Archives at the MLA: A Review of Archives-Oriented Panels

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Archival study plays an increasingly central role in academic humanities conferences.  The Modern Language Association (MLA) 2016 Conference was no exception to this movement.  Check out my review of archives-oriented MLA panels by clicking below!

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Archives, Digital Humanities, and the Latina History Project at #MLA16

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One of the most dynamic conversations charging the atmosphere at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention has to do with how archivists and academics relate to each other, both practically and theoretically.

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The excellent panel #s258, “What We Talk about When We Talk about DH: Interdisciplinary Vocabularies,” has been a highlight of the conference so far for me and many other attendees.  Panelist T-Kay Sangwand, Digital Scholarship Librarian at UCLA, encouraged scholars to stop asking “what is the archive?” and to start drawing on terms that have already been established in archival theory.  Angel Nieves, Co-Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, on panel #s280 titled “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics” called for educators to incorporate critical theory into the very foundation of digital humanities projects, rather than “sprinkling” it on top.  (Thanks @ShawnaRoss for tweeting this talk.  See Nieves’ position paper here.)

I presented this morning on panel #s460, “The Digital Humanities and the Archive.”  (Huge thanks to my fellow panelists for a great panel and discussion!)  I used the example of the Latina History Project at Southwestern University as a point of departure for a discussion of role digital archives can play in theoretically informed, community engaged, multidisiplinary higher education.

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I’ve talked and blogged about the nuts and bolts of the project elsewhere, but in response to calls from the Twittersphere, below I’ve included the part of my talk on the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities.  I look forward to continuing the conversation during the rest of the conference and beyond!

On bridging archives and academia:

“I’d like to tap into current scholarship on archives, higher education, and the digital humanities, in order to think about how the encounter with digital archives can enhance critical theoretical engagement in contexts of humanities study. Recent scholarship by Lauren F. Klein, Lisa Darms, and Kate Eichhorn, among others, suggests that there is a rift between archives and academia. Klein, Darms, and Eichhorn all use the term “invisible” to describe the labor of the archivist from the perspective of the academic. Klein considers that “As scholars, we do not see the labor involved in… the development of the encoding standards and database design that allows us to perform our search queries… [T]his digital labor remains not only invisible, but also unacknowledged by most humanities scholars.” In an editorial introduction to the latest issue of Archive Journal, archivist Darms reinforces the point that archival processes and practices remain “invisible to the theorists most likely to write about [them],” while co-editor Eichhorn validates concerns archivists have expressed about “their invisibility in contemporary scholarly, activist, and artistic discourses on archives.” Eichhorn regrets that the archival turn (so expertly theorized in her own seminal book on the topic in terms of feminist studies) is enacted by academics in such a way as to “celebrate ‘the archive’ and all the things that ‘the archive’ apparently encompasses (politics, desire, longing, death, memory, history, and list goes on) in lieu of grappling with the material questions that archival practices invariably raise.” Is archival practice so alienated from humanist theory?

Certainly, it is crucial that scholars cultivate awareness of and respect for the labor that enables access to archives as the raw material of humanities inquiry. Projects such as the LHP and the proliferation of others like it do important work to expose a rising generation of scholars to the work, craft, and expertise involved in the archiving process. Yet to bridge the perceived divide between archivists and academics, it is also necessary to recognize the theoretical contributions that the field of archival stewardship has to make to studies in the humanities. The notion that archivists operate “outside academe,” as Eichhorn terms it, fails to account for a growing field of scholarship produced by archivists and associated archives and library staff that intersects with the digital humanities, race and ethnicity studies, and feminist studies, among other fields. I resist the idea that the material conditions and practical pressures that impact archival work impede unique theoretical perspectives on the scope and significance of the archive. On the contrary, it is exactly these material conditions that premise some of the most socially and theoretically engaged work in the field of archival practice today, with implications for humanities study.

