Going Meta on Metadata

I once joked to an archivist that all I really do as a historian is add meta-metadata to the archival database.

What I meant was that if we understand metadata—the information that accompanies artifacts—as not merely descriptive, but also already on its way to interpretation, then what is historical scholarship but a further extension of this elaboration of the evidentiary record? The joke was intended as humorous (at least for the geeky among us) because typically historical work gets separated from, and often privileged over, archival labor. The archive is there, historians mistakenly believe, solely to be mined by them alone for scholarly production. Archivists, of course, know better. The archive serves many other purposes than just fodder for historical inquiry. And as archives move into the digital domain, whether through digitization of artifacts or with born-digital materials, the archive’s many uses expand even more. Might it be more accurate, then, my joke implied, to reverse the hierarchy of archive and historical research as we move into the digital realm? Perhaps the digital archive becomes the final product—something that now absorbs historical research and publishes into it—rather than just a storehouse for information hidden in the stacks; and perhaps in this new context, historical findings become nothing but a new field added to the interactive, accessible, crowdsourced, hyperlinked records management system!

To call what historians do meta-metadata is to go meta, as it were, on the intersections between what archivists and historians do, from how they conceptualize their practices to how they work with (and sometimes against) each other. In the new online spaces where the digital archive meets digital history, the relationship between these two professions takes on new and unexpected possibilities—and tensions. We will need to think carefully about how the digital returns us to buried institutional wounds that date back in the United States to the 1930s, when archivists and historians parted ways in their professional affiliations.[1] The American Historical Association, which sponsored our panel, was itself at the center of the controversial split at that time. So there is a history with which to reckon here. But the digital also presents new dilemmas and opportunities that require attention.

The concept of historiography—the history of historical writing itself, from the record of what has been said about a topic to the articulation of debates over interpretations to the awareness of different methods that historians have used to analyze their sources—might play a key role in helping both archivists and historians to navigate changes wrought by the digitization of both of their fields. What our panelists call “digital historiography” offers a means of more critically connecting archival theory and professional archival practices to historical theory and professional historical practices. More of this term historiography and its significance in a moment. But first I wish to make a few brief comments about the short but sharp presentations by Josh Sternfeld, Katja Hering, and Kate Theimer.

It is my hope that these mini essays themselves eventually find their way into the archives, whether those be the storified live tweet archives of the session, the official AHA archives, and certainly, to speak more metaphorically, the memory archives of your minds. For these presentations are important contributions to what we might call the archive of how we are to understand digital technologies as we all—historians, archivists, students, professionals, citizens—increasingly dip our virtual toes in digital waters and sometimes find ourselves with the distinct feeling that we might soon be drowning.

Our roundtable is particularly focused on three keywords: digital, historiography, and the archives. There are other keywords that crop up as well in Josh, Katja, and Kate’s comments: surface, context, provenance, metadata, scale, appraisal, calibration, evidence, criticism. These are worthy of further elaborations too. But for now I want to hone in on the three words in our roundtable’s title as the crucial ones.

The Digital

First, the digital. Josh Sternfeld’s wonderful suggestion is that we imagine a “quantum history” that moves beyond the scale of a sort of Newtonian historical middle ground in which evidence and convincing argument have largely stable properties and interact through mostly predictable and agreed-upon relationships. Going micro and macro has already become part of the historical repertoire, but I think Josh is correct to suggest that the digital affords new opportunities to revisit those strategies of analysis and think about how we might toggle, if you will, between them. As he puts it, we might “calibrate” our narratives in new ways. One way to do this is for historians to think more critically about the provenance of our sources, a term to which Katja draws our attention. Rather than treat evidence as transparent access to the truth, we might consider the how’s and why’s of the origins of our “evidence” from their starting point right through to the generations of archival creators, maintainers, and interpreters. We should also remember that the archival objects are themselves often surrogates (a wonderful term that Kate invokes), or what media studies scholars call “remediations,” of older documentary forms. The digitized book or photograph is not, at its material level, the original version, but rather a copy of it rendered in a new medium of bits and bytes, data and code. And of course, historians might pay more attention to the ways in which many of the so-called “original” documents—whether they be paper, audio recordings, film, or photographs—are but representations of the past, and usually partial or distorted ones at that. The archive is our record of the past, not the actual thing itself.

