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]

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]

Briefly Noted for March 9, 2009

This year CHNM and the American Historical Association will be pleased to award the first Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History in memory of our late friend and inspiration, Roy Rosenzweig.

The American Association for State and Local History has launched a traveling exhibition directory for museums and other organizations looking to find and publicize traveling exhibitions.

Smithsonian Director of Web and New Media Strategy, Mike Edson, has posted his spot-on treatment of lingering concerns over social media and web technology among collections professionals and administrators. The presentation originally appeared at the recent WebWise conference in Washington, DC.

Omeka for All

Omeka As Steve Brier, Josh Brown, and Mike O’Malley pointed out in Episode 2 of History Conversations, CHNM’s late founder, Roy Rosenzweig firmly believed that it wasn’t enough for the historian interested in popular memory simply to be an analyst of popular historymaking. He or she also had to be an active practitioner of public history, making him or herself available to community, enthusiast, and other non-professional historians to help them in their efforts. True to Roy’s example and admonition, I aim to be both practitioner and analyst. But as the recent dearth of postings here on Found History attests, I have been doing a lot more practicing than analyzing lately.

Aside from general management stuff at CHNM, I have been spending most of my time and energy on Omeka. Just launched for general public download today, Omeka is CHNM’s latest software offering, a free and open-source platform for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. It complements CHNM’s successful Zotero project, providing cultural content producers with innovative, open-source presentation software in the same way that Zotero has provided cultural content consumers with innovative, open-source research management tools.

First and foremost, Omeka is intended to reduce the costs and improve the quality and functionality of online exhibitions. There are lots of software tools in the world of libraries and museums for managing and searching collections. There are almost none to help designers, webmasters, curators, librarians, and scholars publish and present those collections in rich, narrative, interpretive online exhibits. Omeka aims to fill this gap. Free, easy to use, and fully customizable through feature plugins and design themes, Omeka can bring rich, elegant, interactive, and “Web 2.0” ready exhibits to even the smallest and least well-funded of institutions—institutions for which high priced web design vendors are completely out of reach.

In the early days of the web, personal web pages were poorly designed, difficult to update and maintain, flat, and generally ugly. That all changed relatively recently with the advent and widespread adoption of blogging packages and services like WordPress, MovableType, and Blogger. Now a well designed, dynamic, interactive, and standards compliant personal website is just a few clicks away for practically anyone. Why should it be any different for cultural exhibits?

With Omeka, it shouldn’t.

Celebration of Roy

Readers of Found History and friends of CHNM will want to know that a celebration of Roy Rosenzweig’s life will be held at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia on December 9, 2007. Please see the attached invitation for details. Directions to Mason’s Arlington campus can be found online. Additional information, along with a memory bank of photos and stories of Roy can be found at thanksroy.org.

celebration_med.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.

Roy

Roy My good friend and colleague, Roy Rosenzweig, passed away last week of cancer. Roy was the most generous, most creative, hardest working person I have ever known. He was the inspiration for this website and most everything else I have done over the past five years. I am so grateful to have spent so much time with him, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I will never forget him.