[During the 2021/2022 academic year, the Gramsci center for the humanities took part in an academic project of the University of the Republic of San Marino entitled The San Marino Political Archives: census, digitization, fruitionCoordinated by Luca Gorgolini (Unirsm), by Michele Chiaruzzi (Unibo; Unirsm), and by our director, Massimo Mastrogregori, the project availed itself of the scientific advice of a research group … Continue reading.
The final outcome of this work will be the publication of a Guide to the recorded archives of personalities and political parties, enriched with more detailed theoretical insights, which will act as a first indispensable tool for accessing the heritages existing on the territory of the Republic; alongside this, as Gramsci center, we have tried to reflect on the formulation of a proposal for the digitization of the identified material, which would provide for its fruition and wider valorizationA video mockup of the portal can be accessed at this link..
In our perspective, however, the occasion was also valuable to set up an initial general study of the different possibilities and forms of transferring, rendering and fruition of archival records in the digital environment. Attention to how the digital revolution is changing the ways in which culture and knowledge are produced, processed, and consumed, in its various declinations, is in fact one of the directives guiding the work of our center since its foundation.
The first fruit of this reflection will be four releases, curated by Andreas Iacarella, which will take the form of an attempt to deepen dialogue and reflection on a theme that appears as urgent as ever to solicit. We are certain that the technical and scientific nature of the discourse cannot be eluded, and that therefore the debate will have to be increasingly brought into a dimension of extreme interdisciplinarity, involving all the actors involved: professionals in communication, knowledge design, information technology, specialists in cultural heritage (archivists, librarians, curators, etc.), as well as historians, art historians and all those categories of scholars who represent the traditional users of archives. The different knowledges will have not only to talk to each other, but to intertwine, to hybridize, certainly losing something of their specificities, to the advantage, however, of a more advanced design of archival digital environments, which can become a vanguard in the construction of the common memory of the communities of reference. With this in mind, what we want to offer is but a small critical contribution to the discussion, with the presentation of some general problems and issues, in the hope that this may provoke further reflection.
Summary of the episodes:
a. From online inventory to digital library: comparing experiences
b. Constructing a narrative: the paths of history on the web
a. The archives of Italian political parties and the challenge of the internet
b. Letters and commercials: two successful cases of valorization
c. From Archivi del Novecento to 9centRo: network experiences compared
4. The Europeana case and other international experiences of memory sharing]
We would like to conclude this analytic display of the different ways of digitalizing archives by moving beyond Italian borders to examine the work that has been done on some international portals. As will be seen, in the projects considered in this episode, the scale is decidedly larger than in the cases examined so far, and the involvement of the sponsoring bodies is for the most part oriented by choices and policies of an institutional nature; the combination of these two elements has clearly favored the creation of tools aimed at a wide public and traversed by a public, identity-building function, on which it will be useful to offer some insights.
a. Europeana: from sharing heritage to sharing stories.
At the European level, the certainly most famous and wide-ranging example is the Europeana portal. Created in 2008 at the instigation of the European Commission, Europeana is a digital library that aims to be the unified point of access to the different databases scattered across Europe. It was thus born, fundamentally, as a search engine dedicated to European cultural heritage, querying the descriptions of materials (documents, works, etc.) created ad hoc or shared by different institutions or bodies.
Currently, 31,434,058 images, 23,982,245 texts, 667,011 audio, 343,505 videos, and 5,955 3D objects are accessible on the portalData are updated as of March 27, 2023.; the site can be consulted in 25 different languages and collects materials from about 4,000 institutions. As it is unthinkable to work in a network with all of them, the project has structured itself through a series of affiliated partners, who act as aggregators and carry out verification and enrichment work on the data provided (geolocation, connection with other materials or datasets through associated places, people or themes, etc.). Aggregators’ Forum, Europeana Foundation and Europeana Network Association are the three continental organizations coordinating the different phases of work behind the implementation of the portal.
