Christian James on More Digital History at AHA 2016

etchingHere is Christian James‘s second post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  For his previous posts from AHA 2016 click here.  -JF

The last day at AHA 2016 included two solid digital history sessions. The first, “Digital History and Digital Preservation Projects” was one of several sessions this week on digital histories of slavery. Last year’s Digital Histories of Slavery session was standing-room-only and overflowing with energy, so I understand why there was plenty of related programming this year. Of these, today’s session seemed most interesting to me since it focused less on analysis and more on how to grow and sustain these digital projects, something I’d be more likely to work on as a librarian.

David Eltkins of the eminent project started with a detailed discussion of the sites growth, including web analytics charts and statistics. According to Eltkins, showing these statistics to donors and grant organizations is essential to getting continuing funding. It was pleasing for me to see someone sharing web analytics too – I like to hear about how digital projects are connecting with wide audiences, instead of launching and calling it a day. With this continuing funding, Eltkins says that will add new data from new sources. Eltkins also discussed technical sustainability issues, like keeping dedicated servers and site code up to date and optimizing it for access.

Following Eltkins, Sean Kelley and Paul Lovejoy discussed the Studies in the Histories of the African Diaspora – Documents (SHADD) project, which gathers documents that present first-hand testimonies and voices of enslaved people born in West Africa. Kristin Mann followed by talking about some of her own research that uses the types of documents featured in and SHADD, demonstrating their practical applications. Last up was Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University, who has spent decades on a fascinating documentary project using Catholic Church records from Cuba and other Latin American countries. This project started in microform in the 1990s by using church records in Cuba and has expanded to CD-ROM and now online editions. Landers described rich, detailed; local records and her team’s heroic efforts to both preserve them and engage local communities.

The panel did an admirable job allowing enough time for a long question and answer session. The panel and audience discussed involving university archives, libraries, and IT staff in digital preservation. Vanderbilt is engaged in preserving Landers’ project, but Lovejoy’s lamented that York University does not provide such support. Eltkins issued a brutal wake-up call, saying that “anything you put on the Internet is temporary.” He suggested not just working with one university but getting multiple stakeholders invested so projects wouldn’t rely on just one source of support. Eltkins spoke with a tone of realism throughout the morning, saying that he wouldn’t have gotten involved in this work if he knew how much money it would require raising. Fortunately, he did get involved and has done some amazing work.

The second panel this morning was on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Rather than discussing sustainability, this panel encouraged attendees to start new projects from scratch. Instead of an introduction to markup languages, the panel talked about ways to use this XML schema. (When asked, most attendees raised their hands to indicate existing knowledge of TEI or other XML.)

Stephanie Kingsley started the session talking about her research into the publishing history of James Fenimore Cooper’s <i>Mercedes of Castille</i>. By using the open-source Juxta Commons application, Kingsley could compare different editions of the book and see where certain editions had excised controversial passages. Following some examples with lolcat metadata (definitely a highlight of the day), Susan Garfinkel encouraged scholars to use TEI in addition to other XML schemas to explore the different uses of markup language. A primary source such as a diary, Garfinkel argues, is a dataset, and analyzing it as such can give us insight into the human mind.

Joseph Wicentowski of the U.S. State Department’s history office gave especially practical advice, suggesting that scholars check out free software such as eXist instead of learning xslt or purchasing software like Oxygen. Kathryn Tomasek concluded the session by talking about her own work marking up financial record books, as well as the TEI community’s work and future opportunities to connect TEI files to the semantic web with Resource Description Framework (RDF). Unfortunately, there was not much time for Q&A, because I would have asked about possible ways to automate TEI markup. The examples that the panel presented seemed to be quite time-consuming.

Both sessions today gave me optimism for the future of digital history. Rather than talking vaguely about “possibilities” or pilot projects, both sessions gave concrete examples of successful projects and offered practical advice. This indicates that digital history is maturing well, and I’m looking forward to seeing more projects like the ones I heard about today.

Christian James on Digital History, Slavery, Food, and Archives on Day Two of the 2015 AHA

