Decolonizing Digital Humanties
In their online publication Digital History A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig pose the question: who should digitize the past? They address the practical concerns with digitization, specifically cost and preservation of material, but I want to tease out this question as I believe it speaks to a larger and more philosophical discussion.
Who should digitize the past?
Cohen and Rosenzweig later pose the question, who owns the past? And I think both inquires work together. Who does own the past? Is this the same person that should digitize the past? Whose past?
I cannot deny the advantages for digitizing images, objects, or documents–especially within the humanities. Collections of materials that once were stored away in vaults are now accesible through the click of a webpage. Objects that haven’t been displayed in decades are now on view on your very own computer screen. I’m romanticizing this to emphasis the accessibility of resources through digitization (of course the image of an object is not the same as the object– ceci n’est pas une pipe). History is able to reach new audiences through digitization and digital-imaging. Image databases are becoming a vital resource for students. But as many of these images come from museum and archival collections, questions linger. Where are the objects digitized coming from? In what context did the museum or archive acquire them? And perhaps the most pressing for this discussion, who decided that they should be digitized?
These questions present many avenues for discussion and some, like object provenance, are not quite the focus for this post. What I find more concerning with digitization is the self-elected authorities that decide what does and does not get digitized and distributed. Art museums ideally want to digitize their entire collection with online databases ranging in size (mostly due to budgetary limitations). As more archival and historical documents are becoming digitized, I am left wondering who decides what makes the cut? Are historical and cultural institutions like art museums in that they want everything they own up online? Is it driven by research interests, either by the institution or outside scholars? If I went to the Wilson Library and asked them to digitize a photograph of my great-great grandfather, would they? If the ultimate goal was to preserve history, then why wouldn’t they? But something tells me that there are other criteria involved.
Recently, a colleague of mine communicated similar concerns and declared it was time to decolonize digital humanities. I couldn’t agree more. In order to decolonize, there must be a decentralization of established power structures. The decision whether or not to digitize, and by extension preserve history, should not be left in the hands if a few. It is time to pluralize digital humanities. Its time to digitize multiple voices and multiple histories and not limit it to the selection of a few.
One move towards pluralizing digital humanities is to spread the wealth, so to speak. Institutions and organizations with digitizing technology should share their resources to diverse groups, creating opportunities for more people to share their own material collections and histories. We need to cast a wider net. I am currently taking a digital humanities course at UNC and have appreciated the opportunity to digitize historical documents that I personally own. I have been provided the space and resources to digitize material that I think is important (see images below, the covers of a 1949 brochure I hope to completely digitize). How can we provide the same type of space to local communities, historic centers, and even the public at large? Of course, projects like this will require a lot of man-power (and probably even more money), but it is through open-access projects that expand our digital collections, allow for multiple narratives, and ultimately decolonize digitized history.
With the same motive, there should be an effort to make current digital collections accessible to a greater public, and more significantly, to marginalized communities whose histories (both analog and digital) have been recorded by others. The Central Australian project, Ara Irititja provides a clear example to my point. Ara Irititja works to reclassify and identify a substantial digital archive comprised of photographs of indigenous Anangu (taken by foreigners). Digital centers are built all around central Australia, to act as community spaces in which local Anangu can come and look through the archives. The initiators of this project, Sabra Thorner and John Dallwitz, write that these digital centers quickly became a site for storytelling:
“Aunties view film clips of ceremonies and move their hands and feet in time with their filmic selves; young people surf photos and call out to those within earshot to come see; elders tell stories about the country they are responsible for– recounting where parents and grandparents were born, identifying a Dreaming narrative or sacred site.” (Thorner, 57)
It is through the spaces created by Ara Irititja that local communities are engaging with digital material in different ways, echoing their own ways of communicating knowledge and preserving history rather than mirroring the established systems imposed upon them. How can the digital humanities continue to reach more people and cultivate new ways of engaging with their resources? How can we create more spaces that allow for multiple voices to share their own histories?
I’ve asked a lot of questions in this post and admittedly have only provide a few suggestions. Decolonizing digital humanities is, of course, a large undertaking and my suggestions only touch at potential solutions. Nonetheless, digitizing our past(s) is crucial to historical preservation and there is so much potential to represent lost histories, marginalized voices, and differing viewpoints. The call for current and rising digital humanists is to listen to those voices, unearth those histories, and create spaces that celebrate multiple viewpoints.
Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, 2006. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/
Thorner, Sabra and John Dallwitz. “Storytelling Photographs, Animating Anangu: How Ara Irititja and Indigenous Digital Archive in Central Australia– Facilitates Cultural Reproduction.” In Technology and Digital Initiatives: Innovative Approaches for Museums, edited by Juilee Decker. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. 53-61.