We are, as mentioned, dealing with a project of enormously greater scale than those seen in previous installments, which is, among other things, part of a precise policy of the European institutions aimed at heritage sharing, dialogue and integration. Right from the homepage, it is clear that the portal offers itself to as diverse an audience as ever: the initial access tool is a simple, Google-style search bar. Continuing the exploration, numerous filters can be entered to refine the query, including: theme (which can be selected from a defined list)The list includes: archaeology, art, photography, newspapers, migration, fashion, etc.; media type; copyright; provider country; language; color; image orientation, etc.). As evident from the choice of these fields, an attempt has been made to provide for as varied a use and reuse of the materials as possible.
Once a document has been identified, the related tab can be accessed, which lists the basic information (geolocation; indexing of characters and places; providing institution) and the complete metadata of the document. One can also continue the exploration by viewing collections and related documents, which are highlighted, as well as save and share content on major social networks. One of the most interesting aspects of Europeana is precisely the protagonism offered to users, who by registering their account can create personal “collections” (private or public), freely aggregating materials found in the portal. Another aspect of this protagonism is the involvement of users in the realization of specific projects: for both Europeana 1914-1918 and other material collection campaigns (such as Europeana migration), a specific tool for sharing personal “stories” was activated. This has, in all evidence, a twofold value: on the one hand, it has the potential to intercept documents and materials that do not fit into the usual institutes and circuits of preservation; on the other hand, it offers European citizens a direct involvement that helps, ideally, to weave a collective identity. Individual or family histories, in fact, can in this way become traces of a collective history, increasing the awareness of a common belonging and reconnecting the individual dimension of one’s experience to phenomena of broader scope. The centrality of this purely “political” purpose, in a broad sense, of the portal is evident in the presentation of the tools for sharing one’s individual memories“Sharing your migration history can help us to tell a really big story – the story of Europe and the people who live here. Your story is part of Europe’s rich and shared history of … Continue reading.
Still on the subject of strong user involvement, we also note the Europeana transcribe tool, which potentially allows anyone and everyone to participate in the enrichment of digital materials on the portal by transcribing and annotating them; specific tutorials are offered to train in the performance of these tasks.
Services and reuse
In addition to user-generated content, Europeana also offers qualified storytelling or historical contextualization tools, and predetermined paths through the sources. Indeed, collections can be explored by themes, already mentioned, which are the most general aggregators; topics (identified according to a searchable lemmary); century; galleries; and “stories.” Galleries are the simplest form of curating materials and are limited to collecting a sequence of documents selected on the basis of thematic homogeneity (e.g., “Suffragettes,” “Black musicians who changed music forever,” etc.). “Stories,” on the other hand, include both articles published on the site and actual exhibitions. In both cases extensive use is made of the materials available on the portal, the difference being in the greater richness of the exhibits, which are usually divided into several chapters (a good example is the exhibition “A female lens. Women, society and the history of photography”). In all cases, what is offered is a narrative, more or less complex, that introduces the user to the preserved documents and may prove to be a first point of access to further research. The extensive editorial work behind these aspects of the portal is evident, and it is further enriched through the possibility offered to users to independently propose articles or exhibits.
The breadth of the audience to which Europeana is addressed and the differentiation of services is made explicit in the very presentation of the tool, which under the heading “reuse” identifies four main areas of use, for which specific tools are implemented: educationFor the school world, two different services, Historiana and Europeana Classroom, are made available for teachers and students of all levels, as well as the Teaching with Europeana blog, where … Continue reading, research, creatives, culture lovers. This aspect is particularly interesting because it departs significantly from what is the usual policy of access to archival materials: here the documents, or at least part of them, are explicitly made available for reuse for educational but also creative purposes (graphics, video games, apps, etc.).
Finally, through Europeana Pro, the platform aimed at professionals, it is “possible to find all the specifications and technical solutions for sharing on Europeana Collections”; these features are available only to qualified users, given their specificity, “just think of the set of APIs made available, used to improve the browsing and searching experience”D. Segoni, “The services offered by a digital library,” DigItalia, XVI, 1 (2021), p. 52..
