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  • Archives:An Introduction
  • Thomas Augst (bio)

Scholarship across the humanities is being radically and rapidly transformed through digital access to archival sources. Through the development of online scholarly editions, digital archives such as the Walt Whitman Archive and online repositories such as HathiTrust Digital Library, among many others, a wealth of archival data—textual and graphic, quantitative and qualitative—have become electronically available. With this new digital wealth of materials for humanities scholarship has come new ways of looking at the archival record, new ways of interpreting historical information, and new standards for accounting its value and authority as knowledge.

The fact that archival records are finding new life in digital environments does not, however, necessarily mean that they are accessible, let alone meaningful, to students, scholars, and citizens searching for evidence about the past and telling new stories about it. Single-search boxes of Internet browsers, online catalogs, and search engines offer a narrow window on to a vast landscape of digital data, organizing and retrieving results with the efficiency of machine reading and automation. They do so at the expense of kinds of attention and content expertise by which librarians and scholars have processed our cultural inheritance for hundreds of years at a human scale, using skills of eye and hand. Digital images of manuscripts, graphic material, and newspapers can make crucial information about provenance and format harder to find than when such artifacts are encountered in person, in traditional settings of archival research, in repositories, libraries, and other sites that collect, organize, and preserve cultural heritage materials for future use. Historical records have to remain old before they can be made new. We owe our search results to librarians, collectors, catalogers, information scientists, and scholars, as well as the invisible labor of countless, nameless individuals who have cared for historical records by [End Page 219] securing their preservation over time. Since the later twentieth century, research and heritage institutions spanning for-profit and nonprofit sectors of higher education have accelerated the centuries-old migration of humanities data to new media platforms and tools for documenting the past.

While scholars and students adapt to new tools of research, the values and practices that once defined the handcraft of scholarship are being challenged by new economies and ecologies for the making of knowledge. As Peter Stallybrass has observed, "Scholarship, as traditionally conceived, has maintained its prestige partly through its privileged relation to the protection and retrieval of scarce resources. Now, millions of people who cannot or do not want to go to the archives are accessing them in digital form" (1581). In the twenty-first century, digital tools are transforming archives into sites for the discovery and animation of historical materials; these environments build new kinds of scholarly community in person and online, within and beyond the academy. The essays collected in this special issue of American Literary History survey some of the practical challenges and intellectual opportunities afforded scholars and students of American literature through expanding access to the historical record. In their approaches to the reading and writing of archives in our rapidly changing information ecology, these essays demonstrate how critical engagements with diverse archival materials can open new perspectives on questions of literary form and value, suggesting how various archival media—manuscripts, graphic materials, catalogs, newspapers, business records, and the like, as well as printed texts—shift scholarly inquiry toward analysis of material practices and social processes of knowledge work. How might the reading and writing of archives in our moment illuminate the many ways literature and culture are shaped over time by new technologies of communication, new modes of literacy, new ways of making and sharing literary histories? As scholars and teachers, students and citizens, how will we steward literary history and participate responsibly, critically, and efficiently in the discovery, curation, and animation on which the future of the past now depends?

Considering these and related questions, the essays collected here take up archives ranging from the eighteenth through the twenty-first century to explore the matter and methods of sustaining US literary history at the present time. Given the instability and obsolescence of technology itself, and the new literacies we require to navigate and...


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pp. 219-227
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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