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]

Privatizing Holocaust History?

For the past few years, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has undertaken a series of public-private digitization partnerships, especially with a company called Footnote.com. These partnerships provide NARA with free digitization services, and visitors to NARA’s reading rooms with access to the products, but allow Footnote.com and NARA’s other private partners to charge offsite users for online access public documents. I have never been particularly thrilled with this arrangement—charging the American people for access to their own records and all that—but in the past the projects have focused mainly on older document collections of mainly genealogical interest. Now NARA announces that online access to its collection of Holocaust-related material is being made available through Footnote.com, free for the month of October, but presumably for a fee afterwards. Something about this doesn’t sit right with me: should we really be limiting access to a history we desperately don’t want to repeat?

Another concern is Footnote.com’s extensive use of social media. Web 2.0 technologies provide tremendous opportunities for knowledge sharing and creating community around cultural heritage. But when dealing with topics as difficult as genocide, the values of sharing and openness need to be tempered by caution and sensitivity towards victims and their memory. For topics like the Holocaust, public tagging, spontaneous tweets, and YouTube mash-ups may not be the most appropriate or productive vehicles for public discussion and reflection. Indeed, this difficult question of how best to implement social media around topics of conscience is the premise behind CHNM and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s upcoming event, The Conscience Un-Conference, which remains open for applications until October 13, 2009.

Briefly Noted for February 25, 2009

Along with “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “release early and often” is something of a mantra around CHNM, especially when it comes to software and web application development. For a variety of reasons, not least the invaluable testing and feedback projects get when they actually make it into the wild, CHNM has always been keen to get stuff into users’ hands. Two good statements of likeminded philosophy: Eric Ries’ Lessons Learned: Continuous deployment and continuous learning and Timothy Fitz’s Continuous Deployment.

Lisa Spiro continues her excellent roundup of Digital Humanities in 2008 with a discussion of developments in open access. Readers should also make sure to catch Lisa’s first installment on digital scholarship. Nice to see that CHNM makes an appearance in both.

Drunk History presents “history as it’s never been told before”: by drunks. Check out Volume One, where Arrested Development and Juno’s Michael Cera does a turn as Alexander Hamilton. Thanks, Ken.

Briefly Noted for December 19, 2008

Ahoy, Mateys! Mills Kelly’s fall semester course “Lying about the Past” was revealed today in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read how Mills and his students perpetrated an internet hoax about “the last American pirate” and what they learned in the process. The Chronicle is, unfortunately, gated, but you can read more on Mills’ fantastic blog, edwired.

I’m sure many of you have encountered NITLE’s prediction markets, but a recent presentation at CNI by NITLE’s Director of Research Bryan Alexander reminded me I haven’t blogged it yet. As I told Bryan recently, the prediction markets are a great example of form (crowdsourcing educational technology intelligence) fitting function (NITLE’s mission to advise member schools on emergent practices) in the digital humanities.

Sadly, The Times of London recently reported a raid on the offices of Memorial, a human rights and educational organization that seeks to document the abuses of the Soviet Gulag prison camp system. Memorial was a key partner on CHNM’s Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and its generous research assistance and loan of documents, images, and other artifacts was essential to our successful completion of the project. It is very sad to see this brave and worthy organization suffering the same abuses in Putin’s Russia that it has worked so hard to expose in Stalin’s.

Last month the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) celebrated its grand reopening after an extended closure for major renovations. Meanwhile, in the web space, NMAH launched its History Explorer, which aggregates and categorizes online educational content from across the museum. Worth a look.

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.

History and the Long Tail

In an interview on the most recent Digital Campus, PublicDomainReprints.org founder Yakov Shafranovich notes that one of the most popular uses of his print-on-demand service for public domain Google and Open Content Alliance books is to supply out-of-print manuals to latter day blacksmiths, pigeon breeders, and others still working in ancient, but declining, trades. Last month also saw the launch of the Obsolete Skills Wiki, an idea originally proposed by journalist Robert Scoble, which preserves such knowledge as how to dial a rotary phone or how to use the eraser ribbon on a typewriter. The Internet has been said to serve “the long tail” of consumers, the multitudes of niche buyers whose needs are not served by mass marketing, mass media, and the big box stores. Here are two examples of how it’s serving history enthusiasts out on that long tail.

WTF

Mark Fortner, an open source web developer who blogs at IdeaFactory, has stumbled upon a potentially useful new analytical construct for historians. In a post entitled “WTF Moments in Java History”, Fortner introduces the concept of the “WTF moment” in which contemporary observers and later analysts of historic events can only exclaim “WTF.” He writes:

History is littered with WTF moments — the last election, the day Al Gore invented the internet, and the day I learned that teen aged dinosaurs had been having sex. The History of Java development is littered with such moments.

Unless you’re a hard-core Java geek, you many not find the rest of Fortner’s post particularly interesting. And I’m sort of joking that the “WTF moment” could really be useful to practicing historians. Nevertheless, I do think Fortner is on to something. At the very least, he has put his finger on one way by which ordinary people remember the past.

"Gone Too Soon"

More from the grocery check-out. I suppose I understand the pairing of John-John and Diana. But John Lennon and John Ritter?

gone_too_soon.jpg