Disrupting the Archive

I don’t want to be overly reflective, but I do want to take a moment to remark on what it was like to be on the “Disrupting the Archive” panel at #GWdh15, George Washington University’s annual Digital Humanities symposium that, this year, was on “disrupting DH.” As M Bychowski points out in her blog, the symposium itself was conceptualized as a way to think about both what is DH, and what is the power of DH?

What happens when academics, activists, and publishers join forces to rethink how we research, teach, and generate knowledge? How can digital humanists mobilize online media and social networks to radically transform the spaces of the ARCHIVE, the CLASSROOM, and the IVORY TOWER?

The first panel was specifically about DH in the archive, and the ways in which it disrupts the archive, with papers delivered by myself and Dorothy Kim (to be posted later).

To use M’s wonderfully succinct description of the panel, our agenda was to discuss the different privileges and powers within the archive and the digital disruptions of it.

Bennett Segler and Kim set the tone for the rest of the day by grounding the disruption of dh in social justice, the invisible labor and exploitation of women, people of color, and other under-paid, under-publicized radical librarians who have been leaders in the movement to digital archives but have since been erased as institutions, directors and users who recode these projects as typically white male spaces. This is perhaps not surprising, notes Bennett Segler, “today’s revolution is tomorrows institution” but this domesticating of women of color’s digital labor can be resisted. Kim added that by refusing to see archives as a politically “neutral space” of universal access we can redirect social and financial capital back towards the exploited and forgotten progenitors who continue to revolutionize the field and disrupt the digital humanities.

In my paper, “Medium Data: Machine Reading, Manual Intervention, and the END OF THE ARCHIVE,” 


I discuss the way in which disruption is a tool for revolution, and disrupting an archive is about upsetting the power that is codified in its location and organization of documents conveying and maintaining authority. But, as I point out, “today’s revolution is tomorrow’s institution.” Disruption can always become the norm, the organizing principle that unifies and codifies and sets up a new “world order.”

I demand, then, that in all our efforts to disrupt, we continue to think about the norms and standards that we reify in the re-order of law and documents we cause.  We are never done. 

Dorothy followed up my broad remarks about archives, power and order by talking specifically about the ethics of digitization, of the bodies that are involved in digital work, and of the bodies that are imagined as the consumers of digital work.

Though it was unplanned, together our papers really drew attention to the ways in which archive-formation (institution) and archive-disruption (revolution) are both social justice issues.

And that is something that really came through loud and clear for the attendees of #gwdh15 , who Tweeted up a veritable STORM throughout the day. 

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 11.50.29 PM

With both our papers working out so well together, the Q & A was a particularly fruitful one with questions on media shift, our obligations to archives, digital utopia becoming a dystopia, and finding space and support for digital work.

All in all, I think we got the ball rolling on some very important stakes in digital archival work, and how it is a part of both of our projects to use our digital superpowers for good!

A hearty thanks goes out not only to the organizers for putting together such a great event, but to the participants who were there and engaged with our ideas and in discussion.  You enriched the whole project, and I hope you go forth wanting to use your superpowers (digital or otherwise) for good!


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