Renegotiating the Archive: Scholarly Practice in the Digital Age

(Recently published by CLIR: Terra Cognita: Graduate Students in the Archives, A Retrospective on the CLIR Mellon Fellowships for Dissertation Research in Original Sources, May 2016. Reprinted with permission and with thanks to CLIR for an illuminating discussion of these issues in January 2016 at the Library of Congress.)

In the past two decades scholarly practice in archival research has changed substantially. The availability of digital finding aids and digital facsimiles of original sources combined with powerful search engines and digital library technologies have altered how historians and other researchers encounter, access, and use archives and sources. Scholars who were trained to work solely in physical archives are now dealing with a fundamentally new environment. These changes have come with considerable anxieties about whether digitization and digital archives are replacing, as well as displacing, traditional archival work in the archives. Judging from the experience of the Mellon Fellows, however, these same changes have also heightened scholars’ reliance on the expertise of archivists and librarians. The relationship between the scholar and the archivist or librarian has become more central, more direct, and more consequential, not less. As a result, we need to renegotiate what happens in and with the archive.

Archival Anxieties

In 2003 historian Roy Rosenzweig foresaw an age of digital information overload as presenting fundamentally new and different problems for scholars accustomed to scarcity and limited sources. “One of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era,” he wrote, “is the way it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along.” Rosenzweig argued that historians would need to change their methods “to meet the challenge of a cornucopia of historical sources.”

Rosenzweig was mainly talking about using algorithms and computational technologies to systematically sort through and organize an ever-expanding virtual world of information. He argued that every day we generate terabytes of digital data, including emails, images, videos, and audio files. All of this material soon becomes the archival record of our cultural heritage. In the case of the Clinton administration’s correspondence, for example, millions of emails went into the archive along with thousands of printed hard-copy letters and reports. A single scholar could hardly read such voluminous correspondence. Rosenzweig pointed out that computational means would be necessary to help scholars, in any investigation and our methods would need to change, even as he asked, “will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history?”

While Rosenzweig was writing his seminal and prescient essay, other scholars were struggling to come to terms with the changing practices of original research made possible by rudimentary websites and search technologies. In 2005, historian Reneé M. Sentilles was surprised to discover online hundreds of references and documents on the subject of her research, Civil War actress and poet Adah Issacs Menken. Sentilles thought that the virtual, disembodied research experience raised doubts about the validity of the practice of historical “mastery” and the impermanence of the object of study. With websites disappearing and reappearing over time, Sentilles concluded that Google searches and digital sources, however useful, were not as satisfying as getting “the dust of two centuries under my nails.” Sentilles realized that after a few weeks of reading the private letters and diaries of her subject from folders and boxes, she had come to know her in a personal way she did not “even try to describe” in the book she eventually wrote.

This archival ideal of inhabiting the subject of our investigation is a powerful one. For many scholars this takes place in the physical space of the archive, where we touch, feel, smell, and even hear the past in the material objects we handle. Seeing the “human response to tangible objects” as the central drama of archival research, Sentilles speculated, “Virtual archives will never serve as more than a place to begin and end the research journey; never as a place to dwell.”

Yet, ten years later the reverse seems to be more accurate in describing the practice of scholars and the way that archives and sources have been renegotiated. The virtual has become the place to dwell, and the archive has become the place to begin and end. Correspondingly we are revising the archival ideal for the digital age in ways that stir the same kinds of emotional responses, commitments, and discoveries that the old ideal did.

What explains this turnaround? Certainly, mass digitization projects have offered scholars more reliable, stable, and fully documented access to original sources. But the widespread use of digital cameras has probably had the greatest effect on research practice. Judging from the findings of Jahnke and Watson (in this volume), 58 percent of all Mellon Fellows carried digital cameras into 750 sites between 2002 and 2014.

According to Roger C. Schonfeld and Jennifer Rutner, “The introduction of digital cameras to archival research is altering interactions with materials and dislocating the process of analysis, with potential impacts not only for support service providers but for the nature of history scholarship itself.” Interviewing dozens of historians, they observed that what happens in the archives has become “more photographic and less analytical.” The use of digital cameras, they concluded, is “perhaps the single most significant shift in research practices among historians.” Schonfeld and Rutner also noted that some historians “no longer engage intellectually with the sources while in the archives; these trips have become more of a collection mission.”

Both the scholars interviewed in the Ithaka report and the fellows in the CLIR/Mellon program indicate considerable anxiety about collecting digital images of original sources as a research practice. They worry about the lack of metadata, the challenge of integrating images with textual notes on sources, the difficulty of managing thousands of image files, and perhaps most significantly, the failure to analyze sources at the moment they are first encountered in the archive.

They are not alone. A random sample of faculty across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities by Ithaka S+R in 2012 found that about half of faculty members strongly agreed when asked if they would like to “more deeply” integrate digital research activities and methodologies into their work. But a third of humanities scholars “strongly disagreed” with the statement. Of these, 75 percent did so because “digital research activities and methodologies are not valuable or important” for the type of research they do. About one-third of respondents agreed that they did not know “how to effectively integrate digital research activities and methodologies” into their work.

We have done little to prepare ourselves for this transition and the anxieties it has produced. When we refer to or handle original sources in digital or physical form, we often do not recognize when the source has been deformed in subtle or substantial ways. A physical object might undergo alterations that even its closest observers do not realize. The colors in Rembrandt’s paintings, for example, have slowly changed over centuries as a result of hardened oil and varnish. Blueprints fade over time to reveal lines once drawn but previously not visible, a vista onto what was not built but was once imagined. Mary Todd Lincoln’s cloak, “wet with blood,” has become less visibly stained over time. Infrared light reveals what the human eye cannot see, but the cloak’s exact provenance remains undocumented. We often do not know the ways that our archival materials have been collected, arranged, and presented for specific uses. We often do not know what has been excluded from these collections. When we use the physical, the “original,” what are we using? When we use the “digital,” what are we using? How can we recognize the terms dictating these negotiations?

When libraries “go digital” and remove books and other materials to distant off-site locations, sometimes days away, the record of the past that humanities scholars consulted with regularity becomes, in one stroke, less accessible. The majority of volumes many humanities scholars use are copyrighted texts that are not available in mass digitization projects. As a result, the removal of these secondary sources upon which historians previously relied compounds the anxiety they are feeling about the authenticity of the digitized source. Scholars long considered the library to be a laboratory for the humanities, a central hub where the full range of secondary works mediated their access to and understanding of original archival sources. Without the ability to put hands on the secondary apparatus and its relationship to original sources, scholars understandably begin to question the confidence of their interpretive authority.

The library as a laboratory seems to have been turned on its head. As digital archival collections go online, what was once remote—the original source—has become immediately accessible. Yet what was once immediately accessible—the secondary interpretive source—has become more distant. This reversal may have long-term unanticipated and unintended effects stemming from the interruption of the fruitful negotiation in the library between original sources and their interpretive historiographical context. Repairing and mediating that negotiation in the digital library will require the collaboration of archivists and scholars.

The operations that digital humanities scholars perform on sources further complicate matters. When we encode and mark up texts for computational processing, we make various aspects of texts organizable and searchable even as we radically reduce the complexity of human language, making our entry points into the text and across texts more rigid, uniform, and far less supple than in analog form. When we build a virtual model of a place, a historical site, a genre, or a period, we highlight linkages and relationships selectively and often to the exclusion of other possibilities. Despite the advantages of the digital medium for linking texts and encoding metadata, we often make interpretive argument less apparent. Digital scholars have stressed the act of encoding original sources more than interpreting how these sources relate to the secondary apparatus of historiography and criticism. The stresses on humanities scholars conducting this research are significant and contribute to a broad sense of epistemological concern.

