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TWMHADH, Part 3

Digital Humanities and New Ways of Knowing. UCLA’s (Center for?) Digital Humanities and Media Studies recently released a “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” which explains that DH is “not a unified field but an “array of convergent practices” that have the potential to profoundly transform the “production and dissemination of knowledge.”[1] A well-designed DH project fosters “attention to complexity, medium specificity, [and] historical context” and promotes “analytical depth, critique and interpretation.” It accepts that knowledge might exist in many forms: “it inhabits the interstices and criss‐crossings between words, sounds, smells, maps, diagrams, installations, environments, data repositories, tables, and objects.” The process of knowledge production is “anchored in making: making in the poetic sense of poeisis, but also in the sense of design carried out in action.” Digital humanists “make” knowledge, they build theory, by building things, designing websites, plotting maps, producing video and audio and, as always, writing cogently. Although one need not have expertise in all modes of production or communication – DH projects are necessarily collaborative in part because of the need to tap into others’ specialized skills – one should have basic literacy in these various modes. DH thus has a stake in the recent discussions about expanded “21st-century literacies.” As Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, who are affiliated with USC’s Institute for Mutimedia Literacy, argue, “To be literate today, one must understand how strategically chosen and juxtaposed combinations of media enable the construction and dissemination of meaning in ways that bypass or enrich traditional text and the spoken word. Indeed, one must not only be able to read such media, but also to author it.”[2]

Such knowledge work calls into question the distinction between theory and practice. And, through its continual reflection on process, this work also has the potential to raise critical questions about what constitutes knowledge, “who gets to create [i]
,… how it gets legitimated and authorized, and how it is made accessible to a significantly broader (and potentially global) audience.”[3]

Teaching Through the Digital Humanities. All this talk about scholarship might suggest that DH is primarily a field, or practice, for advanced scholars – for people who, as our traditional research models suggest, are specially trained and have been authorized to participate. In other words, DH seems like a faculty affair. Yet the critical skills and values that DH promotes – critical examination of methods, multiple “literacies,” collaboration, internationalization, interdisciplinarity, careful consideration of research presentation, making research accessible to wider publics – are also central to the 21st-century university’s pedagogical mission. DH might not be right for all types of classes, or for all faculty and students – the literacy of print-based reading and writing and research skills required for individual study are still an integral part of any contemporary curriculum – but there is significant opportunity for greater integration of DH into the classroom.

One impediment to that integration is the way many teachers have been trained to think about technology in the classroom. As Barish and Daley note, “To date, much of the support for university faculty to use media is directed toward technical services and basic pedagogical applications.”[4] Faculty are encouraged to use audiovisual materials in the classroom, to integrate social media, etc., “but the implications of their use, as well as the formal components and theoretical basis of multimedia, are not addressed.” Nor is “teaching with technology” instruction tailored to address specific intellectual content. If faculty become more aware of how technology might enhance their own scholarship, they are likely to approach classroom technology as something more than mere illustration or ornamentation. Possible means of introducing faculty to the potential of the Digital Humanities – or at least helping them to develop rudimentary technological literacy so they can more meaningfully integrate technology into their classes and perhaps encourage “multimodal” student projects – include sending faculty to the regularly occurring THATCamps or the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, or, given the number of talented, technologically adept faculty at The New School, hosting a summer “digital humanities boot camp” (much like the camp Parsons’ MFADT organizes for its incoming students each summer) on campus during the semester breaks.

 

As we encourage faculty to change the way they think about technology in the classroom, we must also reconsider how we ask our students to use these learning tools, and to what ends. “Although many students are involved in the creation of their own expressive media presence through personal webpages and social networking,” Presner and Johanson write, “they are infrequently engaged in either interrogating or applying these technologies in their learning and scholarship.”[5] Faculty should be helping students to develop both traditional and new (media) literacies and “the technical skills related to this literacy,” as well as…

tools for critical analysis, the ability to navigate across, reconfigure, and evaluate different media forms, the ability to negotiate and work across diverse cultures and communities, the ability to synthesize material and bring together different methodologies to solve complex problems, the ability to interpret and construct models for responding to real-world situations, the ability to critically evaluate the potentials and limitations of new technologies, and the cultivation of a broad understanding of the social, historical, linguistic, and cultural context in which they are learning and working.[6]

A well-organized DH project has the potential to reinforce all of these skills and promote critical thinking that is transferable to any kind of problem in any context, inside the classroom or out.

