Sourcery: “Disruption,” Austerity, Equity, and Remote Access to Archives

I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about and responding to Mark Matienzo’s recent post about Sourcery and its response on social media. I’ve enjoyed engaging in the concerns Mark raises and I’ve learned a lot from the conversation it has spurred. Everything Mark wonders and worries about in connection with Sourcery are things we are actively questioning ourselves. It’s the reason we held a series of workshops with the archives profession this past fall and it’s the reason we’re working with a set of institutional partners to pilot Sourcery while it’s still under active development — so that we can address these questions and concerns in conversation with the community and have those conversations inform the functionality of the application.

These conversations, however, have demonstrated to me that there’s a bit of a misperception circulating, not so much about the app itself, but about the way in which we aim to develop it, a misperception that’s born, I think, more of a learned skepticism of Silicon Valley and university austerity politics than it has to do with a real look at the way in which we’re actually going about things. 

The first thing to say is that we don’t begrudge archivists their skepticism. We share it. A decade that’s seen democracy undermined by social media and labor undermined by “gig economy” apps has made us justifiably skeptical of technology. Likewise, a decade or more of austerity budgets has made archivists justifiably skeptical of “external” “solutions.” But Sourcery is not “external” to these concerns: Greenhouse Studios is based in the library of a state university and staffed by unionized librarians and faculty members. We’re well familiar with austerity budgets, believe me. And we’re not promising a “solution.” What we want to do is engage the field — both researchers and archivists — in a conversation about how some of the technologies of the past decade might be retrofitted to expand access to archival sources. 

Sourcery is not a stealth operation to undermine or “disrupt” archival labor or paid researchers like Uber was a stealth operation to undermine taxi drivers. If it were, we wouldn’t have released a roadmap and half-baked app to the community for comment and reflection in a series of workshops, talks, and pilot projects with institutional partners. (We are very much still in our “planning” phase.) Informed by nearly 20 years of building open source, not-for-profit, community-based software systems for libraries and scholarship, our purpose (and the explicit terms of our funding) has always been to engage the community in a process of conversation and co-creation around alleviating the (sometimes cross-cutting!) pressures of archivists and researchers and then to build something that responds to those pressures. Some may disagree, but I don’t think that just because a technology has been used badly by some means that it’s necessarily bad. Certainly Uber has used peer-to-peer technologies in some very bad ways. But GoFundMe has used peer-to-peer technology in some very good ways (the broader SNAFU that is our healthcare system notwithstanding). Our aim is to work with all the relevant groups to make sure we do the good things and avoid the bad things.

If we haven’t made that clear, that’s on me. This post certainly isn’t intended as defense against unwanted critique or tough conversations.

At the same time, it does offer a challenge to archivists. Just as its incumbent on us to understand the challenges archivists face and to work to meet those challenges in our outreach and our software, the tough conversations must also include an acknowledgment of the fact that the current systems for getting remote access to documents isn’t very good and that it hasn’t kept up with either the possibilities of the available technology or the needs of diverse researchers. The process for requesting remote assistance hasn’t really changed since the advent of email and the simple web forms of the mid-1990s (although the pandemic has complicated that picture). We should acknowledge that existing systems of remote access to non-digitized sources create confusion for researchers who need to learn a new system for every repository they encounter. They create disjointed reference workflows for archivists that can be hard to monitor, allocate within teams, track, record, and report. And their failings cause more visits to the reading room than are probably strictly necessary or desirable for either archivists or researchers. By no means do we want to replace the necessary, sustained, intellectually fruitful in-person exchanges between archivists and researchers and the mutual journeys of discovery that take place in the reading room. But we do aim to replace the unnecessary ones.

