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Design Research

Browsing Digital Archives

If you are working on an art project and it would help to view archival photographs, historical documents, artifacts, etc. for visual reference or for inspiration, try these tips!

  • Q: How do I get started?
    • A: Google your topic along with the word archive or historical archive if you want older materials. For example, try Googling City of Barcelona Archive
      • One result is the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona which doesn't have a digital archive, so we'll go back to our search results!
      • Another result is for a cultural institute with an archive, that again, unfortunately hasn't been digitized much, but they have done some digital exhibitions of their archived materials
      • You may find archives that are specific to a different topic, but you still might find objects and photographs that you can recontextualize to create new meaning. For example the Maritime Museum in Barcelona has a digital archive much more robust than most of the official City archives.

 

  • Q: How do I know if it's an actual archive?
    • A: If you are looking at a digitized photograph, album, artifact, etc, an actual archive will own the physical object and their main mission will be preserving it.  A lot of websites will collect digitized materials, eBooks, and websites together and call it an "archive" but all they are doing is curating other people's stuff together, they aren't actually archiving anything.
    • For example, if I search meringue dance history archive I might see in my Google results an Internet Archive record for Merengue and Dominican identity : music as national unifier Which sounds great, but it turns out it's just a preview of an eBook.  
    • If I keep looking further down my Google results I find UNESCO, an org devoted to preserving cultural history, and they are publishing a video and photographs from the Ministry of Culture of the Dominican Republic 
    • Not all archives are of physical objects, for example the video above is an oral history, which is a way to archive history through the oral tradition, but now recorded and archived.  It's still cultural history archived by an organization devoted to preservation, even though it's a video recording.

 

  • Q: If I have a really specific topic, would an archive even exist on that topic?
    • A: Maybe! For example maybe there's a small archive somewhere devoted to a specific band. If I Google: archive of concert paraphernalia, one of my results is a news article about the Grateful Dead donating their materials to an archive! Now that I read the article, I know the name of the archive, so now I can Google: University of California, Santa Cruz grateful dead archive which does have limited materials digitized, like concert posters.
    • You can also start with a larger broader archive and search for specific materials within, for example when I searched the NYPL Archive, I found a couple 19th century concert tickets and when I searched Library of Congress for music festival I found festival programs and news clippings.

 

  • Q: What if the archive is TOO specific?
    • For example, let's say I Googled: Vietnam family album archive but the search results are all about the Vietnam War, like: Texas Tech Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive You still might find family photos and albums:
      • You can search for family or family album 
      • When you see your search results, try using the lefthand menu and limiting to just one Media type, for example Scrapbook
    • A: Even if the focus of my project is Vietnamese families, and not the Vietnam War, I can still use that archive to find artifacts that help me develop the concepts for my own project.  You should always consider perspective, any Vietnam War archive in America is going to likely be items collected by American soldiers and their families. But to see materials collected and archived by Vietnamese families in the same way, you would have to be given access to their archives, and they may not be inclined to grant us access to the intimate family lives of their ancestors.  So use what you have access to digitally!

 

  • Q: What if my topic is a more abstract concept?
    • A: Try searching for more abstract or conceptual terms in a large robust archive, that way you know there is a large variety of different cultures and perspectives available.  If you scroll down on this guide there are large archives linked. Check out the results when you search for the term motherhood in these large digital archives:
    • With more abstract terms, think of related keywords even if they aren't exact, for example you can also look up women and family, maternal, matriarch, or just family

 

  • Q: What if there are too many archives on my topic?
    • A: Some communities, like the queer community, realized right away that their stories weren't being preserved in major institutional archives so they started to create their own. If you're finding a lot of smaller community archives pop up, you can then be a little more selective, picking ones with the most robust digital archive, or with special collections about a specific subtopic you're exploring.
    • Try to find lists that other people put together for you, for example gender and sexuality archives by state
    • Also consider comparing perspectives if you have multiple to choose from, for example take a look at archives outside the US like this Cork LGBT Archive (Ireland) 
    • You can also consider narrowing to a specific time period, for example examining major events in lgbtq equal rights movements, by searching historical archives like the New York Public Library archive for terms like stonewall

Digital Archives

Try searching digital archive and _______ to find online archives!  Remember that while a lot of websites might call themselves an "archive" most of them are just a collection of links or materials they took from elsewhere. Try to find one with an actual archivist and collection development policy, so you know who is doing the collecting and how.

You should always pay attention to who created the archive. For example there are a lot of American Indian archives, but most are photographs that white men took housed in an archive run by a non-native organization.  When researching underrepresented peoples, make sure you are including their perspectives, not just the perspectives of outside scholars. For example, this archive about the Plateau Peoples was created at Washington State University, however all materials were chosen and curated by tribal representatives who include traditional knowledge and cultural narratives in the records: https://plateauportal.libraries.wsu.edu/

Library of Congress Digital Collections
https://www.loc.gov/collections/
The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution,
and it serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world.

Highlights include:
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
Civil Rights History Project
LGBTQ+ Politics and Political Candidates Web Archive
Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan Government Web Archive
Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape

National Archives
https://www.archives.gov/
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper.
Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the
United States Federal government, only 1% - 3% are so important for legal or historical
reasons that they are kept by us forever.

Highlights include:
Featured Documents Relating to Americans with Disabilities
Veterans' Service Records
American Indian Records in the National Archive
Nazi War Crimes Interagency Working Group

Local Archives

Each of the archives below has an access policy on their website, telling you how to make an appointment to visit.  They also have digital collections you can browse online.

Peabody Museum Archive
https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/archives

Highlights include:
Digital Image Collection
Photographic Collections including The Nineteenth-Century Indian Delegation to Washington D.C., Expeditions to Honduras, China, and Mongolia, and Fieldwork with Marsh Arabs in Iraq

Artists & Archives

Some artists don't use materials from archives in their work, but will use the principals of archival practice.  For example, archives are crucial in preserving a record of information, people, and places so that they are remembered for future generations, and these artists are trying to do the same with their work.  

  • Nadiya Nacorda "I'm creating a physical archive of a black story, a story of people of color"
    Nadiya Imani Loyisa Ntlabati Nacorda is a Blasian artist, photographer and Taurus currently living and working in Syracuse, NY. She was born in Detroit, MI to a Filipinx immigrant father and a Xhosa mother. Throughout the year, she travels around the country photographing her immediate family, as well as her family abroad. Her work heavily draws from notions of intimacy, affection, family, displacement, secrecy, and generational trauma within the context of Black and POC immigrant-American family life.
  • lauren woods "American Monument"
    Sometimes information is a matter of public record, like some police records, but isn't readily available. Artists can use a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to public information that isn't published online.

Why Do We Need Archives?

Our digital documents are far more fragile than paper, in fact, the record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy.”
-Clay Shirky, media scholar and author

“Digital data lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first,”
-RAND Corporation computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg in a 1995 
Scientific American article. 

Are Archives Neutral?

Some archivists believe that archives should be neutral places, not responsible for social justice.  Others, like Mario Ramirez in the article linked below, are exploring how archival practice "reinforces unequal power structures and the manufacturing of distorted histories" and how striving for neutrality is really an inability to think critically about race.


“The full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” -Ta-Nehisi Coates

Choosing what to archive and what not to archive can be a high-stakes decision.  Should you archive materials that are blatantly racist? Who deserves to be remembered? What if you create an archive of people in a certain ethnic group and that information is used in the future to round up those people and commit atrocities against them?  The articles and videos below explore how archivists grapple with these questions every day.