Presner and several colleagues have involved their students in the development of HyperCities, a well-funded, frequently lauded interactive map – or, as described on the website, a “a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.” On HyperCities, “student projects exist side-by-side with scholarly research and community collections and can be seen and evaluated by peers.”[7] He finds that his students “demonstrate a high degrees of skill in articulating a multi-dimensional argument in a hypermedia environment and bring together a wide range of media resources,’ including 2D maps, 3D models, photos, videos, audio, text, etc. Their success can likely be attributed to the fact that the existing content on HyperCities models for the students what a successful submission looks like – and because the public nature of the site, and the stature of some of their co-contributors, motivates students to take the challenge seriously. Through their work on HyperCities, the students come to appreciate the distributed, “processural, iterative, and exploratory” nature of digital scholarship.

USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy is based on offering many such experiences for undergraduates. The IML’s Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explain the program’s philosophy:

Participants in IML programs learn to “write” multimedia by first learning to critically read it. Students develop proficiency with the modes of formal analysis required for the critical evaluation of a wide range of multimedia artifacts—including images, video, sound design, information visualization, typography, interface design, and interactivity. In addition, students become familiar with the major theoretical frameworks guiding the development of contemporary multimedia applications and interactive experiences. One of the key concerns of multimedia pedagogy is ensuring that students avoid the uncritical adoption of conventions of commercial or entertainment media. The IML curriculum addresses this concern by exposing students to a broad range of multimedia genres—such as argumentative, documentary, essayistic, experiential, game-based, narrative, and archival forms—and by teaching the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. In their own projects, students are required to justify their authoring and design decisions to demonstrate that their use of media and techniques are appropriate to their overall communicative goal.

As students become critical readers of multimedia, they also learn to produce it in a scholarly way. Students gain experience in both individual and collaborative forms of multimedia authorship. Rather than positioning “multimedia literacy” or “scholarly multimedia” as an emerging field, the IML focuses on developing strategies of integration with existing disciplines and academic practices. The strength of the IML methodology is its modeling of pedagogical practices that are highly mutable, scalable, and flexible in implementation.

Wherever and however (in individual productions or group projects) these practices are implemented, that implementation must be followed up with critique. While students might learn to engage in a form of social or cultural critique through their multimedia creations, they must also learn how to critique their own multimodal productions – how to assess their success in serving their intended purpose, effectively making an argument, meaningfully (and not gratuitously) employing various modes of presentation, etc. As the rampant DH boosterism and invariably positive commentary on projects like HyperCities (despite its limitations) reveals, the Digital Humanities community has yet to build a tradition of critique.[8] In the DH classroom, a project isn’t complete when it “goes live” online, or when the video is screened; a period of reflection and critique must follow.

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[1] Schnapp, Presner, et. al, 2. Presner writes elsewhere: “I consider ‘Digital Humanities’ to be an umbrella term for a wide array of practices for creating, applying, interpreting, interrogating, and hacking both new and old information technologies” (“Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[2] Stephanie Barish and Elizabeth Daley, Multimedia Scholarship for the 21st Century, Educause Forum for the Future of Higher Education (Educause, 2005): 39.

[3] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[4] Barish & Daley, 40.

[5] Presner & Johanson, 4.

[6] Ibid. For more on new “literacies,” see Henry Jenkins, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” Occasional Paper on Digital Media and Learning (MacArthur Foundation).

[7] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[8] See Jennifer Howard, “Hot Type: No Reviews of Digital Scholarship = No RespectChronicle of Higher Education (May 23, 2010). USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy has developed a list of criteria for evaluating multimedia student work.

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Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 2

Laying Bare the Process of Scholarship. This reflection on method and process is another defining characteristic of Digital Humanities 2.0. “From a distance,…much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation,” argues textual theorist Johanna Drucker; it often appears as if digital scholarship consists of feeding a data set into database, and waiting for it to crunch the numbers and perhaps graph or map the results.[1] Digital humanists “have to show that digital approaches don’t simply provide objects of study in new formats, but shift the critical ground on which we conceptualize our activity… The challenge is to structure instruments that engage and enable these investigations.” Sometimes these investigations happen when the instruments call attention to themselves. Matthew Kirschenbaum notes that the technologies he worked with in creating the William Blake Archive, a text-and image-encoding project that has been online since 1995, “constantly make their presence felt, visibly and palpably pushing back against the interface we attempt to enfold around them.”[2] This is a common occurrence in the digital humanities, he says, because “necessity often dictates that we adopt and adapt tools and technologies that were originally developed for other needs and audiences.”[3]

But in the 15 years since the Blake Archive debuted, new technologies have emerged that make even the most rudimentary sketch appear professionally produced; they often smooth over the cracks and create a semblance of rhetorical seamlessness. Likewise, new tools have the potential to further automate data input, crunching, visualization, and analysis. DH projects often use these tools, but do not do so uncritically. As Drucker says, “Digital humanities projects are not simply mechanistic applications of technical knowledge, but occasions for critical self-consciousness.” In creating an interactive version of her book The Virtual Window, Anne Friedberg discovered the limitations and affordances of the print and interactive formats: “the digital format is not at its best in building a complex argument; it works by accretion, by juxtaposition, by comparative assemblage. It is rhizomatic.”[4] Creating a digital humanities project requires that one consider the unique capabilities of particular instruments, media formats, etc., and employ those that are best suited to their particular project.