Here it’s crucial to point out the perhaps under-appreciated fact that in-person visits are available to only a small subset of the researching population — that is, those with the money and flexibility to make a trip. The same is true of the informal networks whereby friends-of-friends and colleagues’ grad students go get stuff for scholars. Travel and professional networks are a privilege of the rich and well-connected, graduate student labor is often exploited for these purposes, and the “gift economy” whereby junior scholars do uncompensated service on behalf of more senior scholars is insidious. Whether intentional or not, current systems that place an enormous premium on the in-person visit end up providing access on extremely unequal terms. Emily Higgs correctly pointed out on Twitter that Sourcery is responsible for the ill effects of its service, whatever its good intentions. It’s likewise true that—given the possibility of change—the archives profession will be at least partly responsible for the ill effects of the status quo, whether it ever intended them or not. Sourcery runs the risk of creating new inequalities, for sure. But sticking with a status quo that privileges the in-person visit even when it’s not strictly necessary — a status quo that privleges rich scholars and ones with fancy connections and ones with grad students to exploit — runs the risk of perpetuating old inequalities. Not doing something to address the situation is an affirmative choice. That something doesn’t have to be Sourcery … but we should be honest that some things should change.

I’m seriously not trying to call anybody out. I’m just saying that researchers, archivists, digital humanists, software developers, and their funders and administrators need to work together if we’re going to expand access in ways that neither create new inequalities nor perpetuate old ones. That’s the conversation we want to have, and I know the archival profession wants to have, and I’m glad Sourcery is causing it.

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios


Crossposted from Greenhouse Studios

Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

oxford street

Emergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.

In their own words: How tech leaders can help you argue for the humanities

I firmly believe the case for the humanities is best made on its own terms. Rather than bending pretzel-like to explain how the humanities contribute to the prevailing values of techo-industrial capitalism, we should argue first and foremost for the humanities as good in their own right. We should be strong in our conviction that the social and moral goods produced by the humanities are of equal value to the economic goods produced by science, technology, and business. That said, it is sometimes pragmatic to show that even when measured by the standards of science, technology, and business, the humanities are extremely valuable. When arguing our case to decision makers who are themselves members of the STEM fields (e.g. your Dean or Provost) or who have become convinced of the central importance of STEM in the 21st century economy (e.g. legislators or members of your board of visitors), it is often more persuasive to do so on their preferred turf.

One way to do this is to argue from primary data that show the direct economic benefits of arts and humanities in our communities. The American Academy’s Humanities Indicators project is a good place to look for this kind of evidence. Another way is to refer decision makers to the frequent statements of prominent members of the tech community who have spoken out in support of the humanities education and humanities skills as useful in the tech economy. Good examples of this kind of secondary evidence are Mark Cuban’s recent statements warning students off finance and computing in favor of liberal arts; David Kalt’s assertion that “individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best-performing software developers and technology leaders”; and the example of Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield’s crediting of his philosophy degree for his success. I’m sure you’ve seen more examples of this type, which I’d love to collect in the comments section below.

Quoting STEM and business types back to themselves is sometimes the most effective way to argue our worth. It’s one thing to say your work is important, it’s another to show that the people your audience respects most say your work is important. It may not be the case we want to make, but sometimes it’s the case we have to make.

When UConn broke up with Adobe: A parable of artists and copyright

One of the things I try very hard to do in my DMD 2010 “History of Digital Culture” class is to teach students that their technology choices are not inevitable nor even determined primarily by what’s “best,” but rather that their technology choices are values choices, reflections of their ethical commitments and those of the communities that create and use those technologies.

When the University of Connecticut’s  UITS (University Information Technology Services) made a choice not to renew it’s Adobe Creative Cloud site license, my students correctly judged that this was a values choice about the relative importance the higher administration places on artistic work at the university. The decision not to support software for artists, while at the same time maintaining support for software for, say, engineers, is a statement about how the university values different kinds of work on campus. I was pleased that the students immediately saw that this wasn’t just a choice about the quality of the software or even its cost, but about the intellectual commitments and identity of the university. What the students didn’t so easily grasp, however, was that the controversy over the Adobe suite also reflects on the values choices of the students, on the values choices that digital artists have made over many years to put the Adobe suite and other expensive, proprietary, closed-source software packages at the center of their creative practice, which in turn stems from set of larger choices artists have made vis à vis our prevailing copyright regime.

Artists have largely chosen think about copyright a something that exists to protect them and their work, and they have generally supported our ever-stricter copyright regime. Moving from a humanities and social sciences faculty to a fine arts faculty when I came to UConn from George Mason in 2013, I was struck by how poorly my storm-the-barricades, anti-copyright, open access agenda went over with my colleagues. Not that anyone really cared, but it was apparent from the beginning that I was coming at conversations that touched upon intellectual property (for example, a conversation about making faculty syllabi freely available on the web) from one side of the fence and they were coming at them from the other.  Indeed, UConn’s School of Fine Arts offers a course on copyright for artists called Protecting the Creative Spirit: The Law and the Arts, which is taught by two lawyers. You can tell from the title of the course where its sympathies lie.

