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What's in an Archive? Critical Reflections on Expanding Critical Comics


Created by Vidi. Last updated on May 3, 2018

Archivization as an Act of Preservation and Destruction

In our society, we have this widespread assumption that materials that are included in archives such as books, textiles, stones, and paintings are always special. We believe they’re chosen because they mean something for a group of people or even for a country. The definition of archives, according to The Society of American Archivists, even implies that archived materials possess enduring values. This creates an impression that objects that are chosen to be archived must be valuable, and those who are excluded from an archive can be perceived invaluable and unworthy of investigations.

In his book Archive Fever, French philosopher Jacques Derrida explains the concept of archive in relation to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “death drive.” Though creating archives can be regarded as an act of preservation, Freud believed that the creation of archives—of written archives, of the archives of memory—also leads to “forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory” (Derrida 1995, 78). In other words, when archives are created, people often only think about what is included, forgetting to recognize materials that are excluded from archives. As a result, there are “voices” that don’t get attention; the exclusion of these voices is what Freud meant by death drive.
This topic of deciding what needs to be included and excluded in archives leads us to reflect on the role of human agency behind every creation of an archive. Just like any history, the creation of archives can be subjectively constructed. There are groups of people who have the power to decide the inner and outer shape of the archive. Sadly, we are not always aware of how power constructs archives. When we are not aware of the aspect of human involvement behind the creation of archives, it becomes difficult to awaken ourselves to the idea that we, too, have the power to create archives that exude more inclusive stories, stories that can reach people across race, culture, and geography.

On the other side of the problem of archives as a “social construction.” Luckily, there is a fertile project on the internet called SAADA or South Asian American Digital Archive. The creators of this digital project felt that South Asians are underrepresented in the landscape of American history, and therefore they “voiced” the voiceless figures who have sculpted both their and the American communities. Their ten years of relentless documenting, preserving, and sharing of stories of South Asian Americans has been an inspirational model for the creation of Critical Comics.

Similar to the concept of archivization in SAADA, Critical Comics believes that there are some benefits of archivization, especially online archivization or online collection. First, the most obvious benefit is the archived materials can be easily accessed by the public, as long as they are connected online. Second, pulling out a specific page or information can be done in a second. Third, online archivization can improve the durability and longevity of materials that were previously fragile in their physical condition. And lastly, with the existence of open-source web publishing platforms such as, users can enrich and enlarge the content of their online projects. For instance, one of Omeka’s plugins, Neatline, allows users to add a digital map to represent geospatial information from their projects. This digital map eventually can create some new layers of stories and arguments that will enrich their projects. Besides Neatline, Omeka also has a plugin called Annotator, which allows registered users to highlight and annotate a specific text. None of these features would be possible with traditional archivization.

Archives Vs Online Collections: How Archivists and Digital Humanists Use the Word “Archive” Differently?

“Archive” is one of those words that we often use, but sometimes, we are not aware of its meaning. Type in this word on Google, and you start to realize that there are several ways of defining this word. The multiplicity of its meaning can be perplexing for some people who try to understand and use it, especially for both archivists and digital humanists, since they both hold the word “archive” very dearly. Kate Thiemer, the author of blog called ArchivesNext, sets out to clarify this confusion over the meaning of archive through her essay, “Archives in Context and as Context,” for both archivists and digital humanists. Thiemer sees that many digital humanists like to use the word “archive” to refer to their projects in a way that is different from the way archivists use this word. According to her, digital humanists refer to archives as “online groupings of digital copies of non-digital original materials, often comprised of materials (including published materials) located in different physical repositories or collections, purposefully selected and arranged in order to support a scholarly goal” (Thiemer 2012). Meanwhile, archivists internalize the meaning of archives as “preserving groups of primarily original, unique materials, which are maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control” (Thiemer 2012).

It is clear to see that the word “archive” means differently to both digital humanists and archivists. These two groups are not even always aware of the distinction, according to Thiemer. At the end of the essay, Thiemer argues there is no group who rightfully deserves to claim this word. However, she offers an alternative for digital humanists to call their projects “online collections” instead of “archives,” because online collections seem to be the best description of what they are trying to convey. Moreover, she advises both groups, archivists and digital humanists, to understand that the distinctions and meaning of “archive” goes beyond their own borders.

Informed by what Thiemer says about the online collection vs. archive distinction, Critical Comics is defined as an online collection or a digital collection. The project also aims to be self-reflective of the collection process. It was created not only to display the digitized version of fifteen of the early twentieth century comics, but Critical Comics also uses digital tools to analyze trends in early comics culture and apply critical theory to examine the content of the comics. 

From Data Cleaning to Online Collection Creation: How the Translation from Marc to Dublin Core Shapes the Online Collection?

The first priority that the students had for this project was to figure out how to create an online collection that is easily understandable. Thus, the collection must be understood not only by the students themselves, but also by people outside of the class whose knowledge of digital humanities, especially comics digitization, is limited. Similar to the platform that the previous class has used, this year, students of DH 340 using, an open-source web publishing platform for digital collections, to display their five additional comic collections.

Prior to displaying the digitized comics online, one of the students, Anthony Vacante, was tasked to clean up a data set of about five thousand comics using OpenRefine. This dataset was received from Special Collections at MSU’s Library. After the data was extensively cleaned, he uploaded the finalized data on the class’ Google drive. The data, available on the Excel sheet, was heavily populated by several entries for about five thousand comics. Those entries are labelled such as: personal name, publication location, local call number, publication date, page size, and so on.

Once his task was executed, the next task was given to another student, Vidi Aziz, to work on the creation of the online collection. Out of those five thousand comics, Aziz had to pull out the five comics’ information and then each comic was given one Excel sheet. Those five new Excel sheets had to be populated with the information about the comics (the name of the comic, local call number, publication location, etc.) as many as the page that the comic has, because it’s important to have an individual metadata for every page. The information about the comic on the Excel sheet is called MARC titles. At the end, MARC titles will be used as metadata in the Dublin Core database. The process continued with the conversion of those five excel sheets into CSV files (comma separated value) for Omeka to be able to understand and create items for them.

In the process of uploading the csv files onto Omeka, there was a technical problem that the students couldn’t foresee. They received an error message from Omeka that simply said, “The configured PHP path (/bin/php) does not point to a PHP-CLI binary.” Thankfully, with the help of Kristen Mapes, the Digital Humanities Coordinator in the College of Arts & Letters at MSU, the issue was solved quickly. She noticed that there was a missing code in the file editor of Omeka that she had to add. Once she added the code, Omeka started to function properly.

As the CSV files were successfully uploaded onto Omeka, the next step was to carefully match up each entry from the excel sheets (MARC Titles) with the provided Dublin Core titles on Omeka. This was when the process of translation from MARC titles to Dublin Core titles began. The process of translation is important for the shape of the project because we believe that if it’s done correctly, the Dublin Core titles will be valuable for the visitors to understand the metadata of the comic.


 Mapping Columns from MARC Titles (Excel Sheets) to Dublin Core Titles (Omeka) 2

      Mapping Columns from MARC Titles (Excel Sheets) to Dublin Core Titles (Omeka) 2


Here are some of the MARC titles that have been translated into Dublin Core titles and justifications behind them:


NoMARC (Excel Sheet)Dublin Core (OMEKA)Justification
1 Local Call Number Source “Local call number” contains the call number from MSU’s Special Collections library. On Omeka, the Dublic Core title that seems to best describe “local call number” is “source.”
2 Personal Name Creator In the original excel sheet, there were multiple data points for the same topic (i.e. personal name vs. author name vs. author). To make it easier, we deleted “author name” and “author” because they were simply duplicates. However, we kept the “personal name” to be used for metadata. Another decision that we had to make was consolidating two columns: “personal name” with “date of birth.” The reasoning behind this was to be more efficient with the space we have on Omeka.
3 Publication Location Coverage We picked coverage to replace “Publication Location” because it refers to spatial or location of the resource.
4 Publication Date Date It was easy to find the Dublin Core title that matches up with “Publication Date” because “Date” is the only title that would make most sense for our readers to understand the publication year of the comic.
5 Page Info, Page Type, Page Size Format The reason we consolidated “Page Info,” “Page Type,” and “Page Size” together was because these three identifiers reflect the format of the book. Moreover, Omeka only offers one Dublic Core title that identifies with the format of any material.
6 General Notes Description The information under “General Notes” reflects the description of the comics in MSU’S catalogue of comics records. Therefore, we were able to identify quickly what the translation would be on Omeka.
7 Local Notes Contributor The information under “Local Notes” explains the person who donated comics.
8 location location Before we uploaded our images on to Omeka, each of us was responsible to upload our digitized images on to We did this because we wanted to make our work available to the public, and is the best place to host our images online in two different formats: master tif files and compressed jpeg images.
9 Scanner Used Scanner Used The aim of this metadata is to let people know the type of scanner we used to digitize our comics.
10 File Size File Size This is the size, in MB of each image jpeg file.
11 Digitized by Digitized by This is the person who digitized the comics
12 Photo Link Photo Link Once all the images were uploaded on to, we used the link of the photo (in jpeg) from for our Omeka site. In other words, our images from Omeka derived from



It’s equally important for public and archivists as well as digital humanists to think critically about the nature of archives, in this case online archives/collections, both as an act of preservation and destruction. For public, they need to be aware that sometimes online collections are not always inclusive and there are other “voices” that are excluded from online collections. Moreover, public need to understand that there is always a human involvement behind the creation of online collections. When people are aware of its human agency, it can give them signal that online collections, like any history, can be socially constructed. It is true that there are some benefits of the creation of online collections, but once materials that archivists or digital humanists acquire are digitized, those materials will not be the same as they used to be. The online collections will leave out the original aura of the materials, how they feel, smell, their texture, and even the size. 

It’s always an enormous challenge to create an online collection that is inclusive and capable of retaining the original aura of the materials. Even if we cannot achieve the inclusivity we want, or if we cannot retain the original aura of the selected materials, the most important thing that we can do is being profoundly aware of these dual concepts of preservation and destruction interplay with each other. This awareness is crucial because this is a fertile ground that makes our project becomes more reflective and critical.