Data Collection & Management

Introduction and Narrative


The purpose of this chapter is to explain the procedures used to produce, collect, and organize the digital images and audio recordings that comprise this archive. It also discusses the dissertation’s use of autoethnographic methods to collect phenomenological research about rhetorical archive design. Following the procedural narrative, this chapter presents a series of considerations and recommendations, grounded in scholarship, for future rhetorical archival projects concerning data collection and management methods. Some of these considerations include how to encourage participatory records management, which is including participants in archival processes of description and arrangement, and the difficulties associated with the abundance of digital records that comes from the ease of production. There are arguments for how autoethnographic methods are especially well-suited for cultivating transparency in archival projects as well as how they constitute a method for engaging in digital scholarship in the critical-making movement.

The two main goals for this dissertation are to build an archive and to analyze the processes of building. Simply, it is to make and to study the making. Therefore, the project deals with two distinct types of data collection. There is the data collected for the archive, the digital artifacts and oral histories, and the data collected about the building processes, the narrative reflections on my experiences, both of which are explained in this chapter. In many ways, the autoethnographic chapters of this dissertation are attempting to outline what it means to “make” an archive, from conceptualizing a project to securing funding, from navigating institutional influences to garnering participation. Where traditional notions of making and building have strong connotations with physical and tangible actions, most of the other chapters represent a kind of invisible intellectual groundwork, like the breadth and depth of an iceberg hidden beneath the surface. Those chapters serve as the foundation for the more visible activities of making, the physical and tangible work, outlined here relating to creating the digital artifacts and the accessioning activities employed to manage them.

Accessioning is the process of “taking physical and legal custody of the acquisition and documenting its receipt in a register, log, or database of the organization’s holding” (Hamill 17). The work of creating artifacts and organizing them according to archival principles represents the culmination of all the other making activities, and it represents the final set of methods used to meet the dissertation’s first goal of building an archive. From this point, it is possible to develop the digital exhibit, selecting and framing artifacts from the among the archival records collected and preparing the digital interface through which users can experience them, discussed in the chapter Digital Exhibition: Designing the Archival Interface. To collect the data necessary for meeting the dissertation’s second goal of studying the building processes, a separate set of methods is used. Analytical autoethnographic methods are well-suited for capturing and examining the phenomenon of rhetorical archive design and execution. The entire autoethnographic chapters, organized as a series of narratives and considerations, is structured as analytical autoethnography, drawing on “self-narrative…to develop and refine generalized theoretical understandings of social processes” (Anderson 385). It is a method in which “the researcher’s own feelings and experiences are incorporated into the story and considered as vital data for understanding the social world being observed” (Anderson 384). The method allows me to document my experience building the archive and exhibit in narrative form, encompassing both the intellectual and emotional work, which can then be critically examined for thematic generalizations about the process that are potentially useful and insightful to the wider field.  


Getting to the point of data collection, of actually starting to collect artifacts and meet participants, was equally exciting and daunting. It felt as if it were the culmination of many months of planning and dreaming. So much of what I had been working on since defending the prospectus, conceptualizing the project, securing funding, writing protocols, recruiting participants, although integral to the process of building an archive, was lacking a kind of immediacy and physical realization that data collection would bring. It reminds me of building a house. All the work of getting permits, clearing the lot, and pouring a foundation can take so much time and it seems like nothing is really progressing on a daily basis, but then, suddenly, the walls are framed in and almost overnight the idea of the house becomes a reality. Obviously, the walls cannot be built until that foundational work is completed, and it must be completed well without cutting corners if the walls are to be properly supported for longevity. The same was true for the prospect of collecting artifacts, and once I had started meeting with participants, the archive suddenly came into being. There was a kind of pay-off for all the work I had done, and a thrill for seeing a realization of what had previously only been in my imagination.

The two most significant steps I took that led to the moment of collecting artifacts were getting IRB approval to work with participants and securing contributors through participation recruitment. As part of the recruitment process, I worked with each contributing family to arrange an in-person meeting, and when possible, I sent participants the consent forms and a copy of the interview questions by email prior to meeting. Each meeting began with a discussion of the project and the purpose for the conversation and artifact collection. I developed the questions as part of the IRB application, but the questions were really focused on having participants answer questions about their ancestors as opposed to their own experiences. This focus turned out to be a good starting point for conversations, but I quickly learned during the process that it was more productive to have participants share their own experiences as opposed to acting as a family historian. I also learned that I felt more comfortable letting the participants direct the conversation in an organic way instead of controlling the topics with my own specific questions. I chose to ask questions about the stories that the families were telling me, and I relied on the printed interview question only when there was a lull in the conversation and a new topic was needed. Although at first I had anxiety about the interviews all having their own personality and not evenly applying my questions to each interview, I ultimately resolved to see the recordings as having a more authentic quality that better represents what is important and safe for each to reveal. One important note though is that during the pre-meeting communications, the Coute and Castro family participants seemed reticent to be recorded, although they both expressed a personal desire to support me and the project. I preemptively suggested that we simply meet and talk some photographs of artifacts instead of having a formal recorded interview, which was a shift from my original intentions for participants but was a decision I felt was in the best interest of the participants’ comfortability.

After the interviews were concluded, we moved into the artifact collection portion of the meeting. I generally suggested broad categories of artifacts that I was interested in seeing, but I also asked about objects in plain sight and accepted any artifacts they brought to me.

In addition to approving recruitment protocols, the IRB application also required a detailed explanation for data collection and management, including the technology that would be used. As discussed in Funding, I had intended the following:

Interviews will be recorded on a Canon VIXIA HF R700 Flash Memory camcorder set on a tripod. The digital file will initially be recorded to a removable SD memory card inserted into the camera before being copied for permanent storage to an external hard drive dedicated to the archival artifacts. After the interview, the investigator will take digital photographs of the family heirlooms or keepsakes identified as significant by the contributors using the same Canon camera on the still photo setting that captures digital images at 1920×1080 resolution. When object size allows, a portable cube studio (reflective fabric tent with directed LED lighting and colored background) will be used. The digital images will be stored on the external hard drive as well. Any photographs or documents related to the family that contributors wish to share will be scanned using an Epson Perfection V39 flatbed color image scanner connected to a laptop to label and save the files to the external hard drive. Scanning family recipes, or preferably recording the preparation of the dishes, would conclude the planned data collection. Portrait images of the participants will be taken with consent for use on the archive. Data stored on the external hard drive will be in the investigator’s home office in a fire-proof lock box as well as being stored in the web-hosting service’s cloud storage.

However, due the funding constraints much of this plan needed to be altered in accordance with the technology I could afford. The procedures for data collection were not substantively changed, it was still a process of consent, capture, organization, and maintenance, but the tools used were different, which presented some complications and concerns. First, I determined I would use my iPhone SE to capture photographs and the Voice Recorder app by Tap Media Ltd for recording the interviews. Without a video camera and tripod, I had to let go of the idea of video recording the interviews or possibly collecting any cooking preparations. I think in the end this was not a significant loss for this initial phase of the archive since the participants might have actually been less comfortable and candid being recorded on camera than with the unobtrusive recording by the phone laid on the table. While I think recording recipe preparation would be valuable, it is something that could be added later, and given the challenges I had simply securing participants, I think it was not feasible for me to also coordinate a cooking demonstration. It felt like too much to ask on top of meeting, like too much of an imposition, and I had concerns about the time commitment it would require of the participants as well as the costs for the ingredients. It was more of a gut feeling that I was following that the timing for that kind of artifact was not right.

My main concern about using the iPhone for data collection has been quality. I wanted (and still do) the images to be the highest quality possible—clear, crisp images that are well-lit and look like professionally produced images. Although I did bring a black cloth to lay behind smaller objects, which helped improve the image quality, I knew that without a professional camera, backdrops, and lighting, the images would not have the same visual impression that they would have if I had both adequate technology and the training and experience to produce that level of image I had in my mind. It is very clear to me that in a digital archive, the images are the representation of the artifacts. It is how users experience the archive; it feels too important to do with just an iPhone. I felt then and now that it is a kind of disservice to the participants to not have been able to render their artifacts with the utmost care and treat them with the respect that an iPhone just does not seem to convey. It is the most regretful part of the process, but I have to keep reminding myself that the project is in its initial phases, that I am doing the best I can with the limited resources available to me, and that if the archive continues to grow, future collections could be captured with different tools. In the end, although some images were captured with greater clarity than others, the results represent my best efforts, and I hope that my demeanor while collecting them communicated professionalism and the respect I have for the participants even if the technology did not.

One way the lack of technology may have worked in my favor though was not having a scanner. I thought I would scan artifacts like photographs or recipes, but I ended up using the camera to take photographs of them instead. What is interesting though is that I did try to scan some documents at home that had been lent to me, like the historical booklet about the volcano from the Castro family. However, the scanned images had a kind of flattened, washed out look, like all the imperfections and colors that gave the artifact life were stripped away, as shown below:

Photo of Page
Scan of Page

The image on the top taken with the camera seems to capture an image closer to the reality of the artifact; it communicates texture, a sensory experience of a book. The image on the bottom created by the scanner drains all the essence out of the artifact, and it looks like a document created by a word processor. It looks like a photocopy and does nothing to evoke a sense of the actual object. I think it has been to the benefit of the archive to have the artifacts captured with the authenticity of the camera as opposed to the scan.

The Voice Recorder app also ended up being a positive change made as a result of constrained funding. It is a free app that easily records conversation as an m4a audio file. The interface is easy to use and looks and functions like an old tape recorder:

Voice Recorder App

I was easily able to save the recordings and label them appropriately, and immediately upload the files from the app to Google Drive. It was a great feature to have as a way to get a back-up copy of the files saved to the cloud in case anything happened to the phone. The best feature though is the transcription function. It does cost $4.99 to unlock advanced functions, but transcription is often a tedious task, and although the transcripts need grammatical formatting and correction, it is much easier to work with the automated text than generate it from scratch. The transcriptions can be shared directly by email, and then copied into a word processing document for editing. Overall, it has proven to be an affordable and reliable tool for the project.

Since I was working with my phone and not a camera, the process for transferring files did not involve an SD card as indicated in the IRB application. I was able to upload the images and audio files directly to my password-protected ODU Google Drive account. From there, I was able to follow the protocols of placing the files on the external hard drive. As a back-up and to facilitate working with the images in the digital exhibit, I uploaded the media files to the WordPress site, which was planned in the IRB protocols as well. I deleted everything from my phone and drive once they were securely uploaded and transferred to the hard drive and WordPress cloud storage. Digital data management though was stressful at times for fear of unintentional data loss through accidental deletion, failure to transfer accurately, file corruption, or some other accident. There was also a time, from March through July 2017, where I was in the active collection phase, and I had files on my phone, in Google Drive, on the external hard drive, and in the WordPress media library. I was so hesitant to delete them from my phone as those were the original files, and I was double and triple-checking all the folders to make sure I was not losing or overlooking anything. In a way, it helped me become very familiar with the 340+ files in the archive, but the anxiety persisted until I was able to catalogue and organize everything I had collected. I still have anxiety about the data, which speaks to the fragility and vulnerability of the digital data, but having it stored in the hard drive and cloud helps me feel it is as secure as possible with the resources available.