The digitization of this archival record might, at first, seem like a further retreat, yet another step removed, from history as it happened. But this “remediation” of archival materials into a new form is also a tremendous opportunity to consider the past with more sensitivity, to pay far greater attention to how we access and analyze history itself. Digitization, in this sense, asks us to slow down rather than the more common assertion that it enables us to speed up. The transition into the computational domain can accelerate certain kinds of availability and manipulation of archival materials, but it also provides a glimpse of the vexed process by which we preserve archival holdings and use them to endow the messy chaos and vast diversity of the past with meaning, structure, continuity, order, and significance.

Historians and archivists alike have long been aware of the ways in which archives shape our very perceptions of the past. In this sense, the traditions of historical and archival thinking, the methodologies and methodological debates of these fields, have as much to bring to the new digital domains as digital technologies do to these respective professions. For instance, digital history’s “quantum” turn, as Josh Sternfeld asks us to imagine it, offers an opportunity to revisit the notion of the long durée and the macro-historical Braudelian ideas of the Annales School.[2] Similarly, digital technologies might allow us to rethink the concepts of “microhistory.” We might fix our attention on what Josh calls the “dark matter” of cultural minutae as they lurk in the vast world of data, networks, and digital infrastructures. Similarly, Katja’s notion of “source criticism,” drawn from her reading of the nineteenth-century work of Johann Gustav Droyseen, bespeaks the productive effort to recover past methodological and historiographical approaches in order to grapple with new digital challenges and opportunities. So too does Kate’s insistence that we use the word “archives” with care and precision—and even perhaps not use it at all when its digital incarnation diverges fundamentally from archival purposes of preservation.


Now to that loaded word: archives. Why the popularity of this term? Why also the pressure on this word now? This pressure comes not merely from the new representational and methodological qualities of digital technologies; it also comes from a longer running inquiry into the power of representation, particularly of the state’s uses of official recordkeeping to wield power, secure legitimacy, obscure facts, and govern its citizens (and so too those deemed non-citizens) by tracking them as individuals or transforming them into abstract demographic statistics. Though I grant the legitimacy of the position among certain archivists such as Kate that perhaps we should employ the term archive with care and precision, in a limited rather than expanded way, I think that the critical inquiry into the power of the archive, its ability to wield knowledge in service of hierarchy and control, also asks us to crack upon the term—and the archive itself.

The convergence of mediated forms within the digital domain—the collapse of archives themselves, the curation of their holdings, the research conducted within and across them, the conversations they inspire, and the publications inspired by and grounded in their artifacts and materials—asks us to open up what we call an archive rather than close it down. Particularly in an era when both corporations and the government are using large, “official” digital archives for data mining of human individuals, we need to assert that the archive should be understood as a kind of commons, not a tool of totalized mastery and secretive information. Transparency and privacy must be renegotiated in the new technological structures of the digital archive. And despite the pressures of standardization and homogenization that the digital demands in order to function, we need to insist that it adjust to and respect more quirky, messy, and unofficial modes of archivization as well.

A long-running digital dream, dating back to the 1940s has been to assemble the information of the world into one linked archive of sorts.[3] But perhaps the digital can also, in ways we do not quite understand yet, enable strange, heterogeneous, and different kinds of memory and history too. [4] The balancing of universal standards against particular contexts will become key here. The underlying architecture of the digital is, after all, archival in nature. Whether in the “chunking,” “shells,” “kernels,” and the modularity of particular software or in the use of modular databases or in the entire functional necessities of the Internet, the digital medium balances universal protocols of containerization, record-keeping, and networked interfacing against singular and distinctive uses and spaces of activity within the digital domain.[5] How we develop digital archives so that they are not a one-size-fits-all platform, how we fight the urge for standardization while still harnessing the power of interconnectivity in the digital arena—this becomes one of the great challenges for archivists and historians alike.