My DMD 2010 students (most of whom are freshman and sophomores studying in the department of Digital Media & Design which resides within the School of Fine Arts) are no exception. When I teach the unit on copyright, the first question I ask the class is, “What is the purpose of copyright.” Inevitably, students answer with some version of “to keep people from ripping you off.” My next move is to put the copyright clause of the Constitution up on the overhead and explain to them that, in fact, the purpose of copyright is to “Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and that protecting an author’s exclusive rights for a limited term is simply a means to an end.

What is more, I tell them that the ever-stricter copyright regime we live with today wasn’t really designed to protect artists artists at all, although some may have used and benefited its protections. Instead, it was designed by and for big corporations, and it does a much better job of protecting those corporations than it does of protecting individual artists. It is true that many of these corporations employ artists (several former DMD 2010 students are now working for Disney), but those artists’ works are works for hire. The works may be protected by copyright law, but they are protected to the benefit of the employer, not the employee.

It is telling that the feelings of outrage and abandonment regarding the UITS Adobe announcement weren’t evenly distributed among my students. Digital Media & Design students at UConn choose from six different “concentrations,” electing to focus on either 2D animation/motion graphics; 3D animation; game design and development; web design and development; digital media business strategies; or digital culture, learning, and advocacy. (Students from all concentrations are required to take DMD 2010.) Especially hard hit by the news were the 2D/motion graphics students, for whom Adobe After Effects sits at the heart of their practice and for which there really isn’t a substitute, commercial or open source. Letting the Adobe license lapse was basically going to kill their creative practice, or, at the very least, put them out several hundred dollars.

My web design and development students, on the other hand, felt sympathy for their colleagues, but were pretty blasé about the whole thing. For them, letting the Adobe license lapse wouldn’t really change anything. The Adobe corporation has very little leverage over a web developer. To drive the point home, I challenged these web development students to think of a single piece of software that, if taken away from them, would affect their practice in any significant way. A few came up with TCP/IP, but quickly corrected themselves: TCP/IP is a protocol not a piece of software and is an open standard in any case. Apache was another, but, again, it’s open source, and there are serviceable alternatives. Certainly, they couldn’t name a corporation that exists that could raise its prices and bring their web development work to a halt in the way that Adobe was threatening to stop the work of our motion graphics artists. The difference, of course, is that our web developers rely on an open source technology stack and our motion graphics artists rely on proprietary software protected by a copyright law that was written in part by the very companies that produce it. Our web developers are not captive to copyright. Our motion graphics artists are.

Far from protecting artists, this is the best example I have of how our overly restrictive copyright regime harms artists. Rather than teaching our students how to situate their creative practice within a framework of intellectual property protection and thereby reinforce a copyright regime that wasn’t put in place for them in the first place, we should be encouraging our students to resist this regime. We should be teaching them to advocate for open access and open source software. In the longer term, we should be helping them to develop open source and open access alternatives themselves. This is an especially important message for my digital media and design students who, with their considerable skills, will be in a position to effect the longer term project of building the open source tools that will be necessary to free artists’ creative practice from propriety software. In the long term, maybe the very long term, this is the only way we can keep digital artists from being held hostage to corporations as Adobe held my students hostage this semester.

Fortunately, we’ve sorted out the Adobe license issue for now by cutting a licensing deal (shall we call it a hostage negotiation?) apart from UITS for students enrolled in the School of Fine Arts. For now, our students are safe. But only for now. You can bet I’ll be screaming this example over the fence at my colleagues in the School of Fine Arts the next time we talk about copyright.

