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Author: Mark Vajcner
Title: The Importance of Context for Digitized Archival Collections
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2008

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Source: The Importance of Context for Digitized Archival Collections
Mark Vajcner

vol. 11, no. 1, April 2008
Article Type: Article

The Importance of Context for Digitized Archival Collections

Mark Vajcner

Ph.D. student
School of Computer and Information Science
Edith Cowan University

In her 1981 essay, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” Rosalind Krauss stressed the importance of evidential value. “The theme of originality,” she wrote, “encompassing... the notions of authenticity, originals, and origins, is the shared discursive practice of the museum, the historian, and the maker of art. And throughout the nineteenth century all of these institutions were concerted, together, to find the mark, the warrant, the certification of the original.” [1] For archives “certification of the original” has remained a primary goal of theory and practice. In today’s world the digitization of archival collections poses a specific challenge to archives and to this goal of ensuring authenticity.

Archives as Evidence

Archives have always served an evidential purpose. In order to serve effectively as evidence, two key principles have evolved for the organization of archives. The first principle is respect des fonds. This principle dictates that archival materials, when transferred to archival custody, remain as distinct collections catalogued and filed according to their creator or office of origin. According to this principle, when the Library and Archives of Canada acquires the records of the Department of Foreign Affairs, it maintains them as a separate unit and does not interfile them with records produced by the military, by public works, or by some other government agency. The second key principle demands that records in these distinct collections be maintained in their original order. Materials within collections cannot be extensively re-arranged as this would break the relationships of files and documents to each other. Together these principles are known as provenance and they ensure that the researcher using the archives sees the records completely as the creating agency saw them. The researcher can then determine what that office knew and how that knowledge effected its actions.

Not unique to archives is the belief that the best way to understand archives is by studying them in their context, or in relation to their origins and in relation to other documents in a collection. Historical research was traditionally done by examining this context. A whole field of scholarly study, diplomatics, arose to critically investigate literary and documentary sources. It is, as Rosalind Krauss said, the shared discursive practice of many professions.

Digitization and the Consequences of a Loss of Context

In today’s online world many historical documents are available digitally, separate of the archives. Posted by a wide range of institutions and individuals these documents, more often than not, are also separated from their historical and documentary context. Significantly the majority of archival digitization projects today are selective as well. Archivists, with some assistance from historians and other specialists, sift through a body of records, select key, seminal, or interesting documents, scan them and present them on the internet for all to see and hopefully use. The materials scanned and presented have not tended to be the full body of records but are documents removed from their collections and from their context. The consequences for historical research can be imagined by looking at similar activities conducted in the past.

A decade ago James O’Donnell considered the shifting nature of libraries, writing, and publishing in the burgeoning digital world.  [2] He sought to make clear contemporary changes by thinking about and exploring similar transformations in the past. Archivists too may look to past efforts in imagining the effects of selective digitization. The most obvious and best documented instance of this is the publication of records relating to foreign policy.

Governments are not scholars, and have always operated with clearly defined short term aims. No foreign minister has ever been an autocrat and foreign affairs chanceries have always aimed to influence public opinion to support one or another course of action. Even in an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, the foreign minister may need to convince the ruler of the necessity of a policy. Great Britain, where governments relied on votes to maintain power, led the way in making a concerted effort to win public approval of its foreign policy actions. Beginning in the mid-19th century Great Britain undertook the publication of its foreign relations papers in a series of “Blue Books.” Other governments followed as French, Austrian, and German books appeared. By the end of the century even autocratic Russia was involved in the publishing of diplomatic records. The outbreak of war in 1914 was the first international crisis which produced a published collection of documents by every major participant. These published collections were highly selective and always very complimentary of their sponsoring government. “A comparison,” wrote A.J.P. Taylor in 1954, “of these selections with the archives will often bring out those aspects of policy which the government wished to stress, and those which it wished to conceal.” [3] States also used their archives for propaganda in less direct ways. Historians who were sympathetic to their national government were allowed access to archives to write highly complimentary narratives. These books were source books of history so long as the archives remained closed. Once a historian could use the original records of the archives, and do so critically, these early publications quickly lost their value.

