For this post, I’ll be looking at the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA).
The Slave Societies Digital Archive (formerly known as Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies) is dedicated to identifying, cataloguing, and digitally preserving endangered archival materials documenting the history of Africans and Afro-descended peoples in the Iberian colonies. Slave Societies is directed by Jane Landers and administered at Vanderbilt University.
Perhaps the most glaring way in which the SSDA entrenches itself within a traditional academic (and thus implicitly white) framework is its emphasis on the fragility of its featured documents.
Ecclesiastical sources are, therefore, the longest, and most uniform, serial data available for the history of Africans in the Americas, and many are in perilous condition. Most are held in religious archives or local churches, at risk from climate, bug infestation, and other damage. Too often, lay persons or parish priests are their only guardians, and most of these well-meaning individuals are unaware of the historic significance of the documents they manage, or how fragile they are. Sadly, there are few resources available for preserving these treasures and if not captured quickly, some may be lost forever. The dispersed nature of the records also makes them difficult for scholars to access, especially those scholars whose countries can offer little research support. Most have never been seen by scholars and if not captured quickly, will never be seen.
While I would be one of the first to leap to the defense of books and records which threaten to slip from the collective memory of humanity due to neglect, the “about the project” page is almost startlingly consumed with the purpose of the archive being one of preservation: “most have never been seen by scholars and if not captured quickly, will never be seen.” The archive does surprisingly little to suggest that anyone but “scholars” will be interested in these documents from slave societies, revealing key assumptions about the type of value placed upon these documents by the project team (and perhaps those providing funding, among them the NEH). The same preoccupation on the landing page reinforces the idea that these documents are too important to be left to rot, without actually placing them in any sort of historical context or even a context of scholarly use. So, one is inevitably left with the feeling that these documents are important because they are extant, and extant because they are important.
Does this problem change in the archive itself, when you venture past the landing page and “about” screens? To an extent. The individual projects are almost like their own separate entities, and some, like this one, have made an attempt to contextualize and historicize their materials. While still presenting the problem of white scholars from English-speaking countries “saving” these materials for the sake of preservation (presumably for white scholars working on predominately white projects), it is a step in a better direction.
I have to mention briefly that we have the consistent problem here of programmers, designers, and web developers being not only secondary but tertiary in their credit for work on this archive. I don’t know how this keeps happening. The amount of work that goes into actually building an online presence like this to support so many documents and make them available is nothing to relegate to the “end credits.”
We also run into the familiar issue of “free” content, though I believe that their intentions are noble here.
The primary directive of the Slave Societies Digital Archive is to preserve and freely disseminate invaluable documents for the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World, in collaboration with partners around the globe. We welcome scholarly contributions and assistance in this effort.
Many problems like these are issues with several DH projects precisely because they are actually carrying over entire projects or project-ideas which were built within a traditional archival framework. In thinking about Gallon’s rightful admonition of the Digital Humanities as a field which has missed its initial chance to right the wrongs of a somewhat archaic system–the basics of which having literally been formed in the empires of antiquity as well as the recent past–we might consider that we are continually offered chances to return these projects to their essential elements and right those wrongs in the process of digitization. The field itself might have to reckon with the fact that it missed the optimal timing to reintroduce humanity to the humanities, but those hundreds (if not thousands) of digitization projects which are currently in their infancy can and should return to the drawing board in the process, beginning not with an impulse to simply make digital what was print, but the Cartesian experiment of beginning with nothing and going from there. Then, we have a real shot at making progress.