Archival practice has long encompassed scholarly and teaching components, but the designation in 2012 of an annual pedagogy issue in the Oral History Review, as well as recent pedagogically-focused articles in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage, American Archivist, and Libraries and the Academy, suggest increasingly important roles for archives and archival stewardship practices in higher education. Scholars such as Douglas A. Boyd, Janice W. Fernheimer, and Rachel Dixon suggest that involving undergraduates in digital archival stewardship allows students to grasp the interpretive nature of metadata creation, which is an important exercise in critical thinking. Jill Goodman Gould and Gail Gradowski, in an article titled “Using Online Video Oral Histories to Engage Students in Authentic Research,” indicate that guiding students in incorporating oral histories in multimedia projects provides an engaging exposure to primary sources that equips students with skills in information literacy and primary source research—both areas marked by experts as priorities in twenty-first century higher education. And Douglas A. Boyd and Mary A. Larson emphasize that participating in oral history initiatives provides students with opportunities to hone skills in collaboration and curation, both key principles of digital humanities practice.

A related body of scholarship points out the utility of digital oral history stewardship methods not only for teaching, but for community-driven research, as well. Fresh takes on archival provenance informed by critical theory, such as Joel Wurl’s work on ethnicity and Michelle Caswell’s on survivor status as forms of provenance, emphasize the values of multiplicity, counter-narrative, and the contingent, constructed nature of historical narratives. In our work on the Latina History Project, the very process of “grappling with the material questions [of] archival practice” has exposed students to the ethics and politics of archival provenance, which in turn has meaningfully informed our examinations of analogous issues of representation, privilege, and inequality in studies of Latina history. Moreover, training students in digital archival stewardship offers an intimate encounter with the theoretical notion that values and ideology are embedded in the acts of curation and metadata creation. This exposure allows a natural transition into broader conceptions of constructed, contingent nature of history and memory making.

With the central question, as Lisa Darms formulates it—“how we can become better collaborators?”—guiding contemporary archival practice, it is clear that digital oral history stewardship has something to offer the community-engaged digital humanities classroom not only in terms of digital skill-building, but also in terms of education in critical theory. Feminist and critical race theoretical perspectives provide useful guidance for reading archives against the grain, between the lines, and with an eye to perspectives that are not represented, in order to contend with the legacy of archives as institutions of hegemonic power that represent the interests of groups that dominate in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and/or class. In archiving and curation processes for the Latina History Project, the theory and practicalities of digital archival stewardship are heavily entwined. Students have opportunities to apply critical theoretical principles they are learning in class to an immediate context. If, as archives theorist Joel Wurl proposes, an archived community is an enfranchised community, student collaborators gained an immersion in the causal relationship between oral history documentation and the conditions of social equality. Digital archival practice thus has an important role to play in interdisciplinary higher education attuned both to digital skill-building and to currents in critical theory.”

 

Summer DH Sizzlers: SHARP and the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference

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With support from Southwestern University, in addition to bursaries from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) and the Association for Computers and Humanities (ACH), I attended two exciting conferences over the course of July 2015: the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) Conference, which took place July 7-10 at the Longueuil Campus of the University of Sherbrooke and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference held July 22-24 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  Highlights follow!

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) Conference (#SHARP15)

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My main takeaway from this conference was that digital projects in academic libraries interact in important, generative, and various ways with physical collections.  It’s easy to think about digital projects in academic libraries such as the Provenance Online Project and the Book Traces Project as diverging from a tradition of librarianship stewarding material collections.  In fact, as the Book Traces Project itself points out, the rise of the digital can threaten the existence of print collections.  The project appeals to users to help identify unique copies of books with interesting ownership features (bookplates, striking marginalia) and inserted ephemera (locks of hair, dried flowers, personal notes, etc.) published between 1820 and 1923: “We need your help identifying them because many are in danger of being discarded as libraries go digital” (http://www.booktraces.org/).  Many presentations at SHARP touched on the role digital projects play in preserving and enhancing access to physical books and material collections.

For example, on the panel on which I presented, “Old Books and New Tricks: Regenerating the Library Visit,” Karla Nielsen, Curator at Columbia University Libraries, emphasized that the Book Traces Project ultimately exists in order to make a case for maintaining extensive print collections that include multiple copies and editions of a given text.  Moreover, far from alienating student users from physical collections, the Book Traces Project in fact provides many students with their first exposure to the library stacks, since the project actively involves students in surveying areas of the stacks looking for items to digitize.  Thus, the Book Traces digital project does crucial work to advocate print collections, demonstrate the value of retaining multiple editions, and promote student engagement with the rich materiality of these collections.  Despite its identity as a digital project, the Book Traces Project ultimately makes a case not to replace print editions with digital surrogates.

