Archives and Databases

            First and foremost, I find Kate Theimer’s view that the definition of archives has become muddled and confused very convincing, if not for my disbelief that I have gone this long without truly understanding what the word means and how it differs from a database. Theimer posits that what defines an archivist’s work is rooted in “the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control.” Digital humanists, who seem to have developed a habit of referring to their databases as archives, by contrast place a greater emphasis on selection and collection of various related materials.

            I find it interesting that Michael Christie even cites the phrase “archive fever” in his description of the emerging trend of aboriginal knowledge databases. What I think really gets at the distinction between archives and databases is Christie’s view that the knowledge embedded in databases is both “preserved and renewed.” In other words, databases seem to often be created for some larger purpose related to bringing information into the present, such as for purposes of teaching. In other words, the information contained in databases has not only been chosen for purposes of historical preservation, but has been considered in the context of how it can be revitalized to serve a more modern purpose.

            There is not this level of intervention and reworking of information in the work of true archivists. Theimer explains that archives are traditionally “the repository for the historical records of its parent organization.” An archivist’s job is therefore to manage and maintain these materials. An archivist does not look at a large set of materials related to a certain topic or body of knowledge and then select and present them in a particular way. Rather, an archivist seems to pay more respect to the historical value and original quality of materials.

            Though the distinction may be confusing, I think it is an important one to maintain moving forward. I believe there are some works that ought to be maintained by archivists, and others that ought to be sought out and collected by digital humanists in databases. It is important that both camps understand these definitions so that the right groups are embarking on the right project for a given material.

            This debate makes me wonder now, however, whether the project I am evaluated for my midterm assignment is an archive or a database. The project is called “Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race”’ and as such explicitly aligns itself with the function and values of archivists. However, the project was also embarked for the purposes of renewal and teaching, and not just for purposes of preservation. I wonder if this question of whether the project is truly an archive will affect my overall assessment of it.