New Criticals

Despite these theoretical shifts, in practice, the interfaces of digital archives are still designed according to positivist ideas of knowledge organisation, storage and retrieval, largely ignoring the multiplicity of potential knowledge representations and interpretations. The objective role of the archivist – as a neutral facilitator for the accummulation of by-products of human activity – which has been rigorously questioned by postmodern theory (Cook, 2001), is nevertheless still projected onto the structured database. Databases and their interfaces are neither “natural”, nor “neutral” (Manovich, 2001; Hedstrom, 2002). Rather, the logic of their construction and operation has been obscured and made opaque through interaction patterns and interface design conventions. For example, chronological and alphabetical sorting orders and subject classification schemes may appear to be neutral and value-free, yet they are just one possible interpretation of knowledge representation among many other possibilities. So both the archivist and interface become intermediaries between the evidentiary status of the archive and the end user. The database/interface, can be considered as the site/s where “power is negotiated and exercised” (Hedstrom, 2002). Consciously or unconsciously, an archivist’s work determines how archival records are structured in databases, and therefore influences how their representations are accessed, used and interpreted via interfaces (Hedstrom, 2002).

In order to think through possible interfaces of digital archives which reflect the postmodern turn in archival science and move away from an “objective” position towards one allowing multiple interpretations, it is useful to focus on a specific case study.