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Creating an Archive for our Collection

Digital humanities changes the landscape of scholarship in the academy and workplace from an individual task to one of a team effort. It shuns the “singular scholar” mode of knowledge production and innovation. The collaborative effort that yielded “Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets” has tremendously impacted the class perspective on content, mapping, language, corporeality, and most importantly the archive.


Overseeing the development of the website, the archive and day-to-day operations of “Poor Sinners Pamphlets” included additional time outside of class instruction to complete necessary items and work in collaboration with a team of people. A major element of creating an archive is administering the CMS and its related responsibilities. Overseeing those tasks included:


• Making all modifications on the website

• Uploading content

• Rearranging data

• Removing unnecessary information

• Creating background image from one of the broadsheets

• Constructed the footer

• Other duties as assigned

• Taking pictures while class is working

Due to university restrictions, students aren’t given FTP access, which is necessary to upload or delete plugins and add site images. FTP access requires that one have the needed permissions to MSU’s servers and –quite understandably- giving such access to students yields security concerns. Hence, to make any changes requiring plugins, requests were sent to Kristen Mapes, College of Arts and Letter Digital Humanities Specialist. 


The workflow of the archive was an issue-by-issue or prompt-by-prompt basis constructed by Matt Handelman, the course instructor. Much of the work was driven by intuition and required one to fill in the blank spots of the website template. To streamline the process and cut the mini project completion timeline down, the team digitized the images by taking pictures, cleaned the data, and uploaded it to a cloud based storage to make it available to the class. Secondly, Handleman ensured that organization was a top priority with properly organized folders. Hindering the efficacy of the group workflow was learning “Find & Replace” in Excel isn’t necessarily a foolproof tool. Moreover, that there were unforeseeable events when data goes missing or when it repeats, but that these incidents can be corrected given proper labeling and file iteration. Nonetheless, the data loss cost the team a timeline adjustment, requiring a class session to make the corrections and to modify others and a plan of action as to what needs to be on the site from that point on.


Our class project, although selective, is an archive. It addresses the stories of historical individuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, crime, capital and public punishment, the connection between two continents, and the broadsheets distributed at public executions, which described the often heinous deeds committed by men and women including murder, theft, and infanticide. While Foucault and Derrida would argue that the word “archive” is overwrought and that we are being exclusionary, they must take into consideration the physical labor involved in constructing the archive itself. Indeed, as Derrida states in Archive Fever, “the archive takes place at the place or originary and structural breakdown of the said memory. There is no archive without consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside.”[1] Derrida essentially asserts, the point of origin is where the archive begins and that the archive cannot exist on its own without some sort of external support. In the case of “Poor Sinners Pamphlets” the archive begun when the class decided to unearth these documents stored in the depths of MSU’s library, and it is sustained by complimentary projects to simplify, yet explicate the greater narrative of crime and punishment in western Europe—digitization, mapping, text analysis, visualization and U.S. contextualization. 


This project, although big in its undertaking has opened the world of archiving to new ideas and models, as well as, robust scrutiny and criticism as to where the digital archive lies in the conversation between the traditional v. non-traditional. More so, the ability to cope with the massive changes in the world of information that has made the data in these vaulted spaces and places public and accessible. Kate Theimer in Archives in Context and as Context argues that classical archivists cannot control the ways, in which, “…practitioners of digital humanities can and will continue to use it [archive] to mean whatever is meaningful in their discipline.”[2] Likewise, Marlene Manoff in Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines indicates that explosion of technology has simultaneously and ironically strained and complicated the term archive.


[1] Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Boston: MIT Press, 2006), 78. 

[2] Kate Theimer,” Archives in Context and as Context,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (2012), http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/