Remembering in May, Digital, Meaning-Making, and Community Building with Archives

Remembering in May, Digital, Meaning-Making, and Community Building with Archives

I’ve been traveling a lot this past year with the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC). I’ve been meeting with folks to learn and share about digital scholarship. Most often, the response is, “what is digital scholarship?” Yes. Digital scholarship is a term that doesn’t really work, and that won’t persist. The term is a marker of a particular time, and it will fade to be simply scholarship. The addition of “digital” is really a shorthand for “scholarship in and for the digital age, scholarship in these times.”

The next question, which makes perfect sense comes: Why we can’t simply say scholarship? We could. However, it’s useful to mark the difference in terms of what the digital age enables. We can open into new questions, and return to old questions and needs not addressed because of the limits of print culture (and fax and other prior technologies). We can also re-address and reaffirm the reasons we do scholarship in large terms: How we share our work, create and grow our communities, and uplift the spirit of humanity. The overall goals inform our trajectory and line of flight for our applied work when we ask: How do we leverage all of the technologies, tools, and practices at our disposal to further our mission, vision, goals, and aspirations?

In thinking and talking about these concerns specifically as related to digital scholarship and Caribbean Studies, I was lucky enough to hear from and speak with many brilliant folks. All of this will soon be synthesized into a report, presentations, and other ways of sharing, starting with sharing at ACURL 2017.

Please forgive any errors in the description that follows. This is from my notes and memory of the conversation with Dr. Kevin Browne. NOTE: Any errors or confusion are entirely mine. I look forward to updating for accuracy on the description of this fantastic workshop, and to adding references to other fabulous workshops that are happening and that are currently unknown to me.

I’m also trying to share in other ways, including with my notes and posts. One of the remarkable stories I heard was from Dr. Kevin Browne, of UWI St. Augustine, Trinidad and the Caribbean Memory Project, also with Dawn Cumberbatch. He shared his workshop “Everyday Archives: Caribbean Edition” which was at the Schomburg Center with Alexsandra Mitchell.  The workshop included digitization. Participants bring their own personal archival materials to digitize them. Participants then have the digital versions for their own personal archives. This is a pretty common workshop, and is always helpful. The next steps are where it gets exciting because the digitization is the technological part. Technology should always serve policy, it should always serve our goals. For the next part of the workshop, Kevin asked participants to spend time reflecting on what their archives are and what/how they mean to them. In the reflection, the workshop moved from digital to digital in service, as part, and connected with the long history and future of archives and tools for scholarship and meaning- and world-making. As a scholar of rhetoric, writing, and more, studying the entire expanse of Caribbean cultural production, Kevin created the workshop as an experience. He did so along with collaborator Dawn Cumberbatch of the Caribbean Memory Project.

Clear glass jar

In the workshop, after digitizing the materials, Kevin brought out clear boxes—the type found in attendee gifts at weddings—and ribbon. (I’m thinking of this with a mason jar.) Kevin handed out nice paper to all participants. This and the other physical materials of box and ribbon are a really important part of the digital workshop. Kevin asked the participants to write a memory of the item they had digitized, to write the story of that item. Again, this is using nice paper and nice pens. The feel of this writing becomes an inscription process, where people are remembering and creating their memories. Then, he asked participants to fold the paper, place it in the box, and tie the ribbon. The act of taking the written memory, folding it, and placing it in a box to protect it, tying the ribbon—ribbons are used for presents and important objects, loved objects– are part of the ritual of making of the memory, of making real, and of imbuing value and meaning.

Then, Kevin asked participants to take a sheet of stationary paper. To hold it, feel the grain of the paper, feel its smoothness and strength. Then, consider, who would they want to share their memory with? The memory held safely in the in the clear box. The paper can be seen in the box, yet it is unreadable until the ribbon is untied and the box is open. After writing the memory and placing it in a protected box, after making it special, who would they invite to open the box and share the memory? The stationary is to write a letter, a wish note, deliberate and intentional, to share the memory, the archive, and to be part of the process with the archival object, their memories, and together with another in sharing the memory.

All of this reminds and beckons of experiences in life writing of the archives, as is done with oral histories and in working with the archives. The archives are haunted and alive, and waiting for us to see, to connect, to share, and to be present. Teaching people that archives are alive, and that our histories are never dead, never the past, and always with us is wondrous, and can be overwhelming. Kevin’s workshop is fabulous. It’s also tremendously important because it invites participants to understand their archives and their own stories as alive, intimate, and connected. It invites them to embrace their memories while recognizing the inevitability of loss and death, and to do so with intention, reflection on waiting connections in the archives, and in order to connect with others.

People teaching Digital Humanities classes often share that—while students love the technology and do amazing work—so often the transformative moment happens when students go into the archives for the first time. Holding a love letter, leaning over a gigantic antique map, marveling at a century-old book while feeling the softness of the cover and investigating the worm eaten pages inside; students get to see, smell, and touch the archives. As Kevin explained, his goal in the workshop is to support this work, to further understanding that working with archives is not working with the dead or looking for spirits, but a process, because the archives are energized and charged, waiting for us to engage with them, and for us to create our histories and origin stories.

I’m writing this now while thinking of a meeting later today on next steps for the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) for a study abroad in Trinidad in summer 2018, and for recent meetings with SPOHP on their work in collecting oral histories from the Women’s March on Washington. In thinking about the oral histories. I’m thinking of how they are collected and shared, and how we can create notes of our own archives, where we write for ourselves and to share with others to open into questions of communing and building community with and through our archives. I’m excited to learn from the workshop at the Schomburg, and to hopefully be able to participate or support a similar workshop soon. Librarians, archivists, scholars, teachers, community members: we need to do this critically important work to support our communities. Engaging archives connects our communities together—our pasts, presents, and futures. It shows us how and why we use technologies, and how to leverage the easy technological work of digitization for the complex work of creating memories, histories, and communities.