So far, I have mostly relayed the technological process for collecting data, but there are some concerns that arose from the process that have lingered in my mind, aside from those centering around my insecurities about image quality, that have to do with my own lack of expertise and inexperience. First, conducting a good interview is a skill. Creating a comfortable space for participants to open in an honest and authentic way, having a list of good questions to work with but recognizing how to capitalize on topics that arise during the natural flow of the conversation, and even learning how to control interruptions or affirmations (like vocalizing agreement “I see” or “uh-huh”) which clutter the recording and distract from the speaker are all things that a practiced interviewer will do better than a novice. And a novice I am. Each interview I conducted seemed to improve, with better control and thoughtfulness, but there is still a sense with each collection that I am chasing a fast-moving bicycle, always just a few steps behind where I need to be. The conversations moved fast, and the artifacts were presented quickly too. Each family group seemed to be excited about showing the artifacts, so there was a rapidity to how they were presented to me. I would take the pictures, but the next item would already be in their hands before I felt we had really discussed the previous one. I think my biggest regret has been not audio recording the artifact collection process.

Although I took some notes about the artifacts, they were much more descriptive than contextual. For example, the notes might say “necklace with pendants given by parents,” but I did not write down more details about the history, how it came to be in the family, what personal significance it held, or what traditions surround the artifact. I feel like my thinking was just too compartmentalized about the two activities—the interview as one thing and the artifacts as another—when in reality, the conversations about the artifacts are just as important as the ones had during the interviews. It leaves me wishing I had more in the descriptions that captured these more personal stories, in the voices of the participants, so that the context in the exhibit could reflect a more authentic description than my more practical ones. I ended up following up by email with each family group, listing the artifacts and sharing a link to the collection posted online, asking them to share these more individualized sentiments, but I have not yet heard from them and am reluctant to press participants for even more of their time. In any future collection activities, I feel I would not only conduct better interviews, with less nervousness, but also would be sure to slow down the artifact collections and would record participants telling the stories attached to the artifacts.  

Once the collection phase was over, it came time to organize the collection, which involved accessioning the artifacts. The first thing I did, working with the files in the hard drive, was to create a folder for each family group and put all the files related to that family in its appropriate folder. One of the first decisions I had to make was what to do with poor quality and duplicate images. Some images were blurred or had terrible lighting. Other times I took multiple images of an artifact that did not have any significant differences between them. I decided to delete any images that were not rendered well and any duplicate images to keep a streamlined archive and make accessioning and data storage more efficient. I also rotated any images that did not have a vertical orientation and saved them. I did not alter image coloring or crop images at this point in order to preserve the most original file, but I will edit images as needed when making selections for the online exhibit to best showcase the artifacts. Next, I needed to properly label each file with an accession number.

Coming to this project without any training as an archivist, I wanted to learn about the practical management of collections, so I consulted sources to learn how to do manual accessioning. Lois Hamill’s text Archives for the Lay Person: A Guide to Managing Cultural Collections and the resources available on the website for the Society of American Archivists were especially useful here. As I discussed in Funding, purchasing the PastPerfect records management software was not financially possible, which would have allowed me to enter records and classify them according to the museum-standard Nomenclature 3.0 system while also automatically generating accession numbers. However, I think doing the work manually ended up being more instructive than if I had used the software, and I was able to customize the process more than if I had used a program.

From Hamill, I understood accessioning as “taking physical and legal custody of the acquisition,” which I had done through the consent forms and image capture while meeting participants (17). I relied on her recommendation that acquisitions (the digital artifacts) “should be segregated in a holding area for new acquisitions and accessioned as soon as possible after its arrival at the organization,” which was the process of transferring files to the external hard drive after collection (17). The next step would take more consideration though, and that was the second step of accessioning which is maintaining “an accession log, register, or database to document all new records, collections, objects, or other items acquired” (Hamill 19). The accession log functions as an inventory of the archive and serves as an important metadata point using unique number sequences for each artifact, called accession numbers, “in order to link all the parts of the accession with each other” and to record  the date received, the donor, the quantity, and a description of varying detail of the materials in the accession…[and] the name of the collection or record group to which the accession will be assigned” (Hamill 19). I decided that the best way for me to create the log was to use an Excel spreadsheet, and I began to look for examples online for both accession numbering systems and log formats.

I found that although there are variations in the details, there is a basic format used for accession numbers, typically using a two or three-part system that generates a number based on the year of acquisition, the collection group, and the individual item. An online resource posted by the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at the University of Illinois was especially helpful in showing some of the variations, particularly their system for numbering documentary collections, which used a three-letter code to identify the collection to which the artifact belonged in addition to the year and item number. The use of a collection code was appealing to me because I have always wanted to emphasize the artifacts as belonging to a specific family group, and this is even reflected in how the exhibit is organized. I decided that I would use a combination of letters and numbers in a system that identified the year of acquisition, the family group collection, and the individual items as follows: 2017.EXA.001. As I began working through each family group file folder in the external hard drive, carefully renaming each file with its accession number, I soon had to decide how to handle multiple images of the same item. For example, I have a small glass pitcher in the collection, but I have three images at different angles showing it from the front, side, and back. I worried if I gave each image a different number, they would lose their link to one another. Since I learned from Hamill that two of the most important concerns for the archivist are the principles of provenance, which “requires that the records of one records creator be kept separate from the records of all other records creators to preserve their context” and original order, which maintains the organization in the original collection, I felt that it was a necessity to keep a strong link between images related to the same item (25). I decided to add a letter to the final number for artifacts that had multiple associated images, so some of the accession numbers are arranged as follows: 2017.EXA.002A, 2017.EXA.002B, and 2017.EXA.002C. I took validation from Hamill’s argument that “provenance and original order provide information about a group of records which is not in those records, but which is essential to understanding them” (26). The system I developed is like a rhetorical assertion of what is important for understanding the archive’s context with an emphasis on family collections and the associations between images.

Once all the images had accession numbers, I started entering and completing the accession log. I began the log with a description of the document, an explanation of the numbering system, and a list of the collection codes and their corresponding family group. I created columns for the accession number, item format, item description, date of acquisition, and collection group.  I worked through the archive alphabetically by collection until I had logged each of the 340 images. I saved the finished log as a searchable PDF file and uploaded it to the exhibit web site, and it will eventually have a link from the Search page. I would like to also eventually add hyperlinks from each accession number to the item’s page on the exhibit, but that will need to come later after the exhibit is fully curated and accessible online. The accession log could be a helpful tool for researchers, but because it is an item-level inventory designed for the archivist’s record-keeping needs, it could be too lengthy and cumbersome to use for locating specific types of artifacts. I will need to also create a finding aid to add to the Search page once curation is completed, which is a document similar to the log but generally includes information more pertinent to researchers and can add linked, cross-referenced subject headings that allow researchers to locate records of interest across collections. 

There was a feeling of relief when the log was finished, a sense that the data was somehow more secure, and although that is not necessarily true, I think the feeling came from the fact that after so many months of having a mountain of raw data, everything had finally been accounted for, noted, and put in its proper place. It signaled an important step in the culminating process of data collection because it meant that I could now turn my attention to curating the online exhibit and preparing the archival holdings for public view; it marked a significant turning point in the focus of the work. However, collecting and organizing the digital data that comprises the archive is only half of what I am trying to accomplish with the dissertation. I also want to scrutinize the process of building an archive, not only in the sense of the specific technological steps that must be taken but also analyzing the many social, emotional, cultural, institutional, and intellectual influences that are continuously shaping the archive.

The method I chose to capture the data related to the process is the analytic autoethnography, which uses my experience as a researcher in narrative form to identify themes and draw out generalizations about building archives that could be useful for other rhetorical archivists. When I first proposed this project to my dissertation committee, I explained that my methods section would use autoethnographic methods to capture the process of building the digital archive. At that time, I envisioned this would be a series of log entries that would illustrate the technical decisions made in the construction process, including things like exploring which digital platform to use, what templates work best, how to set-up the navigation, and which search and tag functions I would embed. I proposed that I would follow these entries of each working session with a narrative reflection to explain the rationale for the various decisions, document the time involved, and try to connect these choices to my ultimate intentional purposes for the archive. These reflections, I posited, could be coded in order to tease out the rhetorical activities involved in intentional archive design. Perhaps these conclusions could be useful in mapping the territory between rhetorical theories about archives and the practical work of archive construction, thereby helping prepare other rhetorical archivists by engaging in this kind of critical-making and reporting back on my experiences.

In my proposal, this log would have coincided with the beginning of that building process, after I had collected my oral histories and digital images of the domestic artifacts. It would document how I worked with these artifacts to construct a working digital archive. I imagined sitting at my desk, surrounded by the various digital files, and “starting” the archive. It would be, I soon realized, only one of the archive’s many beginnings. If I wanted to truly capture the creation process, it was going to be necessary to document the many design decisions and influences that come before any digital decisions were encoded.

It is true that building the digital presence of the archive is an important stage of the process, but there is a lengthy period of pre-archiving that recursively requires the archivist to plan actions, adapt to constraints, and incorporate feedback from vested stakeholders. These pre-archive activities are, in many ways, more salient to this project than the logging of the archive’s digital composition because they seem to form, in many ways, a kind of immutable archival DNA that is solidified at conception and developed in gestation. Once born, the archive could potentially make changes to its appearance and shift as it comes into contact with other external forces, but the fundamental core of the archive is shaped by the circumstances of its origins.

Therefore, if for the purposes of this dissertation, I aim to capture in my methods the process of creation and describe the project from inception to user interaction, then in addition to documenting the digital decisions [LINK TO DIGITAL EXHIBIT] it is also necessary to discuss and categorize the experiences I have had from October 2015 through the summer of 2017 as they pertain to the development of this archive: conceptualization, research, participation, institutional acceptance, data collection, and funding. While these areas are often interdependent, they have emerged as distinct nodes within the archival network that powerfully shape the generative archive.

In each of the autoethnographic chapters, I have included a narrative to trace and document the decisions, emotions, and influences followed by a series of themed considerations that connect my experiences with relevant scholarship. The totality of these chapters will hopefully render a usefully detailed picture of the building process and map the space between deciding to undertake an archival project and delivering one to the public. There is currently a vaguely dizzying feeling I am experiencing as I try to wrap my mind around the idea that I am writing an autoethnographic narrative to discuss my use of autoethnographic methods, that I am using my chosen method to articulate my methods to readers, but I think it speaks to the versatility of the narrative form as an important mode of documentation. The narratives compiled here represent in many ways the same kind of raw data that I was working with when collecting artifacts. In this case, instead of digital images, I am capturing feelings, decisions, conversations, and experiences. I did this capturing in a variety of ways, trying to document not only the actions but also my contemporaneous reactions. The most useful method was keeping a journal and bringing it with me everywhere I went. Each entry is dated and is a record of any meetings I had or significant activities, noting both what happened as well as my reflections. I was able to use my journal while traveling to collect data, which was especially helpful, as it allowed me to quickly capture the flood of thoughts that came after each meeting—thinking about what went well, what I learned, what I wish I did differently, how I might use the experience and data going forward. I also keep the journal in my bag because I will often have a thought related to the project that arises in the course of my everyday activities; there are many notes that were in fact jotted down in the produce aisle at the grocery store. The reflections, realizations, or intentions can come up at any time because the thinking about the project is always bubbling about right there beneath the surface, so the journal becomes necessary for keeping track of autoethnographic data. I also use the Notes feature in my phone if I am away from the journal to quickly grab an idea. The phone’s Voice Memo feature was useful too because I have a long commute to work, which always seems to encourage thinking about the project and problem solving. Being able to verbalize freely about the work and record it for later transcription is another useful way to capture relevant details for the narratives.