There followed, long after the First World War, the publication of papers from the archives on a scale much greater than that of the wartime efforts. The selection of documents for publication became a matter of scholarship. Massive collections of documents, not solely limited to the war but expanding into many historical fields, were published. Some of these publications ranged into hundreds of volumes.

Many other examples of document publication programs exist. In Canada The Jesuit Relations, first published in France from 1632 to 1673, were reprinted in 1868. The most exhaustive project was the publication of the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, edited by Reuben Thwaites in 73 volumes and published from 1896 to 1901. Other early documents on Canada were published by such organizations as the Hudson’s Bay Record Society. Archives themselves began massive copying projects. As an example the Public Archives, a precursor to today’s Library and Archives of Canada, exerted a great deal of effort in copying early records relating to British North America from the holdings of the Colonial Office in London.

The problem of context, however, remained unresolved. These published collections were invaluable because they granted access to those researchers unable to travel. The costs of producing, marketing, and keeping large sets of bound volumes necessitated selection. Everything was not published, materials were removed from their context, and those scholars seeking a fully contextualized document were now free to visit the archives and contextualize to their hearts content. In true scholarly fashion the editors of many compilations meticulously citied and footnoted the source of materials, listed similar documents that were available and even provided information on materials excluded from publication.

No project, however ambitious, claimed to be a replacement for the archives. These published collections more modestly aimed at increasing access to historical materials. This was primarily done in two ways舒by making possible simplified access for scholars, who could now go to their local university library rather than a distant archival repository, and by introducing archival materials to researchers who may otherwise never have ventured outside the library in their research.

The digital world is a curious place. Digitally available collections have replaced the old document publishing projects but, as yet, they have not replicated the scholarly rigor that was associated with the published series. To be fair, it took some time for the scholarship of selection to develop. It clearly was not present in the “Blue Books” of World War I. That it should, for the most part, be abandoned as we move from paper and microfilm to the computer screen shows that we have become enamored with the technology. Cheap computer memory holds out the promise that all archives can be digitized. Speaking to a joint session of the Association of Canadian Archivists and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries in June 2005, American internet guru Brewster Kahl articulated a vision where the declining costs of electronic storage media would soon make it possible to scan and store the entire contents of the Library of Congress on a computing system not financially out of reach of many libraries. Place these scans on the internet and all documents, in their context without selection, become available at any time to all researchers anywhere on the globe with an internet connection. Unlike the old published document series, the internet is ambitious, and it does aspire to be a replacement for the traditional archives.

We, however, are not there yet. There is in fact very little discussion of the effects of technology on how we make meaning from original documents. There seems to be even less written on the effects of selective digitization on archival concepts such as evidential value and context.

The Danger of Re-Contextualization

Of course there was not much archival discussion in the pre舒digital world of selection and publication and yet archival theory remained intact. So why raise the concern now? Be assured that digital publishing will be far more pervasive than The Jesuit Relations. These old publications were compiled by scholars and published for scholarly research舒where concepts of authenticity were relatively well understood. This is not the case with digital projects. They tend to be devised for a broader audience where contextual questions are not part of the methodology.

Archivists need to focus on questions of context in the digital publishing arena. Archivists have tended to focus attention on the nature of original records. In the 1970s electronic records posed a conundrum for archivists. How could ever舒changing database records be considered in the same light as stable paper records? At one time traditional archival theory was considered to be outdated but then archivists rediscovered their base theories, applied them thoughtfully to the new media, and came out with a stronger understanding of what made archives and what constituted a record.  [4] Hopefully, at some point in the not舒too舒distant future, archival experiences with digitization will similarly develop a stronger understanding of the continuing importance of context.

