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Library Guides

Finding and Using Digital Archives during COVID-19: Born-digital archives

This guide covers how to find digitised and digital archives material at a time when many archives are closed for in-person visits, and how to critically examine what you find.

Introduction

Born-digital archives are archives that have started their life as digital documents (for example, as a spreadsheet or as a digital photograph) and have been used in this format throughout their life, before being transferred to the archive in a digital format.

They differ from digitised archives because there is no 'original' document for you to go and see at the archive. There is also the opportunity to do different kinds of research with them than you can do with physical documents that have been digitised.

Very few archives are entirely digital at present. Usually they are what we call 'hybrid collections'. These included a mix of born-digital and paper records.

Although the records are digital, you will not always be able to access them remotely - some archives provide on-site only access to digital collections. This is because of concerns around the ease of copying, altering and re-using digital records.

Although web archives are born-digital collections, they have a specific set of issues and so are discussed on a separate page.

Researching with born digital archives

Born digital archives create new possibilities for research but they also have their own unique problems. 

  • Born-digital archives come with more metadata than paper archives, but it isn't necessarily always trustworthy.
  • Born-digital archives are text searchable, but they can be so huge that the number of results in overwhelming.

The discipline of Digital Humanities has evolved to take advantage of the characteristics of both born-digital and large-scale digitsation projects (such as historic newspapers).

 

Where can I learn more?

The School of Advanced Study has a free on-line course in text mining techniques, including topic modelling:

https://port.sas.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=53

Programming Historian provides free online lessons in a huge range of techniques, including visualisation and textual analysis. The website is available in English, French and Spanish.

https://programminghistorian.org/

Examples of processes that can be performed on digital archives

Topic modeling

This is the process of scanning groups of texts to detect word and phrase patterns within them. Much of archival research depends on searching for words across catalogues or texts. This technique enables the text to tell you what research topics are likely to be found within it instead. 

Example: http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/topic-modeling-martha-ballards-diary/ 

Data visualisation

This can be something as simple as a chart or graph derived from a dataset, through plotting geospatial data from archives on maps, through to generating artworks from archive data.

Example: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/data-visualisation-first-world-war-diaries/

Digital forensics

Although more often associated with wrongdoing, these techniques have also been applied to born digital archives by literary scholars. 

Example: https://cradledincaricature.com/2019/03/29/digital-forensics-in-the-house-of-lords-six-themes-relevant-to-historians-part-one/

 

Further reading

If you would like to read more on issues in this area, we recommend the following. Westminster students should have access to the journal articles but you may need to log in.