What in the Digital Universe Should We Call It?

This post was originally published on 9/28/2015 as part of the Clio I class at George Mason University. 

Every academic discipline has a different relationship with the digital humanities. Some disciplines have had a long lasting and productive relationship that has weathered the period of post honeymoon bliss. Meanwhile others have had off and on again relationships that have produced infrequent sparks of inspiration followed by spouts of separation. Because of the dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of digital humanities, a static discipline specific vocabulary has not yet developed (and may never). Thus, digital humanists have adopted terminology from myriad sources. Some terms clearly define their digital reference and reduce confusion and ambiguity, but other terms have been the center of much debate. One of the most debated (and popular) terms is the digital archive. Many scholars with more experience and expertise than myself have weighed in on this issue without resolving the problem (Kenneth Price, Trevor Owens, and Kate Theimer). At issue is the malleable and multiple definitions of the word “archive.” Although the term has been applied to a varied amount of different important digital projects and endeavors such as The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank and The Baltimore Uprising, many individuals (especially archivists) are worried that the lack of a specific definition and proper application will harm their own work. The term “archive” carries a significant amount of “intellectual” capital because of the determined efforts of archivists over the years. It is understandable why archivists are concerned with others using the term “archive” to describe anything from a database of old blog posts to a collection of digitized maps of Chicago. If the term “archive” is used to describe what Kenneth Price has called digital thematic research collections, “archive” is in danger of losing its scholarly association. This is not to say that the digital thematic research collections are not necessarily scholarly, but they are frequently not archives. They are something different.

What should we call a collection of images, maps, documents, and other items centered on a specific theme that are assembled from multiple sources? Is this really an archive? It lacks the characteristics of an archive in that it removes specific items from their holdings or collections and aggregates related material in a central location. This process removes the valuable context that archives provide by keeping documents with the mass of material associated with them. Other frequently used terminology includes digital projects, databases, and editions. Here I am going to propose the usage of the term “digital repository.”

According to Meriam Webster, a repository is “a place where a large amount of something is stored” or a “person who possesses a lot of information, wisdom, etc.” Adding the qualifier “digital” creates a term that encompasses many of the different digital thematic research collections (DTRC) without using the word “archive.” The term is shorter than the aforementioned DTRC and does not presuppose the same process of creation as that of an analog archive. Many individuals and institutions have already found this term useful. Stanford University Libraries and many other entities have already embraced the term. This term is not without problems as many digital endeavors do more than collect and store material, but any project that’s goal is exhibition or education should probably use neither “archive” nor “repository.”

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