Christian James weighs in one more time.  Thanks, Christian!  It was great hearing from you this weekend! –JF
Saturday at AHA packed in more great programming on archives, digital history, and public history. I started with the Contested Archives panel about national and international archival controversies. Bruce Montgomery discussed Iraqi government archives that the U.S. seized from Baghdad in war, as well as missing Kuwaiti archives from the Gulf War and repatriated Kurdish documents. Erin Mosleydiscussed the Genocide Archive Rwanda as an example of an “atrocity archive,” “deeply political” collections that are created to help prevent war crimes but complicate context and authenticity. Todd Shepard discussed the Algerian national archives, its struggle with France for repatriation of colonial records, and national archives as sites for the construction of national identity.
These panelists were a welcome extension of Derek Peterson’s talk from Session 1 that I wrote about yesterday, which addressed complicated origins and contexts to archival sources internationally. Commenter Francis X. Blouin, though, asked for more discussion of the evidential nature of these archives (what exactly do the records in question actually document?). I also wished that there was more discussion of digital records; might cyberwarfare in the age of Stuxnet and the Sony hack complicate any of the panelists’ arguments, or underscore them?
Next, I got to see some of the Digital Histories of Slavery projects. (Some of these projects are still in development, and panelists asked not to link out to the beta versions they demoed.) These projects included a collection of runaway slave ads, a collection of mapped voting records to show the centrality of slavery to Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850s, a visual and conversational history of sexuality in slavery, and a collection of slave freedom petitions in Washington, D.C. I especially enjoyed how these digital histories enabled access to individual documents and narratives, but also allowed aggregation and distant reading. And, since the history of Washington, D.C. is one of my specialties, I loved that two of them focused on the region.
As I made my way through Times Square for lunch, it started to snow – definitely a magical NYC moment (even if it seemed fake at first). I returned to AHA for one more sessionon Food History and Public History, which are both central to my work in progress at the National Agricultural Library. This panel tied together outreach work, blogging, and organizing kitchen demonstrations and museum exhibitions.
The food history session emphasized that food connects to public audiences viscerally. Some public programming stakeholders might find food history to be “fluff,” but food ties into supposedly more ‘weighty’ topics like diplomatic history, and fears of “fluff” can sometimes speak to historians’ anxieties or the difficulty of public history in general. If you are interested in the topic, check out two of the major online works discussed, American Food Roots and Not-So-Innocents Abroad. I left the panel with some great ideas but an expansive to-read list – surely an occupational hazard.

My thirty hours in New York were jam-packed with conversations on archives, libraries, digital history and public history. The diversity of programming was a great success, and while I couldn’t attend any of the strictly academic history panels, the #AHA2015hashtag and social media coverage have been amazing (almost overwhelming, in fact). Thanks to John Fea for the opportunity to contribute to it! 

More From Christian James on the Digital History and Library/Archive Front

New York Public Library
For Christian’s previous AHA 2015 post click here.–JF

Later Friday, I attended two panels about important historical research issues in the digital era.

The first, Session #42: “Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication,” presented case studies, suggestions and perspectives on how to use software to manage archival sources. Ashley Sanders started off the panel by giving a broad overview of digital history and tools and resources such as Zotero, Omeka, Evernote, and H-Net Commons and Crossroads. (Sanders is a PhD candidate in History and a Network Developer for H-Net.)

 Nancy Brown and RachelKantrowitz discussed specific software applications further in depth. Brown talked about her creation of a keyword taxonomy to organize piles of image scans in Adobe Lightroom. Kantrowitz discussed using Devonthink Pro to make her scanned documents searchable through optical character recognition (OCR) and cross-reverencing her scans while writing using Scrivener.

 Nora Slonimsky put the panel in a sort of meta-historical perspective by sharing some of her research in intellectual property concepts and laws of the early American republic. In this historical context, there was a clearer distinction between the labor of authorship and intellectual content; this pitted copyright disputes between the “indolent compilers” and the “industrious authors.” Slonimsky’s implication for digital scholarship seems to be that clearer distinctions such as these would give historians greater flexibility to share the process (i.e. source files) and products of their research.

 The question of sharing research almost dominated the ensuing roundtable and audience discussion, at the prodding of panel chair Leah Weinryb Grohsgal. Grohsgal asked panelists if they would not share their research to collaborate with libraries and archives and help other historians, while the panelists and some audience members shared reservations. (The sharing of research files is becoming a significant aspect of academic research in the natural and physical sciences, a comparison I would have liked to have seen discussed.) Another contribution came from Rosenzweig Center forHistory and New Media Director Stephen Robertson, from the audience, who pointed out that the work described here enables further digital scholarship, principally text mining. Sharing the panelists’ research could therefore enable new paths of inquiry.

 After checking into my hotel and having dinner with a friend, I stopped by the late evening plenary session on the “New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library.” I typically don’t attend events like this, opting to turn in early or socialize instead. At 8:30pm the dim lights made me a bit drowsy, but the intense panel conversation easily kept me awake.

 Joan W. Scott led the panelby diving directly into her active efforts to “save” NYPL, prompted by The Nation magazine’s articleslamming the Central Library Plan (CLP) to close Manhattan branch libraries and remove research collections from the famed 42nd Street branch. Her recap was a blow-by-blow account, but unfortunately, given her position as an eminent scholar, presented more of the controversy and less reflection on the future of library research.

 Michael Kimmelman, New York Times architectural critic, gave a very nuanced account of events as he tried to judge the CLP on its own merits and intended goals. He nonetheless reached a similar conclusion to Scott: that the Plan benefited real estate developers at the expense of researchers and New Yorkers.