Europeana Data Model
From what has been said, therefore, it seems clear to us that one of the most interesting aspects of Europeana is the richness and variety of the services offered, which are strongly differentiated to meet the different types of users. However, it is also worth focusing, at least for a few hints, on issues of a more specifically technical nature: as will have become evident, one of the distinctive features of the portal is to offer on a single platform access to different types of materials, from libraries, archives, museums, etc. (the MAB domain, Museums Archives Libraries, or GLAM, Galleries Libraries Archives Museums)See S. Bruni et al., “Towards the integration of archives, libraries and museums,” JLIS. Italian journal of library, archives and information science, 7, 1 (2016), pp. 225-244.. The portal “cumulates, through the interoperability of descriptive languages of digital objects, the resources of numerous cultural institutions.”S. Noiret, Contemporary Digital History, in R. Minuti (ed.), The Web and Historical Studies. A critical guide to the use of the web, Carocci, Rome 2015, pp. 291-292., taking full advantage of the potential of the semantic web and metadata interconnection. Indeed, through the Europeana Data Model (EDM), an attempt has been made to align “standards representative of different documentary types” and “reconcile different points of observation”F. Tomasi, Organizing Knowledge: Digital Humanities and the Semantic Web. A journey through archives, libraries and museums, Editrice Bibliografica, Milan 2022, p. 64., to create a tool that could hold together the descriptive richness of each domain with the principles of broad interoperability and the Linked Open Data (LOD) paradigm.
EDM was thus constituted as “an open, cross-domain Semantic Web-based framework that can accommodate particular community standards such as LIDO, EAD or METS”A. Isaac (ed.), Europeana Data Model Primer, Europeana-European Union, July 14, 2013, p. 6. ; adhering to the guiding principles of the Semantic Web, according to which “there is no such thing as a fixed schema that dictates just one way to represent data,” EDM can be seen ” as an anchor to which various finer-grained models can be attached, making them at least partly interoperable at the semantic level, while the data retain their original expressivity and richness”Ibid., p. 5.. We do not have the space here to delve into the technical features of the modelA brief presentation can be reached here., but the great work done to fully exploit a cross-cultural, multilingual platform that collects materials with highly differentiated provenances, and thus descriptive standards, is manifest.
From what has been said, it is clear that the portal adheres to a specific institutional purpose, which is pursued by encouraging the widest possible participation of users and the greatest visibility of the collected materials. The digital library is not structured as a simple repository, the conservation task appears to slip into the background, in the face of its value as a starting tool for the realization of other projects and initiativesTo render the horizon in which Europeana stands, it is sufficient to quote a few lines from the 2020-2025 strategic plan: “Europeana sees a cultural heritage sector transformed by having … Continue reading.
b. Digital Public Library of America and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: promoting and building citizenship.
On a similar model was the Digital Public Library of America, which shares with its European sister both the structure and the goal of dissemination and “formation” of citizenshipTo the point that a pioneer of digital public history such as Serge Noiret has predicted that, “thanks to the semantic web and the interconnection between metadata, it could merge its contents … Continue reading.
The official launch of the portal took place in 2013 after a long process of planning and exchange involving the various specialists in the field (librarians, archivists, curators, digital humanists, etc.) and was coordinated by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The DPLA has, moreover, built on previous experiences of massive digitization, such as those carried out by the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive, by enhancing the data of individual institutions in an interconnected dimension and removing them from the risk of isolation in proprietary silos. This has resulted in a tool that serves as a unified access point to the holdings of archives, libraries, and museums scattered throughout the United States of AmericaMajor contributing partners include the National Archives and Records Administration (17,524,422 digital records), Smithsonian Institution (7,423,214), HathiTrust (3,033,985), California Digital … Continue reading.
Again, the institutional purpose of the project is well defined: the DPLA “empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society by maximizing access to our shared history, culture, and knowledge”Digital Public Library of America strategic roadmap, 2019-2022. Collaborating for equitable access to knowledge for all, DPLA, June 2019, p. 1.. Corresponding to this mission is a user-friendly layout and services, which favors the visual over the textual element and encourages rich and differentiated access. In addition to the usual simple search bar, to which numerous filters can be applied to refine the query, documents can be reached through thematic paths, exhibitions, or searches by partner (preserving subject).