A recent article in Archivaria, “The Promise and Threat of Digital Options in an Archival Age,” warns that technology threatens to change “how archives mean”  [5], or how they relate to our concepts of truth and evidence. As example, the author Lilly Koltun describes the use of archival clips in film. One example is the central character of Forrest Gump, who is shown meeting three American presidents in various altered news clips.  [6] These are obvious distortions and thus possibly harmless. Others may not be. In Oliver Stone’s 1994 film, Natural Born Killers, a dream sequence uses archival footage of a Native canoe with a shaman in bird costume. This genuine archival sequence was itself orchestrated for a 1916 melodrama and loosely represents Native custom from a part of British Columbia. The implication of Stone’s including it to represent a desert shaman of New Mexico, Koltun contends, is to suggest unconsciously that all Native people are to be understood as similar.  [7] Such use of documents, to represent utterly unconnected concepts or meanings, will be more prevalent in the digital age. Think of it as the intellectual equivalent of “mashing,” a process where two or more different musical works are combined into one, creating a new opus. Here the digital record and the digital copy

...encompass[es] an enhanced potential for mutability, for easy re-contextualization...and re-construction. This ease is integral to digitization’s very nature, and means we now need to ask more urgently how intrusive archivists will be, and allow others to be, in use and manipulation.  [8]

This, to a certain degree, runs contrary to the traditional archival vision of the role of archivist. The profession has historically not viewed itself as gatekeeper nor as interpreter. Archivists acquire the record, aim to ensure its completeness, organize in a manner not to threaten evidential value, and then leave the record to speak for itself. As David Bearman and Jennifer Trant wrote in their 1998 essay, “Authenticity of Digital Resources: Towards a Statement of Requirements in the Research Process,” interpretation and re-interpretation of primary and secondary sources is “the foundation of much humanistic scholarship.”  [9] Furthermore, the “construction of a convincing argument depends on an evaluation of the authenticity of source materials. Judgments about authenticity are based on assessments of the origins, completeness and internal integrity of a document.”  [10]

These judgments have traditionally been left to the scholar, who, archivists have assumed, would rigorously judge the record. Will the filmmaker also follow a rigorous method, or even care to? As early as 1984 studies had shown that what archivists have tended to view as their primary clientele舒scholars舒were being eclipsed by other users less interested in exhaustive primary research.  [11] Their understanding of context and the need for it was limited. Their understanding was limited not because of any intellectual deficiency, but was limited because this type of archival researcher was not necessarily seeking the record for evidential purposes.

The question of introducing archival theory to a broader audience was faced recently by the Archives Society of Alberta in the design of their web resources. Archives in the Classroom: Letters from the Trunk, an online learning resource, was designed by archivists for use in the classroom.  [12] Recognizing that school children know more about museums and libraries than archives, the Society worked with teachers to create a learning object that met archival as well as pedagogical goals. The result was an interactive website that introduces compelling personal histories of Canadian immigrants to school children by having them explore trunks in an early舒20th century train station. The virtual trunks contain virtual diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and other documents telling the story of the immigrant. These items are presented in such a way as to introduce children to the nature of the entire collection, indicating other materials that exist, their context, and basic terms and concepts of archival organizational theory. This is an example of the type of work that archivists will need to do舒teaching users why records are kept the way they are and why context, authenticity, and evidential value exist in records.

Questioning Context

Unfortunately, there is no agreement among archivists on what course should be followed. In his 1999 presidential address to the Society of American Archivists, H. Thomas Hickerson presented ten challenges that he saw facing the archival profession. Number five on his list was accessibility. Digitization, he felt, was the primary method to achieve this goal.  [13] He felt, however, that since context was not the primary concern of researchers it should not necessarily be the focus of those archivists making records available digitally. “In developing digital resources,” Hickerson writes

we initially focused on content, but we are now beginning to turn our attention to designing and implementing the services necessary to support effective collection use in a networked environment. The use of focus groups and the analysis of data recording patterns of on-line navigation and use will help us develop useful and efficient means to meet the service needs of our various clientele.