Historiography, the last term from our roundtable’s title, provides a good starting point for archivists and historians to try to broaden what the archive might be and do in the digital domain. As I have already suggested, there are some real differences between archivists and historians that we need to consider. After all, what archivists by training are taught to call objects, artifacts, documents, and items historians, by contrast, refer to (sometimes with far too much unquestioned essentialism and also with an air of exploitative plundering) as sources. For archivists, the goal is to preserve, describe, and provide access to archives for a broad range of users, from professional historians to private archive owners to the public at large. For historians, the goal is, most of the time, to “mine” archival material for interpretation. These two approaches—archivist’s and historian’s—can go together, of course, but they only do so through slightly different imaginings of the stuff itself in the archives and the uses to which it should be put.

The digital domain brings these somewhat different goals, archival preservation and access, on the one hand, and historical interpretation and analysis on the other, into the same space. As the presentations richly suggest, archival theory brings to digital historiography far more sophisticated modulations between varying levels of scale and appraisal, text and context, and source preservation and source criticism. To these contributions, historians might add an additional element that draws upon the traditional use of the term historiography to signify the history of historical inquiry itself, which is to say the history of historical interpretations of the past and the attention to varying methodologies that have produced historical findings.

For historians, historiography signals a shift from “primary” sources—often archival ones—to “secondary” sources—or the historical arguments, interpretations, and interventions that use the archives to mount claims about the past. Of course, this distinction is rather artificial: today’s “secondary” sources often become tomorrow’s “primary” ones; what seems in the archive to offer direct access to the past is itself fundamentally representational and interpretive in nature already; and of course the very placement of certain materials in archives and the exclusion of other materials speaks to the power of the archive itself to shape what counts as history and what is delegitimized. But nonetheless, the term historiography points to these very complexities. It reminds us to remember always that the past arrives to us through layers of interpretation. We might even say that the past is interpreted. To be sure, it is not relative or invented or a fiction. Certain things did occur and others did not. Rather it is messy and chaotic enough, multivalent and multifaceted in the extreme, that being aware of historiography makes us understand what the past is, and how archives both provide and deny access to it. Historiographical debates by their nature force us to be far more sensitive to competing versions of the past, to varying means and methods of making sense of the archival record, and to the ways in which history is no static thing even when its constituent elements get lodged and preserved in the metaphorical amber of the archive.

And then there is this: as we well know the digital tends to be far less static than prior mediums of preservation. So what, then, does it mean within the digital domain to address historiography when it is understood to be the collection of secondary sources and ongoing debates about a historical topic? It would mean, perhaps, rethinking the relationship between primary and secondary sources in new ways, not just going to the supposedly pure sources, fetishized as they are in the field of history. It would also mean that we might reconceptualize the preservation of historiography itself, that in the digital medium, we might link so-called primary and secondary sources in new, more fluid and dynamic ways that speak to the richness of their interconnections.

In shifting from thinking about digital history to digital historiography, there is a new kind of provenance at work, much as there seems to be in paying attention to the term in archival work and theory. We need to develop modes of preserving a historiographical sequence not of object ownership, but rather of interpretive ownership. This is, in some respects, a far more contested kind of ownership of course. Who “owns” what interpretation cuts close to the bone of prestige and status in the historical profession. In being so, in paying attention to how historiography gets digitized, we are forced to ask questions such as: which historians have looked at these archival things before? What sources have been ignored and why? What did historians have to say about archival sources and why? How did they temporalize them, contextualize them, conjoin them, or distort them? What methods and preoccupations, interests and worldviews, shaped their interpretations?

