The Dividends of Difference: Recognizing Digital Humanities' Diverse Family Tree/s

Textile, Countryside Mural, 1975In her excellent statement of digital humanities values, Lisa Spiro identifies “collegiality and connectedness” and “diversity” as two of the core values of digital humanities. I agree with Lisa that digital humanists value both things—I certainly do—but it can be hard to *do* both things at the same time. The first value stresses the things have in common. The second stresses the ways we are different. When we focus on the first, we sometimes neglect the second.

This is something that has been driven home to me in recent months through the efforts of #dhpoco (post colonial digital humanities). Adeline and Roopika have shown us that sometimes our striving for and celebration of a collegial and connected (or as I have called it, a “nice”) digital humanities can, however unintentionally, serve to elide important differences for the sake of consensus and solidarity. #dhpoco has made us aware that a collegiality and connectedness that papers over differences can be problematic, especially for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities, especially in a discipline that is still dominated by white men. A “big tent” that hides difference is no big tent at all.

As these critiques have soaked in, they have led me to wonder whether the eliding of differences to advance a more collegial and connected digital humanities may be problematic in other ways. Here I’m thinking particularly of disciplinary differences. Certainly, the sublimation of our individual disciplines for a broader digital humanities has led to definitional problems: the difficulty the field has faced in defining “digital humanities” stems in the first place from people’s confusion about the term “humanities.” Folks seem to get what history, philosophy, and literary criticism are, but humanities is harder to pin down. Just as certainly, calling our work “digital humanities” has made it more difficult for us to make it understandable and creditable in disciplinary context: the unified interdisciplinary message may be useful with funding agencies or the Dean of Arts and Sciences, but it may be less so with one’s departmental colleagues.

But what else is lost when we iron out our disciplinary differences? Our histories, for one.

Most of us working in digital humanities know well the dominant narrative of the pre-2000s history of digital humanities. It is a narrative that begins with the work of Father Busa in the 1950s and 1960s, proceeds through the foundation of the Association for Computers in the Humanities (ACH) in the 1970s and the establishment of the Humanist listserv in the 1980s, and culminates with foundation of the Text Encoding Initiative in the 1990s. Indeed, it is in the very context of the telling of this story that the term itself was born. “Digital Humanities” first came to widespread usage with the publication of A Companion to Digital Humanities, which proposed the term as a replacement for “humanities computing” in large part to broaden the tent beyond the literary disciplines that had grown up under that earlier term. The Companion contains important essays about digital work in history, anthropology, geography, and other disciplines. But it is Father Busa who provides the Foreword, and the introductory history told by Susan Hockey is told as the history of digital textual analysis. Indeed, even Will Thomas’s chapter on digital history is presented against the backdrop of this dominant narrative, depicting history in large part as having failed in its first attempts at digital work, as a discipline that was, in digital terms, passed by in the controversies over “cliometrics” in the 1960s and 1970s.

Let me be clear: I’m not slagging Susan, Will, or the other authors and editors of A Companion to Digital Humanities. Their volume went a long way toward consolidating the community of practice in which I’m now such a grateful participant. If it aimed to broaden the tent, it succeeded, and brought me with it. Nevertheless, as an historian, the story of Father Busa, of Humanist, and even of cliometrics is not my story. It is an important story. It is a story I do not refute. It is a story that should be told. But as a digital historian who isn’t much involved in textual analysis, it isn’t a story I can much identify with. Nor is it the only story we can tell.

tee-rMy story, one I expect will resonate with many of my digital history colleagues, is a story that considers today’s rich landscape of digital history as a natural outgrowth of longstanding public and cultural historical activities rather than a belated inheritance of the quantitative history experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a story that begins with people like Allan Nevins of the Columbia Oral History Office and Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk-Song, especially with the man on the street interviews Lomax coordinated in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks. From these oral history and folklife collecting movements of the 1940s and 1950s we can draw a relatively straight line to the public, social, cultural, and radical history movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These later movements directly spawned organizations like the American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning at the CUNY Grad Center, which was founded in the 1980s—not coincidentally, I might add, by Herb Gutman who was the historical profession’s foremost critic of cliometrics—and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media (my former institution), which was founded in the 1990s.

Importantly, these roots in oral history and folklife collecting are not simply institutional and personal. They are deeply methodological. Like today’s digital history, both the oral history and folklife collecting of the 1940s and 1950s and the public and radical history of the 1960s and 1970s were highly:

  1. technological;
  2. archival;
  3. public;
  4. collaborative;
  5. political; and
  6. networked.

Digital humanists often say that particular tools and languages are less important than mindset and method. Our tools are different, but digital historians learned their mindset and methods from the likes of Alan Lomax.

lomax

Thus, from my perspective, the digital humanities family tree has two main trunks, one literary and one historical, that developed largely independently into the 1990s and then came together in the late-1990s and early-2000s with the emergence of the World Wide Web. That said, I recognize and welcome the likely possibility that this is not the whole story. I would love to see this family tree expanded to describe three or more trunks (I’m looking at you anthropology and geography). We should continue to bring our different disciplinary histories out and then tie the various strains together.

In my view, it’s time for a reorientation, for another swing of the pendulum. Having made so much progress together in recent years, having explored so much of what we have in common, I believe the time has come to re-engage with what make us different. One potentially profitable step in this direction would be a continued exploration of our very different genealogies, both for the practical purposes of working within our departments and for the scholarly purposes of making the most of our methodological and intellectual inheritances. In the end, I believe an examination of our different disciplinary histories will advance even our interdisciplinary purposes: understanding what makes us distinctive will help us better see what in our practices may be of use to our colleagues in other disciplines and to see more clearly what they have to offer us.

[Image credits: Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Library of Congress, Radical History Review]

Archiving Social Media

In an article posted yesterday under the title 5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History, Mashable co-editor Ben Parr writes,

For the first time in human history, the day-to-day interactions between people are being permanently recorded and formatted in easily organizable segments of information.

I don’t disagree that social media is poised to change the way the history of the early 21st century is written. But I’m not at all convinced social media interactions are being “permanently recorded” or “formatted” in ways that will be useful to future historical inquiry. As a session organized by Jeff McClurken at this year’s THATCamp made clear, there are still lots of unanswered questions swirling around the issue of archiving social media. Indeed, I’m not sure we understand the full range of questions involved—standards and interoperability, privacy and copyright, preserving context, mapping personal networks, etc., etc.—let alone the answers.

For nearly a decade now, my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media and I have been investigating the problems and opportunities that internet ephemera presents for scholars and archivists, exploring and implementing best practices for collecting the born-digital record of unfolding events through projects like the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. New social media and their traces (Tweets, Facebook status updates) present a new set of questions for this ongoing project. If past experience tells us anything, the full range of those questions won’t be readily apparent until we begin the actual work of archiving social media. It also suggests we have to move quickly.

With that in mind, we are already getting down to business, laying the groundwork for a 2010 workshop of collections professionals, scholars, social media experts like Ben Parr, and representatives from the most popular social networking services to start this project and make sure these unprecedented—but as yet still potential—historical riches are in fact “permanently recorded” and properly “formatted” for scholarly access.

Stay tuned.

Honest Abe

Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library explores our ongoing fascination with Abraham Lincoln with 21st Century Abe. Launching officially on Lincoln’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009, the site will present reflections on Lincoln’s legacy by leading scholars and artists. More interesting is that between now and February, the project’s curators will also be using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, a blog and other digital tools to collect public impressions of Lincoln in text, images, audio, and video. These popular impressions will sit alongside those of the scholars and artists on the website to present a fuller and ultimately more honest picture of what Lincoln really means to Americans two hundred years after his birth.

Briefly Noted for December 21, 2007

NEH announces funding for Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities.

A Visit to Yesterland – The Discontinued Disneyland. “Did you ever wonder what happened to Disneyland’s Mine Train, Flying Saucers, or Indian Village? These and other attractions, restaurants, and shops are now collected in Yesterland, a theme park on the Web.”

The Museum of Bad Album Covers. “Currently displaying 156 awful album covers!”

1990 Mac ad deemed fake. (Via Crunchgear.)

original_mac_chick.jpg

A Matter of Trust

I originally posted this at thanksroy.org, the digital memory bank we set up in Roy’s honor. I’m cross posting it here because I think it speaks to what makes a good public historian and what made Roy the very best.

*    *    *

Of all the amazing qualities Roy possessed — intelligence, generosity, creativity, industry, wit, and so many more — the one that always stood out for me was trust. Roy trusted in history. He trusted in hard work. He trusted in fairness. Most of all, he trusted in people.

Roy was a collaborator. He was brilliant on his own, but I think he was happiest and at his best when he was working with other people. And people flocked to him.