My new outfit: Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut

Looking down the page, it seems I haven’t posted here on the ol’ blog in nearly three years. Not coincidentally, that’s about when I started work on the initiative I’m pleased to announce today. It was in the fall of 2014 that I first engaged in conversations with my UConn colleagues (especially Clarissa Ceglio, Greg Colati, and Sara Sikes, but lots of other brilliant folks as well) and program officers at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation about the notion of a “scholarly communications design studio” that would bring humanist scholars into full, equal, and meaningful collaboration with artists, technologists, and librarians. Drawing on past experiences at RRCHNM, especially One Week | One Tool, this new style digital humanities center would put collaboration at the center of its work by moving collaboration upstream in the research and publication workflow. It would bring designers, developers, archivists, editors, students, and others together with humanist faculty members and at the very outset of a project, not simply to implement a work but to imagine it. In doing so, it would challenge and level persistent hierarchies in academic labor, challenge notions of authorship, decenter the faculty member as the source of intellectual work, and bring a divergence of thought and action to the design of scholarly communication.

A planning grant from Mellon in 2015 allowed us to explore these ideas in greater depth. We explored models of collaboration and project design in fields as disparate as industrial design, engineering, theater, and (of course) libraries and digital humanities. We solicited “mental models” of good project design from diverse categories of academic labor including students, faculty members, archivists, artists, designers, developers, and editors. We visited colleagues around the country both inside and outside the university to learn what made for successful and not-so-successful collaboration.

Greenhouse StudiosThe result of this work was a second proposal to Mellon and, ultimately, the launch this week of Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut. Starting this year with our first cohort of projects, we will be pioneering a new, inquiry-driven, collaboration-first model of scholarly production that puts team members and questions at the center of research and publication rather than the interests of a particular faculty member or other individual. Teams will be brought together to develop answers to prompts generated and issued internally by Greenhouse Studios. Through a facilitated design process, whole teams will decide the audience, content, and form of Greenhouse Studios projects, not based on any external expectations or demands, but according to their available skills and resources, bounded by the constraints they identify, and in keeping with team member interests and career goals.

Stay tuned to see what these teams produce. In the meantime, after three long years of getting up and running, I plan to be posting more frequently in this space, from my new academic home base, Greenhouse Studios.

Elevator Pitch

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as facilitator at the first Mellon-funded Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) in Chapel Hill. For the better part of the week five diverse teams of scholars, librarians, developers, and publishers came together to advance work on projects addressing challenges ranging from data visualization and virtual worlds to providing computational research access to large newspaper collections to building curriculum resources for understanding Sikh religion and culture. It was a great week.

At the end of the event, the teams were each asked to deliver an “elevator pitch” for their project. Quite what this pitch should entail remained something of an open question going into the final day of the Institute, so the project organizers, me included, came up with the following structure, which we shared with the teams the evening before their presentations, on the spot:

  • “The What” What is your project? What needs does it meet or problems does it solve? How does it meet those needs/solve those problems?
  • “The So What?” Why does this project matter? What are its implications for the field of scholarly communication? What are its broader impacts for the way scholarship is produced and disseminated?
  • “The What Next?” What is your plan for implementing your project? What will be the first thing/s you do to advance your project when you leave SCI? How will you maintain working communication between team members in the weeks and months ahead?

It occurs to me that this is a formulation that I have used in many elevator pitches, planning documents, grant proposals, etc. over the years and that it may be useful to others. When you’re trying to convince people to do something, buy something, or support something, these are generally the things they will want to know — What am I buying? Why should I want it? How will you deliver it? Most RFPs, grant guidelines, and the like are variations on this theme. So, when you’re at the early stages of planning a new project, where ever it may end up, this structure may be a useful starting point.

Happy hunting.

Getting into Digital Humanities: A top-ten list

Today I’ll be joining a roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities for its incoming class of public humanities fellows. I was asked to prepare a “top-ten list” for public humanists looking to get started in digtial humanities, and with the help of friends on Twitter, I came up with the following:

10) Enter the circle (read, tweet, blog)
9) Start with partners
8) Attend THATCamp
7) Write grants, not papers
6) Release early and often
5) Stop worrying about the definition of DH
4) Digital is always public
3) Must. Try. New. Things.
2) Break something
1) Lather, rinse, repeat

Instead of explaining this advice in prose, I decided to put together a video. Here it is.

N.B. As my mother always told me, “do as I say, not as I do.”

Innovation, Use, and Sustainability

Revised notes for remarks I delivered on the topic of “Tools: Encouraging Innovation” at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Digital Platform summit last month at the New York Public Library.

What do we mean when we talk about innovation? To me innovation implies not just the “new” but the “useful.” And not just the “useful” but the “implemented” and the “used.” Used, that is, by others.