Data collection is in some ways the culmination of many processes that plan and facilitate the moments of collection while simultaneously being the catalyst for a new set of activities related to managing and analyzing the data. Working toward and away from the point of data collection raises many of the same issues as other area of archival design and construction, including making compromises from an idealized version of the archive because of financial constraints and prioritizing the participants’ needs over the archivist’s. However, data collection is such an important aspect of the archive, immediately and immutably affecting what is possible for the archive’s final product, that archivists working to generate records should invest time in developing and practicing skills of acquisition, like interview and photography skills, before starting while also expecting a steep learning curve.   


Appraisal and Selection Across Multiple Artifact Types

Part of the purpose for the narrative in this chapter is to offer transparency to archive users and cultural researchers regarding the appraisal decisions that determine the archival contents. Although I have tried to work collaboratively with participants to capture digital images of the artifacts that they want to show me, it is important to recognize that the archivist has influence here and often guides participants toward objects of their own interest. By structuring the process through my own requests and suggestions, I have influenced the archival records generated in this project. While transparency in the narrative can help offset the influence of these biases on users, I also want to include further discussion for the rationale behind the artifacts types I have selected and encouraged.

The most common artifact included in this archive are non-text based objects, particularly items that feature hand-worked textiles and religious symbols. One reason for this interest is that this project is also laying the groundwork for several future studies related to the archive and its material. While it will be important to use the autoethnographic data as a foundation for conducting user experience testing to determine the connections between design decisions and users’ conclusions about archival artifacts, the archive also presents opportunities to study the rhetorical practices of Azorean-American women. Although these studies are beyond the scope of this dissertation, the archive built here facilitates work in cultural rhetoric that is both of interest and value to scholars in rhetoric and for sociologists studying this community. These objects hold particular value for determining the community’s cultural rhetorical practices. Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson explain that cultural rhetorics is “an emergent field concerned with the diversity of meaning and text-making practices that help sustain cultural identities” (6). Jennifer Sano-Franchini also offers a definition of cultural rhetorics as an area of the field “concerned with knowledge production as it happens not only within alphabetic texts but also via embodiment, language, orality, stories, materiality, technologies, and methodologies” (61). She explains that expanding a notion of how knowledge is produced to include practices outside of textual production is about recognizing that “rhetoric and culture are interconnected,” so rhetoricians should explore those connections by looking at the “processes by which language, texts, and other discursive practices like performance, embodiment, and materiality create meaning” (52). In both definitions, the scholars argue that cultural identity is reinforced by rhetorical practices that include a diversity of meaning-making practices, and that although some of these practices are text-based, many take alternative forms. In the context of this archive, the construction of altars within the home, for example, are a materialization of spiritual practice and the different actions, like keeping a candle lit or collecting funeral mass prayer cards, are a kind of performativity of that spiritual identity. To understand Azorean-American culture, it is important to consider more than the written records. A broad definition of what constitutes a rhetorical practice must be taken.

The inclusivity of practices is especially important in the context of feminist historiographic work, which recognizes that the rhetorical practices of women take alternative forms to textual practices. As discussed in the Concept chapter, Azorean-Americans have been generally economically and educationally marginalized, as the dominant powers in society continue to view them as low-wage laborers and biases in the educational system lead to lowered expectations and higher drop-out rates, particularly for women who are more likely to be pulled from school to contribute in the home. This means that women in the Azorean-American immigrant community, as well as other immigrant communities with mixed literacy abilities, are more likely to engage in oral rhetoric practices like storytelling or material practices such as textile production as the primary way to transmit knowledge and reinforce cultural identity. This is especially true for Azorean women who hold primary responsibility for establishing spiritual beliefs and practices, maintaining family history, and constructing the domestic sphere, filling their family and community’s lives with the materiality of culture, particularly in Azorean food and textile production (including crochet, embroidery, and hand-work). However, without written documentation, these rhetorical performances are more fragile and vulnerable to erasure from collective memory, and they are far less likely to be preserved in the civic and cultural records of establishment archives. Yet these voices remain critical forms of rhetorical discourse that facilitate cultural identity, constituting an important subject for historiographic archival work that aims to bring greater visibility to marginalized communities. By focusing scholarly efforts on collecting, discussing, and sharing those oral practices and traditions, we are widening the view of where rhetoric happens and by whom.

These positions are largely reinforced by feminist rhetoricians, particularly Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gesa E. Kirsch, and Patricia Bizzell in the 2012 text, Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. In it, the authors argue that rhetoricians need to look at “new genres” that look at “material practice that is not anchored in writing per so yet clearly constitutes a rhetorical practice” (61). They contend that practices traditionally maintained by women in a culture, such as the production of embroidered textiles, function as “heuristics, as models of innovation and inspiration, illustrating the different effects of various stitches, patterns, threads, and colors for other practitioners of the needlework trade” (61). As a way to transmit knowledge, to demonstrate possibilities for self-expression, and to reinforce cultural identity, material practices are some of the “new genres” we need to examine for how they “reveal important aspects of rhetorical, cultural, and gender formations” (Royster et al. 61). The authors conclude that we need to be “much more willing to examine rhetorical activities in new contexts, attend to material practices with rhetorical functions, identify material practices that may not include written words (though perhaps stitched words), and expand the genres we consider worthy of study” (Royster et al 65). For my own examination of rhetorical activities, I have always been closely connected to textile production as a part of my cultural identity. My grandmother worked in a factory with industrial sewing, zippers and rubber sneaker soles, doing what she called “piece work,” which I later learned meant that she was paid based on the number of completed pieces she could produce in a day. She taught me to sew on an old Singer sewing machine in her dining room, first making doll clothes and later making my dresses for formal dances at school. She took in alterations to make extra money and crocheted slippers and afghans, teaching me how to work with yarn and needles along the way. I have always known that these lessons came from a place of pride in skill and attention to detail, and that the constancy of a project-in-progress always kept by her chair in the living room was a value-signaling practice that meant that even when you come to the end of the day and have an hour or so to spend in front of the television, you should have something productive to do with your hands. To be idle is to be lazy, to be derelict in your duties as a wife and mother; the worst of all sins. It was the same value that drove her to teach me to iron men’s shirts, mend holes, make beds, and prepare meals—preparations that were essential, from her view, to ensure that I would “get a good husband.” These practices and objects are so much more than simple acts of sewing or mere collections of cloth and thread. They are an assertion of one’s identity, one’s character, one’s role in the family.

It becomes vital then for the archivist to recognize the value of these different genres, particularly in the production of a feminist archive that is working with marginalized cultures. Knowledge production and cultural transmission is likely happening outside text-based rhetorical practices, but they are rich practices nonetheless. Thomas Miller and Melody Bowdon also assert the significance of material practices to understanding rhetorical traditions within a cultural group, but they specifically advocate for the inclusion of material practices in archival contexts. They contend that “a model for archival work on the rhetoric of traditions” should be based on records that document the “‘habits of mind, spirit, and action’ that characterized the ethnology of the rhetorical tradition” of women, which can then be used “to achieve the civic potentials of their traditions,” to draw on them “to address the needs of the current historical moment” (596). Capturing “habits of mind, spirit, and action” can happen by looking to written texts, but for communities like the Azorean-American where women are far more likely to engage in material practices, these habits will need to be sourced in other kinds of records.

This is not to say that there are no textual artifacts of significance in the archive or in the culture itself. There are examples of written records, including a community-sourced cookbook, family recipes, notations made on photographs, and, interestingly, numerous examples of copied advice and helpful household tips. There is evidence to suggest that the women in the culture do use scrap paper to record shared knowledge of perceived personal value. However, it is more likely that the writing produced is occurring in different contexts than traditional forms, such as diaries, letters, or publications. This too is common in marginalized communities. Royster et al suggest that “women’s social locations (historically in the private or semi-private sphere) called for writing in different genres,” and these genres include “such activities as the sharing of recipes, keeping of minutes for social and church clubs, recording of local histories, presentations for other club members, and so on” (60). They conclude that, as a result, “feminist scholars in the history of rhetoric have paid close attention to where women’s writing has appeared and how it has traveled across time and space—often in very different channels and genres than the public discourse of the male establishment” (60). It is an understanding that feminist historiographic work must include “everyday, fragmentary, mundane, interrupted, incomplete, and scribbled writing,” which “can offer us glimpses of an evolving, changing life—if we can learn how to pay attention. If we are unable to do so, that is, notice ordinary writing, we are likely to disregard—and discard—it” (Royster et al 63). This is a very important argument because this kind of writing is not only something that archivists or historiographers may overlook, it is also something that participants are also likely to disregard. The kind of writing, like the scraps of paper that have made their way into the archive, is not likely to register as significant evidence of culture—even for members of the cultural group. I experienced this as I requested to capture images of these artifacts, being met with surprise at my interest in what they would not consider important or even embarrassed reluctance as there is often an expression of self-consciousness about one’s handwriting and spelling. It requires trust in the archivist and reassurance that the writing does have value, which in my experience was easier to accomplish by showing participants other examples of similar writing and demonstrating that this is a common practice. Archivists should be prepared, especially when they are suggesting particular categories, to allow participants to see other artifacts already collected and be able to show that the categories are in fact evidence of shared culture. 

The second type of artifact I was interested in collecting was the oral interview, which I quickly realized was a far too formal term to describe the recordings I generated. The recordings are much more conversational and much less structured than I had anticipated, which is something I discuss in more detail later in this chapter. What I do want to stress in this discussion, however, is that the conversations are valuable in allowing archive users to hear participants speak in their own voices and on their own terms about subjects as they saw fit, and this is an important type of artifact to generate. This is of the utmost importance in any archival effort to support a community cultural archive. What should be included is not a confirmation of my own assumptions and perspectives, but rather as genuine a reflection of the contributors’ views as possible. I think this experience aligns with Roderick Hart’s description of narrative as “a time of being with others; it is social time” (160). We tell stories for ourselves and for others, whether they are imagined or physically with us, and that social quality is reflected by my conversations. Brad Lucas and Margaret Strain advocate for the inclusion of oral histories in historiographic work for the “complexity and texture it can bring to previous accounts,” specifically in four ways: “(1) by ‘producing new information and new directions for research,’ (2) preserving ‘historical data that might otherwise be lost,’ (3) permitting historians ‘to explore the motivations, feelings and values of informants,’ and (4) providing a ‘mode of communication’ for marginalized voices” (261). However, despite the potential value of these recordings, I think that the interview collection process is delicate and complex. It requires a great deal of trust to be established between the researcher and participant, which I experienced first-hand as I felt it necessary to establish my own cultural connections and community ties before participants I did not know personally would open up in the conversation. Lucas and Strain explain that because “participants assess one another’s personalities, and participants construct and perform a particular version of themselves in relation to the subject matter,” the interview needs to be approached and analyzed as a dynamic that “is highly performative and deeply interpersonal, relying on a keen sense of ethos and pathos for all persons involved” (267). Developing trust and being sensitive to the shifting emotional contexts that emerge during the conversation are both critical elements of an effective and ethical archival recording. 