Over the course of my own panel as well as others such as “Generations of Readers: Appeals to Audiences and their Reactions Across Editions” and “Archive Accumulation : Antiquarian Affect and Obsolescence” I enjoyed learning useful tips and strategies for launching and running successful digital projects in libraries.  For example, in order to engage faculty, it’s important to make very specific pitches, suggesting how particular library or archive items might figure in a course syllabus, and providing sample assignment prompts and assessment models.  Gale Burrow of the Claremont Colleges Library provided great models on this front; see her highly adaptable series of exercises and prompts for her Early Modern Studies Primary Source Lab here.

The Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keyDH)

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This conference blended long paper presentations with punchy digital project lightening talks.  Keynote Miriam Posner‘s thoughtful talk, “What’s Next?: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” encouraged digital humanists to frame projects that illuminate marginalized histories and perspectives, in a spirit of solidarity rather than charity.  Posner referenced a tradition of ethics that holds the “gesture toward plenitude and contingency,” not the encompassing of these (which is impossible), as the ethical act.  She pointed to The Knotted Line as a digital humanities project that embraces a non-linear, de-centered, deconstructivist approach in the service of one pressing humanities question: “how is freedom measured”?

A list of every exciting digital project showcased at the conference would be impossible long, but here are a few that I especially enjoyed learning about:

Goin’ North.  This Omeka project, which involves contributions from graduate and undergraduate students at West Chester University, synthesizes oral histories and digitized regional archival materials to highlight narratives of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southeast to northern regions of the U.S. during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Our Marathon. The Boston Bombing Digital Archive.  Also an Omeka project, Our Marathon marshals images, videos, social media, and other digital primary sources responding to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Doctor or Doctress?  This project centers the unique perspectives of African American female physicians in order to examine U.S. history during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Story of the Stuff.  This web documentary examines the phenomenon where sites of devastating mass shootings–Sandy Hook Elementary School and Virginia Tech, for example–are flooded with “stuff” (teddy bears, paper cranes, cards, etc.), thus creating impromptu, ephemeral memorial sites.

College Women.  This digital archives project documents the history of women in higher education through a focus on pertinent digital collections at the Seven Sisters.

In addition to the multitude of fascinating panels and digital project showcases, I also enjoyed tours sponsored by the conference of the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where we had the privilege of visiting the digitization lab.

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These 19th-century fabric samples archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are being digitized for an online exhibit.

The tours reaffirmed for me the very fun relationships among digital humanities, archives, and special collections.  A big thank you to the organizers of the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference for their hard work on this hugely successful conference!

HASTAC Highlights: Digital Scholars Descend on Michigan State University, May 27-30

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With the generous support of both Southwestern University and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), I recently had the privilege of attending the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) 2015 Conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

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The HASTAC 2015 Conference brought digital scholarship practitioners together May 27-30, 2015.

It was an utterly stimulating few days of reconnecting with my fellow CLIR Postdoctoral Fellows in Academic Libraries and making new connections with people building exciting digital projects all over the country.  Check out the HASTAC Panel and Event Schedule here.  Following are some highlights from #hastac2015.

Inspiring digital tools and projects to explore:

  • The web-based Palladio data visualization platform.  Andy Wilson uses Palladio to map and examine international aspects of the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution.  He blogs about his research here.  In response to Wilson’s presentation, Devin Higgins made a great point by tweet: “Nice to hear about network visualization being used as one step in a research process, not as the final product.”  We need to remember that data visualization and spatial analysis tools are good for more than providing flashy visual research products; they can also transform research methodologies.
  • The Homestead Nebraska Project.  Rebecca Wingo presented on this fascinating digital project, which uses the platform Gephi to visualize ethnic communities, neighborhoods, and identities of place on the Nebraska plains.
  • Open Folklore.  This comprehensive online resource for folklorists represents a partnership between the American Folklore Society and the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries.
  • Library Juice Academy.  This online professional development site is the Lynda.com of the library world.
  • The AfroLatin@ Project, the LatiNegrxs Project, and Afro-Digital Connections, presented by Amilcar Priestley, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Eduard Arriaga, respectively, on the panel “African and African-Descendent Cultures in the Digital Age: Adoption, Adaption and the Emergence of Complex Identities.”  The panel, which also included Dorothy Odartey-Wellington on born-digital African literature, offered an in-depth examination of the digital tools engaged by Afro-Latino, African American, other Afro-descended users and communities.  Arriaga discussed the function of the Afro-Digital Connections repository to illuminate the variety of ways African and African-descended artists, academics, and activists use digital tools to construct digital identities.  I look forward to keeping in touch with Arriaga about possibilities for involving students in contributing to the Afro-Digital Connections repository in future World Literature classes I may teach.
  • HASTAC Forum on Colonial Legacies, Postcolonial Realities and Decolonial Futures of Digital Media.

