"Are they human or are they data?" Digital archives and the creation of humanising stories.


Our “archive fever” has given rise to the creation of digitised archives of non-public records, including prison and medical case files. In the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Collection has digitised the medical case files for several nineteenth-century lunatic asylums (psychiatric hospitals). The case files are available for online viewing and allows a global audience to scrutinise scandalous stories of suffering, as well as to gawk at sensational photographs of patients in the throes of mental anguish.

The Wellcome’s digitised content has a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) licence that allows users to share or adapt the material “for any purpose”. To this end, the suffering of others, their misery and melancholy, as well as their secrets and stories are freely at our disposal for our own gain. The material can be used for many “purposes”. For example, the public may peer upon the private lives of others to satisfy morbid curiosities or ‘peeping Tom’ motives, the media may look upon the images as source material for the opening sequence of a horror film, and politicians may disseminate the material as propaganda for right-wing interests.

For academics, the material has been mined for big data. Scholars in digital humanities have successfully and commendably used the digitised archives to explore nutrition and health, mortality rates, as well as the prevalence of illnesses and the efficacy of various treatments. In this paper, I call for scholars who work with digital archives to move beyond the analysis of big data, to include the analysis of individual lives.

Armed with the methodologies from the arts and humanities, we are equipped to see the person and not a unit of data. We can explore their records to present a respectful and affirmative telling of their life stories. Potentially, such a telling may restore their humanity.

Mark your calendars and make sure to secure your spot for the SADilaR DH Colloquium. Stay tuned for further updates and details on how to join this exciting online event.

About the SADiLaR DH colloqiuims:

SADiLaR organizes a monthly (online) colloquium showcasing research related to digital humanities. Each month a speaker will present their work in the area of digital humanities.

Jul 17, 2024 10:00 AM — 11:00 AM