I think Roy was able to gather so many friends and colleagues around him because he trusted them, often without prior cause and always without prejudice, and so people trusted him back. Roy showed us that the way to gain trust is to give trust, which is the same thing as saying that the way to be loved is to love. It’s the best work lesson and the best life lesson I have ever learned, and Roy was the best teacher.

I trust and love and miss him very much.

More Crunch

Here’s another one from the “Crunch” network of blogs. Today TechCrunch has a post on Apple’s 30th anniversary. While the post itself is not very interesting, many of the reader recollections solicited by the author and shared in the post’s comments section are. Currently there are nearly eighty. As our experience with Echo, the September 11 Digital Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank has shown, that’s not bad at all for one day of online collecting.

"Boomers" and History

I can’t tell you how tired I am of reading about baby boomers and their impending retirements. The self-indulgence of aging newspaper, magazine, and television news editors in running story after story about just how interesting and important their generation has been is very nearly unbearable. Newsweek is case in point. Its 50-something editors’ self-congratulatory “Boomer Files” series has me very close to canceling my subscription.

I did, however, notice something in a recent story from the “Boomer Files” that could be of interest to Found History readers. For Celeb Boomers: 3 Things to Do Before Death, Newsweek asked a dozen or so famous boomers for a list of three things they want to do with the rest of their lives. It turns out several of them want to spend their golden years doing something historical. Here’s a sample:

  • P. J. O’Rourke, Satirist, 59 – “It’d be nice to have more time to fool around with old cars.”
  • Mark Morris, Choreographer, 50 – “Visit New York’s Morgan Library.”
  • Camille Paglia, Intellectual, 59 – “I’d like to go on an archaeological dig in North Africa or Turkey.”
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball Player, 46 – “I have a real zest to learn. I’d like to bone up on my history and business reading.”
  • Bill O’Reilly, Fox News Host, 56 – “Build a collection of American historical documents. I have a letter from George Washington. You get to know people from them.”
  • Patti Smith, Musician/Poet, 60 – “Read the Bible, Torah and Qur’an.”
  • Ted Nugent, Musician, 58 – “Make sure every American remembers the Alamo and acts accordingly.”
  • Keith Olbermann, TV Host, 47 – “I want to find the proof version of the 1967 Topps Baseball card, No. 487, Tommie Reynolds, which I did not buy at an auction in 1989 because bidding went to about a tenth of what I’d pay for it now. This seems kind of arcane, but this card has haunted me since I was eight years old—the proof version misspells his name “Tommy,” so the final version of the card reads “Tom” with two spaces after it. This design inconsistency bothered me the day I first saw it. I just blew it at that auction.”

Kind of interesting. But interesting enough to renew what started as a gift subscription? Probably not.

Silly Geeky

Another quick one for the weekend: Game Set Watch—an “alt.video game weblog”—gives us the Top 10 Silliest Computer Mag Covers in History. Note that this isn’t a casual effort. It is the product of a long term commitment to collecting and cultural history. “Game Mag Weaseling” columnist Kevin Gifford combed though his personal collection of more than 2500 computer magazines to arrive at the ten kitchiest covers from the “classic era” of home computing, the 1970s and 80s. “Who’s silliest” may not be the kind of question scholars would ask of this corpus or this period, but Gifford’s careful consideration of the past and his meticulous attention to the sources certainly qualify his efforts as history.

Watchismo

Watchismo is a collector and online dealer of vintage watches, especially digital watches, from the mid-20th century. He describes himself as “devoted to the highly unusual, obscurely rare and advanced modern designs of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s” and focused on the “rarest styles of the space-age.” There are some interesting galleries on the main website, but more interesting is Watchismo’s recently launched blog, where items from the collection are considered in greater detail and placed in narrative context, for example in this week’s “History of LED Calculator Watches”.

Late Update (11/15/06): Watchismo has done it again with a timeline of Bond gadget watches. That’s “Bond” as in “James Bond.”

Yahoo! Time Capsule

This is huge, or potentially so. Yahoo! has launched what they are calling an “electronic anthropology project”—a digital time capsule of images, stories, video, audio, and artwork, all submitted by Yahoo! users. As of this posting, the project has collected more than 4000 objects from nearly 3000 people in just over a day. When the capsule closes on November 8th, the collection will be transfered for long term preservation with the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings project. Until then you can explore it through a very cool Flash interface. By any measure this a very welcome expansion of the practice of online collecting … even if Yahoo!’s claim that “this is the first time that digital data will be gathered and preserved for historical purposes” is patently and outrageously false.