Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

Digital Humanities and the 21st Century Archive

[By request, here is the text of the brief response I offered at a Digital Humanities 2010 session on Born-Digital: The 21st Century Archive in Practice and Theory.]

I will be brief, since I suspect there is a question or two.

Last night Chuck Henry eloquently detailed the ways in which preservation and interpretation are inseparable from one another. Preservation is a prerequisite for scholarship, but it is not its prequel; the two are joined along a continuum. You’ve just heard from three expert practitioners who are inaugurating that continuum for a new class of cultural materials under their care.

Unlike the Beowulf manuscript, which is an artifact that can accommodate scientific and forensic exploration of aspects of its materiality that have lain dormant for centuries, digital objects are always absolute and finite as representations in the formal sense. As Luciana Duranti has stated, “In the digital realm, we can only persevere our ability to reconstruct or reproduce a document, not the document itself.” Digital preservation, in other words, must model the event conditions that permit future access to a digital work; since there are no artifacts as such in the digital world, only simulations and simulacra, that which is not formally captured and articulated within the preservation model will not be available for subsequent inspection and interpretation.

This increases the burden on people like Gabby, Michael, and Erika many-fold.

So I’m enormously grateful to them for bringing their work here, to DH 2010. It belongs here, not just at SAA or ALA or iPres or RBMS. I believe there is no more crucial field for the digital humanities to engage with, and if we accept what Jerome McGann terms “the scholar’s art”—that “[n]ot only are Sappho and Shakespeare primary, irreducible concerns for the scholar, so is any least part of our cultural inheritance that might call for attention. . . . [And] when the call is heard, the scholar is obliged to answer it accurately, meticulously, candidly, thoroughly”—then there is probably no more crucial endeavor for the humanities at large. As the case of Rushdie illustrates, any scholar working on topics in literary studies, cultural studies, art, music, film, theatre, or history from the 1980s forward will confront born-digital materials as part of their archival investigations.

For digital humanists, collaboration with archivists handling born-digital materials brings opportunities for any of us interested in the materiality of computing and electronic environments; for textual studies and scholarly editing; text analysis, data mining, and visualization—because the enormous amounts of data residing on a modern hard drive will only be legible via modes of what our field has come to call distance reading—and finally, modeling and simulation, through the use of emulators and virtual machines, as you’ve seen. I look forward to seeing those collaborations flourish.

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