ICHORA 2020, DAY 2: Ciaran Trace, “Archives, Classification, and the Digital World”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Histories of Ordering, Classifying, and Connecting.”

Ciaran Trace (University of Texas-Austin) in a paper on “Archives, Classification, and the Digital World,” based on a forthcoming article in the American Archivist, examines the development of classification and arrangement in the United States from the 1960s to today. According to Trace, the introduction of computer processing led to an introspection of the archival profession as a whole and to a review of ‘record’ as a concept which led archival thinkers such as Peter J. Scott to call into question the future usefulness of the ‘record group’ as the primary category of classification and description (American Archivist 29, no. 4 (October 1966)). Scott advocated instead for the ‘series system,’ which could prove far more adaptable to deal with and represent the provenance of living digital data. Scott’s intervention extended the notion of an archive from being “a physical, tactile aggregation of records” to a “randomly accessible repository of datapoints.”

Ciaran Trace, speaking on Zoom, recorded by University of Michigan iSchool, October 2020.

The 1990s would then witness a significant temporary deviation from the understanding of the pioneers in the field looking back rather to the discipline of Diplomatics for an understanding of the record of human action as well as to the emerging field of digital forensics. The concern during that decade was more with preserving the evidence of action in the new digital framework than with the respect for record provenance, which had to be reimagined as “the inscription and storage of digital files is mediated by digital technologies that have different physical and logical realities […] that data must processed or action taken on it in order to be used and assembled and presented to the user.” There simply could be no “one-to-one correspondence” between the logical series of content and the physical arrangement of bits on a digital storage device. Digital arrangement, however, allows for enhanced user agency due to the numerous ways the stored data can be accessed and represented via queries and other means of digital data manipulation. In response to the sheer scale of data creation, but also to Digital Humanities methods, archives are now starting to conceptualize the management of big data. Also, post-modernist theory has left its mark, as scholars start to question the notion of a “natural” aggregation of records and emphasize instead the “social construction” of ordering.

Slide from Ciaran Trace’s presentation “Archives, Classification, and the Digital World,” recorded by University of Michigan iSchool on October 27, 2020.

According to Trace, this interdisciplinary collaboration led ultimately to the rise of a whole new field, computational archival science. The new digital archival classification framework is, on the one hand, representing a return to traditional approaches, in which scattered record groups of various provenance are ‘repatriated’ during the arrangement process. But in abandonment of the old focus on evidence, Trace conjectures that we will see the rise of “user-directed acts of classification.” In short, the current digital shift in archiving is an approach that is “context-demolishing and context-creating. One that hues to the intent of the reader rather than just to the intent of the creator.” 


Dr. Sebastian Modrow

Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

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