Historian Lara Putnam in the April 2016 American Historical Review describes another professional challenge that has accompanied mass digitization and digital searching. “For the first time,” she writes, “historians can find without knowing where to look.” She calls this new complication “disintermediated discovery.” Putnam argues that digital searching “opens shortcuts that enable ignorance as well as knowledge” and a “release from place-based research practices that have been central to our discipline’s epistemology and ethics alike.”

We see evidence of these concerns when both the scholars in the Ithaka report and the fellows in the CLIR/Mellon report the displacement of intellectual engagement with original sources as problematic. One of the premises at work is that the archive constitutes an important, indeed paramount, site of discovery and intellectual activity. The material object speaks to the scholar in tactile and sensory ways, while dwelling with these material objects allows the scholar to absorb and apprehend their meaning. Scholars find digital imaging and access convenient, but report this convenience as a trade-off. Something, they suggest, appears to have been lost. Yet, I am not so sure.

New Archival Possibilities

Historian Durba Ghosh has written about how the structure, arrangement, and management of archives can resist the narratives and questions scholars carry into them. In her case she encountered archivists who showed her some materials but not others and who made assumptions about what she should and should not have access to because she was a woman of Indian ethnicity. Although she too appreciates the dust of original documents, she has sought to “expand our definitions of the kinds of knowledges that archives produce by destabilizing the notion that archives are only places of impersonal encounters with printed documents.” Instead, some encounters can be highly personal and particular; in a second encounter with the same object, a scholar may see something entirely different. Ghosh, furthermore, notes that after completing her dissertation, and once she was back in the archives, she “finally knew” what she “was looking for.”

Two points are worth making here. The first is that colonial, gendered, and political organization and maintenance of archives in no small measure works to deflect some kinds of research and some kinds of researchers. Gatekeepers restrict access or scrutinize whether a researcher should or should not be inquiring into a subject. Ghosh’s research into interracial relations in colonial India prompted highly gendered reactions from archives and archivists, affecting her access to the original sources. Digitization can to a significant degree liberate sources from the physical, cultural, and social restrictions that attend them in the archive.

The second is that scholars do not always know what they are looking for when they enter an archive, even after intense planning and research. They bring certain questions into the archive at a given point in their research process only to find that much later they realize other questions to ask. Digital materials allow for a longer, more deliberate, continuous, iterative process of research and discovery.

Although neither the Ithaka report nor the CLIR/Mellon fellows report specified these renegotiations, scholars using digital cameras in the archives are participating in a new practice characterized by a deliberately more prolonged interaction between the researcher and the object.

Why have scholars so prized the transcendent qualities of the material object, the so-called dust in the archives? One reason is that letters and diaries in particular carry the voices of the past into the present, and these inanimate objects become animated through the personal penmanship of the correspondent and diarist. They are the physical traces of our subjects long dead and gone. In “The Historian as Death Investigator,” Stephen Berry, a historian of the American Civil War, has written about this strange “temporal vertigo” and points out that anyone who has done work in an archive knows “the Zen-like moment when you forget not merely where you are but when you are, who you are, almost that you are.” This “wormhole” into the past, he suggests, is somewhat stupefying and it works a kind of spell over the investigator. For Berry who studied death records of soldiers, it begins with the dull recognition that “this guy isn’t going to make it.” Berry, however, experiences this vertigo whether in the physical archives or perusing digital images of original hospital records and death certificates.

This state of affairs is not unlike what has happened in oral history, where the practice of historians in the digital age has undergone significant renegotiation. Historian Michael Frisch has pointed out that even with oral histories “generally nobody has spent much time listening or watching the recordings, the primary source. Instead, the modal plane of engagement has been textual.” Working with text transcriptions became “natural” even though the source was entirely aural. Frisch notes that the methods and theories used in oral history have been derivative of their textual, rather than aural, materiality. As practices emerge around and with digital technologies, as questions of these sources become “tractable” only in their aural form, other methods and theories become possible.

When we look for people long invisible in the written record, who did not leave letters and diaries, their traces in the archive are mediated and embedded to a degree that requires us to renegotiate our work in the archive. In the case of Ghosh’s investigation into interracial sex in British colonial India, she found that the archives, even those who managed them, functioned to keep such stories from ever surfacing in the record. Dust or no dust, finding their voices in the archive would mean confronting and breaking the institutional and historical modes of marginalizing. In this respect digital capture for later analysis may be essential, an act that allows for a more unmediated and extensive examination than possible in a purely physical, time limited, and on-site encounter. Even if one scholar is not able to access a collection, for whatever reason, another scholar might be able to gain access and ultimately share these sources.

In current research into legal records, a similar renegotiation is underway. Scholars seeking to build up the histories of long marginalized people are moving beyond the limitations of solely on-site, physical encounter with original sources. The Old Bailey Online, for example, has digitized the printed Proceedings of the court published from 1674 to 1913, volumes encompassing 197,745 criminal trials. While voluminous and rich in detail, these reports were highly selective and the original case papers remain at the National Archives (Public Record Office).

Similarly, the case files of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia in Record Group 21 of the National Archives and Records Administration were administrative records designed to order and bureaucratize legal procedures and actions. Enslaved people who petitioned for their freedom worked their histories into these legal forms. But the printed records of the court’s decisions published by Chief Justice William Cranch revealed little about their lives or their experiences. Cranch’s volumes have been cited routinely in appellate decisions and legal briefs, as well as relied upon by legal historians for years. Yet, Cranch excluded the last names of African Americans throughout his volumes and focused mainly on legal procedures and rules. The result is a genealogical and historical erasure that needs repair. Digitizing Cranch’s volumes only perpetuates the historical erasure of petitioners for freedom. When the original case papers are extracted from their archival sequence and examined as a whole, the full genealogies of these families become visible to the scholar (see

In my own research, continual, repeated examination of digitized case papers has led to discoveries nearly impossible to make on site using the physical records. A recent research trip to the National Archives (Public Record Office) illustrates this point. My research into a Maryland enslaved family indicated that their claim to freedom could possibly be proven today, 200 years after their case was unsuccessful. Their lawyers had filed a number of exhibits as evidence, including depositions from earlier cases tried in the 1790s. These depositions referred to litigation in London’s early eighteenth-century chancery court, where creditors hoped to extract a higher profit from the captain of a transatlantic raiding voyage. One of the Maryland depositions indicated that the family members petitioning for freedom were the direct descendants of a free woman from New Spain who was carried to London on this voyage. Every item on the vessels was accounted for and documented, and every expense double-checked. Ledgers were re-tabulated; receipts were re-bundled. A special master certified each account and record. I estimated over 3,000 individual items in the chancery record for this case. It was not possible to conduct a thorough analysis of each record while I was in the archive. In the four days I had on site, however, it was possible to review each item and digitally capture hundreds of important records for later examination and reflection. In the months following this visit I have been able to substantiate their claim based on cross-referencing original sources from other collections.


Figure 1: Chancery record at National Archives, Kew, December 2015.

