Public Projects

Our final rotation of the year was in the Public Projects division. We had the chance to try out Omeka S, help with Omeka testing, get familiar with Papers of the War Department, and do some research for Hearing the Americas.

One of our first tasks was to participate in testing the Editorial Plugin for Omeka. Simulating realistic scenarios required having several people work on testing at the same time and communicating with each other about what we were each doing, so the process was much more lively and enjoyable than one would normally associate with the word “testing.” Getting to discover issues as part of a group was a very satisfying experience, especially because I could see how useful this plugin will be for people working in groups. Along with this testing, I also got to play around with Omeka S and do an Omeka install on my server space. All of this was a great way to gain more familiarity with Omeka and to learn some of the features that I haven’t needed to use in the past. Doing the Omeka install, I also got to brush up on using the command line.

After a few weeks working with all things Omeka, we were introduced to the Papers of the War Department. In part, it was helpful to learn about it because I had seen others at the Center working on the project but didn’t really know much about it. But it was also helpful to see what it takes to keep a project running after it’s launched and the funding has run out. Because Papers of the War Department is a project that makes use of crowdsourcing ,we were asked to create an account and try our hand at transcribing some of the documents during our downtime from Omeka testing. As someone who studies the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I don’t find many opportunities to transcribe eighteenth-century handwriting, but I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it, despite how illegible it looked at first glance.

In the last few weeks, Jessica and I have been attending meetings for Hearing the Americas and getting some research done for the project. The goal for Hearing the Americas is to expose the commercial and transnational roots of jazz, blues, and country, focusing on the early years of the American recording industry. Right now, the team is still working on the planning phase (with the help of a Discovery grant from the NEH), so we were tasked with researching a few individual singers and musicians to get a sense of how much information is available in the secondary literature and in primary sources. Jessica and I split the list, and after several days spent leafing through books in the library together, we’ve surprised ourselves with how much we’ve learned and accomplished in such a short amount of time. I think our productivity has been fueled partly by how fascinating the topic is and partly by getting to work together on this. Doing academic research is usually a pretty solitary activity, so it’s been fun to be able to bounce around ideas and share interesting finds with someone. With our new knowledge on the subject, we’ve been able to contribute to the meetings and provide suggestions on important themes to pursue, so it’s been valuable to experience firsthand the challenges, questions, and conversations that shape a project in its early stages.

It’s sad to find that our time in Public Projects has come to an end and, with it, our first year of the fellowship. But thinking back on my nerves and confusion at the beginning of the year, I am proud of everything that I’ve learned and accomplished, and I am looking forward to returning next year as a second-year DH Fellow.

 

Indigenizing and Decolonizing Digital Humanities

All year, the DH fellows have been looking through the aggregated content of DHNow and selecting interesting posts to discuss at our weekly meeting with Dr. Robertson. The process has been a great introduction to the variety of people, projects, and discourses that make up the field of digital humanities, and it’s enabled me to identify and track key themes and trends over the course of the year. I quickly became interested in questions of ethics in DH, gravitating especially toward posts and projects that take an Indigenizing and/or decolonizing approach.

Indigenization transforms academia and public scholarship by integrating Indigenous voices, knowledge systems, histories, and cultures and by empowering the success of Indigenous students, scholars, and communities. However, as Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken explain in Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization, “Indigenization cannot be attempted without first making space to decolonize what types of knowledge the academy sees as legitimate, otherwise projects have the potential to become tokens used to absolve settler guilt.” Indigenization requires decolonization—identifying and challenging colonial systems in order to shift power relations and transform the structures of settler society.

So what would decolonizing and Indigenizing DH look like? What does the process demand? Is decolonizing DH even possible or are colonial systems and structures too deeply embedded in the web and digital tools? The posts below ask or attempt to answer these questions. Although they do not all directly address Indigenous histories and cultures, they are all part of a growing conversation about the need to challenge colonial power in digital humanities.

Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization by Skylee-Storm Hogan (Kanien’kehá:ka) and Krista McCracken. Although not specifically directed at DH, this is a very relevant and useful overview of what historians can do to Indigenize and decolonize their teaching and research practices.