The final artifact type I want to discuss in the section is what I have come to think of as “community artifacts.” It was not a type of artifact I had initially intended to collect when I first envisioned the archive. However, growing up in Bristol, I knew that the area of town around Wood Street is a more highly concentrated community of Azorean-Americans. It is anchored by St. Elizabeth Church, which is the primary hub for spiritual life. It is the location of The Azorean Butcher Shop and the Portuguese Independent Band Club are also important cultural hubs located there, and Mosaico Park is a noted landmark that was installed “as a symbol of the friendship and connection that Bristol has with its sister city Logoa, San Miguel, Azores” and one that “embraces the mosaic of our multicultural community” while providing the community with “a great place to sit and share stories (“Mosaico”). As I walked around the area while visiting, I was compelled to take photographs of these cultural sites and to include them as part of the archive. Later, I found that other researchers were beginning to recognize the significance of our physical surroundings as part of our meaning-making practices. Jessica Enoch calls this “spatial rhetorics,” which she defines as the study of “the language that designates a space, the materials that construct and adorn it, and the activities enacted inside it” (116). She argues that “the ultimate goal is to investigate how the composition of space creates, maintains, or renovates gendered differences and understandings…[and] how these rhetorics comment on the full range of social categorizations, including those of race, class, culture, sexuality, and physical ability” (116). The discussion of spatial rhetorics invokes the significance of the physical spaces in which a cultural community live and work. It is a way of recognizing that our surroundings participate in the work of identity formation and in reinforcing a shared culture. It is also an argument articulated by Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan who observe that “place as archive is another major lesson” from the collection of essays in their edited collection Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process (5). They argue that “visiting the geographical location where a historical subject lived and worked is another important, if undertheorized, research method,” but they encourage archivists to engage in “the hands-on nature of research” by “exploring a place and re-seeing a place as an archive” (5). This emphasis on place as an important part of the archive is a position similar to one expressed by Royster et al. who contend that archival and historiographic work must be done while “being mindful of the locations we visit (both archival sites and places where historical subjects lived) and to our own embodied experiences, the responses invoked in us by visiting historical sites and handling cultural artifacts” (22). By including the community artifacts in the archive, I am making an argument for the importance of including the physical and geographical surroundings of a community as part of a well-contextualized cultural archive.

Digital Ease, Digital Abundance

As I discussed in the narrative, there is a palpable anxiety I have felt in my role as a records-generating archivist related to the image quality of the collected artifacts. This anxiety is rooted in both my lack of expertise in digital photography and the utilization of amateur equipment. Although these concerns for quality have to be balanced with what is possible under the project’s financial constraints, there is recognition of the fact that from photography through web development, the archival process is perhaps better aided by specialists with areas of expertise than by generalists with some abilities in each area. Yet the fact that even without expertise images and websites can be created with relative ease and at a low cost speaks to one of the realities of the digital age, which is the gap between the accessibility of digital object production and the ability to produce quality digital objects.

Digital scholars note that the “boundaries between professionals and amateurs blur,” with some who “would argue that digital content, especially that created and disseminated on the web, is of low quality” (Kim 158). The connection is made between the lower quality results and the reality that “without the education and specialized training possessed by institutional archivists, most individuals are in the unenviable position of simply doing the best they can” (Conklin 14). Although there is an argument to be made that despite the lower quality of contributions by amateurs, there is cultural value in bringing these archives into being anyway as a way to “allow more diverse voices, especially socially marginalized or suppressed voices, to be reflected in the constitution of our collective memory and history” (Kim 158). Recognizing the value of this project to the visibility and validation of the Azorean-American experience does help quell some of the anxiety around the quality of the archive not being realized in its ideal form. It seems it would be a worse outcome for the anxiety about the quality to deter the undertaking of a project that would contribute to our understanding of a marginalized community than to have an imperfectly realized archive. Again, I also try to also remember that the archive here can grow over time, and as access to resources may increase, these improvements to quality become more possible. Even still, regardless of these mediating factors, I find that my ability to imagine an idealized version of the archive constitutes a persistent concern about being deemed unprofessional, foolish, disrespectful to the culture, or just generally not being good enough. Perhaps it is just a reality of the work, archives being not unlike other academic contributions, that there are regrets about the outcome not being as well-crafted as one imagines it could be (with more time, more funding, more ability) and concerns about how it will be received. These concerns are not mine alone, and many archivists, as recognized by Heather MacNeil, do struggle with the issue “promoting localized over idealized understandings of the nature of records” (xiii). Forging ahead in imperfect execution, tamping down self-doubt, is just part of the archival process to accepted and managed as another overcomeable obstacle.

Aside from issues of quality, the ease and affordability of digital production leads to another issue, that of digital abundance. Having cameras embedded in our cell phones and our tendency to have them in our hands at all times “has made it simple to rapidly amass a large number of photos” (Hawkins 49). In fact, some estimate that “more than 3.5 trillion photos have been taken in the last 200 years,” and that “every 2 minutes, people take as many photos as the entire world took in the 1800s” (Hawkins 50). For the archivist working with family collections, the ease with which we can all produce digital images means that “as historian William Turkel asserts,” the volume of potential archival artifacts “is now ‘infinite’” (qtd. in Cohen et al. 455). In their introduction to the 2013 special issue of College English, “Seizing the Methodological Moment: The Digital Humanities and Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition,” Jessica Enoch and David Gold argue that this infinite archive “has also prompted a widespread recognition among digital scholars that digitization brings with it a new kind of methodological problem: archival overabundance” (106). They continue to explore the issue, noting that historians Katherine Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin describe the problem as being “that although we now have access to a ‘sea of information,’ we have relatively little guidance regarding how to ‘construct meaning within that sea’” (106).  Their discussion concludes that “the concern of scholars has begun to shift from obtaining and archiving materials to searching and negotiating these sources,” but that we still “need a set of tools and a set of methodologies for negotiating it” (106). In the context of data collection, what are the methodologies that provide clear guidance on managing the abundance of artifacts? Even in my small-scale project, I ended up with several hundred images in a short window of collection activity. What rules govern which images are saved and which are deleted? Should resources be allocated to maintaining all generated records or can the archivist make accession decisions that exclude certain records?

The archivist will very likely face an issue of abundance, whether generating records or receiving them, since the ease with which we can produce digital images means that we produce them at ever-increasing rates. It forces the project to have an even clearer vision to guide accession to help the archivist wade through the sea of information. It also means that archivists need to be especially careful about the processes of description that contextualize information and preserves knowledge about how the artifacts relate to one another in the larger network of the archive. The metadata, recorded in the accession log and embedded in the properties of each digital file, becomes especially vital as the means for navigating the sea and facilitating users’ ability to construct meaning.

Participatory Records Management

One of the themes to emerge from this data collection narrative is that the accession decisions were made in collaboration with the participants. As discussed more thoroughly in the Participation chapter, these co-constructed activities are a direct result of the archive’s participatory methodology that privileges the community’s needs over institutional ones. However, that methodology manifests in data collection methods as the practical application of a set of abstract values. As I discussed, although I had a sense of the kinds of artifacts I wanted to collect, I remained open to documenting any objects that the family’s brought forth as significant even if they fell outside my pre-determined/imagined categories. I did have some concerns that the variety of artifacts being presented and imaged would lack enough cohesion to create a sense of a culture, that things would feel too disparate to constitute any recognizable threads of something distinct Azorean in feeling. In seeing the artifacts collected in the accession log though, there is a sense of community and familiarity across the family groups, which speaks to the power of the archive to become an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It is the idea that “individual archives are transformed from ‘evidence of me’ into ‘evidence of us,’ components of our collective memory, when they are gathered into public archives” (Kim 157). This transformative power does not rely on the archivist to intentionally collect artifacts in accordance with any set categories to reflect a cultural identity, and working in such a manner may in fact be to the detriment of the participatory archive. 

I also described feeling like I was following my participants’ conversations rather than directing them with the interview questions I had drafted prior to meeting. At first, I had concerns about not ensuring that all participants had the opportunity to answer the same questions, as if I were collecting data for a qualitative study of Azorean-American women and looking to find themes across a large data set of responses. In reality, this kind of data collection that is led more by participants than by the archivist represents “a form of ‘decentralized curation’ that sees users authorized as arbiters of public memory” (Smith 122). In that sense, letting my participants guide the discussion becomes an important methodological choice. If I had succeeded in conducting a more uniform interview with stricter adherence to my questions, I may have collected responses that lacked some authenticity as the danger “with overly structured participatory discussion” is that “ideas may be imported into a stakeholder community and then attributed to them” (Rotter and Jeffery 385). I may have inadvertently brought my own assumptions to bear on the conversations and guided the interviews toward my own interests, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby I get the interview to reflect the ideas of Azorean-American women that I thought existed rather than what participants truly feel. Lucas and Strain advise that when conducting interview, “there is some danger in giving the [interview] guide too much significance, simply because the dialogic energy of the interview will be lost if an interviewer insists on rigidly following a progression of topics” (268). They recommend that archivists collecting oral histories should “‘be prepared to abandon carefully prepared questions and follow the interviewee down unexpected paths’” (268). Although this is likely to produce a series of interviews that are more varied in subject, and the resulting collection may exhibit greater inconsistency in topics than the archivist intended making research of a particular topic more challenging, it is ultimately far more important to allow the discussion to evolve organically and on the participants’ own terms.

What is truly important in participatory archives is that the archivist is working to “enable a community to fully participate in, or co-produce research into their own use of records for collective memory, in order to develop an archival system that is purpose-built to meet their own unique needs” (Battley 372). The data collection processes need to support this co-production, letting participants take the lead will ensure that “the voices heard in the websites are also speaking from the position of the ‘ordinary,’ which provides a reshaping of public memory from perspectives other than the privileged voices” of institutional archivists (Hess 820). In the end, the recordings reveal less of what we recognize as a formal interview and more of what we might think of as storytelling with participants sharing their own memories and feelings rather than crafted responses to a prompt. I think that the result is that “these personal narratives are crucial to the preservation of authentic authorial sentiments” and “sediment the moment of history for the reader to experience, connecting on a vernacular and narrative level” (Hess 823). In the same way that not having a scanner available as planned forced me to take pictures of documents that ended up producing more detailed artifacts, this data collection experience of not being able to force the conversations to match my questions resulted in the collection of more richly colored oral recordings. Not all unanticipated changes in design plans are problematic, rather some may even be serendipitous.

The concept of the participatory archive I have so far described is related to collecting artifacts. This is the traditional understanding of participation as the co-construction of a collection of artifacts contributed and selected in a partnership between the archivist and the participants. In a typical participatory archive, the actual archival work of accession, description, and preservation is conducted by the archivist alone. However, scholars like Itso Huvila also advocate for radical participation that extends beyond artifact contribution and into actively participating in aspects of records management. Huvila explains that in a traditional participatory archive, administrators “retain the a priori authority for archivists,” so that even though “users are invited to comment on resources,” the only “changes to the records are made by archivists” (26). On the contrary, in an archive “emphasizing radical user orientation,” users are able to edit actual records in order to “capture richer descriptions and links between records, to accelerate the process of updating the archive, to engage users to collaborate actively within the archive, and to reduce the need for administrative interventions” (Huvila 26). The premise is “based on an understanding that together the participants are more knowledgeable about the archival materials than an archivist alone can be” (Huvila 26). This approach is one that I did not initially intend to practice, although it is one whose merits I discovered as I began working with the archival materials.