Selected pearls of wisdom from HASTAC presenters and panels:

I had opportunities to present on two panels: “Tales From the Library Basement: Doing Digital Humanities as CLIR Fellows” (with co-panelists Rachel Deblinger, Emily McGinn, and Alicia Peaker”) and “Thinking Outside the Archive: Engaging Students and Community in Special Collections Digital Projects” (with co-panelists Chella Vaidyanathan, Caitlin Christian-Lamb, Robin Wharton, and Elon Lang).

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CLIR Fellows unite! From left to right: Charlotte Nunes, Justin Schell, Alicia Peaker, Emily McGinn, and Rachel Deblinger.

Both panels were followed by extremely useful discussions.  During our discussion, gracefully moderated by former CLIR fellow and current Director of the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College Daniel Chamberlain, about doing Digital Humanities as CLIR fellows, we compared tensions and challenges in various institutional settings where we circulate not exactly as faculty, and not exactly as librarians.  It can be a very productive (if sometimes uncomfortable!) place to be.  Despite our very different project responsibilities and position descriptions, all of us function as “human hubs,” or “Collaborators-in-Chief” (Dr. Chamberlain’s term), working as intermediaries between libraries, academic departments, and other bodies on campus.

All of my fellow panelists on “Thinking Outside the Archive: Engaging Students and Community in Special Collections Digital Projects” are doing fabulous work to enhance undergraduate education through engagement with archives and special collections.  Check out the Hoccleve Archive project run by Elon Lang and Robin Wharton.  And see Caitlin Christian-Lamb’s absorbing blog posts about archives-oriented digital projects she’s undertaken at Davidson College Archives and Special Collections here.  Christian-Lamb recommends that DH practitioners hone a “DH and Archives elevator speech” to effectively and directly articulate the benefits of allying digital humanities work with archives and special collections.

During the panel discussion, I posed the question of how to assess student work on digital archives projects.  Here are two ideas from the audience that I look forward to implementing:

  • Badges.  Beau Case, Head of the Arts & Humanities Team at University of Michigan Libraries, suggested implementing a digital skills badge system as a way to incentivize and assess student work on digital archives projects in the semester-long classroom setting.
  • Student-generated rubrics.   offered her experience guiding students in setting the priorities of a given assignment by collaborating on rubrics for assessment.  Her HASTAC blog posts here and here offer insights into the collaborative process, while her article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy provides a complete case study.

Other pearls of wisdom from the conference at large:

  • With regard to building digital humanities projects in libraries: Julie Bobay of Indiana University Libraries emphasized that libraries need a “digital humanities consultation checklist” to work with faculty to anticipate audience, impact, sustainability, rights, grant-funding prospects, and other crucial criteria for successful and sustainable projects.  She added that it’s important to align project goals with existing support and infrastructure.  Nancy Maron of Ithaka S+R suggested the Sustainability Implementation Toolkit as a first step toward building sustainable digital projects.
  • With regard to digital archives projects: in her presentation on the 9/11 Digital Archive, Dhanashree Thorat reminded us that we must examine not only the content but the structure of archives to learn how they may privilege and/or de-privilege certain voices and perspectives.  Dorothy Odartey-Wellington argued for the preservation of “inactive voices” (such as discontinued blogs) as crucial for the historical record.  And Rebecca Wingo analogized digital humanities and archival research: we can go in with an agenda, but we must be open to a journey elsewhere, since both digital humanities and archival projects often take on lives and identities of their own, regardless of original intentions.

Huge thanks to the HASTAC Conference Organizing Committee for making this dynamic, inspirational, and beautifully-run event possible!

