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]

No Holds Barred

About six months ago, I was asked by the executive director of a prestigious but somewhat hidebound—I guess “venerable” would be the word—cultural heritage institution to join the next meeting of the board and provide an assessment of the organization’s digital programs. I was told not to pull any punches. This is what I said.

  1. You don’t have a mobile strategy. This is by far your most pressing need. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, already more than 45% of Americans own a smartphone. That number rises to 66% among 18-29 year olds and 68% among families with incomes of more than $75,000. These are people on the go. You are in the travel and tourism business. If you are only reaching these people when they’re at their desks at work—as opposed to in their cars, on their lunch breaks, while they’re chasing the kids around on Saturday morning—you aren’t reaching them in a way that will translate into visits. This isn’t something for the future. Unfortunately, it’s something for two years ago.
  2. You don’t have an integrated social strategy. I could critique your website, and of course it needs work. But a redesign is a relatively straightforward thing these days. The more important thing to realize is that you shouldn’t expect more than a fraction of your digital audience these to interact directly with your website. Rather, most potential audience members will want to interact with you and your content on their chosen turf, and these days that means Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Wikipedia, depending on the demographic. You have to be ready to go all in with social media and dedicate at least as much thought and resources to your social media presence as to your web presence.
  3. Your current set of researcher tools and resources aren’t well-matched to what we know about researcher needs and expectations. Ithaka Research, a respected think tank that studies higher education and the humanities, recently released a report entitled “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” (I’d encourage everyone here to give it a good read; it has a ton of recommendations for organizations like this one grappling with the changing information landscape as it relates to history). One of its key findings is that Google is now firmly established as researchers’ first (and sometimes last) stop for research. Lament all you want, but it means that if you want to serve researchers better, your best bet isn’t to make your own online catalog better but instead to make sure your stuff shows up in Google. As the Library of Congress’s Trevor Owens puts it: “the next time someone tells you that they want to make a ‘gateway’ a ‘portal’ or a ‘registry’ of some set of historical materials you can probably stop reading. It already exists and it’s Google.” This speaks to a more general point, which is related closely to my previous point. Researchers come to your collection with a set of digital research practices and tools that they want to use, first and foremost among these being Google. Increasingly, researchers are looking to interact with your collections outside of your website. They are looking to pull collection items into personal reference management tools like Zotero. More sophisticated digital researchers are looking for ways to dump large data sets into an Excel spreadsheet for manipulation, analysis, and presentation. The most sophisticated digital historians are looking for direct connections to your database through open APIs. The lesson here is that whatever resources you have to dedicate to online research collections should go towards minimizing the time people spend on your website. We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But when it comes to search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want our research infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow researchers to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.
  4. You aren’t making good use of the organization’s most valuable—and I mean that in terms of its share of the annual budget—resource: its staff expertise. Few things are certain when it comes to Internet strategy. The Internet is an incredibly complex ecosystem, and it changes extremely quickly. What works for one project or organization may not work for another organization six months from now. However, one ironclad rule of the Internet is content drives traffic. Fresh, substantive content improves page rank, raises social media visibility, and brings people to the website. Your website should be changing and growing every day. The way to do that is to allow and encourage (even insist) that every staff member, down to the interns and docents, contribute something to the website. Everybody here should be blogging. Everyone should be experimenting. The web is the perfect platform for letting staff experiment: the web allows us to FAIL QUICKLY.
  5. You aren’t going to make any money. Digital is not a revenue center, it’s an operating cost like the reading room, or the permanent galleries, or the education department. You shouldn’t expect increased revenues from a website redesign any more than you should from a new coat of paint for the front door. But just like the reading room, the education programs, and the fresh coat of paint, digital media is vital to the organization’s mission in the 21st century. There are grants for special programs and possibly for initial capital expenditures (start-up costs), but on the whole, cultural organizations should consider digital as a cost of doing business. This means reconfiguring existing resources to meet the digital challenge. One important thing to remember about digital work is that its costs are almost entirely human (these days the necessary technology, software, equipment, bandwidth is cheap and getting cheaper). That means organizations should be able to afford a healthy digital strategy if they begin thinking about digital work as an integral part of the duties of existing staff in the ways I described earlier. You probably need a head of digital programs and possibly a technical assistant, but beyond that, you can achieve great success through rethinking/retraining existing human resources.

