steal this webpage: online happenings in digital history

One of the archival documents brought to the foreground by The Real Face of White Australia

One of the archival documents brought to the foreground by The Real Face of White Australia

For as fast-moving as the digital humanities is supposed to be, Tim Sherratt’s 2011 article It’s All About the Stuff still seems to perfectly capture the state of its opportunities. New technologies for searching, he says, can “turn archives on their heads” by freeing the content of archives from the rigid hierarchies that finding aids impose on them. His prime example is The Real Face of White Australia, a project where he isolated the faces in an archive of administrative photos that non-white Australians were forced to provide during Australia’s colonial period, and made those faces the ‘finding aid’. The archives, thus re-organized, take on a whole new purpose to “rebuild identities.” Other examples, as simple as “user-generated finding aids” in shared Zotero repositories, also support his point: the digital humanities offer a great, often unrealized opportunity for researchers to break out of “the well-worn paths of institutional power” and cut their own pathways into primary sources.

It’s a nice resolution to the tension between “making” and interpretation in the digital humanities: it’s not his coding project that’s of interest to the humanities, it’s the bigger picture of creating new modes of access, which his project certainly does. The downside is that Sherratt might still be speaking from the experiential bubble that Adam Liu worried about when he wrote of a digital humanities where “technical expertise trumps all other forms of knowledge.” When Sherratt says that building his database of faces and archival data took “a weekend” and wasn’t particularly “hard,” I worry that he’s downplaying the investment of time and energy that goes into developing that skill set. Getting these tools into the hands of more historians will take more than encouragement.

I think the thing Sherrat really nails, though, is that digital history is about new ways for individual scholars (and the public) to connect with the institutions that hold records. One change since the Invisible Australians project went up is that universities have generally got over their resistance to the digital humanities. The University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History holds some dated-looking projects (like the famous Valley of the Shadow archive,) but it was early on a scene that is now crowded with university-supported digital history programs. I think it’s worth asking how, or if, these projects are delivering on the potential to “turn archives on their heads.”

The Univestity of Nebraska-Lincoln’s projects and publications page seems to have an orientation towards bringing under-represented voices to the forefront. Its project on army wives on the great plains after 1865 is one example: while the visual organization is dated, it is putting forward American stories that we don’t often hear. But the project seems ripe for a more collaborative format. As it stands, it’s simply a set of brief articles that might be more at home (and more useful) in an article. The site also holds a collection of work on Indian treaties, and I was excited to explore the section on treaties between tribes and the confederacy. But the content is really just one paper. A “web portal” is great and all, but weren’t we trying to kick down the doors and storm the fortress of academia?

As dated as it might look, the University of Virginia center includes some projects that are still comfortably ahead of their time: Its  collection of stories of 1840s emigrants from Virginia to Liberia is an exciting project, and the History Engine, a collaborative history project built on undergraduates’ contributions, isn’t a far cry from Spokane Historical.

Some current projects at Stanford's CESTA center

Some current projects at Stanford’s CESTA center

Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (or CESTA) takes a different tack by pushing technical and academic resources towards faculty, rather than towards the public. “Humanities computing” is part of the history of digital humanities, as we’ve read recently, but this puts a face on it, offering “funding, project support, and research assistance” to Stanford faculty. So, rather than being a showcase for outward-facing projects, CESTA is more of an incubator for scholarship within Stanford itself.

Cameron Blevins' Geography of the Post project, supported by Stanford

Cameron Blevins’ Geography of the Post project, supported by Stanford

Judge a tree by its fruit, as the saying goes: Stanford seems to be supporting some very high-quality digital projects. Geography of the Post is a simple enough body of research, but it tackles a difficult design problem by creating an intuitive, one-page interface to a set of temporal and spatial information. Mapping Emotion in Victorian London, a collaboration with a few other digital humanities center, is also an exciting new direction. It coordinates passages from Victorian literature with the places in London that they describe, then crowd-source ratings of the emotional tone of their passages. It’s a way to ask a question that couldn’t be asked otherwise: do certain places correlate with certain emotions? Elsewhere in the center, an ongoing research project on crowdsourcing in the 19th century brings it full-circle. CESTA looks like a digital humanities center that gets a lot of things right.

The wrap-up of Sherratt’s article made me nostalgic for the (sadly) now-defunct WEB STALKER project, a more aggressively semiotic shot at the same idea: the web we see is only one way to visualize what’s really out there on the internet. Dan Cohen, writing with some sympathy for the feeling of “information overload” among digital scholars, reminds us that we aren’t the first generation to feel this way. Even someone as pedantic as Descartes sometimes wished to “forget the library so they could start anew.” But overload is a symptom of abundant data and untapped potentials. The real magic of a global digital network, just like the first libraries, is in its “hackability.” We never know who’s going to look at our dusty archives tomorrow, or what weird new interpretations they might bring to it.