Ask an Archivist

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In honor of Archives Month, I want to call attention to a new interview feature that has been launched by Choice.  This monthly article is called “Ask an Archivist,” and according to the press release distributed by the ALA, its intent is to introduce new users to materials found in digital archives and libraries.  I imagine some of the questions will repeat each month — such as: provide a brief description, indicate the intended audience, and explain how it might be useful to undergraduate students.

This month’s interview is with Edward L. Ayers, who created The Valley of the Shadow, an online archive of materials that reflects the views and ideas of both sides of the Civil War by focusing on a community in Virginia and another in Pennsylvania.  Through a combination of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, census data, and other related records, the voices of individuals coalesce into a story of the War.  Interestingly, his original intent for this project was to create a boutique book, but his timing coincided with the early development of the World Wide Web.  With initial support from the University of Virginia and IBM, he and his team created a web site that has become a model for digital humanists.  In my opinion, Ayers has been successful in large part because he recognized both the possibilities and the limitations of the Web platform and tailored his project to it.  In his words, “We knew at the outset that a digital archive was really good at some things — outreach, manipulability, search — and really bad at others, such as presenting coherent narrative or long stretches of text.”  If more digital humanities projects can embrace the possibilities of the digital medium without trying to force square pegs into round holes, there undoubtedly can be other digital projects that will also enjoy decades of success.



The case for the humanities

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On 15 August 2013, the president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, was interviewed on The Colbert Report about the “The Heart of the Matter,” a recently released report on the humanities that was produced for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) by a committee co-chaired by Brodhead.  Brodhead gave Colbert this definition of the humanities: “The humanities is humans studying the things other humans have achieved and suffered and struggled for in other times and places.”

The Executive Summary of the report provides this overview: “As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common” (9).  In reading this report, it strikes me that there are many ways in which archives, libraries, and museums can help to fulfill the goals outlined in this report (10-13)—in particular, goal 1: “Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.”  I assert that archives, libraries, and museums should answer the call to increase access to online resources and to engage the public—activities that can easily go hand-in-hand.

The Research chapter of the report challenges institutions to focus on the “grand challenges” as well as “curiosity-driven research” (45).  I believe that key here is to encourage and facilitate collaboration among institutions in defining these grand challenges and in determining how collections can address them. The Digital Public Library of America certainly provides a foundation for allowing institutions to collaborate and discover new uses for resources.  With the apps developed for this platform by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (among others), you can also see how the field of digital humanities can help to define and address these challenges.

The chapter on Lifelong Learning presents a concept of a “culture corps” (51) that could easily mesh with the public outreach objectives of archives, libraries, and museums.  It also acknowledges the complications generated by copyright claims when institutions  endeavor to provide greater access to resources.

Appendix V of the report includes related resources.  For more information about the digital humanities, see New York Times‘ columnist Patricia Cohen’s blog Humanities 2.0.  Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke has also has a blog called Easily Distracted with postings on digital humanities.  Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost has a blog Beyond the Elbow-Patched Playground where he’s written about digital humanities as well as the role of the humanities in general.  Blackwell published an online guide in 2004, A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth.  Patrik Svensson published an article in the Digital Humanities Quarterly called “Envisioning the Digital Humanities,” looking at the scope and purpose of the digital humanities.  My thanks to Ryan Shaw for introducing me to these readings during his 2012 course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill entitled Making the Humanities Digital.  I include these resources here because it seems to me that the archives, library, and museum communities need to ally with the digital humanities field in order to investigate new methods of using and disseminating records that are maintained in these institutions.