Data Artifacts Rising: Cultures of Collecting from Preservation to Participation

The Internet inspires libraries, archives, museums, and arboreta to make their collections “open,” “participatory,” and “democratic.” This cluster of intellectual values, emergent in networked cultures, is taking hold at institutions that carry long legacies of prior norms: preservation, expertise, comprehensiveness, excellence, and commemoration. In some cases, the emerging values adduce to older ones; in other cases, they seem to clash. In public discourse, these initiatives and controversies play out in the keys of policy and technology—but they have important cultural dimensions as well. Yet remarkably little critical attention has been given to the changing meanings of collections and collections data. Data Artifacts proposes to explore the values of networked-age collections—namely, openness and participation—and to chart their development as they variously align with, supplant, and overturn older processes of knowledge production.

Data Artifacts is born of the very data-intensive, ostensibly-open initiatives it seeks to interpret. Informed by the digital turn in the humanities, the project employs classic, textually-conditioned interpretive methods alongside the lively use of data visualization as a mode of inquiry. Through critical attention to cataloging and classification schemes across varied institutional contexts, Data Artifacts will historicize cultures of collecting and the understandings of material culture and intellectual value they embody. The project will result in a series of scholarly products including presentations, workshops and publications culminating in a hybrid online/print book that weaves together textual and graphical modes of analysis into what we see as a new genre of data portraiture on institutional collections.

Data Artifacts expresses an urge to explore data as cultural artifacts that reward deep hermeneutic contemplation; to interpret changing data sources, data types, databases, and craft practices of catalogers and technologists as evidence of a new discourse on the rise. How are data expressed, materialized, socialized? The promise of the project’s impact lies in these questions, and in a critical perspective that sees collections and the ever-shifting clouds of data that cling to them as worthy of the full measure of humanistic scrutiny. Such a perspective has implications for the interpretation of many types of collections beyond those that document and preserve material culture of interest in the humanities. In future work, Data Artifact’s interpretive frameworks and expressive models might be applied to medical, scientific, and governmental data sets, all of which are also being transformed through computation and network effects. Data Artifacts will develop and disseminate methods and insights that can be applied to understanding collections across domains of social and cultural production.