All posts by Abigail Adgate

Collaboration in Digital Projects

Collaboration in the digital humanities manifests itself not just among those involved in creating digital scholarship but also with the audience. Through comments and feedback sections, social networks, and other mediums, historians are able to engage with their audience on an unprecedented level. Digital humanists continue to navigate these complicated relationships in every digital project they create. Unlike the strict rules that exist regarding publication in the academy, I am not convinced that the same stringent rules will ever apply to digital works because of the vast and very diverse nature of digital scholarship. It is important to separate “traditional” work from the digital. As William G. Thomas states, “We historians might have to cast aside our illusions of permanence and our penchant for the “cardigan.” If we experiment, however, we might discover that the openness of the digital medium is what allows us both to create vibrant new scholarship and to speak to a rising generation of students.” This is demonstrated in the articles included in the most recent Journal of the Digital Humanities, which focused on “Expanding Communities of Practice.” As with the authors of “The Difference Slavery Made,” the authors of these articles balanced “critical theory, the needs of the projects’ constituents, and the mixed opportunities and constraints presented by a respective technology” in creating digital projects. The creators of “The Difference Slavery Made” also detailed their struggle with the imposition of traditional historical practices on their “digital article.” I chose to highlight two of the articles from this issue, given their relevance to this week’s readings.

In the first article titled “Changing Medium, Transforming Composition” by Trey Conatser, he discussed the importance of the visibility of the web in creating digital scholarship. This is an idea we have discussed in our class, particularly with the article, “Hermenuetics of Data and Historical Writing.” The digital world allows for greater collaboration between “the supply” and “the demand” as it was directed in Dan Cohen’s article, “The Social Contract of Digital Publishing.” Conatser found that by making the methods behind their work visible to others, his students (who were learning XML) were “empowered to take command of their work.” The students also came to realize that digital scholarship is about both the argument and the form, another idea that was discussed in creating “The Difference Slavery Made” as well as in several of the other articles we’ve read in class.

In another article titled, “Media NOLA: A Digital Humanities Project to Tell Stories of Cultural Production in New Orleans,” Vicki Mayer and Mike Griffith detail the experience of creating a website showing the many contributions in the creation of New Orleans culture. This work is mostly done through Tulane University. Mayer and Griffith discuss at great length the collaboration between students and faculty of different disciplines, cultural institutions in New Orleans, as well as using social media to get feedback from users. They also learned the importance of aesthetics in creating a web platform once again showing how, as with “The Difference Slavery Made, digital projects require the combination both argument and form throughout the planning process, a factor that separates them from traditional historical methods.  The other articles in this issue all worked to create the same general idea, that greater collaboration in the digital humanities between both authors and audience, as well as between scholars from interdisciplinary fields help the field to grow and advance in unique and exciting ways.

Types of Stories Told in New Media

This week’s assignment, Telling Stories in New Media, showed how by utilizing the many tools available online, cohesive stories are created and disseminated amongst wider populations. In the “Welcome to Pine Point” project, the creator notes that though they had originally planned a book they found that a website “…was unpretentious, honest, and represented a sentiment and perspective that we felt needed sharing. It could have been a book, but it probably makes more sense that it became this.” In all three projects we see how by telling stories in new media, they give voices to those who would perhaps go voiceless. If there was a book written about Pine Point, how many would buy it? An article about an avalanche is one thing, but hearing the stories from survivors and the families of victims, seeing the mountain and understanding the power of an avalanche via graphics is another. As for the “Invisible Australians” project, how many people know the important role of immigrants? By giving these people faces and voices, digital media allows their stories to have greater depth and meaning to the audience.

One website that I discovered that was similar to the Pine Point story is the Hollow Documentary, an interactive web documentary about a county in West Virginia and its history and the uncertainty of its future. It’s different than Pine Point in that the town has not disappeared and so it is less a history of the town and more an introduction to the current conditions of the town’s residents. It serves as an example of how these web documentaries are much more engaging than the typical documentary, where instead of having images thrown at you, you become an active participant in how the story is told. What these projects all have in common is that they redefine the meanings of a space and place. By giving voices and faces to those who experienced a place, it no longer becomes a location on a map (or one that has been wiped off a map). These stories show that by letting go of the linear narrative of history by using new media, a much richer and meaningful experience is created for the audience.


Digital Literacy through Omeka

One of the major problems confronting digital history is the lack of understanding and knowledge among historians on how to create digital products. Cohen and Rosenzweig write in our first week’s reading, “We think that it is a mistake for historians to confine themselves purely to history (narrowly defined) and then turn their digital projects over to “experts.” In this new medium, new and creative work will only come out of equal collaborations among partners with different perspectives and skills.” In watching the tutorials and seeing the different ways that Omeka can be used, it seems to me that this is a great way to get historians more involved in the creation of digital works. Because it is free and open sourced, Omeka seems as though it would be fairly simple to use. Also, in looking at the different ways in which archives, libraries, museums, universities, and non-profits have applied it, it appears to be incredibly versatile.

