At the Intersection of Archival Studies, Rhetoric, and Interface: A Framework for the Dissertation

At the Intersection of Archival Studies, Rhetoric, and Interface: A Framework for the Dissertation

Reciprocal Gifts: Cross-Disciplinary Applications of Theory and Practice

This dissertation engages theories and practices from archival studies, rhetoric, and interdisciplinary approaches to the interface. In developing a digital archive of the domestic artifacts and oral histories of Azorean-American women, the project builds on the kinds of archival activism working toward equitable representation for marginalized groups that is explored by scholars in the post-custodial turn. However, by having a focused interest on women’s role in maintaining and circulating cultural identity in their rhetorical practices, the project is also operating with feminist rhetorical practices in the historiographic recovery tradition of rhetoric. Rhetorical theories are also applicable to the dissertation in that by recognizing the rhetorical implications of the archival space at every level and using autoethnographic methods to trace the archive’s development, the project seeks to richly map the connections between the archivist’s purpose, archival processes, and, in future studies, users’ meaning-making activities. Lastly, in presenting the archive in an open-access digital exhibit, this dissertation must also confront the issues of user influence and embedded cultural values that are raised by scholars working with computer interfaces. From the vantage point of this dissertation at the intersection of these fields, it is clear that although there are valuable insights articulated within each tradition, there are mutually reinforcing ideas that can be shared across disciplinary lines. This dissertation works in part to illustrate what each field contributes to how we understand archives and present arguments for what each field could usefully provide to the others.

In the previous discussion of scholarship within each field, it is clear that archival studies understands the power that archives contain and assert, with a growing acknowledgement that archivists must take responsibility for user impacts. However, the field has not yet fully developed a theoretical framework for understanding users’ role in making meaning from archival materials and how archivists’ processes influence that potential knowledge production—how archivists can assume the mantle of knowledge-managers. There are also deep tensions in the field between traditionalists and post-custodial activist archivists about the nature of the archive and the role of archivists, whether the archivist should focus exclusively on processing received records or if they should engage deeply in appraisal practices that lead to the assessment of archival gaps and the generation of new records. In rhetoric, there is also a deep understanding of the archive as site of politics and power with significant implications for marginalized people who are underrepresented in the evidentiary body of the archive. However, because rhetoricians are attuned to thinking about discursive production in terms of the elements of the composition process and about how an audience engages that discourse, rhetorical theories can ground archive production, particularly for archivists who seek approaches to their work that more effectively connect action to intention. 

Thinking about the rhetorical situation along with how selection, appraisal, description, access, and preservation can be understood in terms of the canons of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory—helps address archival studies’ need for a theoretical framework to guide the creation of new archival compositions. Employing feminist rhetorical practices can also be useful in guiding the process of making new archives, particularly in approaching marginalized groups with an ethics of care to avoid inadverntenty re-representing dominant forces in the archives. Rhetorical theories that illustrate the co-construction of meaning with users and the values of user-centered design are also useful in reinforcing activist archivists’ efforts to incorporate users’ needs into the development processes, while genre theories can be applied to expand the field of archival studies to accommodate and validate both traditional and generated forms of the archive. Lastly, theories of narrative and history help to highlight the interested and biases nature of writing histories, which  empowers archivists with greater critical reflexivity for the influences working to shape their decisions and how those decisions may influence users. However, rhetoricians engaging in archival work as part of historiographic recovery efforts need to engage the traditions with archival studies to engage best practices and acquire training in sound archival processes to support more sustainable projects. Archival studies and rhetoric both approach the archive, in terms of the forces that bring them into existence and the forces that extend outward into society as a result of their formation, but they should work together more closely to share the important knowledge traditions each has developed around their shared object of study.

Interface design is explored in rhetoric and new media, but with little exception, the archival interface is largely unexplored. With the increase in digital archives, and the digital nature of this dissertation, the interface is an area that needs further consideration as a key part of the digital exhibition of archival materials. However, interface studies are typically generalized and not specifically examine them in terms of the archive. What is useful to archive development though is that interface scholars illustrate how these access points constrain and influence users, while highlighting the reinscription of cultural values in computational artifacts, which may generate more awareness of how designers function as authors in interface design and thus how they may better control for the reconstruction of oppressive values in the interface. These concerns are especially significant for archivists whose goals include an increase in justice for non-dominant cultures. Since this scholarship is rarely connected specifically to the digital archive interface though, it obscures the material realities of archive production and fails to account for archival processes that comprise the mediation of non-digital forms of the interface, like appraisal and description, that also shape the user experience by shaping the raw elements that the interface is seeking to organize and represent. A deeper understanding of archival processes, some analog and some digital, would be relevant to thinking about interface design since these processes constrain design in meaningful ways. It is also important given that organization of content is a key aspect of the interface’s function, but organization is also a key aspect of archival studies. How an archive is organized, although it does reflect to a certain degree the archivist’s appraisals and descriptions, is largely driven by standards in the field that privileges provenance and original order (respect des fonds) in addition to standards of categorization in digital archives set by the Library of Congress, both of which are likely to factor significantly into the interface’s organizational structures. More collaboration between archivists and interface design scholars would productively offer recommendations for designs that better suit archival needs with respect to field standards.

In merging knowledge from each field, digital archives can be more robustly and intentionally developed, taking users needs more fully into consideration while creating archives of lasting value to scholars and cultural communities. Archivists can engage rhetorical theories to enrich their understanding of users and the implications of their own processes, while historiographic scholars can engage archival studies to provide sound methods and practices for building archives. Whether approaching archive design from an archival studies or rhetorical perspective, those engaged in digital archive development need to attend critically to the questions of interface design while interface design scholars could map the relatively uncharted territory of the archival interface. Through these reciprocal gifts and mutual reinforcements, the archives created will only be strengthened in more ethical practices with transparency and responsibility for the power and influence of the archive. It is also the intersection at which this dissertation is positioned and to which it intends to speak.

Around Her Table: Rhetorical Design and Development of a Digital Archive and Exhibit

The approaches to archives discussed in this chapter provide the intellectual framework undergirding this dissertation. The project consists primarily of three major objectives. The first objective is to compile a robust digital archive featuring the domestic artifacts and oral histories of Azorean-American women from Bristol, Rhode Island. The digital images included in the archive will be co-selected with archive contributors and will feature the kinds of objects central to the preservation and exchange of cultural identity. Objects represented in the archive, such as religious altars, traditional recipes, handwork like embroidery and crochet, keepsakes, and family photographs, are all traditionally maintained by women in this community and represent rhetorical practices that inscribe cultural values and knowledge. However, as an immigrant community that has been historically marginalized, particularly in terms of economic and educational opportunities, Azorean-Americans are underrepresented in current archival records. Women in this community are even further marginalized due to the prescribed gender roles that limit their visibility in the civic and business contexts that often comprise archival records, despite the significant role they have in cultural circulation. In choosing to generate new records and preserving them in an archive, this dissertation in engaging in the kind of activist archival work prevalent with the post-custodial tradition. However, is having a specific purpose of recovering cultural rhetorical practices of marginalized women, the project is also aligned with feminist rhetorical practices of historiographic research. Furthermore, because I am a member of this community myself, the project represents a research endeavor that is closely connected to affective attachments, which is also an approach to scholarship validated by feminist practices. 

The second objective is to present the archival materials to users in a digital exhibit online. By making the records publicly available, the exhibit should support future scholarship related to describing and understanding Azorean rhetorical practices while generally facilitating greater awareness of the cultural contributions of this community. This work draws on interface scholarship and raises issues of how design reflects the author’s intentions and situatedness. The issues of bias and interested representations of history are also associated with the processes involved in the archive construction itself, so the decisions made in developing both the archive and the exhibit becomes significant to their interpretation. To acknowledge and take responsibility for the influence of my positionality within the archive and exhibit, and to potentially mediate the invisibility of the interface function and the archivist’s hand, the dissertation relies on autoethnographic methods to leave as much evidence as possible about the purposes and constraints shaping the design decisions. This third objective of transparency will trace the purpose and process for making the archive, what Derrida calls the archivization of the archive. The processes are organized into six major narratives. The Concept chapter explores the rhetorical situation that gave rise to the archive and the scholarly biography that illustrates important aspects of my positionality. The Participation chapter recounts how contributors were selected and the issues surrounding an approach to collaboration driven by a feminist ethics of care. The Funding chapter reveals the implications and constraints of limited funding and the decisions made about how best to use available resources to meet the overall objectives. In the Institutional Influence section, the narrative reveals further implications of my situatedness and how the negotiation between multiple professional and academic identities influences the archive development. The Data Collection and Management discussion traces decisions about what kinds of artifacts were selected and why, how the images and recordings were made, and the rationale for how to describe and organize the artifacts. This section also explores the utility of autoethnographic data and its relevance to the critical-making movement that advocates for ways of knowing that combine the theoretical aspects of an object of study with the practical skills of making them. 

The chapter, Digital Exhibit and Archival Interface, provides a log of activities and decisions that trace the evolution of the digital exhibit and interface design, with attention to the difficult balance between the ideal and the possible. They explore how the archival interface constructs an argument, what decisions are possible, and what influences the archivist’s decisions in the design process while also attempting to answer the call by rhetoricians to engage in interface development. In their totality, these narratives offer a method for employing the critical reflexivity called for by feminist rhetorical practices while illustrating the material realities of this kind of work, the practical aspects of applying rhetorical theory to archive design, demonstrating what it looks like to work from a rhetorical perspective with awareness of potential user influence at every level. It is also a powerful way to provide transparency, which is ethically important to address issues of bias, but they are also important in that they embed—in real time—important data about purpose and positionality that influence the shape of the final archive. In the final chapter, From Fieldwork to Formalization, offers a summarization of the emergent issues from across the autoethnographic chapters. In coding the autoethnographic data, several key issues appear repeatedly in multiple narrative discussions. This chapter articulates these conclusions, drawing out generalized implications for rhetoricians engaged in archival work and archivists working to better occupy their roles as knowledge-managers.

The autoethnographic chapters are also especially important for future objectives related to this archive that include conducting user experience testing in an attempt to connect the intentions of design decisions to users’ actual meaning-making, to see whether the intended outcomes are achieved by the design, which may lead to archivists being more effectively able to assume the role of knowledge managers. This kind of testing would be potentially useful in better connecting process to outcomes. For example, archival processes of selection, description, arrangement, and access are all understood to be influential in shaping the archive and users’ experiences of it; however, the scholarship does not offer clear insight into the specific influences different decisions will have or why. Selection and access can be understood on the surface as influencing the corpus of information that users will see, which clearly influences what they can know by defining the boundaries and data set from which they are learning. However, how does organization influence users? What do different taxonomical structures do to influence users’ understanding of a particular artifact’s significance?  What do different approaches to descriptive choices do to shape understanding? What do stylistic characteristics of digital design signal to users about authority or significance? In order to answer these questions, the foundations that determined the formation of the structures will need to be documented. 

Ultimately, this project is deeply rooted in the theories from rhetoric and archival studies that archives can do something and not just be something. It also positions the archivist in a powerful role of both conceptualizing and generating records that to mediate a specific exigency or erasure or marginalization. This is a theoretical stance from the post-custodial turn and historiographic recovery work that archives are not merely passive storage and cataloging facilities, but rather they, and by extension their creators and users, are active participants in numerous aspects of our constructed society and selves. The dissertation occupies the intersection between the three fields in exposing the processes that shape the archivist, the archive, and the interface, with the knowledge that these processes meet users in a co-construction of knowledge. Hopefully, in better understanding these processes, we can learn not only about what is made possible by the archive, but also more about how and why it is possible. This dissertation is trying to map the process of developing an archive with attention to intentions and design. It is building a bridge between archivists and rhetoricians who both think about what an archive is, conceptually, and what it can do, or how it can be used, in society in terms of knowledge-production and social justice action. It recognizes that archivists have the tools and methods for the sustainable and practical production of archives, which is vital to rhetoricians who enter into archival production as historiographic work. However, it also recognizes that rhetoricians have rich theories about why and how discourse is produced as well as why and how an audience interacting with that discourse can produce knowledge and action, which are useful theories for archivists wanting to gain more insight into users engagement with the archive and more intentionality about their own archival compositionary actions. The necessity for each field to inform the other is a gap that this dissertation seeks to address by working to show the connections between theory and praxis. That is to say, where we have come to accept in both fields a sense that archive design and development serves a  persuasive function, we have yet to trace how those development processes are shaped by archivist’s intentions and the material and institutional constraints of their situatedness, connecting process to outcomes. This dissertation will begin to map these connections, working mindfully to observe and apply the mutual gifts of archival studies, rhetoric, and interface design, culminating in greater understanding of the archive as the nexus of artifact, archivist, interface, and user. 

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