Exploring Indigenous Data Sovereignty through Water Governance by Kelsey Leonard (Shinnecock). In this introductory post to her work at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, Leonard explains that, “Digital scholarship can aid Indigenous Nations in our efforts to decolonize water governance regimes and enhance coordination for the management of transboundary waters” and that her “digital scholarship aims to digitize the work of Indigenous Nations and our water protectors as they fight to (re)claim inherent sovereign rights to govern our waters.”

Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities by David Gaertner. This post makes the argument that, “Indigenous lit scholars resist DH because the concerns Indigenous communities have about the expropriation of data have not been taken seriously. Those concerns will not be taken seriously until decolonial critique is actively installed at the foundations of DH theory and methodology and settler scholars need to start taking up some of this labour.”

Remediation, Activation, and Entanglement in Performative (Digital) Archives by Jacqueline Wernimont. This post is a critical reading of Performing Archives: Edward S. Curtis and the ‘vanishing race,’ a digital book project that Wernimont directed. The project features the (often staged) photographs of Native Americans taken by Curtis, an ethnologist and photographer who believed he was documenting a “vanishing race.” Wernimont concludes that the project does not do enough to “decenter” Curtis and instead “largely activated memories of oppression and settler knowledge systems.”

The Practice of Play by Tim Sherrat. This post describes how Sherrat “multiplies contexts”—hacking, breaking, and playing with data and digital resources—to challenge the power of the colonial state’s power of surveillance and reverse its gaze.

Data and Humanism Shape Library of Congress Conference by Mike Ashenfelder. This post is a summary of talks given at the Collections As Data Conference in September 2016. Some of the talks address such topics as the repatriation of digitized objects, bias in metadata practices, and the Traditional Knowledge Labels tool.

Speculative Collections by Bethany Nowviskie. In this post, Nowviskie asks, “How can we design digital libraries that admit alternate futures—that recognize that people require the freedom to construct their own, independent philosophical infrastructure, to escape time’s arrow and subvert, if they wish, the unidirectional and neoliberal temporal constructs that have so often been tools of injustice?” In another post, Nowviskie calls for design experimentation to answer this question and describes five possible axes along which we should run this experimentation.

A Life Reduced to Data by Tim Sherrat. In this post, Sherrat points out that as historians investigate questions of identity using historical datasets (the Australian census is his example), we need to remember that, “In some cases we are the beneficiaries of systems created for the surveillance and control of suspect populations.” Although he argues that we can “turn these systems on themselves,” we must “make that decision and engage accordingly.” As he asserts, “There is no neutral position.”

Research

With our return from Spring Break, our rotation in the Research division has come to an end. Our main projects were working on documentation and testing for Tropy and contributing to the redesign of the PressForward website. In between, we were also able to spend time learning HTML, CSS, and Python and doing lessons on the Programming Historian.

From the beginning of our time in Research, we participated in meetings with other members of the division to brainstorm the contents and design of a new PressForward website. We had to take on the mindset of marketers without relying on jargon or soon-to-be-outdated buzzwords and without sounding either too academic or too corporate. It was a difficult balance to strike, but it forced us to really think about what it is that PressForward does and how it can be useful. By the time everyone settled on the language and layout of the main page, Jessica and I had developed a working knowledge of HTML and CSS through online lessons, so we set to work coding it using Foundation. Once we had the basic structure, we spent the rest of the day testing out fonts, color schemes, and other design elements. Some of our ideas might end up on the finished website, but more importantly, we got to play a role in many parts of the process, influence the design, and practice our web design skills.

The other main project that we helped out with was Tropy. As a tool for historians to organize the digital photographs they take in their research, Tropy is also meant to help historians better manage rights and metadata, so our first task was to research best practices and create first drafts of documentation. Learning about rights and metadata may not be the most exciting thing, but it’s always useful to brush up on them. What was exciting, though, was actually getting to test Tropy. Because Tropy is still in development and has not yet been released, Jessica and I got to be the first to see and use it beyond the project’s core contributors. Knowing how excited everyone at CHNM is for its eventual release, it felt important to be as detailed as possible and to try to break it in as many ways as I could think to. Getting to see how useful this tool will be for my own future research made testing all the more interesting.