Digital Texas Round-Up! TX Digital Humanities Conference and TX Conference on Digital Libraries

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April has been a big month for digital scholarship in Texas.  The Texas Digital Humanities Conference took place at UT-Arlington April 9-11, and the Texas Conference on Digital Libraries took place at UT-Austin April 27-28.

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I had the privilege of attending and presenting at both conferences with the generous support of Southwestern University. Check out the Twitter hashtags for each conference (#TXDHC15 and #TCDL2015, respectively) for a useful rundown of attendees’ responses to and interactions with presenters. You can see my live-tweeted responses to events and panels @CharlotteLNunes. Following are some highlights and take-aways!

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Presentations of note:

  • Rebecca Frost Davis provided a tour of the curateteaching/digitalpedagogy resource on GitHub associated with Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, forthcoming from the Modern Language Association. Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Dan Garrette presented a fantastic poster on their OCR (Optical Character Recognition) efforts in Latin American colonial archives. Matthew Cole LaFevor presented the idea of “toggling between quantitative and qualitative research methods” to teach historic maps alongside Google Earth images of the same regions.
  • Opening keynote Adeline Koh‘s much-tweeted Storified live-tweeting of Alan Liu‘s closing keynote, “Against the Cultural Singularity: Towards a Critical Digital Humanities” does a great job of distilling main points. I especially liked Liu’s remark that advocating open access (pardon the paraphrase here) “is the modern equivalent of storming university administration buildings in the 1970s.” I was delighted and inspired by the consistent support and enthusiasm for open access I encountered at both TXDHC and TCDL. The potential of open access to ensure the more equitable distribution of knowledge and information is immense. George Siemens picked up the social justice thread in his remarks, as well: “If you’re poor you’re going to stay poor because the education system isn’t going to help you.” Ultimately Siemens’ presentation was implicitly optimistic in that he provided a roadmap for a “more human digital university.” I’m proud that, as evidenced by Koh’s opening keynote on social media and revolution and closing keynotes by Liu and Siemens, the digital humanities as conceptualized at this conference was strongly tied to values of social justice.
Digital tools, resources, and projects I was happy to learn about:
  • Courtesy Adeline Koh: Mukurtu, a free, open source digital cultural heritage platform geared toward indigenous communities.
  • Courtesy of Rebecca Frost Davis: the Century America digital history project.
  • Courtesy of Tanya Clement: a useful Digital Humanities taxonomy.
  • Courtesy of Liz Grumbach: the TAPAS (TEI Archive, Publishing, and Access Service) Project.

Texas Conference on Digital Libraries

Presentations of note:
  • In “Elements of Successful Online Publishing,” Dillon Wackerman made a case for the library as publisher in the era of open access. Matt Christy, co-Project Manager on the Early Modern OCR Project (eMOP), encouraged libraries with OCR needs to take advantage of eMOP workflow documentation and project code, all of which is publicly available since the project is funded by the Mellon Foundation.
  • Jennifer Hecker, Digital Archives Access Strategist at UT Libraries Technology Integration Services, presented with a team of UT Libraries collaborators on a “Zine Party” they hosted to catalogue the UT Fine Arts Library’s collection of zines. The team offered fascinating reflections on the challenges and rewards of involving the public in metadata tasks. The discussion brought to mind recent scholarship including Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage (edited by Mia Ridge), which debates the merits and shortcomings of public crowdsourcing projects in libraries, archives, and higher education. Although the Zine Party was a great success in terms of fulfilling the library mission to engage the public, the metadata produced by the event required the intervention of an experienced metadata librarian before it could be used in the library catalogue. To me, this is not evidence that the public shouldn’t be involved in crowdsourced metadata/cataloguing/transcription projects; on the contrary, such projects represent a proven fun and effective way to engage the public with special collections. But librarians and archivists need time and resources intentionally earmarked to support labor- and time-intensive crowdsourcing initiatives.
Digital tools, resources, and projects I was happy to learn about:
  • Courtesy of keynote Bess Sadler: the Stanford University Libraries EarthWorks project, which allows users to superimpose historic maps over GIS-generated maps; and Project Hydra repository software for digital asset management.
  • In general, over the course of the conference I learned more about Islandora, Fedora, and Amazon Web Services, all of which seem to be getting a lot of traction among libraries for digital asset management needs.

A good time was had by all! Huge thanks to the TXDHC and TCDL organizing committees for their hard work on these fantastic events!