Kairos 17.3

The question of print and screen isn't one of either/or or even better/worse. Rather, it's a question of what people might want to do with the artifacts in the collection and then determining which site is more appropriate and efficient for that kind of work. We'd also like to imagine the ways in which the print and screen can work together. Tensions between advocates of physical and digital archives abound. We have seen a concerted effort over the past decade to digitize collections to make them more accessible (e.g., the National Archives and Record Administration Electronic Initiative as well as the Library of Congress and Google archives). We acknowledge a growing concern that digital archives not replace the value of sensory experiences, such as seeing and touching physical artifacts. This includes sorting through boxes, files, and other materials and to being, to borrow Lori Ostergaard's (2010) title, "open to the possibilities" of serendipity.

As we conceptualized this relationship, we attempted to remain conscious of how different types of research and questions might make use of the physical and digital archives in different ways. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other until the researcher presents her questions. If, for example, someone were interested in looking at the evolution of different printing techniques on the cards, the screen will be of limited use since you can't see certain physical characteristics of the ink without a physical viewing or using a microscope.

Our concept for the postcard archive is to provide both experiences—the print and the screen—to as many people as we can. In addition, we want to highlight that the work that can be done in both of those places are different. So to us, creating a digital space goes beyond allowing more people more access across greater distances to the archives—the primary argument for digitizing collections—to imagining the different kinds of work and projects that can be done in those spaces. We hope that many people will want to access the physical archive for certain projects, but we wouldn't want to assume that good research couldn't happen without that access. For example, a person researching architectural visions for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair might be just fine viewing high-resolution, on-screen images of buildings as well as descriptions on the back. Not having or choosing to access the archive for that project might not be as significant as for someone studying the colorization technology for the same set of postcards. In the case of the color study, having access to the physical postcards might allow the research to more closely determine texture or other features that can't be reproduced digitally.

World Fair card
Travel and Transportation Building, World's Fair

While the previous two screens support the importance of the material postcard, we don't want to imply that we think the physical is always better than the digital. But it begs the question: Are there times that accessing the screen might be preferable to examining the physical? Consider this example:

One of the great advantages of the digital archive beyond its accessibility to those away from the Tallahassee area is the ability to draw the collection out into multiple exhibits simultaneously. As we conceptualize multiple uses of this site, we imagine projects that use different configurations of the same cards to examine them at the same time. We wanted to develop an archive that would acknowledge the plurality of meanings that exist in reading these cards and would allow multiple research projects to happen concurrently. Many student projects, for example, have looked at different configurations of sexism and racism within similar sets of cards. One person or group's exhibit or research wouldn't interfere with another project in the digital space because of its digital duplicability.

Having multiple configurations of the same cards in a physical archive is difficult if not impossible. Certainly they couldn't coexist at the same time; one would have to be broken down for another configuration to take place. Curators of the archive wouldn't and shouldn't allow each user to reorganize the artifacts for each individual project. That would create a chaotic mess and the breakdown of the organizational taxonomy used by the archivists. At best, facsimiles of the originals would have to be created to display in multiple arrangements.

In addition, many people could simultaneously access the archive collection without impinging upon one another's projects. While we will have the physical archive from which pieces might be checked out and thus missing, the digital archive can be accessed by multiple users simultaneously without limitations. So, a student doing a project on tourism in the Florida Keys might create an exhibit with 50 cards and be using all 50, while another might be doing a project on bridge technologies drawing from 8 of the 50 cards used by the former student. They could both be using the cards in the virtual spaces at the same time. This wouldn't be true of a physical archive when only one researcher can access a card or series of cards at a time.

We might also imagine a project in which the researcher would access the archive for the purposes of sampling or creating a mashup from images or texts in the collection. In a physical archive, a researcher who would show up at the special collections with scissors and glue would certainly be banned from the space. But the virtual researcher can cut, paste, combine, deface, remix, mashup, and do nearly anything she wants on the screen without doing any damage to the original, digital texts.

On the simplest level, this might be someone browsing the digital archive searching for a point or interest or running a search on a key term in the digital space that will lead him or her to the physical archive for further examination. But we don't want our limited conceptions of how people might use space individually or together to limit the possibilities. So our commitment has been and continues to be to provide both—not comprehensively because we don't assume we have the knowledge base and resources to do it all—inasmuch as we can initially. Further, we invite researchers who will then expand upon what we've done as they create new meanings in the site from their experiences.

Neal ・ Bridgman ・ McElroy