Emotion, Meaning and Digital Collections

Getting emotional about historical collections is unusual for most people. Ask the average person to free associate words for “archives” and your will hear “dusty, “old,” “dark” and so on. Ask about digital archives and you will likely just get a blank stare.

scream and shout, by mdanys, on Flickr

scream and shout, by mdanys, on Flickr

This is an occupational hazard of digital archivists, that awkward first attempt to explain what it is that we do. But there is a bigger issue: if people have trouble understanding what a digital archives is, it means that people have no personal connection with the entire concept. In our culture, personal connection drives support and–apologies for an overused term–sustainability.

Over the course of a long career in archives, libraries and other heritage institutions, I’ve had an abiding interest in making the value of collections apparent. Early on, I focused on what can be called the standard model of promoting collections, which involves writing detailed finding aids, such as that for the railroad innovator Ross Winans at the Maryland Historical Society (PDF), and institutional guides, such as The Records of a City: A Guide to the Baltimore City Archives (PDF). Such things are worthy and good. They draw interested researchers who can extract knowledge from the collections. This, in turn, enriches us all.

Yet this “trickle down” theory in support of historical collections is abstract and fails to resonate deeply with most. I dare say that people who stumble across the publications noted above are unlikely to get excited about them–although I can only hope there are exceptions. The guides have, as per the standard model, a clinical look and feel. Series titles, span dates, linear feet… dry stuff. The idea is to present the collections as an object that some self-selected researcher will discover and put to use. Such researchers may be few, but the goal is to have the object separately defined so that someone can put it to use.

Lately I’ve been reconsidering this object-subject approach though roundabout means. I read a bit about the ideas of Martin Heidegger, who came up with the notion that there is no primary separation between an object and the person who uses it. Instead, objects, such as tools, have a subjective and fundamentally emotional connection to the people who use them. The value of objects are determined by the array of cultural context surrounding them rather than by the inherent value of the object itself.

This sounds dense and academic, but these ideas have an important real-world application in advertising. The Atlantic has a fascinating article on how companies are paying careful attention to how people relate to their products and are discovering that “objects are inevitably encrusted with cultural meaning.” Driving sales depends on understanding this meaning and positioning products to, as Heidegger would say, reveal themselves fully to the needs and emotions of people.

24/52. Emotion, by danielito311/, on Flickr

24/52. Emotion, by danielito311/, on Flickr

Don Draper, the ad executive character from the television show Mad Men, put it another way. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” Draper is speaking in a highly cynical context–he just came up with a catch phrase for a cigarette brand–but the underlying idea is spot on.

I’ve written here before about how promoting personal digital archiving might be one way to connect emotionally with people about the value of digital materials. If people can see the need to preserve their own photographs, email and other personal digital objects, it might be possible to build a larger degree of awareness about the value of digital preservation as a societal undertaking. This is still a work in progress, but I believe it has solid potential, particularly as more and more people and their families generate digital memories.

I’m glad that others are interested in the role of emotion in how archives are built, used and valued. Mark Matienzo recently wrote a blog post exploring how emotion is entwined with collections in helping us establish a link with the past. “The archive, then, ultimately also has the possibility as serving as an empowering tool – not just in capturing culture, emotion and lives, but also as a resource in terms of allowing us to build a bond to past worlds and lives,” he writes.

At the recently concluded Personal Digital Archiving 2013 conference, Sudheendra Hangal discussed using open source software to process personal email, including creation of crossword puzzles to jog memory and also to work with Alzheimer’s patients. Noah Lenstra presented “Connecting Local & Family History with Personal Digital Archiving: Findings from Studies in Four Midwestern Public Libraries,” and made a good case for how individuals pursuing their own interests can be powerful allies for supporting institutional digital collections. Leslie Swift, from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, closed the meeting with “Projections of Life: Prewar Jewish Life on Film,” which presented overpoweringly emotional footage of from what were originally mundane family home movies.

We’re at a point where intriguing ideas are emerging about establishing a potentially deeper and more meaningful role for digital collections. This is important, and we could see some exciting developments.


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