DH Reads

DH Read: “The Suffrage Postcard Project: A Replica Archive”

Suffrage Postcard
Image from the original post

Although the suffragist cat postcard is fantastic, it’s not the only reason this post became an Editors’ Choice piece on Digital Humanities Now. Ana Stevenson draws on Professor Victoria Haskins’ idea of a replica archive. According to Stevenson, “Haskins’ research is concerned with Indigenous domestic servants in Australia and the United States – women whose lives, she rightly notes, are often difficult to uncover in the archives. Technology, however, has fundamentally changed the relationship historians have with archives.” A replica archive is created when fragments from many archives are brought together to create a new archive, and as Stevenson argues, The Suffrage Postcard Project can be seen as one such replica archive. From the piece:

But the partial nature of such collections, together with the geographical dispersion of the archives themselves, means scholars can only ever gain a fragmentary perspective.  Though archives such as these are partially digitized, they are often largely inaccessible to the public… The Suffrage Postcard Project is therefore an attempt to bring together as many women’s suffrage postcards as possible, and thus create a replica archive… This replica archive centers upon women’s suffrage postcards in a way that fragmented collections cannot and is also easily accessible to the public.

Importantly, Stevenson points out that different disciplines have different conceptions of what an archive is. Digital humanists can sometimes be overzealous in their use of the term “archive,” so I think it’s important to be mindful of what librarians and archivists have to say. Along these lines, Stevenson makes the case that, “Haskins’s concept of the replica archive might help reconcile these disciplinary, methodological, and conceptual differences, as it forces practitioners’ cognizance of the created and curated nature of the digital archive.” Finally, Stevenson asserts that replica archives permit digital research methods (she focuses specifically on tagging) that can provide insight that would not otherwise have been possible:

For example, observable trends become incontrovertible when analyzed using digital methods.  A scholar might discern that upper-middle-class adult white women are the primary subjects of suffrage cartoons.  However, when this impression is considered across hundreds of postcards, other trends emerge: children and animals are ubiquitous; men often appear as the subject of debate; white working-class people are depicted somewhat regularly; racial stereotypes about Irish and Chinese immigrants are evident, although rare; and African Americans are conspicuous due to their absence.  Scholars were not formerly unaware of such trends, but a digital humanities approach provides stronger evidence for such thematic claims.

See the original Editors’ Choice piece here.