The answer: “it’s complicated.”

The Bracero archive would seem to be a decent step in the right direction. Focused around the lived experiences of a marginalized group–migrant workers in the 1940s–it promises genuine encounters. Including varying voices and perspectives from all races and backgrounds is important for combating the invisibility of race in LIS (Honma 17), and to that end encouraging and empowering users to make their own stories known–as does the Bracero archive–is key to destabilizing a white knowledge structure. As Dr. Christen noted in class, however, the Bracero Archive doesn’t make it obvious what gatekeeping is involved once an artifact is submitted. It is very possible that there is a very traditional archiving selection process behind adding new voices and artifacts, and however good the intentions, such a process would be once again subjecting these sources to a kind of white authority in that way, if not more directly through oversight by white archivists. This isn’t (as much of a) problem with the Slave Societies archive, because the materials are ecclesiastical and mostly found in church storage, not directly submitted lived experiences. However, source criticism issues such as selection bias and traditional archival practices do come into play as potential colonial influences.

Another similar problem lies in presentation of the Bracero archive’s artifacts: when one opens the “archive” tab and is met with a long list of names in alphabetical order and nothing else, it feeds into the idea that these workers and their experiences are interchangeable, and that deprives them of their meaning and potential impact. Moreover, this design reifies a white discourse which seeks to hypersimplify the vast range of lived experiences of people of color down to one, or at most two stories (Honma 17). It is all the more problematic considering the stated goal of the archive, which is to inform current debates about immigration. A far better approach would be to highlight several stories of different experiences under the program on a rotating basis, combating the white narrative of the single immigrant story. As it stands, these stories seem a bit like the hermetically-sealed and contained artifacts within a Western archiving framework which Cushman lays out on page 117, instead of the interactive elements of a living history in a decolonial setting.

The Slave Societies archive does seek to provide an almost overwhelmingly wide, stratified range of experiences from the get-go, however, ranking it in my mind as a much better approach. Still, once one accesses the actual files, the listing of individual scans can be almost as disappointing as that of the Bracero archive. There is a noticeable shift in design from the landing pages to the actual archival lists, which (to my mind) brought back that Western aura of clinical separation which Cushman is addressing.

Overall, the work of both of these archives is clearly important and very useful, especially if you know what it is that you’d like to find when you enter their web portals. However–and I hope it is no surprise that design is about more than pure aesthetics in circumstances like these–these projects deserve a more imaginative user-end experience if they are to make more of an impact on a wider audience. For those seeking to engage with the stories of their parents or grandparents, finding them listed as more than a name in an alphabetical list would surely enrich the experience. For scholars or educators and their students, a more creative approach would also help to provide a web of context for artifacts and thus present them in a more analytically and emotionally accessible framework. I envision exploratory pathways or mapping, as a start. Such approaches would counter a dominant white discourse which is routinely “collecting and preserving artifacts from othered traditions” (Cushman 118).

 

2 thoughts on “DTC 560 Blog 1/19 Archives

  1. curtisharty

    I found similar design and construction issues in the Slave Societies Digital Archive. I agree with what you say about aesthetics and I like your idea about “rotating stories” instead of lists. Landon made an interesting comment on my post on Friday about the effectiveness of using Cushman to analyze the Walt Whitman project and that Cushman’s ideas might be better used to in decolonizing Whitman’s work instead of the website. That leads to the question of how it would look to decolonizing an archive of literature that is very white and could be said to be colonizing? My own opinion is that it comes down to access. I wonder how different these websites would be if access for the greatest number of people was taken into account. For example, the Walt Whitman Archive and the Slave Societies Digital Archive were both created with academic access in mind. And because they were thinking of academic access they mirrored a traditional archival structure–for the most part. I think to change this sort of thinking that we as academics need to release some control by partnering with groups outside of the university that are invested in the material of the archive. This would have the effect of changing how we see the end use of the material and would influence or change the way the material is presented and how the platform functions.

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  2. Hi Richard!
    Thank you for this wonderful post.
    In addition to the aspects you listed above, the use of language in SSDA also makes it less accessible. While working on SSDA, I was wondering how African voices are silenced by the language of the Catholic church and other ecclesiastical bodies. These documents repressed the vernaculars of African slave societies and made those communities with different vernaculars “interchangeable” (using your term). The archive claims to preserve these documents which are valuable for the descendants as they tell the stories of their ancestors, but I wonder how much those stories are lost in translation (by the Catholic Church and colonizer’s administration).

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