Historian Randi Flaherty at UVA Law Special Collections

Historians in the Archive — Talk at Virginia Consortium of Early Americanists

The ‘historians in residence’ at Law Special Collections – Loren Moulds (Digital Collections Librarian) and Jim Ambuske (Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities) – presented at this year’s annual meeting of the Virginia Consortium of Early Americanists. The consortium, supported by the Omohondro Institute, serves as a forum for scholars of early America working in the Commonwealth. Jim and Loren, alongside Susan Perdue of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, presented on the theory and practice of constructing digital archives.

The Scottish Court of Session Records Digitization Project

Jim provided an early preview of the Law Library’s Scottish Court of Session Records digital archive. He gave a brief overview of the history of the Scottish Court of Session, the highest civil court in Scotland, and explained that as a court of appeal and of first instance, the court held jurisdiction over contract and commercial cases, succession and land ownership, divorces, intellectual property and copyright, among many other civil matters. More than reports of judicial decisions, these documents tell a new and understudied story of life, law, and trade in the British Atlantic world away from the imperial capital of London.

These documents offer a window into the everyday lives of the peoples of the British Atlantic and possess valuable potential as a digital corpus. Narratives of commercial ventures and descriptions of investor networks in bankruptcy cases reveal the larger commercial and legal regime in which this commerce operated and illuminate the experiences of otherwise overlooked participants such as sailors, wives, farmers, customs officers, and middling traders. This collection provides a body of primary materials that offer new insights into the eighteen‑century British Empire for scholars of history, sociology, economics, and law. The project plans to digitize these records, revealing relevance that might otherwise be overlooked because of the ways in which eighteenth and nineteenth century clerks, archivists and collectors catalogued these materials to better serve the needs of the legal process.

Supreme Court of Scotland documents
A map and case materials, examples of the rich content within the documents found inside the Library’s collection of Scottish Court of Session papers.

In his presentation, Jim underscored how these documents illuminate interpersonal relationships that often spanned the Atlantic. For scholars of American history, these seemingly unlikely sources provide a new perspective on America’s colonial and early national periods. Jim noted that the papers speak to a diversity of topics relevant to American history including the tobacco trade between Scotland and North America, commerce between North America and the Caribbean, tensions between North American and British manufacturing and fishing interests, Atlantic travel and migration, and the imperial crisis that preceded the American Revolution. Jim concluded his talk by laying out the decisions Law Special Collections staff made to ‘open up’ the collection to researchers, such as providing full-text access; drawing connections between documents using maps, timelines, and prosopography; developing interpretive taxonomies; and planning to provide exploratory themes.

Jim’s discussion of the interpretative aspects of the developing Scottish Court of Sessions Digital Archive provided a springboard into Loren’s talk, which reflected on the value of the historian’s training in the conceptualization and construction of digital archives projects. Loren spoke of the practice of making interpretive interventions into online collections to enhance their value to scholars and the public. Bringing the historian’s perspective to the materials individually and as a collection asks a series of questions: Why are these materials valuable and to whom? What is hidden in them? What could opening them up offer to researchers? What is appealing? Where could these documents contribute to established fields of study? How do these materials speak to historical questions that remain unanswered or underserved?

Building Interpretive Layers into Digital Archives

Loren then applied this methodology to the construction of the Law Library’s digital archives, noting that constructing layers of interpretation and sophisticated interfaces can greatly add to a collection’s value to researchers. The process involves the creation of an interpretive system for accessing, remixing, and drawing connections between the documents. In addition to rich description and full-text indexing, library staff codifies entities that appear within the documents, such as events, people, places, or overarching case themes, and then develops sophisticated relational linkages and taxonomic connections between the documents and these entities. These linkages are the real value-added aspect of this approach and its one that requires an historian’s eye to properly create. As opposed to entering into the process with presupposed conclusions, we instead allow the materials to speak to us and interrogate them using our training as historians.

As the process proceeds and the digital archive begins to emerge, we offer models of interpretation and analytical tools for interacting with the content within the materials. In creating models of interpretation, we act like a sommelier for our collection to offer informed suggestions for the types of materials most useful to particular scholars. We try to produce short articles, blog posts, or curated lists of related content with suggestions for further research that speak to a variety of research interests.

We also endeavor to provide analytical tools that embrace evolving, modern methods of analyzing and visualizing the data in our collection. Maps, timelines, or topic-modeling-derived visualizations are digital ways to interrogate a broad array of evidence and begin the work of drawing informed conclusions. We try to situate our collections within a global framework by drawing explicit connections to other materials within the Law Library or elsewhere and envision the inclusion our digital archives in federated databases. These tools encourage historians to look at larger patterns and connections while still being able to target particular documents in which they may be interested.

The Law Library’s approach tries to digitize a considerably large quantity of documents and to provide rich descriptions of these materials. The approach, however, is not simply about the creation of big data: we are not particularly interested in “digitize, dump, and release.” Data is most useful when presented through conceptual frameworks because at the end of the day it is aggregated historical evidence. Our process attempts to contextualize the data in the collection and suggest unexplored or underdeveloped questions or arguments.

Loren suggested as well that the Law Library’s model embraces aspects of the burgeoning field of Critical Archives Theory: by questioning existing subject headings, descriptive frameworks, and data models, we can subvert or challenge established wisdom about how archival items should be collected, cataloged, described, or used. These interpretive choices must be made transparently and in ways that engage with the scholarly community. We recognize the taxonomies created for the Law Library’s digital archives are a product of modern historical interpretation. A noteworthy example from UVA main libraries system are the efforts of librarians in collaboration with the Take Back the Archive project aimed at better interpretation of controlled vocabularies—in this instance Library of Congress Subject Heading terms—for application to archival description of materials related to sexual violence on grounds.

Loren concluded his presentation by noting that archives ought to participate in broader conversations with historians and other scholars about meaningful ways to open up archival material using digital technology. He suggested that digital history or digital archives projects share much in common with traditional scholarly productions, such as articles or monographs. Arguably, digital archives can be defined as concrete scholarly contributions featuring evidence-backed assertions that engage with historiography, ask historical questions, and highlight connections to primary materials – research that begets other research. Their construction is inherently collaborative and should not be understood as exclusively archival or technological endeavors. Historians in the archive can empower archival databases to speak to other historians, acting as promoters and translators, broadening the definition of scholarship available to historians.

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Loren Moulds

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