From the Dustbin: Gleaning History in Contemporary China / Yi Lu (Harvard University)

How does one rescue history, literally, from the dustbin? For nearly a century, scholars of China have used de-accessioned government papers, often sold as waste paper, to peel away the country’s opacity. Even till today, these “garbage materials” have spawned archival collections and academic careers, but little understood is their provenance and circulation, let alone their enduring impact on Chinese history and historiography. The first ethnography of paper detritus of its kind, my paper examines the material afterlives of Chinese archives in the digital age. In particular, I follow Mao-era records (1949-1976) to flea markets and online bidding sites such as (literally Confucius dot com), where they collected not only monetary value in a gray economy of thrift and speculation, but also new epistemic status in an unending chain of re-use and re-accessioning. Based on ethnographic observation at grassroots collections across China, I conceptualize a distinctive political economy of paper. From underground publishing to private museums, the most marginal members of Chinese society, such as waste recyclers, have mobilized a variety of adaptive informal institutions to retool state secrets for personal profit and social memory. Their cultural entrepreneurship has connected a transnational cast of collectors, spawned new subfields of history, and unsettled discrete conceptions of who is a “historian” and “archivist.” To study the effects of digitization, the paper presents two case studies: Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Freiburg in Germany, both of which have been buying and re-accessioning these displaced archives. While digitization has facilitated preservation, it does not obviate methodological, technological, and ethical challenges. By following scholars to flea markets and sitting in curatorial meetings, I treat digitization as a material process and databases as a primary source. From subject-numeric filing to thematic organization to bibliographical methods, scholars have deployed a wide range of technologies and practices to restore provenance and original context from loose reams of paper. At the same time, I show that former logics of such papers — as tools of state secrecy and social control — continue to impinge on the praxis and ethics of history. Today, scholars face the uneasy task of advancing archival access while upholding individual privacy and protecting their collections against political censorship. Taken together, the story of these grassroots archives reveals the uneasy intersections between scholarship and politics that underlie our knowledge infrastructure for the future; they also open new empirical and theoretical space for exploring the ambivalent meanings of preservation and destruction, voice and silence, agency and victimhood.

Documenting Digital Knowledge Sharing in Indigenous Communities / Diana Marsh (University of Maryland, College Park)

New technologies, coupled with increasing attention to decolonizing practices, are revolutionizing how archives provide access to Indigenous collections (O’Neal 2019; Anderson and Christen 2019; Schweitzer and Henry 2019; Ghaddar and Caswell 2019; Dallwitz et al 2019; Fraser and Todd 2016; O’Neal 2015; Hennessy et al. 2013; Christen 2011). The digitization of Indigenous archival materials is taking place at holding institutions around the world, making materials previously distant from their communities of origin accessible with internet access (e.g. Pringle 2019; Carpenter 2019; Powell 2016; Senier 2014; Shankar and Hooee 2013; Leopold 2013; Christen 2006). Such institutional moves toward not only broader digital access, but community-driven curatorship and stewardship models, aspire to draw archives closer to their communities of origin. It is an exciting moment in the history of archives, Indigenous sovereignty, and human knowledge exchange. Yet, less is known about how the products of such programs—namely in the form of digital surrogates—are actually discovered, accessed, used, and circulated ‘on the ground’ in Indigenous community contexts. In this paper, I will discuss a project that draws on qualitative interviews and ethnographic methods to fill this gap. I explore the uses and impacts of digitized collections from diverse community-based perspectives, taking the American Philosophical Society’s digital knowledge sharing partnerships as a case study. Through semi-structured interviews with 36 participants and three site visits, the project documents Native community perspectives on the uses, meanings, and circulation of digitized collections in their home communities. This approach allows for consideration of the circulation of digital surrogates as an emergent historical process, occurring differently in particular contexts. Major findings discussed will include: 1) the speed and range of technology transfer in community settings (and its emergence from earlier media use such as microfilm and paper copies); 2) the wide, and ordinarily undocumented, range of community uses of archival surrogates, including community radio shows, tattooing and apparel, K-5 Indigenous language immersion curricula, and traditional healing practices and ceremonies; 3) ethical risks inherent in digitization from Native perspectives; and 4) the limitations of digital surrogates, both among elders and amidst current discussions about the physical repatriation of documents. This project provides insights for the broader professional communities in libraries, archives, and museums in order to develop best practices and policies for generating relevant and culturally sensitive digitization projects. I will conclude with implications for future archival practice, particularly in the wake of the Society of American Archivists’ adoption of the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, drawing on participants’ advice for colonial institutions going forward. The paper addresses ICHORA’s emphasis on understanding the cultural, linguistic, and historical specificity—as well as the complex power dynamics—inherent in digital projects, and the ways that, like others, Indigenous communities are repurposing, reinvigorating, and remixing colonial collections for their own sovereignty and cultural revitalization.

Digital Archival Collections: Understanding their Use by Academic Historians / Donald Force (University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee)

Archivists have been digitizing materials for over forty years. They have indicated that two of the primary reasons for doing so are, first, to provide access to their materials and, second, to increase exposure to the archival institution. The archival literature on digitization is dominated by case studies about specific digitization projects and descriptions of the processes used to create these types of collections. Despite their history and perceived value, it is not evident who uses these virtual materials. Transaction log analysis studies can indicate that people access digital collections; however, researchers have historically used this information to improve interface design. Citation analysis studies are another option to assess the use of digital collections, but the limited literature is contradictory. Sinn (2012), in her analysis of the American Historical Review from 2001-2010, found that historians not only cite these materials but there was an increase in the number of citations to digital collections in the latter years, indicating that the digital materials became a more popular resource for these historians. More recently, Bronstad (2018) conducted a citation analysis of archival materials in 136 published scholarly historical monographs, but she observed that fewer than three percent of the references were to digital archival collections. Thus, it is not clear how widespread academic historians use these materials. Sinn’s study is limited because it only focuses on research areas that fall within the purview of the American Historical Review and Bronstad’s study does not include other scholarly publications such as journal articles and conference proceedings. This presentation will offer an alternative approach to understanding the use of digital archival collections by academic historians. In February 2020, the author and his research assistant distributed an online survey to faculty in the history department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to assess whether they cite digital archival collections in their publications. The preliminary results indicate that these researchers do cite these materials with almost the same frequency as physical archival materials. The findings of the survey encouraged us to expand the project to a much wider audience. This presentation will discuss the results of an online survey that we will send to academic historians at the 130 Research 1 institutions in the United States. Among other questions, the survey requests that participants self-report if they have cited digital archival collections in their publications and in which type of publications. The results of the survey will also be augmented by a number of semi- structured interviews that intend to better understand the perceived benefits and limitations that digital archival collections pose for academic research. The findings of this project will offer insight about the value of digital archival collections to academic historians and assist archivists to better understand how their digital collections are being used. This information may help archivists determine which collections they digitize in the future, and possibly, ways to enhance access to these virtual objects.


Bronstad, K. (2018). References to archival materials in scholarly history monographs. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 19(1).

Sinn, D. (2012). Impact of digital archival collections on historical research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(8), 1521-1537.