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Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“Sense-ing the Digital Archive” – Dennis Jansen

The archive in digital space, whether born-digital or digitized from an existing collection, presents us with a variety of challenges related to its ontology. The first instinct may be to say that the digital is a deceptively ‘flattening’ medium—while it ostensibly contains all other media, it reduces their materiality to pieces of software displayed on a screen, and so the archive becomes a “mathematically defined space” (Ernst 2013, 134). Problems with this analysis arise quickly: for one, the digital archive is far from flat and disembodied, and its materiality extends beyond the numerical. Just as the classical, non-digital archive can address many if not all of our senses, the digital archive retains its ability to affect through sights, sounds, and touch (cf. Jansen, forthcoming). The physical composition of the archived materials certainly changes, but they are not suddenly transported to an ephemeral plane beyond our literal and figurative grasp.

The Sensory Moving Image Archive (SEMIA) project, presented by Eef Masson during her lecture for Transmission in Motion on 2 May 2019, demonstrates not only this retainment of physical materiality but also the implications and possibilities of the transmutation of other media into the digital. With texts, this potential has already been realized: the digitization of books allows us to search through them directly with text-based input devices, or to embed comments and hyperlinks into the pre-existing text. However, the full implications of digitized imagery or music have yet to be discovered and realized; there is a keen understanding already that these media are now just as ‘browsable’ as text, but what continues to elude is how this browsing would function. Text-based searches rely on textual metadata or on visible text present within the archived work, but neither of those apply to the majority of imagery—assigning comprehensive metadata descriptors to every shot in a single film would be a fool’s errand, for instance.

How do we make sense of an image- or sound-based digital archival corpus, if we cannot use text to browse through it or search for specific entries (cf. Flanders 2014)? The interface mock-up demo created for the SEMIA project suggests search prompts based on color patterns, similar shapes present in-shot, or recorded movements. The hope is that this will incite more exploratory browsing than directed searching, allowing for new and unexpected connections to be made between different entries in the collection. While one might wonder how different this is to the aimless wandering and flipping through books that many of us surely have lived through in our local university library, there is a justifiable sense of excitement around this archival research method becoming more mainstream.


  • Ernst, Wolfgang. 2013. “Discontinuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multimedia Space?” In Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, 113–46. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Flanders, Julia. 2014. “Rethinking Collections.” In Advancing Digital Humanities: Research, Methods, Theories, edited by Paul Arthur Longley and Katherine Bode, 163–74. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Jansen, Dennis. Forthcoming. “Thoughts on an Ethical Approach to Archives in Fan Studies.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.