Variety of services
Avoiding repeating here observations already proposed with respect to the Europeana portal, we will simply highlight the nature and variety of services available. Specific guides are made available to users to illustrate the various possible uses of the portal: education; family research, which represents a very substantial user sector in the United StatesAs evidence of this, we note the Resources for Genealogists tool page made available by the National Archives.; lifelong learning; scholarly research; developers. Through these guides, different users are guided to the approach most congenial to them in exploring the enormous amount of documents made available on the site. Each user is also offered the opportunity to create customized lists, to keep track of his or her own research. Like Europeana, DPLA also offers a specific portal for professionals and institutions that want to adopt its toolsOne of the most interesting aspects in this regard is the Palace Marketplace, a marketplace specializing in audiobooks and ebooks that aims to maximize access to documents, made specifically to meet … Continue reading or share their holdings.
It is worth saying a little more about the tools geared toward the world of education and training: primary source sets, searchable both by subject and period, offer teachers pre-packaged selections of sources that can be directly shared on Google Classroom, and are accompanied by a user guide and basic references. In addition to this, numerous projects and initiatives have been activated over time, which can also be accessed directly by students. In this specific focus on the world of education can be found another example of what we were already observing for Europeana, namely the use of digitized cultural heritage as a tool to strengthen one’s sense of belonging to a community and a shared history.
Another example we would like to briefly mention, also North American, is the archives of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), at the University of Manitoba. The work of the center was initiated in 2008, as a result of the signing of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement; with this act, the Canadian government initiated a commission, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to investigate and collect sources and testimonies in relation to the tragic events related to the Canadian Indian residential school system, as well as to promote its memory and initiate a path of reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
A “cultural genocide”Honoring the truth, reconciling for the future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 1., this is how what happened in Canada between the end of the nineteenth century and 1996 was defined to the detriment of native peoples; through the residential school system, in order to “civilize” aboriginal peoples, children were taken away from their families of belonging, becoming victims of violence of various kinds, in addition to the attempt at cultural assimilation. We are faced here, therefore, with a very specific situation, linked to particularly tragic recent historical events, which directly involved public institutions that now promote their study and memory. Very strong appears, in this case, the “political” use of archival traces, which become a vehicle to promote a new image of the Canadian state, and a new conception of citizenship.
The idea of a digital archive arose from the need to make accessible all the documentation collected and produced by the commission during its work of historical investigation and reconstruction (more than 7,000 direct testimonies, church and state records, photographs, etc.)As pointed out by Dario Taraborelli, the TRC’s work also had other consistent archival outcomes, having dedicated two of the 94 Calls to Action in its final report to these cultural … Continue reading. Thus, a user-friendly portal with a strong visual impact has been created, offering the possibility to search among the collected documents freely or on the basis of some filters designed ad hoc: schools; events; record types; subjects; places. From the homepage it is also possible to directly reach the Featured collections, thematic collections of materials, and the interactive map that allows one to locate the residential schools, events and venues where the Commission’s hearings were held, and thus reach the relevant documents. Much emphasis is also placed on the portal on how people can share their personal and family memories or stories, which can go to enrich the portal or events organized by the center.
Having made these few hints about the formal structure, however, we would like to focus on the problematic issues that this model presents from a cultural and historical storytelling point of view. The entire portal is set up, even at the editorial and communicative level, in the direction of as much inclusiveness as possible: the insistent use of “you”/”your” in relation to the activities and materials preserved is meant to emphasize the collective and shared nature of the heritage, as the basis of an in any case identity construction, which is in constant flux and needs broad participation. The memory of residential schools, however, has proven to be a particularly “complex and conflicting reality to deal with collectively”D. Taraborelli, “The Complex Legacy of Residential Schools in Canada” cit. . This is also because of the choice, made at the institutional level, to invest the commission with an exclusively informational and information-gathering task, excluding any judicial mandate. Victims’ narratives thus became the heart of the entire operationSee R. Niezen, “The limits of truth telling: victim-centrism in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools,” Allegra Lab, January 2015., as a tool that would in itself be able to “heal trauma and reconcile the country’s history with the memory of the violence suffered.”D. Taraborelli, “The complex legacy of Residential Schools in Canada” cit..
