Kairos 17.3

From our perspective, highlighting and making available the study of modality and materiality is one of the most direct contributions that our archive offers the field. Many, if not most, online postcard archives emphasize the front image as the primary content of the card. Thus, most archives are organized around the subject of that image.

We conceived of a site that was more conducive to studying the relationships between and among the modalities represented through the cards. While the front image is an important component of the card, so is the writing on the card, its circulation, the layout and design, the instructions, the relationships between the parties invested in the card, printing and paper technologies involved in the card’s production, any legal or social regulations connected with the card, and the list could go on. So while the visual element is important—one of the more interesting parts of archiving postcards is coming up with written descriptions of the visual images on the cards—other modalities such as color, spacing, and writing could be factors in the research.

In order to capture these extravisual portions of the card, we began with the Dublin Core, which is a defined set of categories that many archivists use to record data. However, we knew this taxonomy would be limited since they are general, so we also created what we simply call our "Item Metadata" section that can include the things we want to know about postcards more specifically. When the archivist selects "postcards" as the "item type," a set of fields appear for the archivist to enter information on the following:

  • published words on the card (which we call "printed," though we don't want it to be misunderstood as "handwritten") such as titles, captions, publishing or copyright information, instruction about how to write on or otherwise use the cards, etc.
  • handwritten words on the card such as messages to a recipient, personal notations, addresses, or other markings
  • visuals other than the front image such as trademarks, postmarks, or other non-alphabetic symbols
  • spatial communication such as how the card is laid out, if it has a divided back panel for writing and the address, and any other blank or printed spaces that might be laid out in such a way as to instruct or invite certain work to be done
  • color, an important modality that includes different printing or coloring processes
  • technological and/or material features of the card, such as what we might see in a hold-to-light card or cards made of nontraditional materials such as wood

As Gunther Kress (2010) pointed out, modalities can do different kinds of work. In his opening chapter of Multimodality, he uses an example of street signs to demonstrate how writing does the work of naming, images do the work of showing, and color serves to frame and highlight (p. 1). However, Kress did not suggest that these functions are universal. What if we were to apply his framework to the postcards? What rhetorical work is a result of the interplay of different modalities within the card? How does spatial layout and design function within the card? How about the written or printed texts on the card? How does the image function? Just as important, however, are the intersections of these modalities, not merely their singular function. What relationships can we see and map out at the intersections of modalities, and how do they relate to the material affordances and constraints of the cards? As evidenced in these questions, rhetorical functionality is central to many of the projects we imagined within this site.

Our postcard collection is not organized by front image content because we don't want to privilege that content over any other, though it's still a thumbnail image of the front of the card that you see when visiting the site. When individuals come to the archive with projects in mind, they can search for keywords generally or narrow the search by specific fields (genre, location, user, photographer, etc.). Users with permission can create an exhibit where they select and organize cards according to their research criteria. One person's exhibit might focus on handwriting, another's exhibit on a printing or distribution technology, and another's on a particular postcard photographer or subject. All these exhibits would be pulled from the central collection but can be selected, organized, and tagged with different projects in mind. While we may have interest in the front image in some cases, we don't want to privilege it above or in isolation from the many other modalities that are at work simultaneously in the cards.

Therefore, we specifically chose not to develop an ordering system that privileged image content. Early in the conceptualization stages, we discussed developing a taxonomy reminiscent of the Dewey Decimal System that would allow us the ability to expand the numbering of the physical and digital archive based on image subjects. We could have organized based on geographical location, topic of the card, or even temporal chronology. In each case, though, it seemed that the organizational system would guide people to see the arrangement as the most salient point for research. Instead, we have decided to arrange the cards around when they are entered, and the many people involved in entry select cards of personal interest. So researchers in the archive might find a pocket of cards with planes from WWII (see example on the right), but there may be a large gap before finding other cards from that time period. This makes the "search" feature within the site even more important because cards will be scattered throughout on different topics, from different distributors, and over different time periods. Fortunately, the Omeka "advanced search" options provide opportunities to narrow one's search to particular fields. For example, if a research question focuses on cards from WWII that have handwriting on the back, the advanced search options allow a user to combine those two in specific field-related searches.

Neal ・ Bridgman ・ McElroy