On Keyword Searches and Indexed Data

[By: Will Cunningham]
Janine Solberg’s article “Googling the Archive: Digital
Tools and the Practice of History” (2012) reflects on the epistemological
implications of accessing digital archives for research purposes. While the
thrust of Solberg’s inquiry surrounds the positionality of the researcher in accessing
these tools and the ways in which the researcher can actively shape the
development of the tools used in the field, I found her cursory distinctions
between keyword searches and content searches valuable to our larger digital
project at HBW.
Solberg distinguishes between searches of “fixed
descriptions,” which relies on metadata produced by a scholar, and “content”
searches, which are more open-source searches directed at the original source
itself. Solberg’s distinction between the two sheds light on a problematic
feature of building a useable database: What are the goals? Who are the
intended users? How much access can be granted? How does one determine the
limit (or extent) of indexed, searchable features? These questions are, as
Solberg notes , crucial for “understanding something about how search
technologies work…for our research, for planning, and building [the]
So what is our goal? At this point, my partner in this project
(Kenton Rambsy) and I have spent a great deal of time focusing on the “fixed
descriptions” of the African American Literary cannon. A detailed taxonomy of
useable indexes will allow users to find items in our database – but that is an
esoteric practice. That is to say, this is fine if our goal is only to make
this tool available for researches already “in the know” about the cannon;
however, a database that employs both uses – both open source and indexed
sources – opens the doors for a much wider audience.
This is problematic, of course. As I noted in my last post,
publishing copyright laws have blockaded access to much of the literature
post-1923. Our question remains, though, of how to make these two modes of
research converge into one another. With HBW’s rich source of pre-1923
documents this is an exciting opportunity that could potentially change the way
we think about the cannon as a whole.