 NYPL had a chance to respond. President Anthony Marx, who was not listed as a speaker on the online program, was the next panel speaker. Marx admitted that the CLP did not work and that NYPL responded to public outcries by stopping it. (A major part of this admission, though, was the recognition that 42nd Street renovations would go over-budget.) Marx still wants to keep more, not less, print books on-site and increase programming for a range of constituent demographics. Association of Research Libraries’ Elliott Shore also responded by putting NYPL’s woes in a continent-wide crisis of funding. In this context, Shore thinks that old, nostalgic visions of research libraries like 42ndStreet are historically-constructed and can no longer be institutionally supported.

 There was little time for audience discussion following the panel’s presentations, but the Q&A tone seemed to both acknowledge the possibilities of digitization while doubling down on the need for collaboration between stakeholders and the preservation of on-site research collections. The audience also seemed unclear on Shore’s proposed solutions, perhaps because, as Scott pointed out, his references to consortia and other collaborative initiatives as ‘meta-librarianship’ sounded unintelligible to the audience. Perhaps more work explaining (or debating) these solutions and their utility to cash-strapped libraries is needed.

 Joan W. Scott referenced a forthcoming book (Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library), by Scott Sherman, due June 2015) on the CLP controversy. At the end of the panel, free copies of Simon Verity‘s book of cartoons on the controversy were given out. This episode is now, literally, in the books. But as I saw in these two panels yesterday, the future of historical research is yet to be written.

Christian James: On the Archive Beat on Day One of AHA 2015

National Archives Building
I am happy to have Christian James with us this weekend.  Christian is a digital historian and archivist currently working on an MLS degree.  He will be covering some of the sessions related to his field of expertise.  Welcome aboard, Christian!  –JF
I had to take the opportunity to attend this year’s AHA annual conference. Last year’s conference was in my backyard, Washington, D.C., yet I had to cancel my attendance plans for business reasons. And as I pursue my Master of Library Science (MLS) degree, this will be my last year to qualify for a student rate. Even better, this year‘s theme, “History and the Other Disciplines,” promises to tie history to the concerns of libraries, archives, and beyond. But how well will this interdisciplinary focus play out? As one of my MLS classmates observed, the choice of the word “other” might have a distancing effect. Fortunately, my first panel event saw this dynamic play out favorably.
I started out Friday’s conference proceedings precisely at AHA Session #1: “Are We Losing History? Capturing Archival Records for a New Era of Research.” Kicking off the conference with Session #1 titled, “Are We Losing History?” sounds like an audacious way to begin, but the session name was surely a rhetorical question. In fact, the panel presented and sought strategies to continue leveraging historical research to help archives acquire and retain records.
The 1pm panel began to a room at least two-thirds-full – crowded, perhaps, since registration opened at noon and the line for pre-registered attendees seemed to extend the length of a football field. Panel chair Megan Phillips of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) explained that the panel had come about through a conversation between her and AHA to foster dialogue about trends in historical research and what NARA can provide strong service and access to historians. What came about – perhaps differently from the initial vision but equally as useful – was a conversation about how both public and private relationships with government can facilitate access to records both nationally and internationally.
NARA Chief Records Officer Paul Wester* began the panel with an overview of his organization’s duty to transfer records from individual government agencies to the National Archives. Wester began by discussing NARA’s duty to help determine records of lasting value and its records scheduling function. Wester also discussed NARA’s new Capstone system, which allows agencies to more easily identify records of top officials to transfer to the Archives. The talk concluded with discussion of the needs for balance between keeping few versus many records, and for seeking input from scholars to help determine that balance. These needs are most striking in his example of public concernamid the Central Intelligence Agency’s bid to implement a Capstone policy to its own records.
The next speaker, Robert E. Lee, of East View Information Services, Inc. discussed his company’s work coordinating the publication of records and special collections from foreign nations, most notably Joseph Stalin’s personal library. This type of work requires careful negotiation and rights management, but also demonstrates the opportunities available for the private sector to open access to records. Historian Derek Peterson followed Lee with a fascinating analysis of changing archival practices in Uganda, from the cover-ups of the British colonial government to the neglect (but relatively open access) of the administration of President Yoweri Museveni, who considers history to be a “distraction.” Now, thanks to Ugandan and U.S. universities and libraries, previously censored or neglected records are preserved and digitized.
The final speaker, Matthew Connelly, brought the conversation full circle with a review of problems facing the National Archives. To Connelly, NARA faces a crisis because of low morale, low funding, other agencies’ abuse of national security classification designations, and a deluge of incoming electronic records. Connelly wondered if NARA could actually acquire more government records than it already does if it pursues more technological innovation. But nothing, Connelly insists, is more important than proper funding for the agency, which lacks the resources to best execute its mandates.
The panel broached a huge number of topics but unfortunately couldn’t pursue them all fully. (I also wondered if the panel could have discussed personal digital archiving or the role of public-private partnerships.) But the four speakers each contributed to a great panel to show how historians and the public and private spheres can unite to help archivists – definitely a strong start to “History and the Other Disciplines.”