Focusing on our users implies that we acknowledge the primacy of their needs and respond by utilizing methods that address those needs. [14]

Hickerson goes on to cite a study that analyzed user requests for photographs from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from the North Carolina State Archives.  [15] It concluded that the overwhelming majority of requests for photographs were not for historical research but for some other purpose and that not a single researcher requested to see an image in the context of its collection. “I do not need to comment,” Hickerson wrote, “on the meaning of these findings regarding the adequacy of access approaches that are largely provenance-based.” [16]

Of course these researchers in North Carolina took for granted that they were visiting established and reputable institutions where the authenticity of the records was affirmed. Hickerson also takes for granted that the use of context in the organization and keeping of materials can allow archivists to use other principles in their access systems. These important questions may be taken for granted in the digital world where anyone can post and publish information. Many researchers today are information-savvy and can use Google to find just about anything. Fewer are knowledge-savvy and find it difficult to test the information they find. Archivists have an increasingly important skill at their command.

Today the problem is that most archives have still not taken up the issue of digitization in a serious way. While this is beginning to change, archival projects still are few, haphazard, and more often than not, a response to grant funding availabilities rather than a studied and considered approach to the needs of the archives and their research clients. Consideration of context and archival theory finds it hard to enter the discussion in such circumstances.

In her book, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Carolyn Steedman reminds us that much of what is written as history is based on research in records held by archival institutions. These institutions generally did not exist before the eighteenth century when modern archival theory and practice began to evolve. She goes on to write that these archives contain only discombobulated remnants of human experience as only an infinitesimal portion of the written record has survived to be acquired, indexed, and made available by archives. As opposed to functioning as sources of truth, archives are reservoirs of stories that historians use to construct meaning out of the dust and detritus of people's lives.  [17] This meaning, due to the shards of the past from which it is reconstructed, is not truth but a fiction. The typical European state archives, in particular, tied to a nineteenth century conception of political history, limits scholars as much as it helps them in their efforts to write historical truth. As Steedman writes about archival materials: “The smallest fragment of its representation... ends up in various kinds of archive and records office.... From that, you make history, which is never what was there, once upon a time.”  [18]

Steedman counsels that academics keep these limitations in mind when researching and writing history. She is, in fact, calling on historians to be aware of the context of the entire archive, not simply the context of a single document or collection of materials. This has, in fact, been an important theme in thinking on historical method for the past forty years. Most scholars in the humanities have read anthropologists Clifford Geertz and James Clifford, or post-colonial thinkers such as Antoinette Burton. They recognize the archive is a creation that masks as much as it reveals, and that regardless of where the author did research his voice shapes the final product.  [19] Steedman suggests that the archive is interesting and relevant today insofar as it shows us the ways people use the past to define themselves and others. Her definition of an archive is fascinating. She views it simply as a name for the places which the past (which does not now exist, but which once did actually happen; which cannot be retrieved, but which may be represented) has deposited some traces and fragments, usually in written form.  [20]

Placing the entire archive in its context will no doubt be an easier feat to accomplish in a digital world where the entire archival record is digitized. The researcher will be able to engage in the cross checking of documents or a further search for information with a few keystrokes. This context, however, must be built into the finding aids that archives are creating now. We cannot rely on a future Google searching routine to link context if we do not articulate those contexts in the digital projects and finding aids that we generate today.

Digitization and the Future of Finding Aids

Leon J. Stout, in his article “Reimagining Archives: Two Tales for the Information Age,” looks to the museum sector for an experience lesson in dealing with digitization. Perhaps the most obvious difference between archives and museums is the “reimagination” that has occurred in museums in the last couple of decades. Stout contends that the fundamental understanding of museums has shifted from being about objects to being about the stories that can be told with the objects.  [21] Museums have adopted the internet and all sorts of mediated exhibits with enthusiasm. Museums also quickly moved beyond using their websites as automated brochures, and put more and more of their exhibits and related material on the internet. Now the museum community is discussing the virtual visit, “the opportunity for visitors to come when they want... and even to see what they want to see in the order they want to see it in.”  [22] Of course, the virtual visitor loses the stimulation that a real visit and looking at real objects entails.

