A Hypothetical Digital Project

Because I have a background in working with GIS, I tend to gravitate toward map-based projects, and I have a litany of such projects, but they always seem to be modeled after other projects I find interesting that have already been done, just in a different location. Instead of rehashing another “look at these documents/photos on a map!” project I decided I wanted to go in another direction for this post.

As an archival student, I am especially interested in genealogy related projects and personal archives, so my potential digital project revolves around these interests. I was thinking of a project that might be feasible for a small local history archive to implement and maintain, perhaps even with just one person team. Many local history archives collect genealogical or personal materials from the local community, but this usually happens either after the collector has passed away, or later on in their life. I would like to see a digital collection of local personal archives that can be centralized and hosted by a single institution such as a small local history society or archive. This, in practice, would be somewhat similar to the NINES project we read about class last week. I am envisioning that a single person or small team could come up with a set of basic metadata standards and best practices for digitization of personal documents and photographs, and then allow community members who conform to those standards to upload their items to an Omeka-like platform that would host their collections and then be searchable by other community members.  This would essentially end up being a community driven digital collection for the archives. I imagine that a large percentage of community members who would want to take advantage of the project would not be digitally literate. Therefore I would propose having a workshops day, perhaps once a month, that would cover scanning options and formats, what the basic meta-data options would be, the uploading/submission process, even spending some time offering to take some of their documents and go through the process with them. We could also suggest other places that could help them with certain aspects of the process (like local or online photo digitization services or libraries that have access to scanners and photo software, etc.).

Without having a specific community in mind (I’m thinking of a local history society for a small city that serves between five to ten thousand people), it difficult to say exactly what the interest level might be, but it would have to be researched beforehand on what the expected volume of document submissions might be to know whether to try and boost advertising to gain more submissions, or whether to look for volunteers for more help because you’re expecting a large number of submissions from the beginning.  I think there would need to be a good deal of explanation up front of what kinds of material would be accepted (items that are similar to the institutions collecting policy, nothing that included any information about living people, etc). These policies, and the metadata and format standards would need to be clearly stated on the website, along with information that clearly outlines the submission process.

Although it would certainly be theoretically possible to use such a collection for scholarly work, the purpose of the project would certainly be geared toward public outreach and participation, and would focus more on community and institutional relationships rather than scholarship necessarily. While it’s not necessarily giving voice to underrepresented groups (although that could certainly be a possibility depending on where and how the project was implemented), I think that educating the public about archival and historical collection processes, while developing an publically accessible digital collection which can be maintained with help from the community is worthwhile unto itself.

The Viz – Playing with Voyant Tools

This past week for my History and New Media class I had to read selections from Geoffery Rockwell and Stefan Sinclair’s book Hermenueutica, which illustrated how different digital humanities projects can use visualizations. Along with the reading, we were tasked with trying out Voyant Tools.

During the reading, and the in-class demonstration, I became particularly fascinated by Voyant’s “ScatterPlot” function, which visually represents a “correspondence analysis” (how closely related terms and data sets are to one another) on a 2D plane via physical proximity. i.e. The closer two words, two data sets, or a word and a data set are to each other on the plot, the closer the analytic relationship.

During the in-class demonstration, I was also intrigued by the ability to edit the “stop-word” list (the list of terms that are excluded from analysis). Voyant automatically uses a default list that includes very commonly used terms such as articles, prepositions, and pronouns (the, an, in, this, they, etc.). I found, however, that some of those words were actually of interest to me in trying to understand how an individual might be using terminology. Specifically, I was interested in seeing the uses of pronouns. How much were individuals using “we” vs “I” vs “you” vs “they”. These words very much have implications as to the kind of rhetoric an individual is engaging in. A term like “we” is inherently inclusive. But if someone is using “them” and “us” to a greater degree, are they engaging in otherwise divisive rhetoric or is there possibly some other explanation?

To analyze such rhetoric I took the textual corpus of Milwaukee Mayor (1960-1988) Henry Maier (which included documents from both myself and another student) and uploaded it to Voyant. I then changed the stop-word list from the default setting to having no stop-words. I could then see, using the word cloud tool, which of all the words were most prevalent. Using the word cloud as a guide, I could then create a customized stop-word list, taking out articles and prepositions but leaving in the pronouns I wanted to analyze.

