Editing Modernism in Canada


December 6, 2012

Tales from the Archives

I spent last week in Winnipeg, working in the U of M Archives and the Archives of Manitoba. During my brief, frantic visit, I was able to scan material for three digital projects: the digital edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand: A True Life of the Thirties, Bart Vautour and Emily Robins Sharpe’s project Canada and the Spanish Civil War: A Digital Research Environment, and Anouk Lang’s work on Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse.

I spent my time scanning, the true grunt work of DH. I have spent most of the past four months scanning–an unbelievable amount of time. I want to remind everyone, especially those embarking on digital projects, just how time consuming they can be. No matter how many shortcuts you come up with, you (or your greatly appreciated RA) will still have to go through the processes of creating, organizing, editing, backing up, and ingesting files.

This trip was also a reminded of how vulnerable digital projects are to technical difficulties. This week, I negotiated with no less than four different scanners. Scanners are the very worst coworkers: they are slow, they lose things, they make mistakes, and sometimes they refuse to work altogether. Now that I am back home, I am discovering what irreversible mistakes my scanner and I made, and cursing the imperfect nature of this technology.

Scanning aside, the trip gave me a chance to thoroughly examine Dorothy Livesay’s papers, specifically her documentation of the Thirties. I found some great material and noticed some interesting rifts in memory from one document to the next. She wrote many times about her job in New Jersey, a job she was forced to leave due to illness. The nature of this illness varies: in one version it is an ulcer, in another it is chronic appendicitis (for the record, I had appendicitis, and I don’t think it can even be chronic–it’s really a one time thing). In another version she attributes her illness to high blood pressure, and in another she admits it may have been “a slight nervous breakdown.” She is clearly an unreliable narrator, even concerning her own experiences.

It is only because she left behind such an extensive physical archive that I can notice these discrepancies. Deep in archival work, I began to think about how much personal records have changed with the digital turn. Now, the majority of correspondence takes place in email, text messages, facebook, even twitter. We are documenting our own lives more than ever, but is this documentation durable? Will the kind of archival research I am performing be possible if the subject of study is the so-called digital native? To me, the digital file feels far more ephemeral than the physical photograph, letter, newspaper. Maybe this has more to do with my inherent digital clumsiness–I delete when I mean to save, name files incoherently, and so on. But I still worry that 80 years from now, when I am a fascinating famous person, archivist and researchers will know little about my relationships, experiences, or actions because so much of this information is stored in networks and servers, not boxes.

Of course, we at EMiC are (hopefully) creating sustainable digital projects. Personally, I am far more cautious when it comes to archival scans. Multiple versions of each file ensure that mistakes are minimal and reversible. After all, I know how much work goes into creating each file, and I don’t intend on repeating all those processes.

2 Responses to “Tales from the Archives”

  1. Alana Fletcher says:

    I know exactly how you feel Kaarina! I have been mass-scanning George Whalley letters since late summer here at Queen’s University archives. At least editing and uploading give one a sense of accomplishment!

  2. Anouk says:

    Hi Kaarina

    I’m very grateful to you for including some work for me on what was evidently a crazy busy trip. Plus you sound a good deal more competent with a scanner than I am in archives with my dodgy digital camera, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much over that …

    File management is the bane of my life as well. One of my colleagues at Strathclyde, Cristina Ritchie, is working with what must by now be thousands and thousands of images of scanned magazine pages for Faye Hammill & Michelle Smith’s project on Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture in Canada. I briefly saw her database where she manages all the files, and it was impressive. Cristina is finishing up a PhD in library science, and I found myself wishing that somewhere in my own doctoral training I’d been taught a few principles of information management, as that’s increasingly central to my work these days, and probably even more so to those EMiC-ers working on digital editions with a lot of material. But there’s more than enough to get done during a PhD (especially nowadays when digital skills seem to be expected alongside subject expertise, teaching experience etc etc), so I don’t really know how one deals with this problem.


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