I’m happy to say that, aside from a few chilly looks (mainly from the staff members, rather than the board members, in the room), my no-holds-barred advice was graciously received. Time will tell if it was well received.

Post-Doc at CHNM (North)

Many Found History readers will know that I have recently moved full-time to Connecticut, working remotely and traveling to Fairfax four or five days each month to meet with the gang at CHNM. Since moving north, I have been lucky to make a slew of new friends and colleagues in the bustling New England public history and digital humanities communities. Several new collaborations are percolating, and CHNM is now seeking a post-doc to help lead one of these, with the Connecticut Humanities Council.

Here’s the advertizement. I hope to see your application.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

The George Mason University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) within the Department of History and Art History is seeking a full-time Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

The Postdoctoral Research Fellow will work closely with CHNM’s Managing Director and colleagues at the Connecticut Humanities Council (CHC) on a new collaboration to create a central online resource for Connecticut state history. Based in Middletown, CT., near the campus of Wesleyan University, the Postdoctoral Research Fellow will provide primary project leadership, produce extensive historical content, and manage staff in close coordination with colleagues at CHNM and CHC. This is a unique opportunity to make a substantive leadership contribution to an innovative, high-visibility online resource in a relaxed but performance-centered environment with a team of humanists, designers and developers working at the cutting edge of digital humanities.

We are looking for someone who has earned a doctoral degree in history or a closely related field, and hands-on experience in digital humanities work. Priority will be given to candidates who have a track-record of conceiving, managing and completing Web-based and other public humanities projects. Writing experience for a production-oriented publication (e.g., a blog or newspaper) and familiarity with Wikipedia community norms and practices are preferred.

For full consideration, applicants must apply online at jobs.gmu.edu for position number F8860z; complete the faculty application; and upload a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and a list of three references with their contact information. We will begin considering applications on 9/13/11.

CHNM is the leading producer of open source tools for humanists and historical content on the Web (e.g., zotero.org, omeka.org, teachinghistory.org and gulaghistory.org). Each year CHNM’s award-winning project Web sites receive over 16 million visitors and over a million people relay on its digital tools to teach, learn and conduct research.

CHC is a public foundation incorporated in 1973 as a state-based affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. CHC produces and funds public humanities programs that bring together people of different viewpoints, ages and backgrounds to explore issues of vital concern, share new ideas and perspectives, and experience the cultural richness around them.

For Your Listening Pleasure: History Conversations

A few years back I had the bright idea to launch a second podcast (Digital Campus being the first). It languished. In fact, I only ever managed to record three episodes. The last one was recorded in February 2008.

It’s time to retire the website, but I don’t want to lose what I believe is some valuable content, especially the conversation I had with friends shortly after Roy’s death. So, here it is. The entire run of History Conversations, “an occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history,” in a single post.


Hello, World

In this pre-inaugural episode of History Conversations, Tom tests out his software and explains a little of the rationale behind the show. Join us in a couple weeks for our first conversation.

Running time: 4:41
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_0.mp3]


Episode 1 – Peter Liebhold

Tom kicks off the podcast with a conversation with Peter Liebhold, Chair and Curator of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Tom asks Peter about his daily work at the Museum, his straight and not-so-straight road into history, and the role of public history … and pledges not to go another four months between episodes.

Running time: 29:29
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_1.mp3]


Episode 2 – Roy Rosenzweig, In Memoriam

In Episode 2 we remember Roy Rosenzweig, friend, colleague and pioneer in all manner of public history. Guests Mike O’Malley (co-founder of the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University), Steve Brier (Vice President for Information Technology and External Programs at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-founder the American Social History Project), and Josh Brown (Executive Director of the American Social History Project and Professor of History in the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center) join Tom for a conversation about Roy’s life, work, and long commitment to democratizing history.