The whole operation, culminating in the publication of the portal, has undoubtedly had the merit of fostering a greater awareness about archives in the citizenry, which has found itself a direct witness to the potential of archival records in the direction of paths of collective historical reconstruction. However, the discourse on residential schools remains to this day a highly conflicted memory in CanadaWe note, in this regard, the request that had been made by some indigenous peoples, and granted by the Canadian Supreme Court, to claim victim ownership over their testimonies, with the possibility … Continue reading, a sign of how the archival tool, made massively accessible on the web, can be a useful element for processes of collective historical reworking, but must necessarily be embedded within a consistent and dense work on the part of all the actors involved.
Memory as a collective effort
As pointed out by Stefano Vitali, the “power of archives today does not end only in their cultural and symbolic value, but entails additional dimensions of a legal and ethical nature,” which tend to make them “an instrument to defend the rights of citizens and to supervise the regularity and functionality of public powers.”S. Vitali, Foreword, in L. Giuva, S. Vitali, I. Zanni Rosiello, The Power of Archives. Uses of the past and the defense of rights in contemporary society, Mondadori, Milan 2007, p. IX.; in this context, archives increasingly lend themselves “to uses that are anything but unambiguous” and become “bearers of multiple and complex meanings, which do not admit reductive or partial readings”Ibid., p. XI.. The case of the NCTR seems to us emblematic in this regard to show the problematic nature that a public and digital archival narrative, even if supported by valid motivations, may encounter and with which it must necessarily be confronted. Precisely by virtue of the fact that this is an “extreme” case (documentation related to a cultural genocide, with respect to which political and legal claims have not yet subsided, collected specifically for the construction of an institutionally oriented narrative), this model seems to bring to light in a significant way the most serious criticalities that projects of this kind can incur.
Through the examples seen in this installment, all of which are large-scale and oriented toward a task of cultural and identity construction, we felt that we had shown on the one hand the richness and fertility of the digital use of archives and their removal from a purely specialized sphere of fruition, and on the other hand some of the risks that this kind of operation can entail. This is to attempt to problematize the question of the public use of archives as tools for the construction of citizenship. As Marc Bloch wrote, the “mémoire collective, comme la mémoire individuelle, ne conserve pas précisément le passé, elle le retrouve et le reconstruit sans cesse, en partant du présent. Toute mémoire est un effort”M. Bloch, “Mémoire collective, tradition et costume. A propos d’un livre récent,” Revue de synthèse historique, XL, 118-120 (1925), p. 76.. In this endeavor, the digital use of archives is a terrain of both enormous potential and substantial risks, around which there is an increasing need for a debate that transcends individual disciplinary fences, in order to involve all stakeholders (institutions, archivists, historians, information and knowledge design professionals, computer scientists, etc.).
