The increasing sophistication and prevalence of digital archives, alongside “archival turns” in a number of different disciplines, has meant increasing engagement with archives (digital and otherwise) in a variety of new ways. Most notably, this has meant significant interest in the archival field by digital humanists. However, archivists have been far less engaged in the other direction.1 The latest book in the University of Minnesota Press's Debates in the Digital Humanities series, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, is a superb example of the former. The editors are Dr. Elizabeth M. Losh, associate professor of English and American studies at the College of William and Mary, whose work focuses on rhetoric, feminism, digital humanities, and electronic literature; and Dr. Jacqueline Wernimont, Distinguished Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement at Dartmouth College Library and associate professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies, who previously published on histories of media and technology and how they intersect and interact with archives and historiography.
In their introduction and through their editorial work, the editors draw attention to a fact that will sound familiar to a number of archivists: despite the persistent presence of women and feminists in digital humanities, their concerns and work are often ignored, brushed over, and relegated to the fringe. Losh and Wernimont take intersectional feminism, the philosophy that each individual exists and operates in various junctions of identity and discrimination, as their starting point and argue for an expansion of “our notions of text and context, archive and canon, and code and program” (pp. xii, xiii). They assert that digital archives and archival work are worthy of attention as they are “material, situated, contingent, tacit, embodied, affective, labor-intensive, and political” in contrast to “friction-free visions of pure Cartesian ‘virtual reality’ or ‘cyberspace’” (p. xiii). Bodies of Information does not exist in a vacuum—indeed, it should be seen as a product of an ongoing feminist and archival turn in the digital humanities spearheaded by Losh, Wernimont, and many other authors in the book. It is, however, the first major collection of specifically feminist essays. Wernimont's 2013 article in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives,” and Losh's 2015 “What Can the Digital Humanities Learn from Feminist Game Studies?” fore-shadow much of their work in this book.2 Additionally, many of the authors in this monograph also appear on Wernimont's “Women, Enby, Gender Queer and Other Gender Minorities in DH” spreadsheet and/or belong to the collaborative feminist research organization FemTechNet, of which Losh is a founding member.3
This review will not even attempt to be exhaustive—for those interested, a near-comprehensive attempt was made by this reviewer on Twitter that includes over 6,000 words and 150 tweets.4 The Twitter thread focuses much more on sections of the book dealing with data visualization, networking, and feminist practices, but this review focuses more specifically on chapters of interest to American Archivist readers, which are woven through various sections of the book. The editors have divided the contributions into six parts, guided by the principle of MEALS, which stands for “material, embodied, affective, labor-intensive, and situated,” and originates from the late science and technology studies scholar Susan Leigh Star (p. xiii). Additionally, the authors have added a section on values, “in order to draw attention to the ways in which technologies promote particular ethical and ideological values (rather than acting as neutral tools)” (p. xiii). This structure works as a powerful callback to the editors' intellectual fore-bears, but at times the book's structure feels a bit artificial because the chapters inform and connect to each other in various ways.
However, true to their call-out of digital archives in the introduction, the editors have included a number of chapters especially of interest to American Archivist readers. One that deals the most intimately with archival concerns is Dorothy Kim's “Building Pleasure and the Digital Archive.” Kim, the codirector of the Archive of Early Middle English, uses material feminism and a number of other strategies to effectively argue for the consideration of “pleasure” in the construction of a digital archives.5 Pleasure, to Kim and her codirector, means careful consideration of visual appeal and accessibility in their design choices because of the intense affect that visual presentation can cause. Specifically rejecting “universal” design theory—the principle that web environments can be designed to be universally inclusive—Kim aligns herself with disability and crip scholars who argue instead for placing disability studies at the center of digital humanities instead of at the margins. By focusing on user experience and enjoyment first, user-pleasure-theory (my words) holds the potential to reorient digital projects in radical ways and create new experiences for a number of marginalized groups.