Starting the Data and Visualization in Digital History course at the same time that we started in Research  meant spending a lot of time with programming languages over the last several weeks. Having taken two computer science courses as an undergraduate, I came into the program knowing that I enjoyed learning and using programming languages, so I was eager to learn more and to see how that work can be integrated into historical research. I had the most fun doing text analysis with Python and tried it out on some documents relevant to my own research. I haven’t yet determined if or how I’ll use all of these tools ultimately, but even without having exact plans for the future, it’s good to know what the possibilities are and to be able to approach historical questions with a “toolbox” of many skills. At the very least, it’s also important to me that I have a sophisticated enough understanding to be able to critically assess other digital work. Thinking about programming in these ways has been an important take-away from the last couple of months.

Throughout our time in Research, Sean Takats, Director of Research, asked us to think critically about how the Research division fits in at the Center and, more broadly, in the historian’s research process. We had to consider what it is that historians do and how the research process is mediated by digital technology. In other words, how does technology shape the research process and what do we think technology could or should do in the future? I’ve thought a lot about whether digital tools—both those built specifically for historians and not—have significantly changed the practice of history. The argument can be made, for example, that many historians use online search uncritically, without understanding how search algorithms or OCR work, and this causes them to miss potentially useful or important sources. Alternatively, it can be argued that this is far from a fundamental change; historians have always missed sources and information because of the selective nature of archives, absences in inventories, misplaced documents, etc. I’m inclined to believe, though, that the changes taking place are more than superficial. Whereas historians have been trained to use archives, to understand basic archival principles, and to look for and try to overcome silences in the records, training in digital tools is usually not explicit enough. Because almost everyone uses the internet and its tools in their daily life, there is the prevalent belief that this frequent use is enough to understand them. But the effect is a tendency to treat things like interfaces and search algorithms as natural and neutral, without realizing that these are actually highly controlled ways of interacting with historical sources.

So how do I imagine the possibilities for what technology could do? Ideally, there should be more transparency in how searching works, although this seems an unlikely future when most searching is run by Google. Technology should also force users to think critically about the technology itself, rather than lull us into trusting its accuracy, neutrality, and objectivity. Additionally, instead of boxing users into controlled ways of searching and viewing items, databases should be facilitating multiple ways of manipulating and interacting with items, making it easier to put things together or pull them apart and to view them outside the confines of the database. Of course, it’s much easier to imagine this future technology in theoretical terms than to actually design something that functions smoothly and doesn’t scare away users, but these are just my preliminary thoughts on digital technology and the research process. The rotation in Research was a great opportunity to learn some very technical skills but also to really reflect on the broader context of the projects we were working on and the skills we were learning. This week, we start our final rotation in Public Projects.

Education

Jessica and I spent our first rotation at CHNM in the Education division. We had the opportunity to help out with a number of projects, including Understanding Sacrifice, Through the Doors of Stratford: Desegregating Arlington Public Schools (an online course for Arlington Public Schools), Eagle Eye Citizen, and Hidden in Plain Sight.

Understanding Sacrifice is a professional development program for teachers to research a service member buried in one of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s cemeteries and create a lesson plan using resources from ABMC. For Understanding Sacrifice, we started out transcribing YouTube videos of teachers giving eulogies for the fallen heroes they had researched. I had not created subtitles for YouTube videos before, but it was easy to catch on, making it a nice task for easing into the division. I ended up learning a smattering of army terminology as I did the research to make sure that what I thought I heard were real words. We moved on to proofreading the fallen hero profiles, which was also an informative experience. As a bonus, I had the chance to brush up on my basic HTML skills (for italics, superscript, etc.). Along with several others who work in Education, we also proofread lesson plans, paying special attention to ensuring consistent formatting, particularly between the online versions and the pdf versions. I enjoyed putting to use my eye for detail, but the process really showed me just how important it is to pay attention to the little things in digital work. All of those small details add up to a polished product, making it especially useful to get multiple eyes on something before it goes live.