Schonfeld and Rutner described this form of on-site collection as a “displacement of the intellectual engagement with the material,” and they raised understandable concerns about its “downsides.” But there are clear upsides. Some scholars are developing an alternative method as they visit archives and capture digital images for ongoing assessment and reassessment. This method supports a continual process of archival engagement, rather than one dependent on an exclusively tactile engagement with the physical object. Because the questions we ask on site may not be those we need to ask later and because the subjects we seek to investigate may only reveal themselves after weeks or months of systematic analysis, we are beginning to see a new practice in archival research take shape, one that begins and ends on site in the archives, and dwells for far longer on the virtual representation and manipulation of digitized original sources.

These scholars are inaugurating a digital archival ideal that is as powerfully alluring as that of its physical counterpart. Scholars with high-resolution digital images and large, high-resolution monitors can manipulate the digital object long after their visit to the archive. They can recast, rearrange, and renegotiate the source, seeing it in multiple frames, dimensions, scales, and abstractions. Perhaps most important, they can encounter the document again and again, returning to it with fresh questions and perspectives. In my own research, digitized collections have allowed me to conduct iterative readings and discover differences in the spelling of individual names impossible to see otherwise.

Putting the Archivist-Scholar Collaboration First

Undoubtedly, graduate programs will need to adjust to these new circumstances and practices. The current volume should prompt graduate programs to consider revitalizing historical methods and writing courses. At the 2015 Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) summit on graduate training in the humanities, faculty and graduate directors explored the nature of the graduate curriculum, the dissertation, the role of new media and the digital humanities, and the nature of the public humanities. These discussions followed calls for shortening or changing the dissertation and placing greater emphasis in our programs on skills for alternative career pathways. While the participants in the CIC meeting considered more than the changing state of archival research, they agreed to create a working group to articulate a statement of principles on the dissertation in the humanities.

The reports in this volume indicate the gap in archival training for graduate students and the pressing need for specific methodological training in archival research. One graduate student in the Schonfeld and Rutner report put the problem succinctly:

“One of my big issues with graduate education in general right now is that there’s almost no training with methodology and what you actually do in the archive and why that matters . . . There are larger philosophical questions about what an archive is. I haven’t gotten systematic training.”

At several institutions, graduate programs are already revising not only the scope and form of the dissertation but also the coursework required to gain the skills and techniques necessary for research with original sources. These courses might provide specific guidance on the materiality of sources, how to properly interrogate sources, how to conduct archival research for a large-scale project, and how to manage the research process, including digital images. One way to structure such a course is to emphasize the sharing of “archive stories” between faculty and graduate students. Our new course on research and archival methods at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is premised on such exchanges. Each week, part of the course is given over to a rotating, faculty-led archive story.

These reflections feature the experiences of practitioners working in various archives around the world and consider archives as a contact zone between researcher and what a state or institution allows her or him to see. These stories also explore the embodied experience of the researcher working within the physical environment and regime of the archive. And they provide basic hands-on guidance on how to prepare for an archive visit, how to conduct oneself when there, and, most importantly, how to do research when on site.

Further, graduate programs might bring archivists and librarians more directly into the training of graduate students. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln we have restructured the methods course to include consultation with our university archivists, drawing on the expertise of our library faculty. Many of the steps to navigate archives were once learned without formal training, by trial and error. Students in this course also visit the university and state archives and make requests for collections. With a variety of collections laid out before them, they discuss with the archivists the tactics, strategies, methods, and ways to record what is found. We seek to model a partnership between historians and archivists and provide critical skills for graduate students to make and sustain such partnerships in their own research.

In embracing a more digital archival ideal, alongside our more traditional methods we might give our students the opportunity to create new forms of scholarly communication and expression. As historian Edward L. Ayers has pointed out, “Digital scholarship may have greater impact if it takes fuller advantage of the digital medium and innovates more aggressively. Digital books and digital articles that mimic their print counterparts may be efficient, but they do not expand our imagination of what scholarship could be in an era of boundlessness . . . when our audiences can be far more fast and varied than in previous generations.”

Our graduate training in research might feature ways to see the archives as a social space and experience. Both pre-doctoral and post-doctoral scholars are finding that these new circumstances prompt more rather than less collaboration with archives, and more rather than fewer opportunities for archival engagement. Digital imaging and other techniques do not in and of themselves displace intellectual engagement with original sources, nor do they displace archives and archivists. Scholars working with archivists are negotiating partnerships and drawing on one another’s expertise. Some of these collaborations will result in more formal joint projects, while others will lead to ongoing informal exchanges. We should welcome these opportunities.


Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in the Digital Era,” American Historical Review, Vol. 108, No. 3 (June 2003): 758 and 760.

Reneé M. Sentilles, “Toiling in the Archives of Cyberspace,” in Antoinette Burton, ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005): 155.

Roger C. Schonfeld and Jennifer Rutner, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians,” ITHAKA S & R, December 10, 2012. (accessed February 26, 2016).

Ross Housewright, Roger C. Schonfeld, and Kate Wulfson, “Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2012,” April 8, 2013, pp. 41-44. (accessed February 24, 2016).

Burton, Archive Stories, 210. Chicago History Museum, “Wet with Blood: The Investigation into Mary Todd Lincoln’s Cloak,” (accessed March 4, 2016).

On modeling, see Willard McCarty, “Modeling: A study in Words and Meanings,” in Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds., A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2016): 377 and 379. Putnam’s essay is the first to address what she calls “a sea change at the core of our collective practice.”

Durba Ghosh, “National Narratives and the Politics of Miscegenation: Britain and India,” in Antoinette Burton, ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005): 28 and 40.

Stephen Berry, “The Historian as Death Investigator,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 184-185.

Michael Frisch in “The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History Vol. 95, No. 2 (September 2008): 459.

Old Baily Online, (accessed February 20, 2016) and O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family, (accessed February 20, 2016).

There is a growing literature on digital humanities and aesthetics and design, too much to refer to here. An essential beginning point is Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

The CIC conference was held November 4-5, 2015 at Penn State University. See also Sidonie Smith, Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015); Michael Bérubé, “The Humanities Unraveled,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18, 2013; Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Edward L. Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” EDUCAUSE Review (August 2013), (accessed February 24, 2016).

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On Discovery

Remarks given at Cum Laude Induction
Episcopal High School
Alexandria, Virginia
April 15, 2016

Congratulations to the cum laude inductees and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It is a great honor to be here at Episcopal High School.

I want to talk today about discovery, how discovery happens, how it works, and at least how I have experienced the joy, the excitement, of discovery–that moment when you see something you did not see before. I’m sure you know what I mean. Time seems to slow down. A new reality of the world, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, snaps into focus.

This moment of discovery can be as abrupt as a windswept prairie fire or as ponderous as a category four hurricane, but the world is not the same in its aftermath. We see things differently. We know what we did not know.

In my field of endeavor–research, higher education–we live for this moment, this experience.

It is tempting to think that this flash of insight–what’s called the eureka effect–is nothing more than a trope made for TV. We see it in the new Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock is forever hearing Watson (played by Martin Freeman) say something utterly mundane and apparently unrelated to the case at hand such as “Shall we take a taxi?” A taxi! Why of course. Sherlock’s mind clicks through a sequence of associations . . . the killer is a taxi driver! What was once obscure becomes obvious.

Parents, perhaps you are familiar with a different, more tongue-in-cheek parody of the eureka effect from our early years: the 1960s TV show Batman. This was a favorite of mine for its witty, goofy sendup of various plots. It was full of moments when Batman (played by Adam West) — without body armor, no just a flimsy plastic cape that had all of the tensile strength of Saran Wrap, and always correcting Robin’s grammar of all things — would say something like: “That’s it Robin! The man in the grey suit was whistling the Star Spangled Banner BACKWARDS! The joker’s lair must be in the old fireworks factory! To the Batmobile!”

I know it’s unbelievable we were impressed by this.

What I have learned about these moments–about discovery broadly–both in my own work and watching my colleagues from physics to chemistry to psychology is that it they are not just a trope. Such moments occur. But to have them we need to invite the possibility of new worlds, new realities unfolding before us and around us. When we do, we give ourselves the opportunity to have that mind-bending flash of insight that Holmes has, well, every episode 48 minutes in.

Several years ago I was between writing projects and thinking about what I would do next. I had written a brief book review of a biography of John Marshall (Kent Newmeyer’s John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court) and I had noticed a little known case called Queen v. Hepburn. It was an enslaved person (Queen) petitioning for her freedom from a slaveholder (Hepburn). Francis Scott Key was her attorney. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1813. Key made what I thought was a surprising argument on her behalf based on universal human rights, natural law, and freedom. It’s an important case for a number of reasons. So, I went to the National Archives to check it out and pull the original case file. I’m not really sure why I decided to do that other than I wanted to know more about the questions this case raised.

There is a palpable excitement as you wait in the great room of the National Archives for the archivist to retrieve an old original document. That day was no exception. I did not know what to expect. The case file could have been nothing more than a few perfunctory court papers, a summons, a notation of the clerk of the court, little more than a jacket with the file number written on the back. Or it could contain detailed information about the witnesses and the arguments of the attorneys.

That day at National Archives the helpful expert archivist on staff, Robert Ellis, not only pulled the file but also directed me to an index that some of his staff had completed a few years earlier. The index listed all cases in the District Circuit Court between 1800 and 1862 that had black plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, or participants. A world opened up before me as I looked at entry after entry, page after page of notations.

This moment feels like slipping through a wormhole into a parallel point in time, past and present experienced simultaneously. Evidence I have seen elsewhere and other theories combine and snap into a new alignment. The past is suddenly, abruptly rearranged.

Note that this discovery was almost accidental. I could easily have spent years researching without knowing about the “Black Washingtonians” index. Fortunately Robert Ellis knew what the case files contained and I had asked enough questions that he realized I might want to see this index that virtually no one had used before.

We started collecting these case files and putting them online with colleagues at the University of Maryland, College Park. In short order we found evidence of Francis Scott Key’s role in a series of cases in 1815 that had been featured in a well-known abolitionist pamphlet by Jesse Torrey called A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery. These too were petitions for freedom but some of these petitioners were free blacks who had been kidnapped. Others were enslaved. All were being taken to be sold south–the beginning of what would become the interstate slave trade. At the time this incident provoked outrage in D.C. A Congressional investigation into the slave trade and kidnapping followed. One of these captives, a woman from Bladensburg, threw herself out of a third floor window on F Street where she and others were effectively imprisoned. Her back and arms were broken in the fall. Her name went unmentioned in several early accounts.

Torrey did not identify her at all. Eventually some newspaper and abolitionist accounts identified her as “Anna” or “old Anna.” No one knew what happened to her.

Then in November 2015, two hundred years almost to the day after her jump, we discovered her petition for freedom. Her case was tried 17 years later. She not only survived the fall but also won the jury trial for her freedom in 1832. And Francis Scott Key, 17 years later, was still her attorney. Her name was Ann Williams.

This discovery was astonishing. It changes the way we understand the entire event and every thing about it, every detail. Rather than a hopeless suicide attempt in the face of slavery, her leap from the window could be a leap toward freedom, toward her husband, toward family, toward belonging, toward a future with her children. (We are working on a new short film about Ann Williams and her case.) In the hands of her abolitionist interlocutors, Ann Williams was rendered a figure of pity and sympathy. But her actions demonstrate other qualities: resilience, decisiveness, strength, and purpose.

Here too, the discovery of a single document led to an abrupt rearrangement of the past. The past snapped into a new reality.

Discoveries like these are happening every day in history, literature, science, and in all disciplines. Knowledge is not stationary–it’s restless, on the move, searching, and being rearranged as we speak.

At colleges and universities we look into the complex problems of our world–phenomena that need to be understood, documented, and explained. Humanistic, artistic, social, and behavioral. I am inspired by my colleagues in physics at CERN collaborating to discover the Higgs boson, measuring the production, decay, and interaction of this novel boson. The new results substantiate what’s called the Standard Model, but they also become the point of departure enabling the search for new yet unexplained and unexplored phenomena in our physical world.

So, finally the flash of insight, the moment of discovery, is not just a trope for television. It happens. It happens when we collaborate. Sherlock needs Watson. After all, what is Sherlock without Watson? It happens when we are open to the possibilities around us, when we are alert to the clues we do not at first recognize.

You are entering a world where discoveries await you. We need every one of you. We need you to be open to the possibilities of new worlds not yet imagined or invented. I hope that on your journey here, and in college, and beyond, that you will not only seek to know what is but also imagine and create what can be.

Thank you and congratulations cum laude members and inductees.

Posted in African American, Digital History, law, slavery, U. S. South, Virginia, women | Leave a comment

What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology

At a recent talk at the University of Colorado Boulder I discussed various definitions of digital scholarship and how we might categorize digital scholarship. My forthcoming essay in the second edition of Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities deals with these questions in depth. This chart offers one way to consider a typology for digital scholarship in the humanities. These characteristics are offered as a beginning point. They are not meant to exclude or restrict the definition of digital scholarship. Indeed, I hope these definitions might provoke some further discussion about how to undertake reviews of digital scholarship.

Here is a a proposed typology of digital scholarship as a PDF.

Some definitions are necessary as well.

Assessing the types of data, components, organization, scope, interpretive nature, and character of digital works allows us to separate one category from another. An ISW, for example, differs from a Thematic Research Collection not only because its scope is more tightly defined, but also because its interpretive nature lies in the query structures it provides the reader rather than in the encoded affordances that a Thematic Research Collection builds into its archival materials. The ISW operates around a series of procedural inquiries, whereas the Thematic Research Collection offers open-ended investigatory structures. These characteristics of the categories are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative, and as a basis for categorization and review.

Interactive Scholarly Works (ISWs):

These works are hybrids of archival materials and tool components, and are situated around a historiographically significant or critical concern. These works often assert a methodological argument as well, demonstrating that the combination of tools and materials serves as a method worthy of applying to the problem. Interactive Scholarly Works have a limited set of relatively homogenous data, and they might include a textual component on the scale of a brief academic journal article. They feature an API for users to access the data and programming directly. Relatively tightly defined in subject, ISWs provide users with a high degree of interactivity in a limited framework. (Meeks and Grossner 2012)

Digital Projects or Thematic Research Collections (TRCs):

Digital projects, sometimes referred to as Thematic Research Collections, are perhaps the most well defined genre in digital humanities scholarship. Carole L. Palmer’s 2004 review of these works emphasized several qualities, such as their heterogeneous datatypes, structured but open ended, designed to support research, multi-authored, primary sources. Combining tools and archival materials framed around a historiographically significant or critical problem, these projects are sprawling investigations into a major problem. Typically gathering thousands of objects and records from widely varying institutions and in widely varying formats, digital history projects contain “digital aggregations” of primary sources that support research on a particular theme or historical question. Scholars embed interpretive affordances in the collection and use these affordances to open up new modes of inquiry and/or discovery. They are open-ended projects and often support ongoing research by multiple scholars or teams. Often traditional peer reviewed scholarship is derived from the thematic research collection. The next phase of thematic research collections might feature interpretive scholarship embedded within and in relationship to the collection. (Palmer, 2004)

Digital Narratives:

These scholarly works are born-digital, and they primarily feature a work of scholarly interpretation or argument embedded within layers of evidence and citation. They do not and presumably cannot exist in analog fashion. They may be multimodal, multi-authored, and user-directed. They may change between and among readings, either through updates or algorithmic reconstitutions. Unlike the first generation of “eBooks” which transferred analog books into digital formats, these nonlinear, multimodal narratives offer explicit hypertext structures. These works primarily provide multiple points of entry for readers and situate evidence and interpretation in ways that allow readers to unpack the scholarly work. They are highly configured, deeply structured, and strongly interpretive pieces of scholarship. They could be stand alone self-generating web sites, cloud applications, or they could be presented in a media-rich scholarly publishing framework such as Scalar.

Simulations constitute a new form for scholarly research and publication as well. Interpretive decisions are embedded at every level in any simulated, textured environment, and feature a range of media products, including video, audio, and 3D models and game engines. Historical simulations and humanities-oriented games possess varying degrees of interpretive strength. Some are purely representational and feature minimal interpretive or argument-driven analysis. Others offer simulated decision-trees in a game-engine environment with heavily interpretive choices. (Coltrain 2013, McGann and Drucker, 2000) Hybrid media objects that combine text, graphics, live action, and animation sequences also constitute what Lev Manovich calls “a new species” in the digital medium and can be evaluated using Murray’s affordance grid as well as the matrix table provided here. (Manovich, 2013) While simulations will likely become in and of themselves a category of digital scholarship with particular characteristics that set them apart from the above types of scholarly work, at this writing they are most commonly used in a supplementary fashion.

Posted in Digital History, Digital Humanities, Internet and World Wide Web, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Why the Digital, Why the Digital Liberal Arts? (Middlebury College, December 2014)

Why the Digital? Why the Digital Liberal Arts?
Middlebury College
December 8, 2014

William G. Thomas III

Abstract: This lecture for the Digital Liberal Arts initiative at Middlebury College assessed the current state of “the digital” in higher education, including the digital humanities, and makes the case for integrating digital research practices and pedagogies into the liberal arts more fully and broadly than has yet been realized. This talk examined commonalities across the disciplines in their engagement with the digital and offered some models of collaboration and integration of research and teaching that can be applied across the liberal arts.


I would like first of all to thank Anne Knowles for inviting me to visit and to talk with you. You have some outstanding, leading digital scholars here at Middlebury College. Michael Roy has written widely on cyberinfrastructure for the liberal arts and Anne Knowles has singlehandedly created one of the leading methodologies in the digital humanities: HGIS. I am not sure here at Middlebury you can know how much she has influenced the field and how well respected her work is in historical geography. Her work is widely cited in the digital humanities as a leading example of digital research and scholarship. You are also producing wonderful, imaginative examples of collaborative student digital work. 11 Paper Place is brilliant example of what Lev Manovich has called a “new species” of hybrid media object. You have organized interdisciplinary resources around MiddLab and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, and you have an exciting roster of digital projects underway.

I am not at all sure what I can add today to the conversations about the digital liberal arts going on here at Middlebury, but I will try to outline some ways in which we might think broadly about how our institutions organize and engage with the digital. And why we should be taking appropriate measures, scaled and organized in ways suitable for our respective institutions, to do so.

This semester I am teaching a graduate interdisciplinary seminar on digital humanities with students from Modern Languages, English, Anthropology, Art History, and History. We’ve spent this semester trying to define what is digital humanities and considering how we might broaden the digital across and into the disciplines, across and into our communities, and across and into our diverse world.

It seems clear that we have a historic opportunity, and an obligation. We are the inheritors of the cultural print record, and of the knowledge domains and practices we associate with our disciplines. We are participating in a global communication revolution, in which economic, cultural, and technological changes raise basic questions about the production, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.

As Ian McNeeley and Lisa Wolverton have written, “The ways in which we organize intellectual activity remain crucial to how we create new knowledge and draw on it for moral and practical guidance in daily life.” Studying the organizational history of knowledge from the library, to the monastery, the university, the disciplines, and the laboratory, they warn that “innovation in technology does little in itself to guarrantee the progress of knowledge as a whole. We risk committing a serious error by thinking that cheap information made universally available through electronic media fulfills the requirements of a democratic society for organized knowledge.” (Reinventing Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet, xx)

Historians of information, media and communication, and the book have shown repeatedly that the “ruptures” we sometimes take for granted are instead processes with specific forces and conditions. Specificity is required for understanding “the book” “the Internet” “the telegraph” “the railroad” “the digital.” To speak in “big culture” terms about any of these media is to lose our bearing on the conditions under which they came into being and operate.

One thing we need to do is to consider what is rendered less visible through the digital–what is elided, lost, missing, or no longer available despite the unprecedented circulation of information and knowledge. We have a responsibility in fact to address these losses. Gabrielle Hecht and Paul Edwards in a recent AHR Roundtable on this subject asked, “What knowledge in this period of supposedly free circulation of ideas fails to circulate?” We might extend this question: what does the digital form of knowledge production and circulation privilege? And what should we do about these exclusions and invisibilities? (American Historical Review, December 2011, 1398-1402)

When we ask these questions we begin to see that knowledge systems and infrastructures are living, changing, human systems. Knowledge systems require maintenance and regeneration in altered conditions. Brian Larkin in the same AHR Roundtable pointed out that the forms of knowledge exchange and circulation–media–“are not neutral vehicles simply transmitting data, but they actively shape the information they traffic.”

Rather than seeing the digital as a disruption, to be resisted or deflected, we might instead find ways to renew the liberal arts, to synchronize the powerful forces of technological change with our highest values and aspirations. The emergence of the digital medium has altered the means of communication, the form of communication, and the formulation and transmission of knowledge. Our task, it seems to me, is to reconstitute the liberal arts for the digital age, to construct new forms of scholarly communication suitable for the digital medium, and to lower barriers to the preservation and exchange of knowledge wherever we might find them.

The digital humanities manifesto 2.0 summarizes the problem we face and the goals we share:

“Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which: a) print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations; and b) digital tools, techniques, and media have altered the production and dissemination of knowledge in the arts, human and social sciences.”

Furthermore, the Digital Humanities manifesto recognizes that we are presently in a world in which universities are “no longer the sole producers, stewards, and disseminators of knowledge or culture.” McNeely and Wolverton in Reinventing Knowledge make a similar point, concluding, “It merely remains to be seen whether the Internet will continue to embody the laboratory’s most powerful technological contribution to the knowledge society or enable online communities to become the germ of an entirely new institution of knowledge.” (270)

This is our historic opportunity. We are called in the words of the Digital Humanities Manifesto, “to shape natively digital models of scholarly discourse for the newly emergent public spheres of the present era (the www, the blogosphere, digital libraries, etc.), to model excellence and innovation in these domains, and to facilitate the formation of networks of knowledge production, exchange, and dissemination that are, at once, global and local.”

The good news is that this opportunity extends across the disciplines, enlivens our latent commonalities, and marshals our intellectual and organizational capacities in ways consistent with our mission.

So, the digital engagement of our disciplines possesses some common properties and characteristics, which we will try to define today and to which we should pay attention. I’m going to speak mainly about the digital humanities broadly construed in the expectation that whatever your discipline might be you can find some of the practices and ideas compatible. Digital scholars across a number of disciplines have begun to adopt similar methods of computationally enhanced inquiry and similar approaches to the construction and dissemination of knowledge. There are for commonalities I would like to discuss.

1. digital scholars are engaged in modeling and knowledge representation
2. digital scholars are engaged in defining the properties of the digital medium
3. digital scholars are engaged in iterative scholarship
4. digital scholars are engaged critical pedagogy

#1 Commonality: Emphasis on Modeling and Knowledge Representation

Rather than seeing the digital as a means for quantification or a singular type of computational procedure, these scholars have emphasized the digital as a space or terrain for knowledge modeling. At the Stanford Literary Lab, Franco Moretti, who has developed “distant reading” as a method to undertake a new literary history, or what he calls “a specific form of knowledge,” describes his maps, graphs, and trees as “artificial constructs,” as “abstract” “forms” or “models” that “show us how little we still know about it [literary history].”

Similarly, Jerome McGann, editor of the Rossetti Archive, has suggested that the digital “critical representation” of any work “does not accurately (so to speak) mirror its object; it consciously (so to speak) deforms its object.” The important critical maneuver, then for McGann, is to dislocate and deform dominant patterns and open “the doors of perception toward new opportunities and points of view.” (Radiant Textuality, 173)

McGann suggests that we should be considering, what will become of our disciplines in 5 years in 10 years? How do we insure that further inquiry into and interaction with Shakespeare’s or Rossetti’s or Lincoln’s texts remain not only possible but flourishes in the dominant medium?

As an example of how digital scholars are modeling knowledge, we will look at a project I am currently leading, the “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C. Law and Family Project.” I should mention at the outset that this project is just underway and what I will show you has not been fully elaborated or encoded.

The goal of this project among other things is to restore the life stories or “life histories,” as I am calling them, of enslaved people, to go to the quantum level if you will, and make visible what has been invisible in the history of slavery, including the networks of relationships of the enslaved and free. Scholars have written accounts of slavery based on models that have been quantitative (economic), microhistorical, institutional, political, and cultural. Many of these works have treated slavery as a system, and more recently as a particularly exploitative feature of the process of capitalist development in the early modern and modern world. It was certainly. It was also experienced in individual actions and individual movements through space and time, the traces of these largely invisible in the historical record. However sensitively and beautifully rendered in the aggregate, individual enslaved histories disappear even as they are introduced and interpreted.

In the digital space, using the D.C. Circuit Court case files, we are attempting to model a multidimensional “life history” approach to documenting the lived experience of individual enslaved and free African Americans in the early republic. Each individual has a record where their status, color, and other attributes might change over time, presented in one way at one time, in another way at another time. As important, every relationship every person had (enslaved by, father of, daughter of, neighbor of, witness for, client of, . . .) will be encoded.

Here’s an example of the TEI encoding of the “life history.”–>

Each life history entry points to the source document for each attribute. Each attribute can change over time.

Each life history entry points to the source document for each attribute. Each attribute can change over time. Henly’s name and color appeared differently in different documents over time.

Our encoding of the relationships in these legal cases begins to suggest the extraordinary range of contacts and connections in the social world of the early republic. In just 69 cases–all petitions for freedom–we have found the names of 589 individuals, and these 589 individuals had 2,452 different relationships. Here is a brief breakdown of these individuals and relationships:

407 male
151 female
31 unknown

relationship categories:
220 enslaved by
159 client of
94 parent of / child of

If we were to extrapolate on the basis of the encoding so far, we have 35 relationships contained in each case. With over 4,000 cases we might have 142,144 relationships.

Much information--the names, occupations, and experiences--about enslaved and free African Americans did not make it into William Cranch's reports on the cases in the D.C. Circuit Court. He rarely included last names of African Americans, yet detailed information is contained in the original case papers.

Much information–the names, occupations, and experiences–about enslaved and free African Americans did not make it into William Cranch’s reports on the cases in the D.C. Circuit Court. He rarely included last names of African Americans, yet detailed information is contained in the original case papers.

I think it is important to point out that these individuals and relationships are barely visible in the publication of the case reports by William Cranch, chief judge of the D.C. court for nearly the first half of the nineteenth century. Cranch’s volumes have been cited routinely in appellate decisions and legal briefs, as well as examined by legal historians for years. Yet, Cranch excluded last names of African Americans throughout his volumes and focused mainly on legal procedures and rules. The result is that although this source has been digitized and can “mined” or combined with other texts in the HathiTrust collection, it does not contain the “life histories” visible in the case papers. Modeling the life histories contained in legal records asks us to represent legal structures as well as social relations.

John Unsworth has argued that digital humanities is a “practice of representation, a form of modeling or mimicry.” He has further pointed out that we ought to be able to distinguish the seriousness, or depth, of the engagement with the array of computational and digital properties at work in any given project. This should be possible across the liberal arts I would think and applies to the field generally. (John Unsworth, “What is Humanities Computing and What is it Not?”)

To train us to see the difference, he suggests that there is a difference between, say, the digital liberal arts, and a something close to it that nonetheless is really an analog form reproduced in the digital medium.

Here’s Unsworth:

“The bad news here is that all humanities [any field] computing projects today are involved in some degree of charlatanism, even the best of them. But degree matters, and one way in which that degree can be measured is by the interactivity offered to users who wish to frame their own research questions. If there is none offered, and no other interactivity, then the project is probably pure charlatanism. If it offers some (say, keyword searching), then it can be taken a bit more seriously. If it offers structured searching, a bit more so. If it offers combinatorial queries, more so. If it allows you to change parameters and values in order to produce new models, it starts to look very much like something that must be built on a thoroughgoing representation. . . . But you see the principle implied by this scale–the more room a resource offers for the exercise of independent imagination and curiosity, the more substantially well thought-out, well-designed, and well-produced a resource it must be.”

We’ll not discuss tenure and promotion standards here, but Unsworth’s counterintuitive comment deserves serious consideration. The quality he is describing is a more dialogic, less directive, characteristic of the digital, but as he suggests it clearly demands a thorough understanding or model of the knowledge domain being represented. Unsworth’s example of the degrees of interactivity in a digital resource reveals another common property or characteristic we should consider.

#2 Commonality: Understanding the Affordances of the Digital Medium

Janet Murray in Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice explains how the digital medium exploits certain affordances, and I’ve taken these as an essential guide to understanding the digital medium.

Rather than settle for remediation of old media into digital forms, Murray encourages scholars and designers to “think more radically.” She describes four essential affordances of the digital medium: procedural, spatial, encyclopedic, and participatory. Procedural refers to the degree to which the computer processes information through algorithms or otherwise engages its processing power (database searching, on the fly rendering. . .). Spatial refers to the degree of navigational spatiality inherent in the digital resource under consideration–not whether or not the project deals with geography. How does one know where one is in the virtual space of any digital project? Encyclopedic refers to the degree to which a given digital project exploits the memory capacity of the machinery to make accessible vast quantities of information, text, or material otherwise too big to manage in print form. And participatory refers to the degree to which a project invites and allows interaction.

A given project might exploit one of these affordances more than another. But according to Murray, “these four properties constitute our design space, the context for all of our design choices.” Every work of digital scholarship can be assessed on the degree to which it maximizes these four affordances. Some works may be more spatial than participatory or more encyclopedic than procedural.

Murray’s formulation of an “affordance grid” offers a particularly helpful way to categorize digital works. By placing a digital project on the scale of its relative engagement in each affordance category, Murray suggests we can “map an existing or proposed artifact against the larger design space in order to identify opportunities for growth and to predict the direction of media innovation.” Affordance mapping entails asking: “What does it do? What can I (the interactor) do? Where am I in relation to the whole? What are the boundaries of this domain?”

As an example, we’ll take a tour of The Valley of the Shadow project. Its censuses offer a example of procedural processing on the part of the server for the client; its navigational scheme offers a sense of spatial movement through the project; its newspapers collection with tens of thousands of newspapers images offer an encyclopedic depth for any reader; and its premise of comparing two counties, one in the North and one in the South, offers a participatory choice at every level and junction in the project design–that is, which will you choose, which next to compare?

Indeed, much of the energy and work in the digital humanities community has been framed around building digital objects with attention to these particular properties, tools that are inflected in ways specific for humanistic inquiry, interpretive acts, and formulating hypotheses. These efforts have been substantial, and include large-scale digital editing projects, interface design for digital reading, query design, and data encoding.

The effort to explore the affordances of the digital medium extends to scholars working in different contexts across the world. Kiyonori Nagasaki at the University of Tokyo for example has been researching methods for reading across translations, working toward less chaotic and more comparative textual encounters. The shaping of humanities materials to the affordances of the digital medium has been preparatory to, and vital for, further interpretive scholarship.

I would also note that understanding these principles of the digital medium should play a role in online education as well. If online education persists in forcing a LMS-driven approach, and ignores these affordances of the digital medium, it will fail.

#3 Commonality: Practice and Process for Iterative Scholarship

Scholars across the disciplines are conducting their scholarship in iterative fashion, mobilizing collaborations, and building networks of research and teaching. Often adopting open access models of publication and using open-source software, these scholars are also conducting their research in ways that allow anyone anywhere to see what they are doing and build upon their work.

I want to show two examples, both the work of students. Brian Sarnacki in our department is conducting his dissertation research in digital form on “The Rise and Fall of the American Small City, 1870-1930.” His written interpretive work appears side-by-side with his methodology, data, and encoding practices. He offers downloadable data and instructions for replicating his visualizations, graphs, and maps using various software packages.

The Spatial History Project at Stanford provides another inspiration. Here, a team of students worked with historian Richard White on data that he and I identified in the Newberry Library’s CBQ railroad collection (Conflict on the Q!). The Spatial History Lab has emphasized the process of crafting historical visualizations of spatial experience, and the lab has built networks into other communities of researchers and practitioners. Zephyr Frank’s Terrain of History project offers an outstanding example of scholarship in process, iterative layering of interpretive elements, data, and query features.

Graduate programs at Stanford, Nebraska, UCLA, Emory, and USC, among others, are training students in ways that encourage digital iterative scholarship. These scholars will be on the faculties at small liberal arts colleges in five to ten years, expecting to have their work valued and understood as digital scholarship. Sidonie Smith, former president of the Modern Language Association, called in 2010 for a re-examination of the dissertation monograph, arguing in “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph” that we should “expand the forms the dissertation might take.” Smith considered revising the form of the dissertation to be an “urgent challenge,” and she concluded that “Experimenting with new media stimulates new habits of mind and enhanced cultures of collegiality. Future faculty members in the modern languages and literatures will require flexible and improvisational habits and collaborative skills to bring their scholarship to fruition.” The point here today is that our students are already engaged in expanding the forms of the dissertation, and they will be embarking on their careers at small liberal arts colleges having been acculturated to these digital forms.

For historians, there are considerable opportunities to engage the public, especially genealogists, just as scientists are engaging citizen scientists. As our work becomes more iterative, more open, it offers the possibility to enlist communities we have long (too long) ignored.

#4 Commonality: Digital Pedagogy

Finally, teaching and learning offers us our greatest opportunities and commonalities. The term digital pedagogy is not yet in wide use, but it means much than using Powerpoint, so called flipping classrooms, or MOOCs. Instead, by digital pedagogy we mean a critical engagement with and through the digital medium. Jesse Stommel, a perceptive advocate of what he calls “critical digital pedagogy,” defines it this way: a practice that “demands that open and networked educational environments must not be merely repositories of content. They must be platforms for engaging students and teachers as full agents of their own learning.” (Critical Digital Pedagogy–A Definition)

As an example, we’ll look at a pedagogical project underway at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: The History Harvest.

The main aim of this project is to engage students in making history by working directly in communities on the creation of digital resources that document the history of that community. They harvest history. They also create the possibility in digital space for a more diverse, inclusive, and democratic narrative of American history. The resources build upon themselves and are made available for further teaching, use, and research. But it is the process of iterating harvests in communities and iterating family and community histories that the project emphasizes.

By making the histories of families and communities visible, by incorporating into the digital archival stream previously invisible materials and histories, we open up the possibility of more holistic history. And through the conversation we have about the meaning of these materials, we also consider how the history of these families fits in the fuller sweep of the history of the U.S. and the world. This moment of recognition is particularly powerful for students and for donors–they see how their history matters.

We started in North Omaha, the birthplace of Malcolm X, and we have moved into small rural communities, the Germans from Russia, and will be working in South Omaha with Latino families in the coming year.

We have run different models of the History Harvest course (see Last year we combined history and computer science students in a joint class to explore through the History Harvest how history students might engage in more robust computational thinking and work and how computer science students might engage in more robust historical thinking and work.


Many of the graduate students in my digital humanities seminar went to liberal arts colleges. They suggested that one of the most important aspects about the digital in higher education, particularly in the liberal arts college setting, is that with relatively minimal support advances in digital technology and communication have made it possible for students to build sophisticated works of scholarship on their own or with an advisor, share that work in the world, and make meaningful contributions to the circulation of knowledge.

In addition, there are numerous ways for digital practices to bridge disciplines so that students gain mastery and knowledge by building on domains that have long been separate. A course in computer science tailored to data visualization might allow students to work with data collected in another course in the social sciences, sciences, or humanities. A course in 3D modeling might build molecular structures, reconstruct historical sites, or fabricate material culture that students documented and researched in previous courses. This generative approach to teaching and learning promises to tie together what students have previously experienced as separate intellectual actions.

We should take the broadest definition we can of the digital and the digital liberal arts we can.

If I worry about anything in the digital humanities, it is that our engagement with the digital will be incomplete and truncated. We will use computational tools and digital technologies “offline,” so to speak, to conduct investigations, manage and query data, and reach new discoveries, but we will continue to publish our research in scholarly journals and with presses in formats developed for print publication. This scholarship will be digitally informed, to a greater or lesser degree, but its form will not be suited for the digital medium. We may continue to have our scholarly conversations with one another in this form, even as nearly all other human communication and expression bends to the medium. What we see as “digital” may not be truly digital at all. And we might be the last to know.

Like Murray, I encourage us to “think more radically.” Let’s use the digital medium to open the world of our disciplines (physics, history, English . . . ) to others so that they can see the depth and interconnections we see in any chart, table, map, or paragraph, how it unfolds and opens into the disciplinary directions and meanings we value. We can do this for and with our students, and in ways that reach those outside of our disciplines and institutions, for whom our world may often seem obscure or unknowable.

We might start with our students. Ask them the following questions: if you research X, how do you think we might communicate that work to your colleagues, to the world, how might we represent that knowledge most effectively? Their answer might be uncomfortable, that’s understandable. But it probably won’t surprise us, and it will be digital.

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The Future of Digital History, #rrchnm20

The Future of Digital History
George Mason University
November 15, 2014

First, I want to thank Roy for his generosity to young scholars like me a few years ago. Roy Rosenzweig’s mentorship of young scholars was so significant and his impact on many of our careers was extraordinary.

Following on the spirit of yesterday’s unconference session, I’d like to start with a Roy story. In 2002 Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, asked me to present the digital article “The Differences Slavery Made” to the AHR Board of Editors. I was nervous. The review process had been disorienting for Ed and me. Our experiment in form appeared to be inexplicable to our colleagues or worse taken as a threat. We had pulled back the navigation design and architecture of the project to satisfy the AHR reviewers. The conversation with the AHR board was polite but tense. Roy was at the conference that year, and I remember his warm encouragement and enthusiasm–this was an opportunity, he said, to demonstrate to the board the value of digital scholarship and digital history, it can only be for the best.

Then after the piece was published, at the 2004 AHA pre-conference workshop on digital history, Roy called the article “hypertraditional” in his plenary session remarks. He was right on, and yet this was a sly, subversive comment. It was difficult to tell if it was meant as a compliment or a criticism! It was both. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the final result was not what we wanted, but it was what we could get through. Roy recognized that reality, but he was simultaneously prodding the AHA and us. We still need Roy’s prodding.

I think Roy’s comment still holds: much of what is digital history today can be described as “hypertraditional.” We are stuck in this gear so to speak, and I think we can agree it is time to move beyond hypertraditional, and to realize the full promise of history using digital media.

As we have discussed, Roy was excellent, brilliant, indeed exceptional, at working from the inside of the AHA, as Ed Ayers said a few moments ago, to “highjack the institution”–we need to do more of that. We need more chairs of history departments who understand, support, and cultivate digital history.

Yesterday the provost described his foray into Silicon Valley recently where he asked leading developers and CEOs, “what is the next big thing? what will change way we think and change our culture in a profound fashion?” Their answer, he found, was simple: the next big thing is the fundamental disappearing of the boundary between the physical and cyber world. These will be interwoven, integrated, seamless, blurred.

Perhaps because I just read (and taught) William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the melding of the physical and virtual worlds suggests that we need to think about the future of digital history as embedded more fully in cultural products and media. In the Neuromancer world the physical and the cyber have been so fully integrated (and embodied) that it is difficult to tell the difference between RL and VL for Case, and Molly, Armitage, and the rest.

Moreover, in the Neuromancer places–Chiba, The Sprawl, or the BAMA–there are no sites of historical meaning or cultural memory. Strikingly, there are no historical reference points in the cities and environments of these worlds, few markers of the past, and few clear indications that history and the present are connected. This is a world where its inherited history and culture have been forgotten or cut off, rendered into data, encrypted, swapped, stolen, and traded, but largely buried.

In imagining the future of digital history, as the cyber and physical worlds come together, we might think about how history can be more present in our lives, environments, and spaces, where all aspects of the past are accessible and integrated into the present.

In the future of digital history the line between past and present will disappear, just as there will be a gradual elimination of the physical and cyber.

Yesterday your provost gave the Google glass example–how can we envision history as worn, as encountered everyday, as seamlessly woven into the fabric and material of our physical and virtual worlds.

He also suggested that we will soon have a rewired generation of human beings. In fact, they may be the first generation in a long time able to use the digital environment to break through to the past. We typically lament presentism in history, but it may be that presentism is a function of the print culture, and that digital culture changes the terms on which students engage with history in a more clarifying way.

In the future of digital history the past will be more present in our everyday lives than before, at least potentially. We need to think carefully about the ways we build the historical into the present as the physical and the cyber worlds are integrated — what modes work best?

I am sure that you saw the Gallup / Inside Higher Ed poll released last month on the use of technology in academe. The poll surveyed 2,799 faculty and 288 tech administrators.

Some of the results were not that surprising. Faculty doubt that online teaching can produce results equal to in person courses! Okay, that’s not surprising.

But this poll featured a tag along question related to technology at the end: do you agree or disagree with the statement the digital humanities has been oversold. Only 12% strongly disagreed with this statement. Indeed, over 50 % either strongly agreed or agreed, while 25 % have no opinion

Now, some in this room probably strongly agree with this statement!

Digital humanists, as far as I can tell, largely ignored the report but I think it offers a healthy corrective. And we might want to consider why so many faculty across the disciplines might think that digital humanities has been “oversold.”

The poll reveals a fault line in the digital humanities. In part we have confused or misunderstood what the digital means in digital humanities. DH has been broadly understood as big data-oriented and primarily computational and algorithmic, hence digital. But this is an organizing premise that will perpetually result in the digital humanities as oversold. It’s an example of what Ed sometimes calls “anticipointment”–the sense that we have anticipations or expectations for the digital that can’t help but be unmet and therefore disappointing. By digital we should mean something much more than big data or computation, we should mean an engagement with the medium that challenges us to rethink, reconfigure, reconceptualize, and reimagine the forms of historical expression and historical knowledge, suitable to the digital tools, networks, and machinery at our disposal.

In digital history we will do those computational things, of course, and we have for a long time, but our purpose is more radical, a reconstitution of history for the digital era in which a fully complex social reality of today, the present, meets or resides with and in relation to a fully complex social reality of yesterday, the past.

Now the future of digital history also requires that we do some things that we have not done or only partially achieved. For the future of digital history what do we need more of?

1. Review more–There is little review of digital history, it is limiting the field. We are relying on peer review in the grant application process, and to a lesser extent in tenure and promotion, but the future of digital history will require critical engagement of interpretative procedures used or deployed in digital history.

2. Interpret more–Digital history projects are generally one off, silo-ed, and internally collaborative. We have built deep thematic archives and sophisticated examples of digital projects, but these often go un-cited and unincorporated into the scholarly record. They need to be cited, integrated, mixed into, and associated with other works of historical scholarship. We in digital history have not done this very well in some respects, because we have been concentrating on building our own digital projects. The future of digital history will need to feature works that associate and interrelate digital objects.

As a corollary, we need a renewed engagement with the form of history in cyber. I was struck by Dan Cohen’s comment yesterday that he first met Roy Rosenzweig at a Hypertext conference. We need to re-examine how historical narrative and interpretation might be best adapted in the digital medium.

3. Reciprocate more–Community-based, shared digital history project should characterize the future of digital history. Here, we should meet our audience where they are. It will require us to be less directive, less authoritative, and more dialogic in the history we produce. One area of especially fruitful reciprocal engagement would come from family history. Genealogy-based history could allow us to connect with the broader community in a more intentional and productive way. Of all of the communities interested in history, genealogy remains one that digital history has bypassed. We should close this gap.

If we review more, interpret more, and reciprocate more, digital history will work within our institutions effectively and we will reconstitute history for the digital age.

Gibson described cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, . . . a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” His dystopian vision of “the matrix” with its “jacking in,” drugs, and lost identities, suggested that cyber society had lost its humanity.

As the cyber and physical worlds converge, we in digital history might do more to bring the past more directly into the present, reconstituting history to be simultaneously accessible and integrated into the present, both in the physical and the virtual worlds we inhabit.

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