Archives and Access

Ben Vershbow talks about “subverted hierarchy” when explaining how comments for a book writing project were along side text instead of following the structure most blogs use in which primary text, for lack of a better description” dominates a primary space and response are subordinated to a position separate form, often below, the primary text [description mine] in the video “NYPL Labs: Hacking the Library.”  I was struck by Vershbow’s comment because it disrupted a normalized process.  We can disrupt the process of archiving as well to allow for more access .
Vershbow’s phrase stuck with me because it emphasizes the importance of structure archiving.  In the “What’s On the Menu?,” an archive in the making of transcriptions on the NYPL menu project, the projects seeks to make its “ approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present searchable.  The NYPL describes the collection as: “The New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts.”  What makes this project exceptionally exciting is that the transcription will increase access for those using screen readers and for other patrons who may have not been able to access the information on the images of the menus.  How we create archives in DH will shape who has access to records.  Thinking about not only how folks will access collections, but also about who will access collections, will help us expand our culture of open access. The more often we include access design in the building process—not just the accessing of something once it’s built, and possibility once it has been built with access barriers—the better builders we become.
I would like to see the same transcription approach with one of my favorite collections: “The Grocery List Collection.”
Now that I have a better understanding about how the work of archiving can be a collaborative process, I value archiving even more because it offers more opportunities to build a culture of access in DH.  I would like to read more on how DH archivists consider access.

3 Responses to Archives and Access

  1. Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet October 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Hey Dale,

    First of all, I really liked the link that you provided– very interesting kind of project (and something I can see myself wasting hours of time on in the future).

    Your point about archives creating access (or denying it) and building their user-base was really insightful. I know I’ve mentioned it to you personally before, but your discussion of access and accessibility in this class has really thrown a lot of different things into another light for me.

    If we become better builders (and in my mind, better, more inclusive thinkers) through the process of extending accessibility and making sure that as many as possible have access in some way, how do the things we build look different than past models?? I can think of a few things, specifically in relation in archives: by digitizing, by making sure that those digitized copies are accessible and readable for people with different visual impairments or learning differences. But how does or could the building aspect change?

    (Not necessarily answerable or relevant questions, maybe, but part of how I’ve been trying to think about access this semester)

  2. Dale Katherine Ireland October 23, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Hi Mikayla,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Building would change in that the value of open access–a hallmark of the DH (Digital Humanities) community–would open up to include access to what we build. The process of opening up would, I hope, go beyond such things as ADA (American with Disabilities Act) compliance. We could consider jargon, such as my using “ADA” and “DH,” and the barriers such jargon might offer people unfamiliar with such code. We might better consider how heterosexual normatives dominate Websites at which people register and are asked to identify their gender.

    Building would change because we consider how the act of building is in itself an argument–a claim–about things such as gender and disability. When we build, our politics are showing in that how we ask visitors to negotiate what we build is a reflection of what we value. If we change how we build, we could expand what we value when we proudly hold up our open access keystone.

    Here is the funny thing: the grocery list site is one that I have used often in comp/rhet (see, my use of more jargon will not help someone who does not know that “comp/rhet” is code for “composition and rhetoric”) classes to teach assumptions. Part of the work my students do with the lists is writing transcripts for the images because I require all that we work with during the term be accessible–part of my teaching access literacy. I never thought about how such an approach worked in archives. Doh.

    Your response got me thinking; thank you, Mikayla.


  3. Dale Katherine Ireland October 23, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Hey Mikayla,

    Speaking of gender, access and design, take a look at the description of an upcoming talk by Tara McPherson (I learned about her from a RT by Matt). It is the last line that especially speaks to the point I tried to make about building and access.

    “How did a feminist film scholar trained in post-structuralist theory end up running a software lab? In answering that question, this talk engages various histories in the development of computational systems in order to argue that we need more humanities scholars to take seriously issues in the design and implementation of software systems. Humanities scholars are particularly well suited to help us think through such topics as the status of the archive as it mutates into the database, the possibilities for less hierarchical computing, and the cultural contexts of code. In short, this talk argues that neither theorizing media nor building new technologies is sufficient onto itself; we must necessarily do both.

    As a concrete example of the relationship of theory to practice, I will look at the work our USC team has undertaken over the last decade, including the digital journal, Vectors, and the new multimodal authoring platform, Scalar. Our research has always been in direct dialogue with key issues in the interpretative humanities, including discussions of race, gender, sexuality, social justice and power. Can such a dialogue come to shape the practice of software design?

    Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Gender and Critical Studies in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.”


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