Running time: 32:22
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_2.mp3]


Episode 3 – A Look Back at Braddock

This month the volunteer historians of the Look Back at Braddock project join Tom for a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by local history. Located near the center of Fairfax County, Virginia, Braddock District has changed rapidly in the 20th century, and members of the community have taken it upon themselves to document the changes. Working largely without funding, John Browne, Mary Lipsey, Gil Donahue, and their colleagues have produced a rich oral history collection, a successful book, and a new website. What does it take for a group of committed amateurs to launch and sustain a multi-year history project and what keeps them going? Find out here in Episode 3 of History Conversations.

Running time: 31:42
Download the .mp3
[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/hc_3.mp3]

Hey you! Come to THATCamp NCPH

Here is a partial list of places an easy workday’s drive from Pensacola, FL:

  • Athens, GA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Auburn, AL
  • Baton Rouge, LA
  • Beaumont, TX
  • Biloxi, MS
  • Birmingham, AL
  • Chattanooga, TN
  • Gainsville, FL
  • Hattiesburg, MS
  • Huntsville, AL
  • Jackson, MS
  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Knoxville, TN
  • Lake Charles, LA
  • Macon, GA
  • Memphis, TN
  • Mobile, AL
  • Montgomery, AL
  • Nashville, TN
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Orlando, FL
  • Oxford, MS
  • Savannah, GA
  • Shreveport, LA
  • Tallahassee, FL
  • Tampa, FL

If you live in or near one of these places, or if you plan to be at the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting next month, or if you just happen to be in Pensacola on the 5th  of April, then you should come to THATCamp NCPH. It is open to everyone—not just people attending NCPH and not just public historians. Anyone with an interest in the humanities, technology, or both can attend for lots of creative unconference goodness. Registration closes tomorrow (March 15th), so hurry up and nab your seat.

Digital rocking the public history job market

Things are looking up for digitally minded public historians. At least six new media focused tenure-track academic public history positions are open this fall, including:

Happy hunting!

OAH, AHA, NCPH Approve Recommendations on Evaluating Public History for Tenure and Promotion

The boards of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Council on Public History have approved a single set of best practices for evaluating public history scholarship in history departments. The advice is outlined in a new report [.pdf] entitled Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian. Acknowledging that public history work is generally and unfairly overlooked in academic settings, the report provides practical advice to review committees on how best to consider public history and to candidates on how best to conduct and present public history in the tenure and promotion process. A supporting white paper [.pdf] by the report’s authors provides background and discusses the issues presented in the report in greater detail. Yours truly contributed a “case study” on digital history to the white paper, which suggests a set of both internal (audience, content, design, and process) and external (funding, publications, reviews, and awards) criteria for evaluating history websites.

Digital History and the Public History Curriculum

A knowledge of digital history theories and methods is quickly becoming essential for public historians. More and more, digital history is a required part of the public history graduate curriculum. A panel at the (now-not-so-recent) meeting of the National Council on Public History featured public history students engaged in this new digitally-infused curriculum.

Organized and chaired by our very own Jeremy Boggs, the panel included one student from American University’s M.A. Concentration in Public History, Leah Suhrstedt, and two students from New York University’s M.A. in Archives and Public History program, Adina Langer and Lauren Gutterman. I was lucky to be asked at the last minute to provide a brief comment on what turned out to be three inspiring presentations. Two things stood out in each talk, both of them relatively simple but important insights for faculty and administrators organizing public history courses or programs.

First, it was clear from the students’ experiences that teaching and learning digital history involve good measures of risk and trust on the part of both faculty and students. In teaching something as new, changeable, and diverse as digital history, faculty have to give students freedom to try new things and make mistakes, to challenge traditional modes of work, and experiment with new kinds of knowledge creation and dissemination. At the same time, students have to accept this risk and trust themselves and their potential to engage new technologies and master new skills. To paraphrase Langer’s presentation, “Its about leaving the gate open, about teaching students how to teach themselves.” In fact, this should be a comfortable role for seasoned public history instructors. As Suhrstedt suggested in her presentation, as professionals working in mostly small and underfunded organizations, we have all been asked at some point in our careers to do something for which we were completely unprepared by our graduate training. Public historians are already scholars, public intellectuals, fundraisers, teachers, community activists, therapists, and on and on. Becoming a digital public historian is really just adding another hat to the rack.

