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Sifting through History


Students in the Digital Archive
By Amber Abbas |
MAY 28, 2015
A student of mine recently reflected that archives are “filled with scraps of information” but have “no message, no theme, no thesis.” Unlike the professionally crafted and edited articles and books that he had read to learn about the past, what he found when he explored an online archive was that he had to “sift through all this contradictory, dense and baffling information and shape it into a narrative.” Contrary to what my student said, archives aren’t simply sites where bits of history are dumped, and, of course, they do have a “thesis.” The composition of each archive is the result of a series of technical and political choices that archivists make, after carefully determining which of these pieces of the past should be preserved. Which pieces will best represent our present in the future? What are the most important changes taking place in our communities today? How might historians and members of the community make sense of them?

Nevertheless, the disorientation my student experienced is not unusual. For many, archives can appear as dense forests of information including many different species of artifacts from government documents and laws to photographs to pamphlets, newspaper clippings, posters, correspondence, advertisements and published works. Alone, each of these pieces tells only a fragment of a story about the past. As a historian, part of my job is to reexamine these fragments, to pull them together and to tell their stories. I frequently use the South Asian American Digital Archive as a tool for teaching students how to make sense of these pieces of the past. Students examine single artifacts, like the cover of Ghadar di Gunj, published in 1914 and features Mother India wielding a sword and flanked by a lion and a lighted canon. Though the publication is in Urdu, it was printed in San Francisco, and students have no trouble getting Gadar’s message that Indians must fight for their freedom. In contrast, a 1923 Gadar Party publication “The United States of India” features an elegant Mother India trumpeting independence as she rises above Asia. Students quickly connect to the familiar language of unity and democracy that characterizes this anti-colonial publication. Both pamphlets were published by the Ghadar Press in San Francisco, but they represent two different approaches to anti-colonial nationalism: this first is distinctly militant, but also hand-wrought, grassroots. The second, much tamer and professionally printed, explicitly links the anti-colonial movement to American values. Alone, each of these objects conveys information about the past. If one knew nothing else about the Ghadar movement, it might still be clear that a.) it lasted for more than ten years, b.) it was based in San Francisco, c.) it sought freedom from Britain, and d.) it changed over time.

To create a story out of these pieces however, it helps to connect them to a larger context both temporally and spatially. Who created them? Where? Why? What else was going on in the world when they were written? What do these pieces tell us about that larger world and its priorities? Even if archives feel like they are collections of distinct and unique pieces, it is often in the connections amongst and between them that the story comes to life. Recent works by Maia Ramnath (Haj to Utopia) and Seema Sohi (Echoes of Mutiny) tell rich stories about the Ghadar Movement and its role in anti-colonial nationalism during World War I, based on inquiry into multiple archives, so why use these single artifacts to introduce students to these histories?

Because, as my students recently discovered when it became their task to make sense of archival fragments, these artifacts are the stuff of history. They are the materials through which the past makes its way to the present. By learning to make sense of the past through these collected fragments, students may also be learning how to make sense of the fragments that constitute the world around them today. To become the historians of the future, they must also understand the present as an unfolding archive to be interpreted and analyzed. They must determine what is meaningful in order to find the forest behind the trees.
Amber Abbas is Assistant Professor of History at St. Joseph's University and Co-Chair of SAADA's Academic Council.