Foregrounding these considerations in the public presentation of a digital humanities project has the potential to open up the scholarly process to a wider audience, and to invite them into a conversation on method, value, even the purpose of research. Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas have noticed a shift “in scholarly work practice, from an emphasis on polished demonstrations of academic virtuosity to a foregrounding of scholarly process and collaboration.”[5] Blogging one’s research or posting drafts online and soliciting comments – through standard blog comments, or through platforms like Commentpress or Sophie – can “illuminate the shadowy process of critical thinking, encouraging readers not only to digest finished works, but also to learn from and evaluate the mechanisms of their creation.”[6] The public is thus not merely an audience for this work; it has the potential to critically engage with it and perhaps even contribute.[7]

The actions that constitute the research process in DH might seem foreign to our traditional models of humanities scholarship, which emphasize solitary study and single authorship. Presner describes DH as a “humanistic practice anchored in creation, curation, collaboration, experimentation, and the multi-purposing or multi-channeling of humanistic knowledge.”[8] Many proponents of DH draw particular attention to its collaborative nature, which helps it to “leverage the increasingly distributed nature of expertise and knowledge and transform this reality into occasions for scholarly innovation, disciplinary cross-fertilization, and the democratization of knowledge.”[9] This “distribution” of expertise and knowledge spans both traditional disciplinary boundaries and geographic boundaries. Inclusive, team-based DH projects are thus well positioned to respond to, and foster, interdisciplinarity and the globalization of education.[10] Computer scientists from California might collaborate on a project with designers from China, historians from Canada, and high school students from Zimbabwe.[11] By further integrating institutions outside the university – Presner mentions libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, advocacy groups, non-profits, schools, and local communities (I would add arts organizations) –  DH projects can become inter-institutional, inter-public, fostering “community-based learning experiences” that promote “new forms of civic engagement.”[12] Such ways of working have the potential to make possible new ways of knowing.

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[1] Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[2] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “’So the Colors Cover the Wires’: Interface, Aesthetics, and Usability,” in Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Ray Siemens, John Unsworth, and Susan Schreibman, Hardcover., Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[3] The “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” exhorts scholars to not only think critically about how they use existing tools, but also to play an active role in creating new tools, as does George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Digital humanists should seek “not only to seek to understand and interrogate the cultural and social impact of new technologies, but to be engaged in driving the creation of new technologies, methodologies, and information systems, as well as in their détournment, reinvention, repurposing, via research questions grounded in the Arts and Humanities: questions of meaning, interpretation, history, subjectivity, and culture. (Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 6)

[4] Friedberg 153.

[5] Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas, “Engaging Academic and Nonacademic Communities through Online Scholarly Work,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 133.

[6] Ibid. 133-4.

[7] Related concerns that are central to DH are open access, intellectual property rights (i.e., allowing content makers to control theirs), and digital preservation (See Brett Bobley, “Why the Digital Humanities?” 2008 [pdf no longer available] and Schnapp, Presner, et. al., 10). Making sure that these “knowledge productions” remain open and publicly accessible requires that scholars and librarians “work together to ensure that the output of our scholarly work is created, published, shared, and preserved appropriately” (Bobley, 3).

[8] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[9] Schnapp, Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”: 5.

[10] There is much talk about how DH might reconfigure, or reinvent, the academic discipline. We might need a new university structure to accommodate this “transformation of scholarly practice from individuals working and writing in isolation to team-based approaches to research problems that cannot be conceptualized, let alone solved, by single scholars. Here, we are beginning to see the emergence of finite, flexible, and nimble ‘knowledge problematics’ that do not derive from or reflect entrenched disciplinary lines, methodological assumptions, or scholarly silos. I see these knowledge problematics as “virtual departments,” which exist only for a finite period of time, are agile, and are constantly built and dismantled. To use a term from the emergent field of digital cultural mapping, they might function as “overlays” on existing departments and institutions, connecting distant scholars and communities together and creating new feedback loops or among between them” (Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge”).

