This week’s readings introduce key concepts in digital humanities, attempting to both define digital history (or digital humanities, or new media) and tease out its limitations, possibilities, and successes. Susan Hockey presents a somewhat straightforward history of the digital humanities, from its inception in the 1950s with Father Busa’s concordance of Aquinas, to the technological limitations which existed through the 1990s, to the medium’s proliferation beyond concordances, dictionaries, etc. Hockey pinpoints the personal computer and the Internet as key drivers of the digital humanities’ popularly and capabilities, both in the realm of scholarly communication (collaboration over ListServ, email, blogs) and in presenting cultural heritage to academics and the public.
Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig offer a brief history of the digital humanities as well, but delve more deeply in the problems and possibilities of the genre. They point out an important distinction in types of history web resources: Archival websites, which seek to make troves of primary sources accessible and searchable, and websites that act as secondary sources—those which offer interpretations of primary source material. For Cohen and Rosenzweig, the capabilities offered by the web and hypertext have not always been fully realized; many of these secondary source websites are simply recapitulations of something already written in print. In other words, they maintain the linear narrative form, do not encourage free form browsing, or encourage true interactivity. Cohen and Rosenzweig urge those undertaking a digital history project to become familiar with digital history’s best practices and to seriously consider the project’s audience and goals.
William Cronnon’s focus is not primarily on digital history, yet his recommendations for improving history PhD programs include the exhortation that new media products be “branded” in some way to certify scholarly rigor and excellence. He emphasizes that the history PhD should not primarily be a gate-keeping tool, but rather a means through which future historians learn history’s best practices, immerse themselves in a wide-range of study, and gain excellence in reading, writing, and teaching. The kind of intellectual collaboration and community-building that Cronnon recommends, as well as his emphasis on learning to teach many audiences (such as the public or undergraduates) has implications for the field of new media which are picked up in other readings: For example, the importance of creating digital history projects which have a targeted audience in mind, and allowing digital and/or collaborative works to count toward tenure awards. That new media is sometimes-slowly, but surely being adopted by historians is made clear by Robert Townsend’s survey of 4000 historians; is it essential, then, that formal channels for judging new media works be put in place.
The discussion moderated by the Journal of America History brings up these issues and many more. Although the speakers discuss a breadth of topics and ideas, two in particular stood out for me: First, the distinction between interactivity as entertainment and interactivity as intellectual exchange or engagement. The ability for a new media project to be a legitimate form of scholarship rests on this distinction. Moreover, this will be even more crucial as the ability to include moving graphics, sound, and multimedia increases. Related with this quality is the importance of breaking out of linear, didactic narratives in favor of provocative, problematizing, and free-flowing interactivity. The other key point for me was the speakers’ emphasis on open-source and open-access projects. Not only does open-source allow a greater segment of historians to employ new media, it also increases the capabilities of digital scholarship. Although many scholars have traditionally feared making their work “free,” the panelists in this discussion emphasize that works that are not hidden behind gates or walls actually increase a scholar’s impact and recognition. Bound up in this discussion of open-access is the need for new avenues for peer-review and scholarly recognition of new media projects.
Tim Sherratt’s blog about his project on “Invisible Australians” provides a great example of the power of new media and emphasizes its ability to be a democratizing force. In his project, Sherratt manipulated the digitized archives of the National Archive of Australia; taking pre-digitized documents, he arranged them for his own purposes and was able to shed the constraints, biases, and organizational decisions of the archive. Sherratt shows the power of creating new, parallel interfaces or finding aids to construct a new narrative of the past.
Two other new media projects I examined are the Medici Archive Project http://documents.medici.org/medici_index.cfm and Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (National Library of the Netherlands) http://www.kb.nl/manuscripts/. My judgment of these archival sites was based on the following criteria: ease and effectiveness of search function; overall interface; metadata; and unique or helpful features.
The Medici Archive Project is a work in progress with the goal of making available the entire works of the Medici Granducal Archive in Florence. This project is clearly useful for anyone studying the Medici family, Florence, art, science, etc. during the 15th through 18th centuries. The search interface allows researchers to search for places, named people, and specific documents or volumes. Within each category, one can use a keyword search, or select various drop-downs, such as “gender” or “occupation” in the people search. In the places category, one can specify the “link type,” which is a very clever feature: For example, if a user enters “London,” she can specify whether this location is linked with a sender location, recipient location, death or birth place. The search capability is bilingual, in Italian or English, and is generally intuitive; for questions about appropriate search terms, there are good explanations linked with question marks besides each field. The interface is also quite intuitive and helpful, letting the user sort search results, mark results, or refine searches. The metadata provided for each entry is very thorough, and includes the date of the document, the correspondents and their locations, people referenced in the document, a synopsis in English with an excerpt of the original Tuscan, and topics or keywords. The site is also generally attractive, with nice selections of images from the archive. There is also a form to submit feedback.
Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts is a database or catalog of 11,000 illuminations from illuminated manuscripts in the National Library of the Netherlands. These images are divorced from the texts that accompany them, so are mainly useful for visual or iconographical analysis. For a more general user, the browse function would be most useful, as it allows one to drill down by topic to useful and interesting categories. The advanced search feature is also useful in that indexes of subject terms are provided; however, it might take a more serious scholar to dedicate the energy to perusing these indexes. There is also a unique categorization feature called Iconclass, which assigns alphanumeric codes to certain topics for greater searching accuracy; again, this would require greater than average dedication to searching the site. One major downside to the search function is lack of capability for using Boolean operators. The overall interface can be a bit clunky in that some links direct the user away from the database itself onto the general library website, so navigation can be confusing. However, there is a very nice feature of blowing up selected images, with the option to zoom in and save details. Metadata for each image is limited to its manuscript of origin and a short description; however, metadata for entire manuscripts is much more detailed, and even contains a bibliography of literature about the manuscript. Both this site and the Medici Archive site are very rich, useful archives of primary sources which could be used to develop scholarly, educational, and interactive interpretive sites.
- Susan Hockey, “History of Humanities Computing,” A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
- Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Exploring the History Web,” Digital History
- William Cronnon, “Getting Ready to Do History,” Carnegie Essays on the Doctorate, Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, Carnegie Foundation, Palo Alto , 2004, 1-18.(pdf)
- “The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History, September 2008.
- Robert Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” Perspectives (November 2010).
- Tim Sherratt, “It’s all about the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People,” Discontents
- Medici Archive Project http://documents.medici.org/medici_index.cfm
- Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (National Library of the Netherlands) http://www.kb.nl/manuscripts/