By Diana Marsh
From 2015-2017, I held an Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellowship at the American Philosophical Society (APS). In 2014, just prior to my arrival, the APS formally created the Center for Native American Research (CNAIR), in development since 2008 (on the program and history, see Tim Powell’s paper here and Brian Carpenter’s case study here). In addition to proactively building partnerships, MOUs, and community relationships, the Digital Knowledge Sharing (DKS) partnerships developed by CNAIR aim to share digital copies of APS collections free of charge to Indigenous community members. As in most repositories, staff at the APS had little time beyond their actual jobs to track the uses of these digitally-shared resources, to evaluate or collect feedback about their DKS program.
Working with Timothy Powell and Brian Carpenter, we developed “Documenting the Digital Turn.” The project sought to understand the community impacts of digitizing and sharing Native and Indigenous materials: to identify what sorts of archival materials were most meaningful, how digitized documents were circulating and being used, and what advice community members would give to archival institutions taking on this work. In this last area, I also asked community researchers about the risks of digitization, and got feedback on best practices for cultivating institution-community relationships. I drew primarily on long-form interviews to understand community-based perspectives on the impact of digitizing and sharing archival collections. Through interviews with 36 participants and three site visits, the project sought to collect stories about the uses, meanings, and circulation of digitized archival collections by Native and Indigenous community-based users in their home communities. (Because not everyone agreed to be named, and because some participants shared somewhat sensitive or political information, I made the somewhat difficult decision to anonymize everyone.)
In the paper, I outline relevant movements in the scholarly and professional field that provide context for the project. Then, I provide background on the project and its development, and my methods. In the bulk of the paper, I share major findings in eight categories: 1) Barriers,which outlines the many barriers that communities face in discovering, using, and accessing relevant archival sources; 2) Circulation, which describes the many ways that digital surrogates of archival collections are moving in and around community physical and digital spaces;3) Formats, which describes the affordances of different archival media formats—photographs, versus audio recordings, versus manuscripts—for community usage; 4) Use,which summarizes the top ways that communities are using or repurposing digitized archival collections; 5) Benefits, which describes the main ways communities are positively affected by having their own copies of these collections;6) Limits, which describes the limitations of digital copies for community use; 7) Risks, which conveys the many risks communities observe or face in engaging with colonial institutions, collections, and digital data sharing;8) Best Practices, which concludes the findings sectionof the paper with what this project offers for future archival practice, particularly in the wake of the Society of American Archivists’ adoption of the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, drawing on participants’ advice for colonial institutions going forward. Finally, I discuss some of the resonances this project has with other ongoing efforts in archival scholarship and practice.
To receive a full-text copy of the paper, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.