This versatility is partially because of the various plug-ins and themes that they provide. In fact, the DIYHistory webpage I use for transcribing historic cookbooks uses Omeka as a platform using Scripto, CSV Import, Dropbox, Dublin Core Extended as plug-ins. It is the Scripto plug-in that is used in the transcribing of the documents from the Iowa Digital Library. This website was extremely helpful in explaining how to use Scripto with Omeka, and provides examples of documents and audio that one can practice transcribing. Some of the websites created on Omeka are more complicated and use more plug-ins, while some are simply used as parts of other websites.

Omeka not only provides links to the plug-ins but also extended information on how each can be used. In seeing the “Exhibit Builder” one listed in several of the Omeka websites, I decided to read up on it further. This plug-in claims that “users can build complex pages without any programming knowledge.” It appears to me that by using Omeka, historians can take control of their digitized archives and exhibits without having to pass them over in their entirety to experts who are better versed in digital language. Another plug-in that I found that relates to the mapping section of our course is Neatline, which you can find here.  In the demos on this website, neatline shows how visual mapping can use a combination of the written word and physical space to create a story. In this case, mapping Civil War battles using letters written by soldiers. All of these tools are available to historians in their creation of digital exhibits, and all come with instructions that are fairly easy to understand.

While there are plenty of problems with historians and the academy becoming more digitally literate, Omeka offers an opportunity to experiment with a web archive or exhibit. Also, I could see where there is a learning curve that would help historians and others not directly involved in the computer programming field would be able to create more sophisticated webpages using the tutorials and other informative videos. There is  a forum as well as a twitter account that are useful in getting more information and help troubleshooting websites. By becoming more digitally literate, we can hope that there would be more general acceptance among those in the academy to accept these works as scholarship for tenure and other purposes.

Facing Challenges in Digital Visualization

These four readings, while they demonstrate the usefulness and importance of visualizations in historians work, particularly using new digital methods, also layout a series of challenges and difficulties facing the field in regards to their use. Most of these challenges lie in the deep-seated methodologies that have characterized the field and the need to become proactive rather than reactive to changing and improving technologies. If we were to zoom out on the challenges of digital visualizations in the humanities we would find that they are closely tied to the challenges facing the humanities as a whole, as we had discussed previously in the semester. Within the area of digital visualizations we find that not only do we have to educate on how to use digitalization in a way that will be effective and clear to the audience, but also we must educate the audience on how to understand digital works.

The use of graphics to represent information in the humanities is not new, in fact both Jessop and Tufte discuss ways in which graphics have and can be used throughout the study of the humanities. However, because of new technologies these can become much more effective by “escaping the flatland” of traditional methodologies. Tufte also discusses how various approaches to visualization can affect the way that the audience perceives the information provided. This is an idea that is discussed in Theibault’s article as well, regarding the need for greater transparency to aid understanding throughout the study of history, and how digital visualizations can be a solution to this problem. He sees that this is an area where the “hermeneutics of data” would come into play. Rather than hiding ones research methods, Theibault shows how digital visualizations can help solve the problem of, “balancing honesty in visual rhetoric and clarity and persuasiveness.” This is seen in the inclusion of helpful “how to read” sections that oftentimes accompany graphics to make these visualizations more accessible and understandable to a broader audience. Once again we find that historians must adapt to the new technologies and make themselves more literate in the digital visualizations.

Jessop also touches upon this need to make visualizations more accessible through the improvement of visual literacy education within the humanities. Visual literacy education would involve several levels, such as teaching students to understand digital visualizations better as well as teaching those in the humanities how to create more understandable digital visualizations through a multi-disciplinary approach, involving professional artists. We see in the potential solutions, once again, a connection to the needs of the humanities on a broader scale, such as the need for better collaboration between disciplines, as well as improving digital education to gain a wider acceptance in the field. In Drucker’s article, she discusses the ways in which these digital visualization tools can be used most effectively, showing that new methods of looking at data can help to make these visualizations more easily understood and accepted

Overall, these articles (and the book) help to demonstrate that, as with previous arguments we have seen, there is a great need within the practice of history, and the humanities as a whole, to improve methods of education regarding how to effectively use digital methods. In a side

Spatial History Creating New Avenues of Study

Space is an incredibly broad concept, and one Richard White states historians typically write as if it matters little. This comes as little surprise because of the many layers and factors that go into determining space. In doing this week’s readings and looking around the ORBIS website, we see that in looking at relational space through arcGIS, historians can open up entirely new avenues of thought and research that they had not been able to before. It also becomes abundantly clear that movement, especially in the ORBIS project, is a key ingredient in determining and visualizing spatial history, as per the argument in “What is Spatial History?”