These questions are meant to suggest that within a historiographic context, within thinking about the history of historical interpretation, we need to grapple with continuities between and among generations of historians and also, of course, debates. We also need to think carefully about voices left out of these conversations and the kinds of questions and themes that drive them as well as the well-known, established voices. We need to confront the whole assemblage of the history of history, which is grounded not only in readings of primary sources in archives, but also readings of secondary sources previously understood as, in some sense, fundamentally outside the archives.

We might, in summation, even think of various historiographies themselves as archives. They may not be encased in walls or stacked in boxes on shelves, but they are, sure enough, constellations of materials brought together with a provenance secured and documented in literature reviews, encyclopedia entries, the background sections of articles and books, and in footnotes and endnotes. If primary sources exist as one kind of archive requiring more careful attention to methods of access and analysis, secondary sources are also an archive of sorts, brought together through interpretive practices, characterizations, and interventions in the field of history itself.

What a digital archive might do is provide a space for bringing these two kinds of archives into play with each other. It can, in Stuart Hall’s sense of the word as the bringing together of disparate elements, “articulate” them to one another.[6] A digital architecture for a new imagining of the archive might be able to provide more dynamic linkages and movements among, on the one hand, materials being used as primary sources—put to service to represent the past as best as it can be factually reconstructed—and, on the other, materials being used more primarily as secondary sources.

A new kind of useful fluidity might emerge among linked open source archives and scholarship using the materials in those archives. The digital archive, with an expanded notion of what it does, has the opportunity for enriching history by more dynamically linking primary sources and their subsequent interpretations, and in doing so, of raising the question of what a source is exactly, and how we “appraise,” to use Josh Sternfeld’s term, the relationship of evidence to argument, sources to interpretations, and past activities to ongoing conversations about them. Within new kinds of digitized settings, historiography can flourish as a key part of archives themselves and the historical narratives of the past they inspire.

In this sense, maybe history is just meta-metadata. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Originally published by Michael J. Kramer on January 20, 2014. Revised for Journal of Digital Humanities August 2014.

  1. [1] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream. Robert B. Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 181-182.
  2. [2] See David Armitage and Joanna Goldi, “The Return of the Long Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences sociales 69 (2014), for a polemical call to historians to use digital technologies in order to return to the project of the Annales School.
  3. [3] Among many examples, see Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly 176 (July 1945), http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush; J.C.R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1 (March 1960), 4-11; and the work of Douglas Engelbart, “Toward Augmenting the Human Intellect and Boosting Our Collective IQ,” Communications of the ACM 38, 30-32 (1995). Howard Rheingold, Tools For Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology (1985; reprint, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). See also, Thierry Bardini, Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
  4. [4] For investigations of this approach to the digital, see, among other examples, the essays in Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  5. [5] Tara McPherson, “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX,” in Race after the Internet, eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012), 21-37; Alexander R Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: Ecco, 2012). Lev Manovich, “Database as Symbolic Form,” Convergence 5, 2 (June 1999), 80-99.
  6. [6] See, for instance, Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism(Paris: UNESCO, 1980), 305-345.

About Michael J. Kramer

Michael J. Kramer is an editor in the Design, Publishing, and New Media Department at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and holds a visiting assistant professorship at Northwestern University, where he teaches history, American studies, digital humanities, and civic engagement. His book, The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture was published by Oxford University Press in 2013, and he has written about history, art, culture, and politics for numerous publications. He is the co-founder of theNorthwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory and is currently developing a multimedia project about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival (1958-1970) and the history of technology and culture in the US folk revival. Additionally, he is involved with the Chicago Dance History Project, a large-scale oral history and archival digital documentation of dance in the Chicago region, and he is the dramaturg for The Seldoms Contemporary Dance Company. He blogs about art, culture, and politics at Culture Rover.