If a tool stays in house, in just the one place where it was developed, it may be new and it may be interesting—let’s say “inventive”—but it is not “innovative.” Other terms we use in this context—”ground breaking” and “cutting edge,” for example—share this meaning. Ground is broken for others to build upon. The cutting edge preceeds the rest of the blade.

The IMLS program that has been charged and most generously endowed with encouraging innovation in the digital realm is the National Leadership Grants: Advancing Digital Resources program. The idea that innovation is tied to use is implicit in the title of the program: the word “leadership” implies a “following.” It implies that the digital resources that the program advances will be examples to the field to be followed widely, that the people who receive the grants will become leaders and gain followers, that the projects supported by the program will be implemented and used.

This is going to be difficult to say in present company, because I am a huge admirer of the NLG program and its staff of program officers. I am also an extremely grateful recipeint of its funds. Nevertheless, in my estimation as an observer of the program, a panelist, and an adwardee, the program has too often fallen short in this regard: it has supported a multitude of new and incredibly inventive work, but that work has too rarely been taken up by colleagues outside of the originating institution. The projects the NLG program has spawned have been creative, exciting, and new, but they have too rarely been truly innovative. This is to say that the ratio of “leaders” to “followers” is out of whack. A model that’s not taken up by others is no model at all.

I would suggest two related remedies for the Leadership Grants’ lack of followers:

  1. More emphasis on platforms. Surely the NLG program has produced some widely used digital library and museum platforms, including the ones I have worked on. But I think it bears emphasizing that the limited funds available for grants would generate better returns if they went to enabling technologies rather than end prodcuts, to platforms rather than projects. Funding platforms doesn’t just mean funding software—there are also be social and institutional platforms like standards and convening bodies—but IMLS should be funding tools that allow lots of people to do good work, not the good work itself of just a few.
  2. More emphasis on outreach. Big business doesn’t launch new products without a sale force. If we want people to use our products, we shouldn’t launch them without people on staff who are dedicated to encouraging their use. This should be refelected in our budgets, a much bigger chunk of which should go to outreach. That also means more flexibility in the guidelines and among panelists and program officers to support travel, advertizing, and other marketing costs.

Sustainability is a red herring

These are anecdotal impressions, but it is my belief that the NLG program could be usefully reformed by a more laser-like focus on these and other uptake and go-to-market strategies in the guidelines and evaluation criteria for proposals. In recent years, a higher and higher premium has been placed on sustainability in the guidelines. I believe the effort we require applicants to spend crafting sustainability plans and grantees to spend implementing them would be better spent on outreach—on sales. The greatest guarantor of sustainiability is use. When things are used they are sustained. When things become so widely implemented that the field can’t do without them, they are sustained. Like the banks, tools and platforms that become too big to fail are sustained. Sustainability is very simply a fuction of use, and we should recognize this in allocating scare energies and resources.

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.


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]

Looks Like the Internet: Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage Projects Succeed When They Look Like the Network

A rough transcript of my talk at the 2013 ACRL/NY Symposium last week. The symposium’s theme was “The Library as Knowledge Laboratory.” Many thanks to Anice Mills and the entire program committee for inviting me to such an engaging event.

cat When Bill Gates and Paul Allen set out in 1975 to put “a computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software” it was absurdly audacious. Not only were the two practically teenagers. Practically no one owned a computer. When Tim Berners-Lee called the protocols he proposed primarily for internal sharing of research documents among his laboratory colleagues at CERN “the World Wide Web,” it was equally audacious. Berners-Lee was just one of hundreds of physicists working in relative anonymity in the laboratory. His supervisor approved his proposal, allowing him six months to work on the idea with the brief handwritten comment, “vague, but exciting.”

In hindsight, we now know that both projects proved their audacious claims. More or less every desk and every home now has a computer, more or less all of them running some kind of Microsoft software. The World Wide Web is indeed a world-wide web. But what is it that these visionaries saw that their contemporaries didn’t? Both Gates and Allen and Berners-Lee saw the potential of distributed systems.