We have spoke many times about textual history and other traditional modes as being confined to chronological accounts of the human experience. For me, this week’s readings shows the biggest break from the traditional. By layering together the different types of movement and factors that go into it, we are able to understand relational space in a way that historians had never been able to before. We often think of space in terms of distance in miles/kilometers/etc. but in looking at it in a different way, in relation to movement as with the ORBIS project, we see for instance the importance of time in determining how far away something appears to be. We also see that in determining distance and time we have to factor in mode of transportation, weather, and price. By taking all of these into account we can fully understand the meaning of space, in this case in ancient Rome.

While there is clearly a lot of research that goes into the production of these maps, White is also correct in his assessment that this is an open-ended project that actually produces more questions for historians rather than answers. By creating projects that take spatial history into account, we open up entire avenues as seen in the “Applying ORBIS” section of the website. For example, in reading ORBIS and the Ancient Itineraries: Preliminary Observations by Dan-el Padilla Peralta we see how, “For future researchers, ORBIS will be useful not only as a means for gaining purchase on the realities of mobility in the Roman Mediterranean, but as a tool for evaluating gradations in the nature and quality of the information furnished by the IA and other itineraries for road travel in the Empire’s various regions.” This is just one of the incredibly broad areas that has been and can be explored thanks to the work done on ORBIS. The opportunities provided to historians in mapping history are certainly much greater than what I had expected initially, and one can see why and how space had previously been overlooked in the more traditional and textual modes of studying history.

Visualizing Networks

It’s difficult to live in Boston and not have a preconceived notion of Paul Revere’s contributions to the American Revolution. Usually these notions are placed in two camps, those who love Longfellow’s poem and believe he was the sole rider and most important person during the night before Lexington and Concord or those who believe he is an overrated figure who doesn’t deserve the praise and notoriety brought to him through Longfellow’s work. Having worked as a state house tour guide for a year, I confronted many interpretations of Paul Revere’s ride through my daily interactions with the public. As a public historian, one is often put in this position, how do we navigate national memory, invented traditions and personal beliefs in the scope of conveying some sort of historical truth to our audience?

This networks of Paul Revere’s role during the Revolution to me helps to find a solution to this problem where words and other more “traditional” methods of history have thus far failed us. By placing data into these illustrations and charts, it becomes clear what Revere (and Warren’s) roles were in the Revolution. We find that the answer lies somewhere in between the two camps that are typically formed. As Dave states in his post, “these sorts of big data visualizations give us a way to demonstrate large-scale data in a more effective way than just numbers or prose.” We may not be talking about the large-scale data when it comes to Paul Revere, but the same idea applies. Visualizations are not only a way to accompany a scholarly work, but they can standalone as quite effectively as well. To me this does what Winterer discusses in Where is America in the Republic of Letters, “like a satellite hovering above the Earth, visualization can help us to see the big picture amid bewildering complexity and to detect new patterns over time and space.”

Winterer’s work is different than that of Shin-Kap Han who is working with physical data and membership information, while Winterer uses letters that are difficult to digitize and categorize. Winterer demonstrates how they can be used to show globalization trends and to examine data across national borders as well as within them.  From both articles we see that networks serve as a valuable way to examine the past from a new perspective.

Applying Macroanalysis to Individual Research Projects

I identified with this week’s readings as being something that I would be able to apply directly to my own interests and research topics. While reading Macroanalysis it became clear that I could use these methods for myself. Just thinking of the possibilities of thousands of transcribed cookbooks (much like last week’s assignment) and applying methods of text analysis and data mining to them, think of what we could do with the information. One of the major issues I have grappled with in my study of cookbooks and trying to find popular recipes and standard measurements and ingredients is deciding which cookbooks to look at. In my last paper on the history of baking apple pie I focused a lot on the Joy of Cooking as the be all, end all general cookbook for people interested in making pastry in the United States. By being able to compare hundreds and thousands of cookbooks side by side, looking for keywords such as “granny smith,” “butter,” “lard,” I would have had a much easier time delineating what the most popular recipes and techniques have been throughout history. Instead, I had to assume that in 20th century America, all women followed the standard piecrust presented in one cookbook, albeit a popular one. It also would be helpful in finding what recipes were most popular during specific time periods, information that could lead to broader analysis of food availability by region or cultural preference, in the same way that Jockers was first able to examine Irish-American authors, and later a broader range of texts.

