With Great Digital Power Comes Great Responsibility: cultivating an online persona from the past

There has been a shift in the archival profession that I have witnessed during my career.  As an undergraduate I was cautioned about the reliability of information on the World Wide Web.  I learned archival practice in a graduate school classroom from readings, lecture, and discussion.  We did not talk about digital surrogates, preservation files, or EAD.[1]  These all existed, but were not foundational to my education.  Even in internships I used spreadsheet and word processing programs, and one database with no graphic interface.  Having a dedicated “intern” computer was a luxury.  I would not change a thing.   In my first archives job, I was introduced to a wide array of technology and digital work – everything from scanning to HTML to online catalogs to preservation of webpages.[2]

Now, a decade later I have the privilege to work on this digital history project.  I have helped to transform a box of old letters into a trans-Atlantic conversation.  We have pulled the strong voice of an individual from the past out of a family’s home and broadcast it to the world.

Archivists like to promote themselves as trusted custodians of history.  Impartial, guardians of human record – whether evidence of that record comes from large institutionBe nices or individuals, whether it was meant to last generations or not.  In the analog past that meant preserving, organizing, and making records accessible to researchers who had the time and means to travel to the archive.  Clearly, that is no longer the case.  So, is using an archival collection for a digital project fulfilling the charge of custodianship?

Jack Peirs was born in 1886, he wrote home, not for posterity, but to let his family know that he was surviving as best he could surrounded by war.  What would he think of Gettysburg College students analyzing his letters for an assignment or ancestors finding them through online genealogy research?  Would he be comfortable knowing that #teampeirs knows what cigars he smoked, where he bought his shirts, and how he managed his finances during the war?  Would he and his sisters appreciate our discussions of their family dynamics?

If there has always been a voyeuristic aspect to archival work, sharing that work with a worldwide audience means inviting everyone to join.   The audience for digital history is vast, especially when compared with those previously accessing archival records on paper, in person.  Like archivists before me, providing access to the archive means that I have to let go, not control the analysis conducted and the papers written, but as an embedded member of a digital history project, I have an opportunity to help frame how the world sees Jack.

Despite cheeky comments on social media, #teampeirs has great respect for H.J.C. Peirs the man and we work with the blessing of Peirs’ descendants.  But we are also trained historians intent on interrogating our sources and using them as a lens through which to study the First World War.  We take our roles as custodians very seriously, we want people to like Jack and get to know him as we do, but that does not mean that we are going to give him a pass for casual sexism, classism, or racism.  We have a dual responsibility to Jack and to the study of his time.

As a lover of technology, from “aeroplanes” to fountain pens, I can only assume that he would have respected the medium, whether or not he used it.  Because Jack was selective about the content of his letters, yet genuine in his voice, they can easily be read as blog posts.  Finally, we have a message from Jack’s wife, Eriene, written on an envelope that contained some correspondence, documents, and maps:

Peirs_Art_undated_000001-detailH.J.C.P.’s 1914-1918
Maps Souvenirs etc.
exactly as I found them.
Are interesting for



[1] Encoded Archival Description https://www.loc.gov/ead/

[2] For more information about  the generation which had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood  see “The Oregon Trail Generation” blog post by Anna Garvey on Social Media Week from April 21, 2015.  https://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2015/04/oregon-trail-generation/

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