Using this method I did find some interesting correlations using the ScatterPlot. Maier’s mentions of “we” correspond strongly with the terms “city” and “Milwaukee”. Not surprisingly, given his position, he uses the inclusive pronoun when he’s invoking a sense of city-wide community.  Interestingly, the pronouns “I”, “you”, and “our” cluster around each other. I might have expected “our” to be more strongly associated with the “we/city” correlation. The “I/you/our” cluster is also much more strongly associated with Maier’s use of racial terminology such as “negro” and “white”. “They” and “their” seem to be outliers, they cluster together, but the only other term nearby is “because”. Perhaps Maier is using these 3rd person plurals in some type of explanatory manner? To check this hypothesis I used the “WordTree” tool. As soon as I opened the tool, WordTree showed the word “because” as the most common word immediately preceding “they”. Following the phrases forward and backward, one seemed to be an explanation as to protestors getting purposefully arrested, the other an explanation of housing problems caused by white flight (Maier uses the class term “rich” in place of the racial term “white”).

WordTree for Maier corpus – Voyant Tools

There’s so many tools, and so many varied ways you can use them, that I’ve only barely scratched the surface. I’m excited to dive deeper and start comparing other figures of the Milwaukee Civil Rights movement. Stay tuned for more as the semester’s project progresses.

The History Manifesto (Jo Guldi & David Armitage) – A Review

Almost immediately into the introduction of The History Manifesto, I was excited to see Guldi and Armitage’s focus on long term thinking, and especially the mention of the Long Now Foundation. I’ve been casually interested in the subject since I read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in 2008, a sci-fi novel premised on a society’s solution to long term thinking, setting up a monastic order that is cut off from communication with the outside world for set periods of time. Stephenson was inspired by the Long Now project. Guldi and Armitage, luckily for us historians, don’t recommend anything as drastic as Stephenson’s fictional solution. In fact, they argue the opposite, historians, especially those who work with long term thinking (longue durée) projects, should be more involved with policy decisions that affect the world outside of academia. And the thing is… really want to agree with their argument. In fact, I do agree that longue durée projects are important, and more historians should be policy advisors. Unfortunately, for me, the book attempted to make that point in a way that felt rambling or incohesive.

The authors begin with a historiographical account of longue durée trends in the history profession, and then of the decline of that trend in the 1970s. While their examples of longue durée histories are admirable, it is when they begin to discuss micro-histories that the argument seems to lose steam. Guldi and Armitage alternate between being critical of the rise of micro-histories in history academia, and of praising them for their ability to be used as parts of longue durée histories, or as social critiques. They write that “[i]n narrowing, [micro-historians] found the freedom to take on big ideas and to publish authoritative and insightful perspectives that helped the public to contextualise enormous forces like racism or nationalism as constructed developments rather than as a natural social order somehow predestined to shape human minds for eternity.” I realize that the authors’ complaint with micro-history is not necessarily the mode of historical thinking itself, but how its rise seemed to be at the expense of the longue durée. While I’m sure there is some truth to that narrative, they also write of longue durée histories taking place during this time period as shining examples in the short-term darkness. This didn’t convince me that the situation was as dire as they seemed to make it out to be.

My biggest problem with the book was the premise that the authors took that Historians are the only profession that is trained and capable of analyzing long term trends of data in a way that is critical and contextual.  They are extremely critical of other disciplines like anthropology and, most especially, economics. While I’m completely on board with the idea that historians should be at the forefront of policy advising because of these specialized abilities, and with critiquing other disciplines for their lack of critical thinking, to go so far as to say we (historians) are the only ones capable of doing so, or to criticize (not critique) others without offering solutions or collaboration is failing to examine our own faults while demonstrating a lack of faith in others. Although even Guldi and Armitage again contradict themselves later in the book, offering glowing reviews of anthropological studies, and stating “History is not unique in having a vocation to enlighten and reform, at least if it is compared with the other disciplines – sociology, anthropology, political science – usually collected under the umbrella of the social sciences rather than juxtaposed with sibling
disciplines in the humanities, such as philology or musicology.”

Guldi and Armitage are proponents of the capabilities of big data, and its application in longue durée projects. And while I agree that somewhere down the line this may be the case, I don’t think that (in many cases) the data is there yet. In more of their contradictory fashion, the authors offer examples of projects using big data that either aren’t big data (if you can collect all the data by traveling to archives and extracting the data yourself, what your working with isn’t “big data”, it’s just a lot of data), or aren’t longue durée projects (most of the examples they use take place of decades, not centuries or millennia, as they frame “longue durée” history earlier in the book). But the reason for this discrepancy is that the data for longue durée history just isn’t there yet. Most “big data” is based on digital records, and born digital records have only been kept for a few decades, and despite how it may sometimes seem digitization of masses of records is really still in its infancy. I think we’ll get there eventually, and when we do, the longue durée framing will be an amazing way to work with big data.

