Caitlin Flanagan’s eloquent description of how histories, true or false, operate in families (e.g. Elizabeth Warren’s family):
How many times during my childhood did my father tell me that when his grandmother and her sister sailed to America, they had traveled ‘a class above steerage’? I was a Hula-Hooping child of the atomic age, growing strong on USDA beef and Cocoa Puffs. What did I know about steerage? But I knew my father in the complete and inchoate way that a child knows her parent, and I knew he wanted me to understand something important to him and—somehow—to me. I understood the lesson to be: The Flanagans have been down, but they have not been out. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion once wrote. And we tell them inside our families so that something can live within them, some idea or value, some complicated honoring of an elder.
In 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.
My 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:
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.
For the past few years, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has undertaken a series of public-private digitization partnerships, especially with a company called Footnote.com. These partnerships provide NARA with free digitization services, and visitors to NARA’s reading rooms with access to the products, but allow Footnote.com and NARA’s other private partners to charge offsite users for online access public documents. I have never been particularly thrilled with this arrangement—charging the American people for access to their own records and all that—but in the past the projects have focused mainly on older document collections of mainly genealogical interest. Now NARA announces that online access to its collection of Holocaust-related material is being made available through Footnote.com, free for the month of October, but presumably for a fee afterwards. Something about this doesn’t sit right with me: should we really be limiting access to a history we desperately don’t want to repeat?
Another concern is Footnote.com’s extensive use of social media. Web 2.0 technologies provide tremendous opportunities for knowledge sharing and creating community around cultural heritage. But when dealing with topics as difficult as genocide, the values of sharing and openness need to be tempered by caution and sensitivity towards victims and their memory. For topics like the Holocaust, public tagging, spontaneous tweets, and YouTube mash-ups may not be the most appropriate or productive vehicles for public discussion and reflection. Indeed, this difficult question of how best to implement social media around topics of conscience is the premise behind CHNM and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s upcoming event, The Conscience Un-Conference, which remains open for applications until October 13, 2009.
The tech blogs are buzzing about Geni, a new genealogy application launched by former Paypal executive David Sacks (see Valleywag and TechCrunch for example). Billing itself as “a unique approach to solving the problem of genealogy,” Geni “lets you create a family tree through [its] fun simple interface”:
When you add a relative’s email address, he or she will be invited to join your tree. That relative can then add other relatives, and so on. Your tree will continue to grow as relatives invite other relatives … Each family member has a profile which can be viewed by clicking their name in the tree. This helps family members learn more about each other and stay in touch. Family members can also share information and work together to build profiles for common ancestors.
I suppose it was only a matter of time until the web 2.0 crowd realized that genealogists were playing the social networking game long before Rupert Murdoch ever heard of MySpace.
Late Update (3/6/07): Just two months after it first grabbed the headlines, TechCrunch is now reporting that Geni is worth $100 million and boasts more than 100,000 registered users.
I just had an interesting meeting with Marshall Poe, historian, author, and founder of MemoryWiki, a MediaWiki-powered site that allows visitors to store personal memories. Last week, I had lunch with Sarah McCue, who launched The Remembering Site to help people record their family histories. MemoryWiki and The Remembering Site represent two different approaches to popular historical documentation, the former concentrating on particular events as the primary units of memory, the latter on whole biographies. But both sites are dedicated to fostering the kind of non-professional historical production to which Found History is dedicated. Good luck to Sarah and Marshall!