Miriam Posner, professor of digital humanities at UCLA, tells us that in order to analyze a digital resource, we must break it down into three components: its source(s), how it was processed, and how it was presented. In a video presentation, she uses several examples to outline the layers of online archives and to explore where biases may have influenced the process.
But what is digital history? For that matter, what is history at all? Michel-Rolph Trouillot, writer and historian, explores this question at length in his 1995 book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. He describes the sometimes fractious relationship between history as a narrative and history as a process.
Words are not concepts and concepts are not words: between the two are the layers of theory accumulated throughout the ages.
Trouillot is building toward the book’s main purpose: to outline the silences inherent in how history is recorded. More on this concept in a moment; first, how can we incorporate this idea of history with technology?
Digital history is an approach to researching and interpreting the past that relies on computer and communication technologies to help gather, quantify, interpret, and share historical materials and narratives.
Sheila Brennan, author of numerous print and digital publications on public history, digital humanities, and online collecting, emphasizes in the quote above the four purposes of using technology to study history: gathering, quantifying, interpreting, and sharing materials and narratives. These can be correlated to Posner’s three-part analysis: gathering sources, quantifying and interpreting in order to process the data, and sharing a carefully presented final product.
With a better understanding of digital history, we can return to Trouillot’s concerns about silence, and how technology can help address them.
The Bracero Program (1942 – 1964)
It is difficult to examine the Bracero Program in brief, but in order to explore where silence may have entered its documentation it is important to place the program within a larger framework of foreign relations. Some good resources to learn about this are:
- History, Art & Archives from the United States House of Representatives,
- “Immigration to the United States”,
- History of the Border Patrol, as told by the Border Patrol,
- History podcast The Dollop‘s episode “Operation Wetback”,
- and, of course, the Bracero History Archive.
Bracero History Archive
With this context established, it is possible to begin analyzing the Bracero History Archive, using Brennan and Posner’s frameworks.
The homepage of the archive is sparse and elegant, if a little dated in design. The authors clearly state their purpose:
The Bracero History Archive collects and makes available the oral histories and artifacts pertaining to the Bracero program, a guest worker initiative that spanned the years 1942-1964. Millions of Mexican agricultural workers crossed the border under the program to work in more than half of the states in America.
Implied but not outright stated is that the source of these oral histories and artifacts are individuals who might not normally have a voice in the creation of the archive. Normal people living all over the United States and Mexico have family members impacted by this program, and with an internet connection, they are able to upload their memories and pictures to this archive. What Posner describes as “sources” therefore come from a wide variety of people and places, and would be difficult to verify.
The program obviously impacted many Spanish-speakers, so it makes sense that the archive’s homepage would have a link titled “Español.” Problematically, following this link leads to…
Trouillot tells us that “the process does not stop with the last sentence of a professional historian.” The curators have embraced this idea by allowing any user to contribute oral histories or images to the archive. Video tutorials to aid this process are found under the “Resources” tab.
Posner’s “process” refers to the work the curators did to prepare the sources for presentation. In this case, they have been categorized by type (images, documents, and oral histories) as well as by contributor (historian or affected individual).
Presentation is minimalist. All uploaded resources may be searched or browsed. More careful presentation goes into the “Teaching” portion, which gathers resources and provides a suggested lesson plan for teachers of grades 6 through 12.
Back to Trouillot
…any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process…
Although tempting, it would be hyperbole to say that digital history always corrects the power imbalances that lead to silences. Even with knowledgeable historians making notable efforts to include underrepresented communities, there will always be voices that are not included in the narrative. Still, digital tools make it extremely easy for non-academics to actively participate in building their own community’s narrative.