One of the biggest questions I have at the end of the book, isn’t whether historians can go back to making longue durée histories that are influential in policy making decisions, it’s that even if we can do that (which I think we can and should), how can we convince the policy makers our work is important? Will the work itself be evidence enough of its importance to those in power? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s historians that need to be convinced of the argument presented in the book, it’s politicians.

In the end, I still support their premise, but Guldi and Armitage seem to want to make it hard for me.

Thoughts on a Digital Scholarship Symposium

Marquette University hosted its 3rd annual Digital Scholarship Symposium last Thursday. The theme for this year was “Digital Scholarship and Community Engagement”, and that was certainly highlighted throughout the day. I would go so far as to say it felt more like a symposium on community engagement using digital tools. While I found the experience engaging, I don’t believe I was really in the intended audience. The workshop portion of envisioning and working through all the different planning aspects of creating a work of community engaged digital scholarship seemed like it would be eminently helpful for those who are involved with community engaged projects. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people…although it could come in very handy in the future. I will have to say I did find the introductory section of this portion to be somewhat lackluster. An incredibly long series of websites was discussed, that while nominally applicable to the speakers’ points, were never given enough time or attention given to them to provide sufficient context. Instead of dozens of websites, presented almost as if reading them off a list, I would have liked to see a handful of websites explored in their functionality and explained with greater detail how and why they were important.

To be honest, the “digital poster” session/project showcase was the portion of the day that really excited me the most. I got a chance to take a closer look at some local projects that are using digital technology or formats to engage their audiences, whether that’s through GIS, Virtual Reality, or just a really well done piece of online journalism/ethnography.

The after lunch “networking session” offered a chance to break up into smaller moderated discussion groups organized by topic. Unfortunately (as many there opined), there was only opportunity to join one of 8 very interesting topics. As I am obviously interested in archives, I attended the Community Archives group, and immediately felt slightly out of place. When introducing ourselves I explained that I was a grad student at UW-Milwaukee and was studying to be an archivist, and therefore was interested in learning more about how to implement community archives practices from the perspective of an archivist. Others in the group included a professor collecting oral interviews of Muslim women in Milwaukee regarding marriage practices across cultural boundaries whose research dominated the majority of the conversation. I think the discussion was actually very helpful to her as a starting place in thinking about best archival practices in storing and presenting the research she’s doing. Another professor studied linguistics, and had an interesting conundrum. He was thinking of what kind of a Milwaukee based project he could do, or what kind of resource he might be able to utilize. The problem being that any interesting projects might not be feasible with existing resources. Although I suspect there may be more out there than he believes. I may add that to the discussion group Google Doc once I’ve done a little bit more exploration. I think his idea of comparing the linguistic differences between former Milwaukee City Council member Vel Phillips and current Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke would be incredibly interesting.

What’s it all About?

While I’ve had a (semi)professional online persona for some time, this will be my first foray into a professional blog. Mostly I plan on using this blog as a means of sharing whatever I’m working on for classes, whether that’s short essays, digital projects, or drafts for sections of longer papers. I think it will be a nice way to force me to polish my academic work a little bit more while offering a public forum for feedback that might help make it better before it’s graded. In between there may be some posts on personal/professional thoughts on current events or other scholarship, I’m not really sure.

Because I’m not required to write (nor do I plan on writing) a thesis for my degree, I’m not on an academic track, and I have a wide variety of academic interests there could be any number of things that show up here. And to be honest I’m not sure the blog will outlive the semester, but I’m going to give a shot. My professional goals are to become an archivist, so my professional academic interests revolve around archives. Some topics I’m interested in within archives include MPLP (More Product, Less Processing), digital archives, personal archives, personal *digital* archives, preservation/conservation, and genealogical reference/research. On the history side, as I said, I’m not required to write a thesis, so my “research” doesn’t have to be as limited as some. I’m interested in 19th and early 20th-century immigration patterns in the United States. I’m also interested in medieval history, especially cultural exchange during the Crusades. I also enjoy working with digital technologies to present information in new and engaging ways, especially working with GIS/Mapping projects.