Digitizing Whiteness: Systemic Inequality in Community Digital Archives

Monica Kristin Blair (mkb4rf@virginia.edu), University of Virginia, United States of America


In recent years, the digital revolution has transformed the idea of the archive. Once associated with grand library buildings filled with ancient books and artifacts, today scholars are making archives out of social media, metadata, and all things born digital. Traditional archives are also revolutionizing the way that users interact with their objects by taking digitization to the next level with techniques like linked data and photogrammetry.

However, archivists and scholars are not the only ones experimenting with digital curating. Online communities are making their own virtual collections. Librarians and digital humanists, including those at the United States Library of Congress, have encouraged and assisted people in creating these “community digital archives” (LeFurgy). But how should scholars respond when these community digital archives are linked to institutions with extremely fraught histories of white supremacy, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or sexism? This study explores that broad question by analyzing community digital archives created by alumni of historically segregated K-12 private schools in Virginia, USA to investigate the form, function, and ethics of studying community digital archives attached to historically prejudiced institutions.

Research questions

How does institutional inequality manifest itself in digital community archives?

How should scholars read community digital archives that are public, but may not intended for outside audiences?

What commonalities and differences exist between these repositories, traditional archives, and digital archives curated by scholars and archivists? How do those similarities and differences affect how scholars should interact with these communities?

What are the ethics of using these archives for scholarly research?


Scholars like Bergis Jules and Piia Varis have worked to define the ethics and best practices of archiving digital sources (Jules, 2016; Varis, 2014). Moreover, several digital projects such as DocNow and Take Back the Archives have modeled how scholars can engage with digital archiving methods to advance scholarly questions and social justice. Most of this scholarship has focused on archiving the experiences and activism of marginalized groups. That work is both vital and admirable. This study contributes to this literature by examining the opposite end of the spectrum. By looking at how white communities that have supported segregated education use community digital archives, I illuminate how these groups remake and reaffirm systemic inequality in the digital landscape. In the process, I also examine the ethics of analyzing and writing about digital communities that have white supremacist roots.

Case study

This study uses the historical subject of segregation academies as its basis. Segregation academies are private schools founded in the southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s in order to provide segregated education for white students whose families refused to comply with court-ordered school desegregation following the United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

White supremacy was at the heart of these schools’ foundation, and this study examines how whiteness is reflected in the digital community archives of these schools’ alumni pages on Facebook and Classmates.com. Both Classmates and Facebook are for-profit businesses, but it is former students, teachers, and administrators who post old photographs, pamphlets, yearbooks, and personal memories of their times at these intuitions on these websites. The memorabilia they gather and publish serves as an important window into the past, and their contemporary comments reveal the ways that white southerners navigate their personal ties to this history of white supremacy in the contemporary digital landscape.

Facebook and Classmates do not follow the practices of traditional archives as outlined by archivist Kate Theimer (Theimer, 2012); nonetheless, both platforms exhibit some of the classic characteristics of archives. They are repositories for institutional and personal histories. Donors contribute to these archives by providing digital copies of their personal papers, photographs, and yearbooks. The aim of these groups is to preserve the history of an institution and, in doing so, craft historical narratives about said institutions. Ultimately, the content, organization, and narratives on these websites are fundamentally shaped by the motive of the curators of these archives. The patrons who create these archives do so out of sentimentality about their former-schools. The web hosts, Classmates and Facebook, profit from this nostalgia, and thus have no incentive to challenge the whitewashed school histories their users promote. Thus, sanitized, color-blind versions of these schools histories prevail on these digital community archives, thereby erasing decades of systemic inequality and prejudice from view.

Appendix A

  1. Documenting the Now.
    http://www.docnow.io (accessed 29 November 2017).
  2. Jules, Burgis. (2016). Some Thoughts on Ethics and DocNow.
    https://news.docnow.io/some-thoughts-on-ethics-and-docnow-d19cfec427f2 (accessed 29 November 2017).
  3. LeFurgy, Bill. (2013). Resources for Community Digital Archives. Library of Congress.
    https://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2013/06/10-resources-for-community-digital-archives (accessed 29 November 2017).
  4. Take Back the Archive. University of Virginia.
    http://takeback.scholarslab.org (accessed 29 November 2017).
  5. Theimer, Kate. (2012). Archives in Context and as Context.
    Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 2012.
    http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/ (accessed 30 January 2018).
  6. Varis, Piia. (2014). Digital Ethnography.
    Tilburg Papers in Cultural Studies.
    https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/c428e18c-935f-4d12-8afb-652e19899a30_TPCS_104_Varis.pdf (accessed 30 January 2018).

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