Another pair of chapters speak to practical intersections between digital archives and digital humanities: Alison Hedley and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra's “Prototyping Personography for The Yellow Nineties Online: Queering and Querying History in the Digital Age” and Kathryn Holland and Susan Brown's “Project | Process | Product: Feminist Digital Subjectivity in a Shifting Scholarly Field.” Originating from experiences with the Yellow Nineties Online and the Orlando Project respectively, both chapters create spaces for traditionally non- or under-represented groups such as queer folx or women. Headley and Kooistra's chapter is remarkable in its inversion of prosopography, a Victorian statistical invention that homogenizes a person's social, familial, and historical characteristics to make generalizations. Instead, the authors argue for personography, or “the noncorrelative documentation of the complex cultural and social networks” (pp. 161, 165). The authors' explanation of technical details with practical examples is rivaled only by Holland and Brown's. Likely of interest to many educators, “Project | Process | Product” is a masterful explanation of the potentials of new web technologies for digital archives such as markup, linked data, TEI, and even project and volunteer management. Holland and Brown buttress their arguments by illustrations from the Orlando Project, such as the use of the IntimateRelationships tag on individuals in their database. Using tag attribute values like EroticYes, EroticNo, and EroticPossibly conveys a “spectrum of emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of lived intimacy. . . . It can capture aspects of subjects' activities and communities . . . as well as discussions of how they resist or complicate such term(s)” (pp. 414–15). The use of tangible examples to explain semantic web technologies is an attractive teaching strategy that many could learn from.
Digital-age professionals will also benefit from insights in Beth Coleman's “Domestic Disturbances: Precarity, Agency, Data.” Examining Black Lives Matter and archivist activism, Coleman makes a case for preserving social media and the study of social media databases as archives. As the title of her chapter hints, online movements that originate or derive their impetus from YikYak or Twitter are especially vulnerable to loss but are especially important to study as public voice. Another useful chapter is Amy E. Earhart's “Can We Trust the University? Digital Humanities Collaborations with Historically Exploited Cultural Communities,” which raises a number of uncomfortable but necessary questions for professionals connected to historically exploited communities, pointing out that commonly accepted metadata standards such as TEI, MODS, EAD, and others “may run counter to certain marginalized communities' understanding of preservation or knowledge. For digital humanists, best practices might be better understood as ethical guidelines of practice” (p. 373). A final chapter relevant to American Archivist readers is Michelle Schwartz and Constance Crompton's “Remaking History: Lesbian Feminist Historical Methods in the Digital Humanities,” which builds on much of the work done at the Lesbian Herstory Archive and argues for the list as a historical format. A list of marginalized figures and resources helps to shift focus “away from the mainstream to the marginalized, but also develops ways of representing people's lives in data ‘as they have been experienced’” (p. 132).
Taken as a whole, Losh and Wernimont's Bodies of Information is a monumental, 500-plus-page herculean undertaking that combines the efforts and voices of over forty different contributors. A usual critique of edited collections is that they fail to maintain a sense of unity, direction, and shared conversation, but this is not the case here. However, it is worth noting that this widespread anthology is almost too widespread: it approaches the point of overwhelming a reader who hopes to review it in its entirety. The best way to read Bodies of Information is in component parts—a limb at a time, perhaps. Indeed, this is possible, as every chapter is open access and available to all readers, a laudable accomplishment for an academic book.6 For archivists, many of these chapters may provide useful models for how they articulate or approach their own work, but archival studies and experience could also bring an incredibly valuable perspective to digital humanities. For example, many of these new web technologies are innovative and powerful, but, in that excitement, important archival considerations of longevity, data rot, data loss, and incompatibility often get lost. Archival scholars and studies could (and should) bring long-view perspectives to these conversations. Regardless, Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities is a landmark work, a perusal of which would reward any professional or scholar in the digital era, but especially archivists, librarians, and museum professionals.
1 A search of American Archivist issues reveals no articles or reviews with “digital humanities” in the title, and a search of the term in article text only turns up a handful of articles, some with almost no connection to the topic. This observation applies to a number of archival studies/science journals. Of a few exceptions, the most notable is Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (2012), http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer.
2 Jacqueline Wernimont, “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2013); Elizabeth Losh, “What Can the Digital Humanities Learn from Feminist Game Studies?,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9, no. 2 (2015).
3 Wernimont's list appears here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1pPscJX7I7Vvuc4YIBbd38nbWgIjp-0FiI5yZ1sxG6Vk/edit#gid=0 (full disclosure: this reviewer is on that list), and FemTechNet is based at https://femtechnet.org.
4 The Twitter thread is available at https://twitter.com/brimwats/status/1130211221909716992.
5 The Archive of Early Middle English is still under development, but the aspects that Kim refers to are present on the development site at http://scottkleinman.net/aeme-dev.
6 The book has been published as open access and is available at Debates in the Digital Humanities Manifold website: https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/bodies-of-information.