Second, teaching digital history is not just about teaching students how to build websites. New modes of publishing and the technologies and programming languages required to mount history on the web are important parts of the digital history curriculum. But teaching students to be digital public historians means teaching them when and how best to use digital technologies in all aspects of public historical work. It’s about teaching new pathways for the entire public historical endeavor, including exhibiting history online, but also how to use digital media for community outreach, fundraising, project management, and even advocacy, something Suhrstedt demonstrated in presenting her work with the National Trust’s social media campaign. Tellingly, Gutterman’s presentation of her work with OutHistory.org was almost exclusively about outreach. The lesson of these projects is that the digital should be taught not just as new mode of dissemination, but a new mode of engagement.

Both of these thoughts have rattled around in my brain for some time, but it was only with the help of Langer, Gutterman, and Suhrstedt that I can put them to paper (or pixels, as is really the case). Fortunately for public history faculty faced with incorporating digital history into their public history curricula, both insights point to digital history not being all that different from traditional public history. Risk, trust, and engagement are all very familiar concepts to veteran public historians, something that should give us confidence in weaving the new digital history more tightly into our programs.

Digital Humanities at NCPH

The digital humanities are well represented this week at the National Council for Public History annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. By my count, fully nine of the approximately ninety sessions, workshops, working groups, and posters are either entirely or partially dedicated to the web and other digital outlets for public history. This equals the nine digital history sessions on the program at the much (many times) larger American Historical Association in January.

Here’s the list with times and titles. Please consult the full program online [.pdf] for room numbers and participants (and please contact me if I left anyone out!)

Thursday March 11, 8:00 am – 10:00 am
Jump Start Your Digital Project in Public History

Thursday, March 11, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm
Digital Curricula in Public History

Thursday, March 11, 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
History 2.0: Engaging the Public in History through the World Wide Web

Friday March 12, 10:30 am – 12:00 pm
Issues in Historic Preservation (including Cara Kaser on “Using Digital Tools in Historic Resource Surveys: The Oregon Survey Program”)

Saturday, March 13, 8:00 am – 10:00 am
Publish, Share, Collaborate, and Crowdsource Collections: Zotero 2.0 For Public Historians

Saturday, March 13, 10:30 am – 12:00 pm
Community of Records in the Age of New Media: Family History as Public History

Saturday, March 13, 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Poster – The Flushing Local History Project: A Digital Community Art Project and Archive

Saturday, March 13, 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Poster – Yesteryear: Historical Blogs as Educational Tools

Saturday, March 13, 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm
Omeka: An Open Source Tool for Publishing Cultural Heritage Online

Rosenzweig Forum Returns

The Rosenzweig Forum for Digital Humanities returns this month with a program entitled “Negotiating the Cultural Turn(s): Subjectivity, Sustainability, and Authority in the Digital Humanities.” On Wednesday, February 17, 2010 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Murray Room of Lauinger Library at Georgetown University, Tim Powell and Bethany Nowviskie will address and open a conversation about issues of cultural authority, intellectual property, innovation vs. sustainability, objectivity, and the need to think outside the academy’s walls.

Tim Powell directs digital archive projects for the Ojibwe Indian bands of northern Minnesota, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim will speak about a project entitled Gibagadinamaagoom (Ojibwe: “To Bring to Life, to Sanction, to Give Authority”) and how the focus on Ojibwe culture affects issues of intellectual property, open access, and the design of the interface, metadata, and database.

Bethany Nowviskie directs the University of Virginia Library’s efforts in digital research and scholarship, and is also associate director of the Mellon-funded Scholarly Communication Institute. She will discuss a number of projects from UVA’s SpecLab, Scholars’ Lab, and NINES research groups related to the expression of subjectivity and perspective in interpretive digital environments.

Named in honor of our good friend Roy Rosenzweig, the Rosenzweig Forum is a collaboration of CHNM, the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University, and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland.