historian, author, film producer

What we think we will build and what we build in Digital Humanities

Innovations in Digital Research: Challenges and Opportunities
University of Nebraska
Nebraska Digital Workshop
October 14, 2011

(The following talk was given for the 6th Annual Nebraska Digital Workshop. I’m grateful to Kay Walter and Ken Price for the invitation to serve as a presenter at the workshop and to Susan Brown for participating on the panel, and to Kirsten Uszkalo, Jentery Sayers, and Colin Wilder for their participation in the workshop.)

I’m going to talk this afternoon about a central paradox of doing digital humanities–what Jerome Mcgann, one of the leading scholars of electronic texts, calls the problem of imagining what you don’t know.

In Digital Humanities, what we think we will build and what we build are often quite different, and unexpectedly so. It’s this radical disjuncture that offers us both opportunities and challenges.

As you just heard, my book from Yale came out in September. From the start I thought of the book and the digital project on Railroads and the Making of Modern America as complementary and inter-dependent. The web site was a publicly available platform for assembling research, integrating data, collaborating with other scholars, and experimenting with forms of argument and interpretation.

And about a week before the book came out, I received a phone call from someone named Harvey Rochman. Mr. Rochman is a film producer, saw the book listed on Yale’s web site and saw the link to the digital project, and he said he wanted to make a film of . . . The Iron Way.

I assured him that such an enterprise could not be undertaken for business purposes. Perhaps, this was some sort of elaborate tax shelter, or a front for something awful, like the illegal trade in exotic species, or maybe it was part of a charity program to benefit poor historians. He was calling from Florida–Key West–which was meant to impress me I think.

He said that oh yes he was serious, I could find him in IMDB, he produced a studio film in 2008 [(Misconceptions–about a religiously conservative Southern woman who agrees to be a surrogate mother for two gay men in Boston, one is African American, much confusion and comedy ensue, apparently).] He was working with someone whose name I did not immediately recognize, that means he had not been on Dancing with the Stars recently, no one famous like the guys from Duran Duran, Ally Sheedy, or Kirsty Alley, or someone like that. Anyway, he said in total seriousness that all I needed was 3 acts, 1 to set up the conflict, one to have the conflict, and last a resolution. Three acts. Simple. Let’s see. The Civil War, there’s conflict, but there’s that resolution part. Humm. Railroads, there conflict, conflict, conflict.

In any case, what I needed was a “treatment.” In this encounter with the producer, it was clear that everything could be reduced to “a treatment”. It was also clear as I stumbled to explain the digital project and the book–that we were worlds apart. I’d been to Key West but not his Key West. I could not translate the way the book and digital project worked together, the role the digital project played in shaping my argument.

More seriously, this interest, however unexpected, does indicate something we also often forget–we work on subjects of great appeal and audiences are enthusiastic and compelled by the stories we tell in history, art, literature, poetry.

It turns out that the digital project was my sub sub-library to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. And the work of the sub sub-librarian was one of classification and interconnection–it required getting out in the world too, talking with other collectors and librarians. In a way it is a different scholarly identity.

This is a role that in the digital humanities we embrace as public not private–and reverses what had been the practice for generations of guarding your sources and research plans. Here’s a test: who checks that box at the Special Collections sign-in “Yes, I am willing to be contacted about my work”? This public role of collecting, sharing, and opening the sub sub library is one that I have found I cherished.

Even so, as Melville warned, the archive “however authentic” offers only “a glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own.”

There was a further problem with the idea of a film script. Much of what I was doing–spatial approaches to history and, even, network approaches to history–was about understanding process rather than explaining causation, it was about exploring the making of modern America. I wanted in the book to hold up a correlation I saw in the archive: between what had been separately told stories–the Civil War and the expansion of railroads. The goal in the book was to explore this correlation and to tell the story of these processes unfolding simultaneously.

In this view history is interactive not static, the digital project offers an immersive experience rather than a linear one, a way for readers to participate in the reading of history, in exploring the correlation I was seeing.

When we produce a work of scholarship in whatever form, Jerome Mcgann reminds us that “to make anything is also to make a speculative foray into a concealed but wished for unknown.” I assure you that what I wished for in setting out on my digital project was not to produce a movie with Mr. Rochman or any other equally famous director, though I have not ruled out such a venture. This is a guiding principle of DH: keep your options open for as long as possible.

So, the digital work that we create, Mcgann tells us, “is not the achievement of one’s desire: it is the shadow of that desire. . .”

I am particularly aware of Mcgann’s disjunction right now, (and of Melville’s caution), I suppose, because my project on Railroads and the Making of Modern America is at the end of 5 years. With the Center here, we have created a large digital archive, databases, experimented with visualization models, and produced some scholarly research publications. We have a cohort of graduate students in digital history trained and experienced and new students interested and involved. We have an audience of readers, students, and citizens, the public, general interest reader.

But Mcgann’s comment keeps raising its head. What we think we will build and what we build are not the same thing in digital humanities. Our archive might be only a “glancing bird’s eye view.”

This is as true of a book or a film as it is of a digital work. But right now, at this moment in the development of the digital medium, I think we can see how far we are from understanding the genre–of how far we are from being able to say send me “a treatment”. The distance between our wish and our object is often so great because the forms and practices and procedures of creation in the digital medium remain profoundly unstable and speculative.

Mcgann’s premise might be restated (he might not agree with this, I don’t know): if you have produced what you thought you would, perhaps you’ve not created anything really; if a digital project becomes what was specified it might not be a digital humanities work.

We have been asked to speak about challenges and opportunities today. I’ll suggest a few examples from our experience in the last few years with the Railroads project. What we really are asking today is how does scholarly practice change with digital humanities? Or how do we do humanities in the digital age?

This is very new. Everything is changing — our audiences, our procedures, our institutions.

So, one question we face is in Digital Humanities is:


Most projects in digital humanities begin as a digital archive, creating a collection of documents that are digitized. I want to encourage this–in the disciplines we need more attention to this work as scholarship. But digital scholars also seek to both assemble and analyze, both examine and interpret.

Five million books might be digitized, but the millions and millions of cubic feet of archival railroad records, well that was something else. What is a representative sample of railroad records?

We built a digital archive topically arranged for easy access and usability by the widest audience possible. Railroad texts were structurally so dissimilar that we confronted a major classification problem, one that we could not effectively address.

The point is that the architecture and encoding of a digital archive–what Johanna Drucker calls “creating the intellectual model”–must be undertaken speculatively. It must be adjusted, changed, explored. Interpretive archives cannot be built to spec.

At least in digital history, on one level, it is the diversity of document types that has yet to be fully confronted. We can build models from long runs of legal case files or printed texts or runaway slave newspaper advertisements, but when we turn to a domain such as railroads, or slavery, or genocide, or the family, the intellectual model behind an archive, so often expressed in encoded texts, becomes unwieldy.

This challenge is our opportunity–to reconsider the “digital archive” as intentional and interpretive–in our case to offer a new way to encounter the railroad–rather than focus attention on the board room, or the directors, the archive would open up a diverse array of railroad users and interfaces. Its argument would be to expose the ways railroads were used and thought of. We want to create a new history of the railroad.

But as we create interpretive archives we need to be able to answer the question: where is our scholarship. This is where we need allies–libraries in particular–as partners in modelling, preserving, and making available this scholarship.

The second question we face in digital humanities right now is how do we work differently.


Digital humanities projects are often characterized as collaborative. In many respects this is the most obvious change in scholarly practice–we work with librarians, programmers, and colleagues in other disciplines.

The opportunity here seems self-evident. But the model of historical and humanities scholarship has been sole-author, sole-researcher for a long time, and for most universities the evaluation for hiring, promotion, and tenure proceeds to assess candidates on this basis.

In the Railroads project I wanted a team of graduate students to have the opportunity to gain experience in digital work, to advance their own scholarship, and where possible to participate in research publications. The challenge for digital humanities now is to make this work count where appropriate. We have begun keeping track of all research publications associated with the project–and we will be co-authoring new articles for the project with teams of researchers. In the early phase of digital humanities we built teams, and teams built projects. But now we are seeing teams contributing to publication streams.

The social structures for these contributions are not as yet settled. At the beginning of the project, I had only a vague idea how student colleagues would participate beyond building the digital project. Now, we are beginning to see projects build in publication objectives and contributions at the start.

A third question we face in digital humanities right now is:


My colleagues at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and my graduate students in the Department of History patiently bore with me on this one. From the first I hoped to experiment with a new form for our historical interpretative work, and this is what we began to call an “assemblage” or a “view.” The view is a framed set of materials on a given subject that integrates sets of evidence and data around a specific historiographical problem or question, without directly narrating the subject. We wanted the views to inspire investigation and focus attention, to serve as interrelated starting points. We could have hundreds of views that build out of the collection.

The tools to assemble a view proved challenging to create–we were after all asking for an authoring tool for the digital medium. The rise of the blog in this same period reduced the incentive for experimentation with scholarly argument and hypertext.

The humble footnote is still the mark of scholarship and now we need to consider how we will migrate footnotes–the links and scholarly apparatus of a work–to digital form. This challenge and opportunity is surprising because the web is so good at linking. But we’ve not experimented as much as we could with discursive notes, linking, and narrative argument in digital form.

The changes in publication models should be an opportunity. We are on the cusp of a new genre of hybrid digital and print publishing. Books are and will be supported with digital sources and verifiable links to the elements that went into the study. Journals will move into the publication of born-digital work also, integrating print and digital formats.

In the humanities scholarly practice might shift toward a more fluid and open exchange of ideas and arguments characterized by a different sequence of activities:

  • from openly available original research
  • to pre-print presentation
  • to peer review publication
  • to a period of open verification
  • to a period of adjustment and re-examination.
  • We know that opportunities and challenges here remain. We are in the early stages of this medium. We should look for ways to enchant readers, to hold attention, and to create long-form argument. Here we might be working against the medium (jumping through links) but the iPad and tablets appear to be opening up new opportunities for our scholarship.

    Finally, we are in a transition phase. We call what we are doing “digital humanities” or “digital history” but really we are doing humanities in the digital age, we are doing history in the digital age. This work might be characterized increasingly by three qualities:

    1. increasing the scale of research and data involved: 5 million books, 100,000 newspaper articles–this is the least important characteristic actually because it is limited to scholars, but the challenge will be not only to support this research with infrastructure but to come up with intellectual models for such large scale interpretation. Imagine how these “distant readings” fit in a U.S. history or literature survey.

    2. addressing the global distribution of discourse and materials: sources all over the world need to be brought together and the challenge will be to create new linkages in the cultural records of the world, from Cairo to Seville to London to Chicago. Language differences, copyright, and sheer distance will need to be overcome.

    3. using new models of production: we have students as colleagues and citizens as colleagues, and the challenge here will be to validate and credit their contributions, integrate their work, and do so in a way that enables further scholarship.

    We are doing nothing less than redefining our practices and at the same time the relationship of our society to the past, our literature, history, and culture.

    Our digital age presents a different medium in which to convey multiple sources of information and to render interpretive arguments. It is instantiating different ways of knowing, different ways of seeing, reading, and learning. What we think we will build and what we build are not the same but we can and should celebrate and inquire into the difference. And one day, when the call comes, you might be able to say, “Sure, I’ll send you my treatment.”

    Much has been made in our circles about Charles Joseph Minard’s map of the Napoleonic March, but Minard drew his first such graphs for railroads in France and developed his technique in works combining traffic and distances. In 1845 he published what he called his first “figurative map”

    Minard’s work, however, took more than 15 years to reach the sophistication we so admire. These 15 years years witnessed the vast expansion of railroad culture in Europe and the U.S. Minard experimented with the forms for conveying multiple sources of information, but the disjunction between what he wished to build and what he built took time to resolve.

    We are, Robert Darton argues, perhaps in a similar position–15 years into what he calls the 4th great Information Age in human history. We are learning how right now how to adjust!

    An Addendum:

    In the area of opportunities, I’ve lay out these, rather quickly and without any checking–areas of engagement in Digital Humanities research that are either being funded, or conducted, or appear to take the field in important new directions (these are not in order of any rank–the titles are mine and made up)–and as a word of caution I know little about many of these areas.

    A.) Big Data and Cyberinfrastructure: of the sort being done in NEH Digging into Data and various Mellon projects. These projects are following the directions largely pointed to in the 2005 ACLS Cyberinfrastructure report (Unsworth et al.). It seems unlikely that this trend will slow down and indeed all signs (n-grams) point to quite the reverse. The project most in the public is “culturomics”– Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel on “What we learned from 5 million books.” Although their example of “slavery” and its spike in the 1860s and 1960s seems strikingly obvious, the n-gram and big data approach potentially challenge what has been a defining DH practice: building an intellectual model around interpretive digital archives.

    B.) Brain Science and Humanities: This research would be an area of work suggested by Cathy Davidson’s new book, Now You See It, and the PBS digital nation special last year. Other recent research in this area includes for example the Center for Applied Linguistics’ Brain Research: Implications for Second Language Learning.

    C.) Performance/Materiality of Scholarship in DH/”Embodied” Research: the latest issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, we see a piece directly on this subject from Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming and we have already seen some clear indications of this work in the Nebraska Digital Workshop, its range, significance, and theoretical and methodological tendencies. In fact, across the field of History, we are seeing more research focused on “sensory” history. Margaret Jacobs Bancroft Prize-winning work here at Nebraska on the removal of indigenous children and boarding schools adopts this analytical method. DHers are beginning to push toward broader “embodied” scholarship and explore how the multimedia technology would represent or immerse this scholarship.

    –Virtual Realities: This could be its own grouping probably but it seems to me to have shifted somewhat as a major area of research and could be subsumed under the above heading. Harvard’s “Mixed Reality City” and UCLA’s Hypercities are next generation virtual reality environments, as are dozens of other GPS enabled encoding projects (Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, . . .). These projects have a different set of research objectives from their virtual reality predecessors.

    D.) Beyond Markup–Hermeneutics and Encoding Theory and Practice: Here I’m way out of my area, but the questions are big and important, and a great deal of Digital Humanities work remains to be done in this area. The problems surround XML encoding, TEI, and the questions of linearity, multidimensionality, fluidity, subjectivity, and multiple perspectives. A good example of this work is presented in Digital Humanities Quarterly by Fiormonte, Martiradonna, and Schmidt “Digital Encoding as a Hermeneutic and Semiotic Act” but Johanna Drucker has been writing about this and so has Jerome McGann, Stephen Ramsay, and Espen Aarseth. The point here is that the structures of XML encoding were designed for information storage and retrieval but we find ourselves in Digital Humanities perhaps as McLuhan stated in 1967 “in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

    E.) New Scholarly Formats:here I would refer not to the technologies or social practices to enable open “digital commons” or to defenses of open access, but to the cluster of research agendas around discovering new forms of scholarly communication through multi-use, mixed new media, copyright clearance, mash ups, e books, and experimentation of any kind with the delivery, dissemination, or arrangement of scholarly work. The focus here is on authorship, creativity, design, “new model scholarship”, born digital work, and readership. Some of these efforts have taken place in History–the original AHR articles (mine included), and more recently the Writing History in the Digital Age (underway), and the Hacking the Academy digital cultures project (just released). Stephen Ramsay here has pioneered some of this with the blog to book project. And Douglas Seefeldt has with the Sustaining Digital History project and thinking about short-form digital history scholarship. We are, however, a long way from knowing how this will turn out.

    F: Interfaces for Humanities: Johanna Drucker has written about this in SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, and Stan Ruecker has written about this widely.