To begin my foray into the world of digital archiving, I uploaded several images of the 1893 Columbian Exposition on to an Omeka website. Specifically, I sampled images of the Midway Plaisance published in souvenir books in order to facilitate my own academic research. I only entered relevent metadata that made sense to me and my research goals while eschewing some of the more technical categorizations. (The idea of “controlled vocabulary such as RFC 4646” inspires deep fear within me.)
In the process I encountered a few technical conundrums. How do I categorize a photograph of a photograph in a published volume? Whom do I invest with the authoritative title of “creator”? What methodology of tagging should I adhere to?
If this archive merely functions as a personal research tool, I can develop my own idiosyncratic responses to the above questions. However, if the archive is to be made public, these questions quickly lead me into uneasy ethical territory.
First of all, the material I am uploading is deeply problematic. Each caption drips with the influence of Social Darwinism and the photography hides complicated power dynamics of consumption and performance. In fact, the whole point of my research is to investigate how these images and captions serve to affirm a dominant narrative of national identity. Without the accompanying analysis, however, I am in danger of reproducing the racism and othering that takes place within the souvenir books.
Furthermore, how am I to go about categorizing the materials in a way that meets the vast and ever changing needs of researchers? A given image can be analyzed from an infinite number of angles. As a result, any categorization that I impose reveals more about me and my subjectivity than it serves to thoroughly or usefully describe the image. This is a critique that I maintain about archives in general. How often does an archivist willingly or uncritically assign value to objects that perpetuate dominant structures of power and maintain damaging silences in the historical record?
Surely digital archives hold value for academic research or perhaps for a public history project structured around specific educational goals. But a public archive that does not facilitate interpretation strikes me as arbitrary and dangerous; it represents the subjectivity of the archivist and often perpetuates a dominant system of value judgment.
UPDATE: The archive of souvenir book images is not only public now, but it also includes an exhibit that begins to analyze how hegemonic projects operate within representations of women on the Midway. While the site is still a work in progress and relies too heavily on poorly edited academic musings, the exhibit still promises a more responsible and meaningful display of culturally loaded images from the nineteenth century.