Natasha Kitcher

Natasha Kitcher

Last updated on 6 May 2021

Natasha Kitcher, Doctoral Researcher in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University. She is Research Assistant for the AURA Project, working with Dr Lise Jaillant at Loughborough.

Last September, Dr Annalina Caputo, Assistant Professor in the School of Computing at Dublin City University, shared with the DPC community news of the AURA Network ( This AHRC-IRC research networking project brings together an interdisciplinary group of stakeholders from Digital Humanists to Computer Scientists to consider the past, present, and future of born-digital archives.

Now, almost eight months later, we are able to share some of the findings of the network with you.

Much like the born-digital archives it considers, this network was born-digitally thanks to coronavirus, which has facilitated discussions between a far-flung group of researchers and professionals in Libraries, Archives and Museums. While the group formed to consider access and usability of born-digital archives, the virtual nature of workshop attendance over the last few months has enabled scholars, archivists, librarians and other stakeholders from across the globe and at varying stages of their careers to engage in AURA’s debates.

Over a series of three workshops, we have met to talk about issues of access in born-digital archives, current challenges and prospects relating to the use of AI in archives, and finally paused to consider what might come next for Artificial Intelligence and archives. The reach of these workshops stretches far beyond those that attended between November 2020 and March 2021, with videos of most papers given now available on our blog ( and YouTube channel. You don’t need to take my word for it that these talks were interdisciplinary, sprawling, and inspiring in nature; you can go and learn about everything from email archives, to what can be done with the voices of the Waterford Memories Project (a series of oral histories documenting survivor narratives of the Magdalene Laundries in South-East Ireland) for yourself.

AURA was founded primarily to build ways to make digital archives more accessible and useable to the researchers that use them – whoever they may be. When it comes to digital preservation, there is more to consider than just keeping the ‘stuff’ in the first place. Following the Archives, Access and AI conference organised by Lise Jaillant (, William Killbride said in a blog post (‘Nothing About Us Without Us, ) that we need to start using the data and we need to be critical about the different tools we use to do this. An archive preserved without metadata and search tools is no more an archive than a messy bedroom floor is one.

When it comes to granting access to born-digital archives, however, there are risks associated. A fully open utopia of data might sound ideal, but quickly infringes on countless data laws and human rights. We all know that our interactions with the internet can put us at greater risk of exposal than ever before, but if we start creating fully open email archives that anyone can access, putting our semi-private conversations up for scrutiny, there comes a time when the archive user’s wants and desires are clearly being put well above the source creator. These questions, and more, were discussed in the inaugural AURA workshop, with the first session focusing on the issue of open data and privacy.

The second workshop gave us space to reflect on what is currently happening in born-digital archives. Artificial Intelligence is not flawless, but it will not get better without increased use (after all, it’s called machine learning not machine guessing). Coral Manton spoke about her project, Women Reclaiming AI, which highlights that AI learns from what it is taught. In the case of voice-assistants, which Manton talked about, a lack of female voices in the development end of discussions created a submissive, sexist assistant designed to ‘blush’ at sexually suggestive comments. When turning to historical study, what would an AI designed to trundle through archives without an archivist or historian involved in back-end development look like? When using a scientific tool for a humanitarian goal, there is clearly a need for collaboration.

With access still in question, and AI clearly far from perfect, what does the future of archives and AI look like? You’ll be relieved to hear, there is hope. Andrew Prescott’s keynote at the last workshop asked “Can Archives make AI Better?” Drawing on recent issues in AI when detecting race and diversity (Twitter’s algorithm prioritised white faces over black ones in image previews), Prescott suggested that interaction with archives and the archival community could create a more friendly version of AI for the future. Benefiting not only archivists, but also wider society.

The work of the AURA Network is far from over, meaning conversations about AI and archives can continue virtually for now. Two special issues involving Computer Scientists, Humanities Scholars, archivists, librarians and other professionals will be published in the journals AI & Society and Archival Science. Special issue 1 ‘“Born Digital” – Shedding Light into the Darkness of Digital Culture’ will be published in 2021-22. The Call for Papers for special issue 2, ‘Challenges and Prospects of Born-digital and Digitized Archives in the Digital Humanities’ is still live, with full paper submissions welcome until June 30th. More details are available on our website (PDF - ).

The conversations AURA has initiated will continue for some time, signalling something of a change in the direction of archives and AI. The network was founded with the belief, and has shown it to be true, that conversations between creators of data, archivists and users are the key to opening not just archives but all AI technologies for the future. Rather than being restrictive, the online environment has enabled a greater reach for the network, and recordings mean engagement can stretch beyond the academy.

To receive updates on the AURA network, and latest news, subscribe to the mailing list:

To know more about our sister project AEOLIAN (UK/ US network on AI for Cultural Organisations), see Dr Paul Gooding’s recent blog post:

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