From Scratch

May 17th, 2010 |

What fundamental decisions need to be made at the beginning of a new project or book for historians working with traditional archival resources, but with an eye to digital dissemination?  There is an ongoing discussion in digital history about the extent to which lo digital can or should transform the definition of historical scholarship, so long dominated by the lone historian crafting the long-form monograph. Collaborative history, digital storytelling, new approaches to long-form narrative, moving beyond simple curation, new processes for peer review– digital history offers possibilities to transform professional historical practice.  I think that is an important long-term discussion. I would also add that based on my experience at an R1 state university, that discussion may still be a bit premature, as my colleagues need more basic groundwork. I have more immediate concerns in the proposal I offered this year, and they’re directed at that solitary scholar, and newly dissertating ABDs, sitting at a desk in front of a stack of dusty manuscripts.

I’d like to discuss up-front decisions we can make at the point of project conception, as well as during the research phase that will ease adaptation to digital forms later on. In many ways, this points to individual application of themes that Hugh Cayless mentioned in his post. How should the lone scholar deal with archival resources that are not currently digitized? Each step of the way between project conception and publication (in whatever form) carries with it questions like that with implications for later digital presentation. What of using a digital camera to collect manuscripts? During the transcription and note-taking phase should we utilize particular mark-up languages that will be more flexible later on? If so, does that have implications for best software applications for note taking and transcription? Should those two elements be separate? Is it worthwhile to teach ourselves an our grad students TEI? What of the development of databases of individuals, events, other data that constitute an important part of historical scholarship? What of textual analysis of small and large bodies of manuscripts? Ultimately, decisions on questions such as these have implications for the ease later digital dissemination of our work. At the beginning of a project (and particularly for graduate students writing dissertations), it can be difficult to forecast what the state of digital practices will be 2, 4, 6 years or more down the line when the project is finished.

A little about myself: I’m a colonial Latin Americanist who works primarily on gender, sexuality, and criminality in 18th-century Quito, Ecuador. I’ve recently put to bed my first book (from my dissertation), and am starting on a second. This time, I want open access to as much of my research material and process as possible. Beginning with my dissertation research, I decided that digital photographs were the most efficient means of collecting manuscripts for my research. I have a digitized archive now of more than 100,000 manuscript pages, all of which are hand-written and require transcription. I’ve been using some QDA software (TAMS Analyzer) to look at language in criminal sex prosecutions. I also have developed a FileMaker database of some 10,000 detainees from weekly jail census materials that include information on criminal offense, gender, ethnicity, presiding magistrates, etc. In my department and college, books are still about the only thing that matters. But, while I’ll write a monograph with these materials, I want as much of them as possible to be available to other scholars, to students, and to anyone else.

I suspect that for many outside of the academy (as well as many inside), the research work of academic historians remains a bit of a mystery. As an early step towards open access scholarship, and for pedagogical purposes, I think it would be great if historians put their project-specific research materials up on the web, accompanied by some commentary on research methodology. There is a long history of scholars turning over their papers to library special collections at the end of their careers. Imagine if we were doing that all along, and in the end turning over a mysql dump for library preservation.

Finally, as a side note– I’m also really looking forward to discussing teaching digital history as mentioned by Rob Nelson and Jeff McClurken.

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5 Responses to “From Scratch”

  1. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] may also join in the conversations proposed by Jeffrey McClurken and Chad Black, to raise the questions of where and how libraries and museums fit in to classrooms and academic […]

  2. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] with the proposal from Megan Brett and I’m particularly curious for any suggestions from Chad Black, Priya Chhaya, Karin Dalziel, and Matt […]

  3. mebrett Says:

    For our research into the interior decor of the historic house where I work, we have been collecting many manuscripts in the form of digital photograph. Even though we have access to some of them in transcript form, many of the transcribers paid no attention to the address leaf or other incidental information which we find useful.

    We have been using a blog to try and demystify what curators (who are historians in a way). I’d love to talk about how we can all be more transparent.

  4. Hugh Cayless Says:

    This is a good topic. I think one answer perhaps is to think like a curator: there probably isn’t time to deeply analyse everything as you’re capturing data (photos, transcriptions, etc.), but you should try to provide enough structure on the first pass to enable yourself (or someone else) to come along and make another pass at it. TEI, for example, can be nice in that it gives you scope to do really complex work, but is, at it’s most basic, very simple. Capture as much as you reasonably can, in as much detail as you reasonably can, come up with identifiers (ideally a system for generating identifiers) for each digital artifact, link things that are related, keep project artifacts together.

  5. Some THATCamp Reflections « parezco y digo Says:

    […] here you can find the blog post I put up the week before we all met. And, while I didn’t get all […]


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