This past Friday, December 2, 2016, I had the chance to present, albeit virtually, in front of a great community of people at the Caribbean Digital III, a conference organized by the Small Axe Project. A big thanks and congratulations to the organizers: Kaiama L. Glover (Associate Professor of French and Africana Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University), Kelly Baker Josephs (Professor of Africana Studies, Williams College), and Alex Gill (Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Columbia University Libraries).
This blog post serves three purposes: a) to put in writing some ideas gleamed from the talks that particularly resonated with me, b) to hopefully stay in touch with other participants, since I am quite new to the Caribbean, as a geographic area, as well as the field of Caribbean Studies in general, and c) to show my appreciation for a great and insightful line-up of presentations. And how can I even describe in words my emotions at the beauty, forcefulness, and exuberance of the banner image of the conference website (see above)?
My presentation focused on my very recently completed project processing and digitizing the records of the Synagogue Restoration Project in Bridgetown, Barbados, and was part of the Digital Diasporic Religion panel.
A central consideration running across the majority of the presentations and discussions throughout the day was the affordances of the digital realm, such as connectedness and accessibility, juxtaposed with issues such as silencing, excluding, disparaging, or even eliminating that have traditionally plagued diasporic and colonial archives, such as in the Caribbean. This was the case with session 3, “Tales from the Archive.” Talking about “Haiti at the Digital Crossroads,” Marlene Daut, emphasized the danger of reproducing such traditional archival asymmetries in various digitization projects. Keja Valens, presenting on “Cuban Food Writing in Digital Archives,” questioned what does it mean if digitized Caribbean records are hosted in digital platforms located in the US, or UK, or Canada.
I guess a pragmatic (although admittedly cynical) answer to these questions could be that this is what we give up for increased accessibility to information and efficiency in our research, since such digital platforms have reached a critical mass of users, who are abandoning laborious research in ‘dusty archives’ preferring instead to do everything at the click of the mouse from the comfort of their couch. In the same way of course that we ‘sell’ our soul (i.e., privacy) to the ‘Devil’ (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in exchange for being able to communicate instantly and any time of the day with our friends and family.
Among other amazing presentations, I think I mostly identified with Angel ‘Monxo’ López Santiago, who discussed “Working the Digital Spatial Humanities Among Crumbling Archives,” defining the Caribbean “by structure and design” as “a geography of neglected and fragile memories and archives, the result of chronic official underfunding and general disinterest.”
Like him, I feel like we ‘move too fast’, asking deep questions about the Archive and the Digital, while all around us analog “archives crumble away and remain invisible.” We do indeed need “more traditional archival work”, preparing, stabilizing, processing and making available to our users the archival record. And alongside that using digital humanities in order to develop a “stronger infrastructure for the crumbling archives of the Caribbean and its diasporas,” as Roopika Risam points.
As a practitioner ‘in the trenches’ (i.e., on the ground, eye-witnessing this crumbling away of precious, irreplaceable records), I feel the need to put aside my scholarly sensibilities, at least in my everyday praxis, in order to be able to focus on saving archival records from oblivion. If this entails ‘selling my soul to the Devil’ (see above), so be it.
This does not mean that I do not constantly question the ways that we all affect one way or the other the memory of the past through our actions every day. After all “digital archives and library collections are technocultural artifacts” produced by “the entanglement of technologies, institutions, and practices” (Manoff 2015). Being conscious of every decision we take along the way and documenting these decisions might in part offer a solution today–and offer the possibility to future researchers to conduct an ethnography of archival practices. Archival science has a long history of introspection and questioning its own professional practices (see here for example).
For me, the Caribbean Digital III conference functioned as a retreat and an opportunity to:
- learn culturally and historically meaningful synonyms to more ‘mainstream’ terms. For example, while ‘occupy the archive’ and ‘decolonize the archive’ are familiar terms, it was enlightening to hear Schuyler Esprit speak of “becoming a maroon” and “marooning her way into the archive” in order to overcome challenges characterizing archival work in the Caribbean,
- slow down and for some hours at least to shift my attention from the relentless, but at the same time gratifying archival work to getting acquainted with fascinating work being done in the field of Caribbean DH, and
- become part of a community of brilliant scholars, hear about excellent work being conducted, and exchange ideas.
I look forward to continued dialogue and collaborations.