Bias, is a significant and ubiquitous influence on data collection, reflecting the zeitgeist, beliefs, social taboos and sentiment of the archivists through the ages. It’s ultimately unavoidable that political and social prejudices impact the way we store and collect data. It is therefore not surprising that data collection in the West has vestigial ties to colonial and imperial archival frameworks which have shaped the lens focus, so to speak. Dorothy Berry in her essay “The house that Archives built” – suggests that “The creator is the collector” (Berry, 2022 ). So, who is considered the creator of the data – is the person who collects the data? The term ‘Creator’ does seem to create a tone that is ‘god-like’ and ‘all-knowing’, as opposed to, the collector ‘Collector’, which for me says, the impartial accumulation of information for future prosperity. The use of this term ‘creator’ is a symptom from our past lexicon – assuming with certain confidence or arrogance it’s the supreme authority.
This is a major problem within data collection in archiving as there are missing chunks of information that have been glossed over or not recorded at all. European centric emphasis on importance is one of the biggest problems in collecting for western archives, as a lot of what has been recorded has been collected by European anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and researchers. This lack of diversity in opinion only weakens our knowledge, can drive us to erroneous conclusions, obscuring potential truths for learning and making better decisions for the future. This is especially the case when observations and records are often of ‘others’, marginalised groups and other cultural practices/events etc. Activism within this area of Digital Humanities is needed to acknowledge the bias and move to a better framework that is not founded in systemic racism and discrimination.
The methodology of Slow Archives/ Slow communities
Researchers and professionals in the field are looking at ways to de-colonise the methods of archiving. Matt Gold, from the University of New York, discusses the idea of slow archives/slow communities in an online talk given for the conference of the Australasian Association of Digital Humanities; titled “Toward Slow Communities” chaired by Paul Millar. This notion consists of slowing down the traditional ways of data collection to reflect on and fully understand the data being collected. Discussing, learning and listening will help to minimise errors that can occur from lack of information. Another requirement of the slow archive’s method is that it should help facilitate more ownership to the people the data is about – collectively and individually – with a say in how they want their data to be used, accessed or kept in storage. While open access is great for certain datasets, in some Indigenous cultures there are sensitivities regarding the use of people’s names and images being on display (particularly after death). This is an important consideration that should be respectfully observed, and access not assumed. Slow archiving makes one reconsider the structure in place, the pace of digital documentation and the care that needs to be prioritised when it comes to data recording. There is systemic racism and prejudice operating within our archival systems. This does need to be addressed and this is just one of the ideas that is trying to be implemented to help ‘decolonialise’ the system.
Activism projects addressing data bias within archives
Mimi Onuoha: “The Library of Missing Datasets” – https://mimionuoha.com
Onuoha’s exhibition “The Library of missing datasets (2016)” is a mixed media installation that showed the “blank spots” in “data-saturated” places such as the archives. One of the installations is a filing cabinet consisting of empty labelled folders revealing all the missing data sets and “blank spots” that have been glossed over. Some of the labels include “accurate birth registration” or “publicly available gun trace data” (Onuoha, 2016)– this installation and many of Onuoha’s works help bring to light the problem of missing data from the histories and experiences of marginalised groups.
Berry, Dorothy. “The House Archives Built.” up//root. Accessed February 20, 2022.https://www.uproot.space/features/the-house-archives-built.
Gold, Matt.” Toward Slow Communities”, Australasian Association of Digital Humanities Conference day 3 Keynote Presentation , 2021. City University of New York.
Kaun, Anne. “We’re doing it slow”- Community Archives as Protest Spaces.”, RE. Framing Activism (October 21st, 2014). https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/activistmedia/2014/10/were-doing-it-slow-community-archives-as-protest-spaces/
Onuoha, Mimi. “The Library of Missing Datasets, 2016” [mixed media installation], Accessed March 27th, 2022. https://mimionuoha.com/the-library-of-missing-datasets