Digital Materiality, Heritage Objects, the Emergence of Evidence, and the Design of Knowledge Enabling Systems
Beneath the problem of achieving digital convergence in the heritage sector is a problem of deeply entrenched discourses generated in a physical paradigm where objects kept in heritage sector institutions were treated as goods to be divided, and where notions about the nature of those goods, their use, and practices facilitating their use, were imagined in terms of the norms for each institution type. The digital paradigm provides new opportunities, amongst them the possibility of creating intersecting digital knowledge spaces designed to aid processes of enquiry and meaning-making and to maximise possibilities for rational and justifiable knowledge formation about predictable and still to be imagined topics of enquiry. Achieving that vision calls for research that seeks to understand the process of knowledge formation, that hunts out the strengths and weaknesses in existing bodies of thought, and that works, through its modes of transmission, to instil the understanding necessary for a shared knowledge-oriented body of theory and practice to emerge. The research reported in this thesis responds to these needs. It was conducted by a former archives practitioner taking a fresh look at her own discipline’s body of thought, and reflecting on its utility across the whole heritage sector. An open and exploratory research question was posed: What can be learnt about archives domain thinking, heritage objects and their evidentiality, and the design of knowledge enabling systems by exploring how evidence emerges during a historical research process? The research design combined close examination of the archives domain’s explicit and implicit thinking with a case study in the form of a deeply reflective historical enquiry that was committed to tracking down and tracing seemingly relevant objects (both physical and digital), and their meaningful ways of being related, across institutional and conceptual boundaries. The researcher did not plan to go into ‘the wild’, but word got out, and ‘the wild’ came to her. The research, in other words, was conducted in the space archival science’s continuum thinkers refer to as the fourth dimension - the societal plurality, where assumptions embedded in institutionalized thought can be deeply disturbed. The historical enquiry was centred on Frederick Burdett Butler (1903-1982), an eclectic ‘collector’ and local historian who built his own museum/archive/library/gallery/ information resource in New Plymouth, New Zealand. A misfit in New Zealand’s historically-oriented professional community, he nevertheless amassed a massive collection which, during his life-time and since his death, has been widely dispersed. Parts are in collecting institutions and parts are in ‘the wild’. Much is in hiding. Three major problems in archives domain discourse were identified as potential stumbling blocks in the search for sector-wide theory. These are addressed in three theory-building chapters, each of which is framed around a line of enquiry followed in the researcher’s attempt to form knowledge of Fred. One of these problems is the prevalence in the domain of a fuzzy and ‘othering’ object-privileging concept of record, but little awareness of continuum theory’s concept-privileging notion of records as logical entities, which means there is also little awareness of the relevance of the continuum notion for richer, more flexible, and potentially convergent descriptive practice. The second is the existence of unresolved debates about the nature of evidence and its importance in relation to the concept of record. The third is dichotomous thinking about the nature of objectivity and subjectivity, a problem that has caused debates about the nature of records, the value of an evidence-oriented domain discourse, and the epistemic character of descriptive practice; also, it has played a part in the ‘othering’ of libraries. A final chapter reflects on the implications of the research for the design of knowledge enabling systems and on possibilities for archival science’s continuum theory to connect with similar bodies of thought emerging in other disciplines. The research paradigm is grounded in humanities, social science, and philosophical scholarship which draws attention to inter-dependence and co-evolution in time and over time, and which challenges habituated perceptions of dichotomies. Critical realism, a third way philosophy of knowledge, was the primary philosophical and methodological under-labourer.