The museum community has concerns with the new virtual world as well. The management of images is a source of great concern. How does an institution protect intellectual property of the images or authenticate them and certify them as reliable “truth”?  [23] How does the museum make the on-line exhibit satisfactory as a research resource? Developing contextual materials to accompany the exhibit gains new importance. Information that was studiously collected in the old, object-focused museum world is important again. Stout speculates,

How much background to the object, its creator, and the context of its creation or use will be presented? In some museums, much of this content began as interactive kiosk presentation material, there to supplement the actual experience of a real visit....The cost of all this is enormous...but is this where a large share of their [museum] resources will go in the future?  [24]

Archives need not make similar mistakes that will force them to backtrack and re-connect context. Digital projects must be clearly thought through and the appropriate contextual connections made. Stout envisions an advanced virtual finding aid as the tool to not only navigate the architecture of massive archival websites, but to “provide the provenance-based contextual information we are used to creating, as well as some form of content-based indexing to enable users to move more directly to high-precision search outcomes.”  [25]

This is in direct contrast to the simple, content-based finding tools advocated by Hickerson. Archivists need to start thinking about such advanced finding aids now and to devote as much energy to them as to the digitization of materials themselves.


Notions of authenticity, originals, and origins remain important in the professional practices of many communities. Archival theory and practice has evolved to ensure the evidential value of records. The context of a record is fundamentally important to this process. While the publication of selected archival documents has always posed problems, this is now greatly amplified in the digital age. The ease by which digital documents may be altered and then re-published focuses a new importance on authenticity and originals. Yet little discussion has occurred among archivists about this problem.

Archivist will need to be more active in ensuring that contextual information is linked to digitized materials. Archives themselves will have to strengthen their ability to present context for their digital resources. They will also have to take an active role to educate users and other information publishers on how archives work, and on why contextual connections are so important to ensuring the credibility of digital works. Traditional archival theory is well positioned to address these authenticity questions. Archives must be more active in applying archival theory to digitization practice as digital documents pose several significant challenges to archives. However, a clear understanding and application of theory will ensure that archives continue to convey context and communicate its importance to an ever-increasing audience for archival materials.


This article was developed from a paper presentation posted to “Making History Online,” an online conference of the American Association for History and Computing held 24-28 April 2006.

1. Lilly Koltun. 1999. “The Promise and Threat of Digital Options in an Archival Age.” Archivaria 47 (Spring): 134-35.

2. James O’Donnell. 1998. Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. A. J. P. Taylor. 1954. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 569-70.

4. Terry Cook. 1997. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43 (Spring): 17-63 for a detailed discussion of 20th century archival thinking.

5. Koltun, p. 115.

6. Ibid., p. 118.

7. Ibid., pp. 126-27.

8. Ibid., p. 126.

9. David Bearman and Jennifer Trant. 1998. “Authenticity of Digital Resources: Towards a Statement of Requirements in the Research Process.” D-Lib Magazine 4(6); URL:

10. Ibid.

11. Elsie Freeman. 1984. “In the Eye of the Beholder: Archives Administration from the User’s Point of View.” American Archivist 47(2): 111-23.

12. See

13. H. Thomas Hickerson. 2001. “Ten Challenges for the Archival Profession.” American Archivist 64(Spring/Summer): 11.

14. Ibid.

15. The findings of this study are available in Karen Collins. 1998. “Providing Subject Access to Images: A Study of User Queries.” American Archivist 61(Spring): 45-52.

16. Hickerson, p. 11.

17. Bryan Ganaway, Review of Dust: The Archive and Cultural History by Carolyn Steedman, H-German (July 2003). URL:

18. Carolyn Steedman. 2001. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, p. 146.

19. Ganaway.

20. Steedman, p. 69.

21. Leon J. Stout. 2002. “Reimagining Archives: Two Tales for the Information Age.” American Archivist 65(Spring/Summer): 10-11.

22. Ibid., p. 13.

23. Ibid., p. 14.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., p. 15.