One of the projects that we spent the most time on was Eagle Eye Citizen, a free website for middle and high schoolers to learn civics and historical thinking by solving and creating challenges about primary sources from the Library of Congress. Because it is still being built, we had the opportunity to help with the content. Our first task was gathering links to Library of Congress resources (like online exhibitions, digital collections, and primary source guides) that connect to the topics covered in Eagle Eye Citizen (for example, topics under the theme of elections include campaigns, voting, third parties, political beliefs, etc.). This was challenging partly because of the shortage of relevant resources for certain topics and partly because of the difficulty of navigating the Library of Congress’ website. The process of learning to navigate the site was a great way to learn about all of the content available from the Library of Congress, and I know I will apply this knowledge to my own research in the future. We also had the chance to come up with questions about different images that students will get to choose from when making their own challenges. Needing to put myself in the mindset of a middle or high school student showed me the importance of thinking about audience and the need to create content that is challenging without being inscrutable. Our work with Eagle Eye Citizen wrapped up in an exciting way. We spent a day operating an Eagle Eye Citizen booth at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference, giving away stress balls shaped like the U.S. Capitol and signing people up for a mailing list. Everyone loved the stress balls, and the response from teachers about the website was just as enthusiastic. They especially loved that it’s free, that it can be used in civics curriculum, and that it combines primary sources with digital learning. Getting to interact with potential users of a project that I had worked on was a great experience; it really demonstrated to me the usefulness and significance of our work at the Center.

Our other big project was creating modules for Hidden in Plain Sight, an online course for teachers to earn recertification credit by learning to teach history through objects. Each module presents a seemingly ordinary object that actually helps tell an important historical narrative when put into context and connected to primary sources. Inspired by the work of historian Daniel Usner, I created a module on Chitimacha basketry. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Chitimacha Nation worked with the heiresses of the Tabasco Pepper Sauce company to sell their baskets to a growing network of collectors, activists, and anthropologists. Selling baskets not only helped the Chitimachas economically but also helped them form important alliances that enabled them to secure federal recognition. I connect this story to larger narratives of dispossession, assimilation and resistance, the limits of white activism, world’s fairs and the politics of display, termination policy, and survivance. In creating our modules, we had to consider what historical subjects weren’t covered by the other modules, but we also had to consider what kinds of sources weren’t represented well enough. I noticed the need for more government documents, and, as it turned out, my research uncovered a lot of interesting ones to use. The hardest part of the module was finding primary sources to use that were not only easily accessible but permissible to include on the Hidden in Plain Sight website. Never having had to worry about copyright and permissions in the context of historical research before, this was a really great learning opportunity. I also appreciated having the opportunity to choose my own topic and work on something that I am interested in and familiar with, something that is not always possible when working on projects at a center. Overall, the first rotation was productive and informative. Next up, we start our work in the Research division.

 

Contextualizing the Object of History

The first-year DH Fellows started out the year in a seminar with RRCHNM director, Dr. Stephen Robertson, discussing the history of the Center and putting it in the context of other digital humanities centers. The final project for the seminar was to create an Omeka exhibit for the Center’s 20th anniversary site on a RRCHNM project of our choosing. I chose the Object of History, and the exhibit is available here.

I selected the Object of History partly because it was one of RRCHNM’s first projects with a public history orientation. Created in collaboration with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Object of History is a website for teachers and students of U.S. history featuring six objects from NMAH’s collections, contextual information, relevant primary sources, and interviews with curators. It struck me as a website that I would have enjoyed when I was a student, as someone who loved history museums but rarely got to visit them on field trips.

But creating the exhibit wasn’t just a way to learn about a particular project; the larger goal was for us to develop a fuller understanding of the inner-workings of digital humanities centers. One of the most important take-aways for me was seeing how every project is entwined in broader issues and developments in the field of digital humanities. To tell the story of the Object of History, I needed to explore the collaborative nature of digital humanities, the transition to content management systems, and the connection to 3D printing.

I also came to understand that even a seemingly small project shapes a digital humanities center and the other projects around it. In the case of the Object of History, the Center received the grant for the project at the same time (October 2005) as the grant for SmartFox (later renamed Zotero). This meant too much work and not enough staff for the Center, so project staff needed to delay the timeline for the Object of History until more staff could be hired. I found that within a year, the number of staff at the Center went up from 24 to 39, including an increase from two to four programmers and the addition of a budget and grants administrator. A primarily grant-funded digital humanities center can only grow its staff in relation to the number of funded projects, otherwise financial troubles are imminent. For this reason, work on smaller projects, like the Object of History, was essential to the Center’s ability to expand. Not every project is as big as Zotero, but the smaller projects help build the staff that create the big projects—and conceive of new ones. After all, centers are made up of people, not just projects.