|↑1||Coordinated by Luca Gorgolini (Unirsm), by Michele Chiaruzzi (Unibo; Unirsm), and by our director, Massimo Mastrogregori, the project availed itself of the scientific advice of a research group composed, in addition to the coordinators, of Rosa Gobbi (State Archives of the Republic of San Marino), Isabella Manduchi (State Archives of the Republic of San Marino), Matteo Sisti (Memorie di Marca) and Stefano Vitali (former director of the Central Institute for Archives). The census was carried out by Damiano Muccioli, while Alessandro Fiorentino and Andreas Iacarella worked on the digitization proposal for our center.|
|↑2||A video mockup of the portal can be accessed at this link.|
|↑3||Data are updated as of March 27, 2023.|
|↑4||The list includes: archaeology, art, photography, newspapers, migration, fashion, etc.|
|↑5||“Sharing your migration history can help us to tell a really big story – the story of Europe and the people who live here. Your story is part of Europe’s rich and shared history of migration, and now it can be recorded for the future.” The quote is from the “Share your migration story” page.|
|↑6||For the school world, two different services, Historiana and Europeana Classroom, are made available for teachers and students of all levels, as well as the Teaching with Europeana blog, where teachers can share tools, materials and experiences.|
|↑7||D. Segoni, “The services offered by a digital library,” DigItalia, XVI, 1 (2021), p. 52.|
|↑8||See S. Bruni et al., “Towards the integration of archives, libraries and museums,” JLIS. Italian journal of library, archives and information science, 7, 1 (2016), pp. 225-244.|
|↑9||S. Noiret, Contemporary Digital History, in R. Minuti (ed.), The Web and Historical Studies. A critical guide to the use of the web, Carocci, Rome 2015, pp. 291-292.|
|↑10||F. Tomasi, Organizing Knowledge: Digital Humanities and the Semantic Web. A journey through archives, libraries and museums, Editrice Bibliografica, Milan 2022, p. 64.|
|↑11||A. Isaac (ed.), Europeana Data Model Primer, Europeana-European Union, July 14, 2013, p. 6.|
|↑12||Ibid., p. 5.|
|↑13||A brief presentation can be reached here.|
|↑14||To render the horizon in which Europeana stands, it is sufficient to quote a few lines from the 2020-2025 strategic plan: “Europeana sees a cultural heritage sector transformed by having digital integrated into every aspect of its operation and mindset. (…) This vision for Europeana imagines a Europe powered by culture. And a Europe powered by culture is a Europe with a resilient, growing economy, increased employment, improved well-being and a sense of European identity.” European Commission, Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, Europeana strategy 2020-2025. Empowering digital change, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg 2020, p. 13.|
|↑15||To the point that a pioneer of digital public history such as Serge Noiret has predicted that, “thanks to the semantic web and the interconnection between metadata, it could merge its contents with those of Europeana and thus foster the emergence of a universal digital library.” S. Noiret, Digital Contemporary History cit., p. 292.|
|↑16||Major contributing partners include the National Archives and Records Administration (17,524,422 digital records), Smithsonian Institution (7,423,214), HathiTrust (3,033,985), California Digital Library (2,088,218), The Portal to Texas History (1,869,499), etc.). Data are current as of March 27, 2023.|
|↑17||Digital Public Library of America strategic roadmap, 2019-2022. Collaborating for equitable access to knowledge for all, DPLA, June 2019, p. 1.|
|↑18||As evidence of this, we note the Resources for Genealogists tool page made available by the National Archives.|
|↑19||One of the most interesting aspects in this regard is the Palace Marketplace, a marketplace specializing in audiobooks and ebooks that aims to maximize access to documents, made specifically to meet the supply needs of libraries.|
|↑20||Honoring the truth, reconciling for the future. Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 1.|
|↑21||As pointed out by Dario Taraborelli, the TRC’s work also had other consistent archival outcomes, having dedicated two of the 94 Calls to Action in its final report to these cultural institutions. See D. Taraborelli, “The complex legacy of Residential Schools in Canada, between truth-seeking, archives and divided memories,” The World of Archives, March 12, 2019.|
|↑22||D. Taraborelli, “The Complex Legacy of Residential Schools in Canada” cit.|
|↑23||See R. Niezen, “The limits of truth telling: victim-centrism in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools,” Allegra Lab, January 2015.|
|↑24||D. Taraborelli, “The complex legacy of Residential Schools in Canada” cit.|
|↑25||We note, in this regard, the request that had been made by some indigenous peoples, and granted by the Canadian Supreme Court, to claim victim ownership over their testimonies, with the possibility of choosing between archiving or secrecy and subsequent destruction of them.|
|↑26||S. Vitali, Foreword, in L. Giuva, S. Vitali, I. Zanni Rosiello, The Power of Archives. Uses of the past and the defense of rights in contemporary society, Mondadori, Milan 2007, p. IX.|
|↑27||Ibid., p. XI.|
|↑28||M. Bloch, “Mémoire collective, tradition et costume. A propos d’un livre récent,” Revue de synthèse historique, XL, 118-120 (1925), p. 76.|