In stark contrast to the model of mainframe computing dominant at the time, Gates and Allen (and a few peers such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and other members of the Homebrew Computing Club) saw that computing would achieve its greatest reach if computing power were placed in the hands of users. They saw that the personal computer, by moving computing power from the center (the mainframe) to the nodes (the end user terminal) of the system, would kick-start a virtuous cycle of experimentation and innovation that would ultimately lead to everyone owning a computer.

Tim Berners-Lee saw (as indeed did his predecessors who built the Internet atop which the Web sits) that placing content creation, linking, indexing, and other application-specific functions at the fringes of the network and allowing the network simply to handle data transfers, would enable greater ease of information sharing, a flourishing of connections between and among users and their documents, and thus a free-flowing of creativity. This distributed system of Internet+Web was in stark contrast to the centralized, managed computer networks that dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, networks like Compuserve and Prodigy, which managed all content and functional applications from their central servers.

This design principle, called the “end-to-end principle,” states that most features of a network should be left to users to invent and implement, that the network should be as simple as possible, and that complexity should be developed at its end points not at its core. That the network should be dumb and the terminals should be smart. This is precisely how the Internet works. The Internet itself doesn’t care whether the data being transmitted is a sophisticated Flash interactive or a plain text document. The complexity of Flash is handled at the end points and the Internet just transmits the data.

480px-Internet_map_1024 In my experience digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects function best when they adhere to this design principle, technically, structurally, and administratively. Digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects work best when content is created and functional applications are designed, that is, when the real work is performed at the nodes and when the management functions of the system are limited to establishing communication protocols and keeping open the pathways along which work can take place, along which ideas, content, collections, and code can flow. That is, digital cultural heritage and digital humanities projects work best when they are structured like the Internet itself, the very network upon which they operate and thrive. The success of THATCamp in recent years demonstrates the truth of this proposition.

Begun in 2008 by my colleagues and I at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as an unfunded gathering of digitally-minded humanities scholars, students, librarians, museum professionals, and others, THATCamp has in five years grown to more than 100 events in 20 countries around the globe.

How did we do this? Well, we didn’t really do it at all. Shortly after the second THATCamp event in 2009, one of the attendees, Ben Brumfield, asked if he could reproduce the gathering and use the name with colleagues attending the Society of American Archivists meeting in Austin. Shortly after that, other attendees organized THATCamp Pacific Northwest and THATCamp Southern California. By early-2010 THATCamp seemed to be “going viral” and we worked with the Mellon Foundation to secure funding to help coordinate what was now something of a movement.

But that money wasn’t directed at funding individual THATCamps or organizing them from CHNM. Mellon funding for THATCamp paid for information, documentation, and a “coordinator,” Amanda French, who would be available to answer questions and make connections between THATCamp organizers. To this day, each THATCamp remains independently organized, planned, funded, and carried out. The functional application of THATCamp takes place completely at the nodes. All that’s provided centrally at CHNM are the protocols—the branding, the groundrules, the architecture, the governance, and some advice—by which these local applications can perform smoothly and connect to one another to form a broader THATCamp community.

As I see it, looking and acting like the Internet—adopting and adapting its network architecture to structure our own work—gives us the best chance of succeeding as digital humanists and librarians. What does this mean for the future? Well, I’m at once hopeful and fearful for the future.

On the side of fear, I see much of the thrust of new technology today to be pointing in the opposite direction, towards a re-aggregation of innovation from the nodes to the center, centers dominated by proprietary interests. This is best represented by the App Store, which answers first and foremost to the priorities of Apple, but also by “apps” themselves, which centralize users’ interactions within wall-gardens not dissimilar to those built by Compuserve and Prodigy in the pre-aeb era. The Facebook App is designed to keep you in Facebook. Cloud computing is a more complicated case, but it too removes much of the computing power that in the PC era used to be located at the nodes to a central “cloud.”

On the other hand, on the side of hope, are developments coming out of this very community, developments like the the Digital Public Library of America, which is structured very much according to the end-to-end principle. DPLA executive director, Dan Cohen, has described DPLA’s content aggregation model as ponds feeding lakes feeding an ocean.

As cultural heritage professionals, it is our duty to empower end users—or as I like to call them, “people.” Doing this means keeping our efforts, regardless of which direction the latest trends in mobile and cloud computing seem to point, looking like the Internet.

[Image credits: Flickr user didbygraham and Wikipedia.]