As I discussed in the narrative, I realized after returning from the research trips that I was not satisfied with the depth of descriptions I was able to write for each artifact. As a result of trying to capture the images at the same time I was making notes about the artifacts and the speed with which the collection meetings seemed to move, I was not able to take the depth of detail about the artifacts that I came to want after having time to reflect and consider the objects in the accession process. I realized I wanted the participants to have the opportunity to participate in the description process itself, so I reached out by email to each family group with specific questions and an open invitation to share more information about the artifacts I had collected such as any memories or stories associated with the object. After several weeks, I had only heard from two of the participants who only added minimally to the descriptions I had already written. I again found myself brushing up against the blurred boundaries between friend and researcher where I might have been inclined to push harder with additional communications if I only occupied the role of researcher, but as a friend, I am wary of too aggressively pursuing the participants and potentially abusing or taking advantage of the existing relationships.

The desire to have the family groups contribute to the artifacts’ written descriptions is an example of “a more radical user orientation,” which allows the community to represent itself within its own context” by “moving control of the description outside institutional walls” (Battley 375). This kind of personal description is likely to offer a richer, more authentic artifact interaction than one produced in an anodyne academic style, which is preferable in an archive like this one where the goal is to create a cultural sense experience that resembles the dialect and personality of the Azorean-American community as closely as possible. It should be noted though that there is the potential for decentralized records management to lead to “a tension between honoring the complexity of an open participatory archive while simultaneously attempting to say something coherent about what is going on in this space,” particularly in regard to “the meanings of the artifacts, the connections between them, and the coherence of the accumulation of artifacts in the material space of the archive,” which “are manifold, complex, and open to interpretation” (Smith 117). There is the possibility that by allowing participants to control archival processes, the archivist will necessarily concede some control and possibly lose the ability to effectively frame the artifacts in accordance with his or her vision.

Ultimately, even though decentralizing the authority for some archival processes can present challenges, James Purdy argues that participant integration is one the “gifts” from the archive, allowing for “possibilities for collaboration” and “the co-construction of meaning by offering possibilities for connecting with many other people,” so that “research becomes interactive and communal rather than isolated” (38). What can be gained from working deeply with others will outweigh the drawbacks that might stem from shared authority. The decision about how much participants are invited into records management processes is one archivists working with participatory archives will need to weigh carefully, thinking about the goals of the archive and whether the purpose is more about facilitating the archive’s construction on behalf of the participants or if it is about co-constructing an archive to also meet the needs of the archivist. Data collection overall represents a series of negotiations, compromises, and adjustments between the archivists’ plans, participants’ needs, and the material realities of the archive’s technological and financial constraints. At times, these changes will leave the archivist feeling disappointed with the development of the archive, but at other times the unanticipated changes can lead to improvements in the archive. Having clarity of purpose can help the archivist navigate the process and will also effectively guide decisions in all areas of data collection methods, but, on the contrary, holding fast to a rigid set of data collection rules is certainly an untenable approach that will halt productivity and stifle the development of complexity in the archive.

The Rhetoricity of Archival Appraisal Processes

On one hand, the process of collecting artifacts is the most practical of all the methods so far described, with its discussions of technical storage and cataloguing systems, but on the other hand, it is an area fraught with theoretical implications as the archivist works to give the archive its shape. The implications of appraisal in theories of archival studies are explored in greater detail throughout the first chapter, “Reciprocal Gifts: A Theoretical Framework for Developing a Rhetorical Archive.” However, it seems useful to revisit some of these issues here in this chapter, more specifically connected to my own application of appraisal theories. In the narrative, I described a series of decisions related to selecting artifacts for inclusion in the archive, by working collaboratively with participants to choose objects for digital imaging, and to managing digital files after collection, including deleting some artifact images. In archival studies, these activities relate to the process of appraisal. Appraisal is a form of evaluation by which a potential acquisition is “evaluated for its informational, evidential, and intrinsic value” and whether the records have “sufficient long-term research value to be worth the labor and expense that will be invested to preserve them and make them available to researchers” (Hamill 8). Appraisal is a process of evaluating what archivists term “secondary values,” so artifacts, such as the baptism records in the archive, have a primary value related to their function as church administrative records, but through appraisal, the archivist might assign secondary values related to the information they can provide about individuals (informational), evidence they offer about an institution or culture (evidential), and any possible monetary values based on their provenance and sociocultural contexts (intrinsic). If the archivist deems the record to have sufficient value, it will be included in the archive, but due to limited resources, appraisal generally results in “only a small percentage of records meriting permanent retention in an archive” (Hamill 8). The archivist “must balance priorities with available resources” and work with a “clear focus” on the archival mission to “make acquisition decisions easier” (Hamill 10). In examining these principles, terms like “evaluate” and “decide” reveal that appraisal is not a neutral process. The archivist is exercising judgment and interpreting criteria to determine which artifacts have value and subsequently hold a place in the archive. 

In this way, the process of appraisal is the process of making an argument about the value of a record, of what is worthy of being archived and what is not. It is, then, a kind of rhetorical work that has direct and measurable consequences to the end product of the archive users interact with. Clement et al. argue that “like editors of scholarly editions, archivists shape our interactions with the archive” through “the processes of appraisal…[that] impact the decisions about selection and style that establish the archive” (114). The comparison to scholarly editing draws up an image of the editor working with raw manuscripts and making critical decisions about which versions are most valuable and how best to arrange and present a finished, authoritative edition. It is useful in the sense that there is a distinction between the manuscripts and the final edition, just as there is a distinction between the many records an archivist evaluates and the final archive with which users can engage. Too often we think of archives as constituting the totality of available records related to a subject, as being a comprehensive resource, when in reality an archivist may have excluded numerous records through appraisal that users would never know even existed.

This assumption may come from the way we use the term archive to refer to both archival contents and institutional functions. For example, a Professor Smith retires from the university and donates the contents of his office to the library for archiving. It would be commonly stated that the professor donated his archives, referring to the all the materials from the office, but this will be quite different from the Professor Smith Archive, the completed archive of records that come through the appraisal process and are retained for preservation. This is the distinction between “the content of what is to be archived and the archive itself, the archivable and the archiving of the archive” (Derrida 17). It is this “archiving of the archive,” this process of appraisal, that is a rhetorically-laden activity, influencing users by constituting the archive, creating its boundaries, and shaping users’ sense of the totality of the archive. It is creating the archive while simultaneously establishing the idea of the what the archive is. Derrida argues that “the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (17). The idea that archivists are producing future users’ relationships to the archive shatters the concept of archivists as neutral record managers, and it requires that this influence be considered throughout appraisal decisions. 

Considering the influence of appraisal may be even more significant for archives, like this one, that are generated by the archivist as opposed to being received from an external source. As discussed in the Concept, Reciprocal Gifts, and Participation chapters of this dissertation, this kind of generated archive is an example of archival work enabled by the post-custodial turn in the field, which is the shift from archivists working only with artifacts that are received from contributors to actively working as record generators through data collection. Often these types of archives are designed to directly intervene in a cultural community to mediate its absence in the archival record and influence the collective social understanding of the group through archival representation. In a generated archive where data is actively collected as opposed to passively received, appraisal takes on heightened significance because the evaluative acts are far broader. If I had received a set of records, my decisions, although still rhetorically salient, would be more finite and confined to only the tangible materials I had been given. However, by going out in the world and deciding what records to create, making real-time appraisal decisions when meeting participants, it seems so much more open-ended with greater archivist agency and influence on the archive’s shape. It is also a more collaborative process, working with contributors to co-construct evaluations of value, whereas an archivist working with a received archive is more likely to conduct appraisal independently and privately.

Although the argument has been made here that appraisal decisions are rhetorical, and in fact there is an inherent rhetoricity to the concept that archivists would generate archives to mediate the exigency of cultural erasure, it seems to me that there is an important difference between how a rhetorician and an archivist might approach the work. Both are taking actions designed to influence knowledge production through the discursive production of the archive, understood and theorized by rhetoricians as historiographic work and by archivists as work ascribing to the tenets of the post-custodial turn. However, where the rhetorician is likely working to intentionality influence that knowledge being produced toward a particular conclusion, the archivist is likely working toward an archive that supports knowledge production broadly and in a way that does not privilege one conclusion over another. This is the difference between wanting to create a persuasive argument or a research tool, although they always already function in ways as both. It seems that this difference is highlighted by appraisal, specifically how the archivist develops appraisal criteria. Appraisal constructs the archive and reveals its constructed purpose, and it does this by determining the basis for value assignation. As Hamill argues, archivists’ appraisal decisions are about evaluating value through the lens of institutional resources, whether it “merits” the expenditures of the institution’s labor and finances (8). However, as I think of myself doing this kind of generated archival work as a rhetor-archivist, I am appraising artifacts based on what I think they will communicate to the users and whether including the item will contribute to what I intentionally want them to see, learn, feel and take away from the interaction. Importantly, I also think about the participants and feel beholden to include what the artifacts that they indicate have value. Because the goal for the archive’s use differs, the criteria for appraisal reflect differing priorities. The idea emerges here again that it is not possible to establish rules to govern every archival decision. There is no collection policy that could be detailed enough to provide a clear appraisal decision for every possible artifact. Instead, it will be necessary to develop clarity about the archive’s priorities, perhaps as more of a broad research tool prioritizing institutional resources or as an intentional argument prioritizing co-constructed evaluations of value, which in turn establish values that can guide the interpretive acts of appraisal. Ultimately, it is vital that all archivists accept the idea that appraisal decisions, along with other archival processes, are deeply communicative and actively shape how people understand the archive as a whole, so they need to be rendered thoughtfully and with a values-forward approach.

Autoethnographic Archival Methods

I first came to learn about autoethnographic methods while preparing for my comprehensive exams, and my chair asked me to think about all the available research methods that would allow me to examine archives. After reading about different methods, I realized that there were three broad areas that I was interested in examining in the dissertation each with its own methods: making archives, archives themselves, and user engagement with the archive. I wanted to trace how decisions about archival design are made through to the effects those decisions have on the appearance of functionality of archive and connect that to effects on users’ meaning-making activities. I learned that there are established tools that can analyze the archive itself, like a content analysis of the artifacts, and there are tools that can be used to study users’ interactions with the archive, like usability studies and user experience testing. However, I needed to identify methods that would enable me to study the less tangible and concrete processes of making and archivist activity, which are inextricably embedded in larger social and cultural systems. I needed methods to understand how the study of “rhetorical and humanistic pursuits is necessarily enmeshed in complex assemblages of material culture and activity,” so that “even mundane digital practices involve a host of nondigital technologies in concrete sociocultural contexts” (McNely and Teston 113). What methods would show not only how archives can be influential in society but also how they themselves are products of those sociocultural influences?

Broadly, phenomenological methods would enable me to “depict the essence or basic structure of experience,” which in this case is the experience of building an archive (Merriam 25). Phenomenology allows a researcher to “explore and understand” a process by “considering all of the multiple external forces that shape this phenomenon” (Cresswell 130). It assumes that these shaping forces cause “human beings interact with tools and signs in purposeful, historically conditioned ways,” so methods are needed to capture the significance of these interactions (McNely and Teston 115). Nelya Koteyko argues, “[I]t is increasingly recognized that we need to combine novel methods with tried and tested techniques if we want to study the multifaceted nature of online discourses…placing an emphasis on the view of discourse as situated action, where text production and interpretation are seen as first and foremost social processes” (184). Therefore, if digital production is a social process as much as a technological one, we need methods to trace “the ways that individuals, due to their various histories and positions, construct the components and objects of an activity system in different ways” (Gay and Hembrooke 15). Recognizing the powerful influence of a convergence of factors in shaping digital production, scholars increasingly call for this kind of tracing work to be enacted by the development of “new tools to highlight this influence” and “identify unconsidered factors significantly influencing how institutions, geography, friendship links, or a number of other factors shape texts” (Johnson, N. 106). One way to identify these influences and how they shape humanities projects is through the careful documentation of experiences through ethnography.

Ethnographic methods use fieldwork, such as observations and interviews, to make connections between the activity of a group, like archivists, and the culture in which the activities take place. It is what Clay Spinuzzi’s terms “fieldwork-to-formalization,” which is a method of using ethnographic fieldwork to extrapolate formalized conclusions about “how people interact with complex institutions, disciplines, and communities” and how they are “developing unofficial, frequently unarticulated work practices and genres [and] adapting old genres for new uses” (23). Ethnographic data documents the decisions, and more importantly the conditions surrounding the decisions, and allows the researcher to draw out implications for others, which for me is a way to map the rhetorical space of intentional, generated archives. Because I am serving as both researcher and the subject of the research, the method of documenting my own experiences is considered autoethnographic.

Autoethnography is defined as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience” (Ellis et al. qtd. in Battley 383). It is a blended method, both “artistic and analytic” in nature, where researchers capture their own experiences, primarily through narrative writing, in order to demonstrate “how we come to know, name, and interpret personal and cultural experience…to engage ourselves, others, culture(s), politics, and social research” (Adams et al. 1). It is also a method that is especially helpful to the researcher who finds that “excluding or obscuring personal experiences felt uncomfortable, even impossible,” which is the situation I encountered when exploring the roots of the archive’s concept (Adams et al. 8). It would have been disingenuous for me to pretend that the loss of my mother and the desire to hold fast to her memory, reclaiming cultural ties to my maternal ancestry, was not a significant driving force behind the archive’s creation. Excluding those personal conceptualization reflections while supposedly tracing the methods of building the archive would not have been academically honest and not have painted an accurate picture of how or why archival projects come into being. The autoethnographic method sanctions the inclusion of emotion in research and gives it means of quantification. 

It is also a useful method to study processes when “the researcher is a complete member in the social world under study” (Anderson 379). Since I have a dual role as both archivist and researcher studying archivists’ decision-making processes, autoethnography is well-suited for the project. However, my approach to the method, using both extensive narrative writing and intertextual engagement with scholarship in the considerations, the project aligns more with the more narrowly defined method of “analytic autoethnography.” With analytic autoethnographic work, more than documentation and self-expression, the researcher is “committed to an analytic research agenda focused on improving theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena” (Anderson 375). It is a method that is “not only truthfully rendering the social world under investigation but also transcending that world through broader generalization,” making the self-study relevant to the field by coding the narrative-rendered experience for implications and recommendations useful beyond the researcher’s own needs (Anderson 388).  By critically examining my own experiences, and connecting emergent themes to scholarship, the dissertation’s primary method for studying the making process is the analytic autoethnography.

The method works by using “deep and careful self-reflection—typically referred to as ‘reflexivity’—to name and interrogate the intersections between self and society, the particular and the general, the personal and the political…[and] balances intellectual and methodological rigor, emotion, and creativity” (Adams et al. 1-2). Autoethnographers are encouraged to apply that practice of reflexivity in “every moment of our work— conducting fieldwork (and hanging out), creating field notes, reading the literature, discussing our research in the classroom, all of it,” recognizing all of our experiences are “worth writing about deeply, analytically, and creatively” (Adams et al. 4). It is a process of “observing and reflecting on one’s own behaviour in order to bring to the surface aspects of processes or behaviours that are taken for granted, as well as cognitive processes, emotions and motives” (Battley 383). In its most basic form, autoethnography is performed by documenting the logistics of one’s own experiences, reflecting critically on those experiences, and then writing about those thoughts as well. Although this can be done in journals or in blogs, the critical aspect of this writing is that there is an element of contemporaneity to it. Writing in the autoethnographic mode requires that we “incorporate all kinds of experiences and knowledge as they happen, and consider how they relate to the research” in order to “take in all the complexity of the process,” which makes “it is easier to see emerging patterns” (Battley 384). Although it can be difficult to separate from the research activities in order to document and reflect on the activities, failure to invest in the collection of autoethnographic data as it happens will likely diminish the scope of the study as the researcher risks losing valuable content in incomplete recollections when writing at a later date. 

This speaks to one of the most significant challenges for autoethnographers, which is that as participants, we are simultaneously doing the work (of building an archive, for example) and reflecting on the significance of the work. It means that “autoethnographers must orient (at least for significant periods of time) to documenting and analyzing action as well as to purposively engaging in it,” requiring them to participate in activities and “also record events and conversations, at times making fieldwork nearly schizophrenic in its frenzied multiple focus” (Anderson 380). I found this to be especially true while collecting participant interviews and artifacts when I felt like my attention to the families was in competition with the attention I needed to give to my own experiences conducting the meeting. I also felt this while writing this section of the chapter when explaining the autoethnographic processes of narrative and critical reflection working through the dissertation by utilizing those very same narrative and critical reflection methods. This heightened focus on the self represents a reality of autoethnographic work as well as another potential challenge in that although autoethnography is “important for insight, it can risk becoming self-obsession with little analytical value” (Battley 384). To avoid research that is too self-indulgent, the researcher needs to focus on the “interrelationships between researcher and other to inform and change social knowledge,” making a distinction between “evocative autoethnography, which seeks narrative fidelity only to the researcher’s subjective experience” and “analytic autoethnography [which] is grounded in self-experience but reaches beyond it as well” (Anderson 386). Making connections between one’s own experience and the larger field is what validates the method’s legitimacy as a scholarly research method.

Well-crafted analytic autoethnography carefully codes the narrative writing for relevant generalizations. To facilitate the coding, autoethnographers are advised to “stay open and pay attention to the emerging logic” in the narratives, “thinking about what connects the work and words” to develop “an internal through-line or logic” (Adams et al. 72-73). These through-lines coalesce around repeated ideas and themes that give shape and meaning to the field notes and can be articulated as “the theoretical contributions of research in distinct and separate moments of the narrative” (Adams et al. 85). The thematic through-lines may make theoretical contributions on their own, but they can also be linked to scholarship as well for additional dialogue with the field, which occurs in this project in the considerations. This approach to autoethnography is an example of “citationality,” which “uses citation (the quoting of texts) as a means for articulating ideas, feelings, and conclusions,” “merging story and theory…to consider the ways theory supports, elaborates, and/or contradicts personal experience” (Adams et al. 92, 94). Incorporating theory in narrative reflection “provides a foundation on which to elaborate…the meanings and implications of your stories,” and it can be added in “footnotes or endnotes, glossaries, appendices, and/or split or collage texts— all of which provide explanations, make connections, and provide supplemental or counter narratives— in addition or juxtaposition to a primary personal narrative” (Adams et al. 94). This dissertation uses a collage method that incorporates theory into the narrative, weaving it through and around my own conclusions and reflections, hopefully demonstrating a sound understanding of the field and how my assertions align within it.

One of the most important reasons to use autoethnography is that it works to create transparency of purpose, rendering visible the traditionally invisible inner-workings of the archivist’s mind and motivations for decisions. Because autoethnographic studies are a kind of “insider research” where the writer is both a participant and a researcher, it is possible that, as with any situation in which someone who has expertise in a particular subject is communicating with an audience who might not, certain assumptions can made unintentionally, or explanations can lack clarity. Scholars working with autoethnography “highlight the value of autoethnography for reducing the risks of conflict and balancing insider perspectives by surfacing values, commonalities and differences so they can be discussed…to make those assumptions visible to others outside the community, so they can question [researchers] and force [them] to examine” any gaps, assumptions, or biases (Battley 380, 384). It “helps expose the reciprocal influences between” researcher and subject, and helps the researcher “respond to those exposures,” which “acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they do not exist” (Battley 383). In laying bare these reflections for all users to see, it contributes to the integrity and honesty of the project, and it is a way for the archivist to acknowledge his or her intentions to influence users’ meaning-making. It allows the archivist to be honest about the desire to be influential toward a specific purpose, not to exclude users from having other purposes, but to ensure that they are informed about the archivist’s goals. Like a disclaimer that says “this is an advertisement” or a piece labelled “op-ed” in a newspaper, the bias or intent should not be obscured in an archive, and autoethnographic data gives the archivist a place for such information. Even if the archivist is working toward neutrality of influence, “digital archiving is a process of representation” and “as a representation it is necessarily biased, situated, and mediated in the myriad ways archivists have wrestled with for decades” (Smith 127). Autoethnography becomes a way for the archivist to “be critically reflexive of their choices and aware of their positions of influence” while making visible “the (sometimes) invisible ways that the material aspects of a digital archive may alter or determine a user’s experience” (Smith 126). There is the idea here that all archival work will in some way recreate sociocultural structures that will contribute to how the archivist frames the information and thus how users understand it, so the inclusion of autoethnographic data is a powerful mediation, since regardless of archivist intention, traces of the influence of the archivist’s situatedness will be present.

The critically reflexive practices of analytic autoethnography allow scholars to embrace “subjective understandings of reality as a basis for thinking more critically about the impact of our assumptions, values and actions on others’’ (Cunliffe qtd. in Battley 383). The method is better suited to humanities projects than scientific methods that have an “inability…to create insight about the particularities, nuances, and complexities of identities, relationships, experiences, and cultures” (Adams et al. 16). And although taking “a position of self-reflexivity is nothing new for researchers in rhetoric and composition,” it becomes even more of a necessity in the field as it “experiences a boom of digital historiography” (Smith 126). Such reflexivity can be achieved in autoethnographic methods, which contributes to theorizing “how digital historiographic projects function as spaces of meaning making” and ensures “that in the rush to adopt what may appear to be a democratically liberating technology we do not do so without careful reflection” (Smith 127). Creating transparency of intent, exposing assumptions, and more effectively capturing the complexities of influence exerted on the researcher are affordances of autoethnography that contribute to its significance as a phenomenological method. As a final note, it is important to acknowledge that embracing autoethnographic methods means embracing the inclusion of the personal in academic work. The researcher has to accept that “telling personal stories in/as research always carries personal, relational, and ethical risks” (Adams et al. 5). There is a certain level of vulnerability and exposure that the autoethnographer must understand, along with the risk that academic traditionalists may not accept the inclusion of personal experience as valid scientific data. However, there is also growing acceptance that autoethnographic methods make “scholarship more human, useful, emotional, and evocative” in an academic atmosphere with “new and changing ideas about and ideals for research, a recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge, and an emerging appreciation for personal narrative, story, the literary and the aesthetic, emotions, and the body” (Adams et al. 3, 8). The method, which emerged as the heart of the project rather organically, serves the needs of this project to study the archival process, and it continues to evolve along with my thinking while maintaining its utility as a dynamic tool and source of valuable information. Neither completely expressive nor academic, autoethnographic methods create connectivity between our superimposed identities as participants, researchers, scholars, students, and individuals grappling with the inescapable emotionality of the human condition.

Autoethnography and Archival Transparency

As discussed throughout these chapters, particularly in the context of writing history and interface design, the situatedness and interestedness of the archivist will have a significant influence over the composition of the archive. While archivists can take measures to cultivate a greater awareness of how their decisions may be negatively affected by their positionality and their archival product may be subsequently reinscribing oppressive structures, it is unlikely that the archivist, no matter how aware, will be able to escape the influence of their own contexts. However, it is frequently suggested that providing users with as much information about the rationale for the archive’s design and disclosing any interests or collaborations that may influence the composition of the archive can be useful strategies for mediating some of the problematic conclusions that could be drawn in the absence of visible practices, assuming that the archivist’s hand is neutral. Autoethnography is a method that increases transparency; it gives users and researchers a window into how the archive is structured and why.

Oftentimes archives do not include any information about the governing theoretical frameworks at play in the archive’s creation, and archivists “make little effort to leave clues about the basis for their appraisal decisions or the contexts in which they are made” (Hedstrom 37). However, scholars increasingly argue for including this kind of discussion to aid researchers and make audiences more aware of archivists’ influential decisions. MacNeil acknowledges that the field of archival studies is increasingly concerned with methods that “ameliorate the inherent bias and subjectivity of appraisal and description” and advocate broadly for “archivists to better account for their own actions with respect to the records in their care” (MacNeil xii). Ciaran Trace states plainly, “The best that archivists can do is be transparent and open about the ideas and the processes that shape their appraisal decisions” (59). Margaret Hedstrom urges archivists to “share their insights about how they interpreted appraisal theory, expose their debates and discussions about appraisal values, underline constraints of technology and politics hampering an ideal appraisal decision from implementation, and, most importantly, reveal their uncertainties about, and discomfort with, the choices that confront them” (37). She concludes that “rather than obscuring the interpretive aspects of appraisal, presentation, and mediation, archivists should expose and articulate these interpretive acts, capture and structure information about them, and leave as many traces as possible about interpretive frames that operate at the organizational, professional, and individual level” (43). Dominique Daniel also argues that “the best archivists can do” is to “document their own documentation process,” as a way to “be aware of the hard choices that cannot be avoided, to face them, to find innovative ways to perform their role in a multicultural society, and to justify or explain their decisions to their contemporaries and future generations” (103-4). For each of these archival scholars, the call to the field is one of greater transparency about the salient decisions that shape the archive. They each advocate for a process of self-documentation to leave traces and justifications for future users, and autoethnographic methods are an important way to gather data about decision-making in real time and through careful reflection.

Rhetoricians who work with archives also advocate for archivist transparency as a method for tempering the inevitability of situated bias. This comes, in part, from the rhetorical tradition that acknowledges the rhetor’s influence on an audience through the production of persuasive discourse, which “increases the rhetor’s moral responsibility” in such a way that the rhetor “must assume responsibility for the salience he has created” (Vatz 158). One way to assume responsibility for the discursive influence is to share information with our audiences about our purposes, goals, and positions, so that they are better able to contextualize the information presented, which can be effectively accomplished in autoethnographic methods that work toward transparency. Lucas and Strain argue for this level of transparency, stating that when working to generate new artifacts, the archivist “should contextualize such sources, providing the social, cultural, economic, and material conditions that gave rise to the creation” of the records and “the rationale for its current use” (261). Lucille Schultz also sees the need for greater transparency about archival methods, asserting that when archivists “articulate their methodologies with…inflection and nuance…with self-awareness and reflection,” then they “make a writerly turn in the ways they present it to us—and readers are the richer for that” (ix). While the articulation of methods can enrich users, it can also lead to their increased understanding of the influence of archival processes. Sammie Morris and Shirley Rose argue that in order to “better interpret the materials they study,” researchers need to “recognize and understand the work of the archivist’s ‘invisible hands’” (52). They contend that “the archivist’s processing of collections, which includes all work done by the archivist to make a collection available to researchers, remains a mystery,” which means that the archivist’s “steps are not always evident” (51). However, Morris and Rose conclude that in addition to helping researchers better understand the archive, providing insight into their processes can also help archivists. They write:

Exposing the details of the archivist’s often “invisible” work might benefit the archives profession itself. For example, by explaining what decisions have been made when processing a collection and what theories and principles guided those decisions, the archivist is not only better able to justify her actions but also to illustrate to researchers the amount of time, resources, and expertise needed to make collections accessible…it increases the accountability of the archivist’s work by presenting it for critique and discussion. (70)

Autoethnography provides a way to expose these details, and facilitates recognition for the complexity of archival production needed to support arguments for greater material support. Morris and Rose’s final point here though is also important, which is that efforts to expose the decision-making process is also a way to present these processes for critique. This is an important quality to embed in an archive, as Linda Ferreira-Buckley argues, because in the face of increasing skepticism about the veracity or authenticity of the historical record has “prodded historians to forge methods that somewhat manage criticisms” (579). Disclosure and transparency in autoethnographic narratives is one such method that lays out a contextualized framework from which the archive is created and enables the kind of scrutiny and discussion needs to validate the archival authenticity, or identify its weaknesses and biases so they can be addressed and corrected. Although not discussing the need for transparency in archives specifically, digital rhetoricians and information technology scholars do discuss the need to connect the contexts that give rise to digital compositions to their end-design and influence. Writing from a human-computer interaction perspective, B.J. Fogg, Gregory Cuellar, and David Danielson argue that in technology fields, designers “don’t often view themselves as agents of influence. They should. The work they perform often includes crafting experiences that change people—the way people feel, what they believe, and the way in which they behave” (134). Recognition of this influence leads digital rhetoricians to call for designers to work more reflexively and to explicitly articulate the processes, values, and positions that contribute to technological artifacts. In discussing digital texts and objects, Anne Wysocki states that designers should “design texts that help readers/consumers/viewers stay alert to how any text—like its composers and readers—doesn’t function independently of how it is made and in what contexts,” and they should do this by designing “texts that make as overtly as possible the value they embody (qtd. in Brooke 3, emphasis added).  This view recognizes that the contexts in which we design digital objects are inextricably linked to their social function, and it further contends that we have a responsibility to alert users to these contexts. Certainly, autoethnography can be employed as a method to map these contexts and overtly express the embodied values of the digital objects we create, but it can also serve as the foundation for sound critique of digital objects. Just as Ferreira-Buckley calls for mechanisms that engage criticism of archival processes, Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe also advocate for members of the field to “be technology critics as well as technology users,” but that this critical stance requires us to “acquire the intellectual habits of reflecting on and discussing the cultural and ideological characteristics of technology” in order to “exert an increasingly active influence on the cultural project of technology design” (484). Autoethnography is one method that supports the development of the reflexive intellectual habits that Selfe and Selfe identify as necessary for productive criticisms of technology and to directly connect, and convey, cultural and ideological contexts to design. In broadly discussing digital humanities, Brian McNely and Christa Teston also see the need for reflexivity, advocating for the use of “reflexive empirical approaches to situated writing and rhetorical practice” that can “help us explore and better understand the complexity of lived (digital) experience” (112). This view acknowledges the significance of writers and designers’ situatedness and the complexity of understanding digital objects; however, it also acknowledges that reflexivity about our experiences is one method we have to get closer to that crucial understanding. Autoethnographic narratives that trace design processes and designer’s positionality better inform users while also taking responsibility for disclosing important contexts and inviting critical discussion.

Feminist Rhetorical Practices and Autoethnography

In addition to providing transparency and inviting methodological critique, autoethnographic methods are also well-suited to supporting feminist rhetorical practices. Jacqueline Jones Royster suggests that any methodological approaches to historiographic work must emphasize “four sites of critical regard,” including “careful analysis, acknowledgement to passionate attachments, attention to ethical action, and commitment to social responsibility” (qtd. in Glenn and Enoch 23). The first of these sites, careful analysis, not only refers to the research subject, but it also means that scholars need to attend carefully and with critical reflexivity to their own actions and positions. Royster et al. make the argument that one type of careful analysis is what they term “strategic contemplation,” which is a method whereby scholars “deliberately” take “the time, space, and resources to think about, through, and around our work as an important meditative dimension of scholarly productivity” (21). They argue that in strategic contemplation, scholars create a space to “pay attention to how lived experiences shape our perspectives as researchers and those of our research subjects,” which can be “a powerful yet often-neglected source of insight, inspiration, and passion” (22). The benefit of creating these contemplative spaces is that they facilitate careful analysis of own experiences, giving us time to reflect on our experiences, and arrive at unexpected and nuanced insights. Royster et al. conclude, “By claiming a space for contemplation, reflection, and meditation, by observing without rushing to judgment, by noticing without the immediate need to analyze, classify, and establish hierarchies, we allow new vistas to come into view, unexpected leads to shape scholarly work, and new research questions to emerge” (22). We are given space to see “how our understanding and knowledge evolve” (Royster et al. 23). Kirsch and Rohan also make the argument that careful analysis of our own processes is an important aspect of historiographic research. They argue that there is an “importance of attending to facets of the research process that might easily be marginalized and rarely mentioned because they seem merely intuitive, coincidental, or serendipitous,” but they contend that “unless we pay serious attention to aspects of our lived experience that connect us with insight, intuition, and creativity, we might lose out on many leads that can enrich our understanding of past and present, virtual and historical experiences” (4). Similar to Royster et al.’s argument about reflexivity allowing “new vistas to come into view,” Kirsch and Rohan also see how careful attention to our research processes reveal insights and “leads” that we may not see otherwise without the deliberate effort to consider ourselves as integral to research outcomes. However, they also raise the key argument that there are certain aspects of the research process that are often ignored and not discussed because we assume that they are obvious or unimportant. Yet these decisions can be significant, and autoethnographic narratives are well-positioned to capture even the most minor decisions through its more rigorous approach to self-documentation; it forces researchers to become much more conscious of their own work. Autoethnography creates the space to strategically contemplate our work, and without rushing to conclusions or forcing certain arguments, the narrative supports the important self-analysis that enriches scholarship.

The second site for feminist methods is the acknowledgment of passionate attachment, which is a tenet that is also well-served by autoethnography. As discussed in the Concept chapter, the emotional attachment and affective interest in a research topic can be a powerful and valid motivation for scholarship, and is one particularly recognized by feminist historiographers. However, it is also important that scholars ground their emotional work with rigorous scholarly methods. In addition, feminist scholars also encourage researchers to contextualize their attachments and disclose them to readers. Royster et al. ask us to consider an important question in discussions of affective research: “What are the writer-scholar’s options and obligations associated with acknowledging passionate attachments?” (24). One obligation, it seems, is to reveal our attachments and to work with transparency with regards to our interested positions. While we should recognize the validity of drawing on personal connections as part of a scholarly agenda, it is equally important to acknowledge how we are located in the research as readers should be able to draw conclusions about writers’ ethos in an authentic context. However, one option for sharing the emotional connections to research is an autoethnographic methods, such as the disclosure and positioning I worked to share in the Concept chapter. It is the kind of work that Wendy Sharer exemplifies in her own archival research projects, explaining that she had “been focusing on ‘acknowledging’ the part my emotions and experiences played in the construction of my research agenda,” while making sure she “responsibly revealed” her “biases” and “locatedness as a researcher” (54). The idea is not that scholars should avoid subjects that have an emotional pull, but that we must accept a responsibility to acknowledge that influence and our embedded positions. Patricia Bizzell argues that this work is crucial “lest this kind of attachment lead to” conclusions that be disregarded “as merely ‘personal truth,’” and we can further guard against dismissive attitudes if “feminist researchers to ground their work in the collective wisdom of their scholarly community” (14). To that end, the analytic autoethnographic methods used here, the process narratives that capture and share data about decisions and rationales coupled with considerations that connect emergent themes from the narrative to relevant scholarship, are particularly useful. We can do the necessary work of establishing our positions and interests, but we can also work to engage disciplinary scholarship with our lived research experiences to generate knowledge that moves beyond the personally significant.

The work of acknowledging our attachments and positions is also related to the third site of feminist methodology, which is attention to ethical action. The argument is made that revealing the situatedness of the researcher, although useful for readers, it is also a question of ethics—especially when scholars are working with marginalized communities and cultures. Royster et al. argue that one of the critical concerns in feminist rhetorical practices is attention to the “ethical self,” which calls for scholars “to critique our analytical assumptions and frames, to critique guiding questions reflectively and reflexively” (14). They argue, “Feminist rhetorical practices focus questions persistently on the adequacy of our own actions and judgments, rather than questioning more unidirectionally and without reflexivity the quality and value of our subjects and their performances” (16). What strikes me here is that although the methodology related to the question of the ethical self is focused inwardly, a self-examination that critiques practices and decisions, the purpose of this method is to achieve an externally-situated outcome. The reflexivity is less about reassuring the researcher and much more about whether we are adequately positioned against our subjects. It is about looking inwardly to ensure that our actions externally are performed ethically, especially for those who are affected by our work.  The ethical self is an examination done in the service of ethical action, which is especially necessary for archival work with marginalized people. Jane Donawerth and Lisa Zimmerelli articulate this service-oriented argument for self-analysis, arguing that “feminist archival research demands that we not only find lost women of the past but also become conscious of our positionality in relation to their positionality” (qtd. in Kirsch 23, emphasis added). Again, the claim here is that it is important to disclose our biases and to critically examine our practices, but that it is perhaps more important to recognize that we are working from a position of agency with communities who are disenfranchised from many sources of institutional and political power. Our ethical actions with respect to the subjects we study require even further scrutiny of our processes to ensure that we are not reinscribing oppressive values and attaching our own assumptions to our archival management.

Given these arguments, autoethnography is thus positioned as an important method for helping ensure ethical actions by creating the space for transparency, criticism, and the conscious consideration for how our own agency is operating in relation to the agency of the archival participants. This position is supported by feminist scholars, like Kirsch and Rohan, who do not specifically discuss autoethnography but do recommend that researchers “unpack their thinking in process and help readers see how they have mined their lives for meaningful patterns when shaping analysis and casting impressions of their research subjects” and make “the research process more transparent by describing it” (2). In the same way, Glenn and Enoch contend that “what is important is that we do our best to try to uncover the ways our positionality operates and to consider, throughout the historiographic process, how this stance channels us to write one kind of history and directs us away from other possibilities” (22). They maintain that researchers “are expected to and should strive to account for how their own positionalities and ways of asking, seeing, interpreting, speaking, and writing might affect their research subjects and their communities” (23, emphasis added). Graban et al. also imply the need for some method of self-analysis and documentation, arguing that “rhetorical historians should work harder to expose the gaps of their own use of these histories” (235). And Patricia Bizzell notes that “researchers have had to adopt radically new methods…which violate some of the most cherished conventions of academic research, most particularly in bringing the person of the researcher, her body, her emotions, and dare one say, her soul, into the work” (16). It is a method implied by Royster et al. who argue that the process of moving “reflexively from practice to theory to practice to theory” allows us “to gain clarity about shifts in ways of being and doing in the field” (19). Autoethnography is a method that radically locates the researcher within the scholarship, and although this resists the dominant norms in academic writing that excludes any recognizable presence of the scholar as an individual, it is a method that supports transparency in descriptive writing, revealing bias, while encouraging critical empathy for archival communities by creating a space in which the researcher is better able to see their own positions and the potentially detrimental effects of how that position is occupied. Although scholars like Ricardo Punzalan and Michelle Caswell argue that “much more work is needed to further delineate what a feminist contribution to archival ethics would entail,” I contend that autoethnographic methods provide a strong foundation from which those contributions can be both constituted and analyzed to further a theory of archival ethics (32). All archivists should consider writing a series of autoethnographic narratives, using the categories outlined here that trace the archive’s conceptualization and purpose, participation decisions, funding sources, institutional influences, appraisal and artifacts management, and digital interface design as a starting point, understanding that these categories can be adapted, expanded, and modified as needed. Bringing these practices into the processes of archival production would support the efforts of historiographers and activist-archivists who have worked to orient the field to ethical action.

Critical Making and Autoethnographic Methods

As a result of the post-custodial turn, archivists are beginning to engage in constructing archives to mediate gaps in the archival records. It has led to shifts in the field’s scholarship as the focus broadens from solely pragmatic concerns about record preservation and management to include more theoretical discussions related to concerns about purpose, audience, and agency, which is familiar ground for rhetoricians. Rhetoricians, on the other hand, are engaging more with digital historiographic projects and moving from making meaning out of archival holdings to making the archives themselves. However, operating from a more theoretical approach to thinking about archives as rhetorical spaces, the practical work of making and maintaining an archive is relatively uncharted territory. Coming to the work of making archives from different sides of the same coin, the two fields have much to offer one another, but the divide speaks to the separation that often exists between fields along the lines of praxis and theory. A divide that has traditionally been maintained by the “privilege attached to the reception (rather than production) of texts in English departments” (Brooke 8). However, some scholars are working to erase these dividing lines and develop an approach to digital scholarship that recognizes the power of unifying thought and action in the emerging critical-making movement.

Critical-making draws attention to the interdependent relationship between acts of making an object and acts of knowledge produced about an object by encouraging scholars to simultaneously engage the practical and the theoretical to achieve a deeper understanding of the practice as a whole. This concept was the focus of the 2014 MLA panel “Critical Making in the Digital Humanities” led by Roger Whitson and Dene Grigar, but the term was first coined by Matt Ratto in 2011 to “theoretically and pragmatically connect two modes of engagement with the world that are often held separate–critical thinking, typically understood as conceptually and linguistically based, and physical ‘making,’ goal-based material work” (252). Garnet Hertz explains that scholars engaged in critical-making explore “how hands-on productive work—making—can supplement and extend critical reflection on technology and society.” In short, it is the notion that “to make is to know” (Burdick 8). Although these more recent articulations are coalescing around the critical-making movement, especially in the context of digital production, the concept that there is an important connection between thought and action is not necessarily new. Philosophical pragmatism also emphasizes the link as well, with John Dewey writing in his 1964 text Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, “There is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing” (275). This pragmatic approach that rejects the unnatural separation between practices of making from practices of thinking  is also invoked by McNely and Teston who argue that in order to effectively engage in the digital humanities, we need to identify “methods that explore not only what and why of lived (digital) experience but also the how and when” as a way to break “‘down the Cartesian walls that isolate the individual mind from the culture and society’” (115). Robert Johnson approaches this concept from a rhetorical argument he calls “productive knowledge,” which he argues is a way of understanding that “techne,” defined as “a state of capacity to make,” is intimately connected to “the capability to create knowledge and allow for knowledge” (23-4). In this way, our capacity to make leads to our production of knowledge and is itself a powerful way of knowing. Critical-making methods can provide the kind of reintegration of thought and action that Dewey suggests as necessary for “fruitful understanding.” By participating in the tradition of unification in thought and action, the critical-making movement presents scholars with an approach that inextricably links them together as a single recursive, object-producing and knowledge-expressing activity.

Unifying thought and action is also an important facet of arguments in digital rhetoric and digital humanities that also argue for the pragmatic inclusion of practice in theoretical examinations. James Brown Jr. argues that understanding software design will “require rhetoricians to theorize the relation between production and interpretation” (29). His argument is rooted in the notion that meaning-making activities cannot be understood by “separating questions of interpretation from questions of production” (23). It is an understanding that how something is made is as important as what is said in terms of how users come into understanding the text. This is especially true in digital objects, as discussed in the first chapter’s sections on interface design, where the procedures, algorithms, and frames are operating in the background, often invisibly. Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson argue that in the computers and writing community, there is an increasing embrace of “not only the analysis and critique of technology but also the making of digital tools—the ‘less yacking, more hacking’ ethical imperative” (3). This is a move that attempts to mediate the binary privileging of writing about technology over the work of making digital objects. This is connected to Brown’s assertion that acts of interpretation need to attend to both content and modes of production and the subsequent forms that give shape to the technology we use. Traditional work in digital humanities is often rooted in the guiding principle of “more hack, less yack,” or the idea that scholars should engage more in the processes of making and developing digital objects and less in traditional scholarly discussion and theorizing about those objects. However, Sano-Franchini advocates for an “approach that combines ‘hack’ and ‘yack’ practice—in fluid ways” (49, emphasis added). It is an argument that a blended approach to digital production that combines both aspects of knowledge, the doing and thinking, is preferable to an either/or approach because “making and knowing go hand in hand” (Sano-Franchini 60). Douglas Walls also advocates for keeping the notion of “building things” at “the core of the DH ethos,” which he argues is an aspect of “the rhetorical concept of praxis (theory and action) and gnosis (critical interpretation) where we both theorize and then make digital things” with a goal “to retheorize the work of making new things in a tight recursive process” (211). He argues that we should aim to “position theory and tools as highly integrated in complex ways” (217). Jennifer Glaser and Laura Micciche claim that we need to help shift rhetoric’s focus “so that it rotates not around literary production and reception but around practices of making…to foreground media that include and exceed print, prodding scholars to think more deeply about the connection between medium and materiality in their own work and, thereby, making it harder to take technologies of text making for granted” (204-5). These arguments make clear that the traditional separations between thinking and making are outmoded methods that fail to capture the recursive nature of these practices; as we engage theory, we continue to think through the implications as we apply that to our making practices, which in turn, reformulate our understanding of and response to the theoretical discussions. A scholar does not make without thinking, but a scholar who writes about digital objects without understanding, first-hand, the contexts and processes surrounding their production will necessarily have gaps in knowledge that destabilize their claims.

One thing I noticed while reading scholarship around critical-making is that the movement is more advocacy than method. There are calls for scholars to engage with making processes to enhance theoretical understanding of their objects of study and discussions of why that is significant, but there is less available for scholars interested in how to be a critical-maker outside of being critically reflexive. As I was working on the narratives and consideration for this project, it occurred to me that autoethnography is a method ideally suited to effectively carry out the mission of critical-making. The method documents the practical actions and labor involved in production that can then serve as the foundation, the raw data, from which scholars can generate critical self-reflection, thematic generalizations, and theoretical implications for the field. Scholars should continue developing and standardizing autoethnographic methods as an integral part of critical-making projects.

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