I was further encouraged in reading about Martha Ballard’s diary and how that was digitized and analyzed. It seems that these methods would give the benefits of close reading, but also allow for a broad study of several hundred primary sources. In Macroanalysis I was mostly impressed with the layout of the book, the charts, his descriptions, it appeared as though he was doing what we read about last week by revealing his methods and the thought process behind his analysis. In doing so it allowed the work to feel more transparent, which I believe allowed me to connect it more to my own interests and resources I am working with.

I should also note that while there are several advantages (clearly) to these methods and presentation of them by the two digital humanists we have looked at, I could see where those involved in the postcolonial digital humanities discussion would have a hard time jumping on this macroanalysis bandwagon right away. Jockers was able to analyze works by authors from England, Ireland, Scotland, and the U.S. This lends the question of how long would it take and if anyone is working to digitize the writings and primary sources from other nations and outside of this white, mostly well-educated frame. What interests me as well is if these programs can be developed to look at different languages, even ones that don’t use typical Latin characters, and if they would be as effective as the one that was able to read Martha Ballard’s scrawl. I tried to do some searching on my own, but do we know if scholars are currently developing programs to counteract this apparent English-language dominance?

Digitizing Family Heirlooms & Records

While scrolling through my twitter feed, I found a link to an article from the Daily Mail in UK about new Civil War artifacts that are being “discovered” and digitized as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations. Historians and archivists are working to expand the types of primary sources they include in their online databases by reaching out to families and encouraging them to search their attics for relics.

One statement that I found particularly interesting is: “In Virginia, archivists have borrowed from the popular PBS series ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ travelling weekends throughout the state and asking residents to share family collections, which are scanned and added to the already vast collection at the Library of Virginia.” This is a  different sort of crowdsourcing from the transcriptions and rectifying maps that we discussed in class. These photos and documents are being made public by state libraries and archives, in fact you can see some of them within the article as well.

From these initiatives we can see the value in opening up the digital humanities to public use. By making these artifact accessible to the public and by expanding public interest we can ensure the preservation of our nation’s heritage as well as expand  our knowledge of the American Civil War.

Accessibility in the Digital Humanities

Accessibility is both a positive and a negative force when discussion the possibilities of the Internet age. At the dawn of the Internet, its possibilities, though they seemed endless, were difficult to grasp by those who could have benefitted most. Unintended consequences due to a lack of foresight into the potential of the Internet’s capabilities are seen in nearly every industry. In fact, it is probably most evident in journalism, where newspapers originally made their content free to all users, then hid it behind paywalls, found that these actions had plenty of consequences for print, as well as for born-digital news sources that benefitted from their open access. This is a problem in the humanities and in libraries as a whole, especially regarding open access under copyright, as discussed in the article on Google Books.

In our first week of readings, Cohen and Rosenzweig view this newfound accessibility on the Internet as an advantage for historians because of the ability to reach a wide audience, as well as the fact that this has “zero marginal cost.” “The Internet allows historians to speak to vastly more people in widely dispersed places without really spending more money—an extraordinary development.” They also discuss inaccessibility and the problems that stem from the digital divide in computer ownership, specifically in a global context as well as the problems of monopoly. These arguments tie in directly to our readings this week.

The article on Google Books discusses the desire for open access as being an Enlightenment principle, one that our country was founded on. He places the responsibility of this open access on libraries that missed their chance in the early days of the Internet to make more content available to their users. Google picked up this mantle in 2004 by launching Google Books and facing down copyright lawsuits made by authors and publishers alike. Therefore, Google has the advantage in having control of all digitized copies of books that are put on the web. The author voiced his concerns about payment. Would we see what happened in print journalism or with scholarly journals and libraries happen with Google Books? Would the payments become so steep that libraries would be forced to dedicate large portions of their already-stretched-thin budgets to give their users open access?

Accessibility is also touched upon in The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing. The author here believes that historians need to rethink the nature of historical writing, by de-emphasizing the narrative, and giving greater access to their data-based methodology. He sees this as a way to break down interdisciplinary walls as well as walls between the researcher and their audience. By changing the format of historical writing to allow for these “twentieth century footnotes,” we would see a greater understanding not only in our field, but also in others, of how to use newly available data to become more accessible. Not only would their work become more “user-friendly” but it would also encourage more historians to think outside of the more linear and traditional ways of using data in historical work.

The issue of accessibility is not going to disappear overnight. In fact, on Monday articles, such as this one from Forbes, appeared about the continuing legal battle over Google Books and its right to digitally share books with all users. By making more content available and their methodology more transparent, historians and all those practicing in the digital world can find ways around the unintended consequences of an open Internet.