[11] “Digital Humanities scholarship not only cuts across and unifies traditional fields in the humanities (literature, history, the arts) but also brings the tools—both technological and methodological—of other disciplines to bear on the analysis of culture and society. For example, tools from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help historians to map the transmission of cultural artifacts; architectural modeling and simulation tools aid archaeologists in the investigation and recreation of ancient city spaces and societies; text-analysis and data-mining tools help linguists and literary scholars to detect and analyze patterns in the study of complex textual corpora (Todd Presner, Chris Johanson, et. al., “The Promise of Digital Humanities,” White Paper, March 1, 2009: 3)

[12] Presner & Johanson, 3.

On to Part 3…

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Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities, Part 1

This summer I’m participating in an “academic think tank” organized by our Provost’s Office at The New School. We participants are charged with investigating possible areas for pedagogical innovation or the development of new academic initiatives. I’m looking at how we could make a space for the digital humanities — or digital, or “multimodal,” scholarship, or whatever you want to call it (I’d prefer that we call it something other than “digital humanities,” for a bunch of reasons) — at The New School. There’s already plenty of work going on here that approximates the digital humanities, and I think that if we simply recognized it for what it is, and pushed it a little father to claim it as a new form of scholarship, we’d be in a much better position to tap into communities of like-minded researchers and designers and into the DH grant pool.

Plus, over the past couple of years I’ve come to the realization that my current research exceeds the limitations of print-based presentation. I’m focusing on the historical layering of media infrastructures and material media systems in various global cities. Edward Soja acknowledges the limitations of print in representing geographic complexity:

What one sees when one looks at geographies is stubbornly simultaneous, but language dictates a sequential succession, a linear flow of sentential statements bound by that most spatial of earthly constraints, the impossibility of two objects (or words) occupying the same precise place (as on a page). All that we can do is re-collect and creatively juxtapose, experimenting with assertions and insertions of the spatial against the prevailing grain of time. In the end, the interpretation of postmodern geographies can be no more than a beginning (Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989): 2).

I’m still writing a book, of course, for tenure purposes (I hope Minnesota will have me again!) — but I hope to supplement it with some interactive components, maybe even an entirely-online chapter. I’ve had the extremely good fortune to discover several like-minded colleagues with whom I’m now collaborating on the creation of an online platform that will support not only my research, but also the work for my new fall class and their fall classes — and, eventually, the research and coursework of any “urban” faculty at The New School.

For the purposes of our summer think tank, I’m trying to explain this new mapping project within the context of the digital humanities. I’ve been watching these DH people for quite some time now, trying to deal with my slight annoyance with their boosterism and seeming technofetishism. What eventually won me over was Tara McPherson’s thoughtful, temperate intro to the special “digital humanities” section in the Winter 2009 issue of Cinema Journal. I figured I should figure out what this enterprise is all about. So, what follows is the alpha version of a lit review; I have yet to integrate more of my own critical perspective.

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Defining the New Digital Humanities. The Digital Humanities are not new; they’ve been around for almost a half-century.[1] In the early days, the term “digital humanities” was often used interchangeably with “humanities computing,” in which practitioners were “mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays.”[2] Much of the work was quantitative and focused on building “large-scale digitization projects (typically of literary corpuses) an the establishment of technological infrastructure.”[3] At the same time, scholars began incorporating new media technologies into their publications; “Writing in the Digital 1.0,” as media scholar Anne Friedberg calls it, involved the addition of digital concordances – in the form of packaged CDs or links to online supplementary materials – to conventional print books; “the digital material was largely illustrative and served as a supplement.”[4]

The second wave of the Digital Humanities (DH) are emerging, proponents say, amidst ever more rapid technological, social, cultural, and economic changes – changes for which “digital scholars” are beginning to develop appropriate “intellectual tools, methodologies, disciplinary practices, and institutional structures” to interpret an respond to these transformations.[5] These tools and methodologies must go beyond conceiving of new technologies as mere illustrations for, or processors of, traditional printed texts. As German scholar and “digital humanist” Todd Presner explains, Digital Humanities 2.0 is…

deeply generative, creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is “born digital” and lives in various digital contexts. While the first wave of Digital Humanities concentrated, perhaps somewhat narrowly, on text analysis…within established disciplines, Digital Humanities 2.0 introduces entirely new disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies, and even new publication models that are often not derived from or limited to print culture.[6]

Architectural historian Diane Favro and Christopher Johnson, Associate Director of UCLA’s Experimental Technology Center, for instance, use digital models of ancient funeral processions in the Roman forum not simply as “post-research presentations of their work, but [as] integral research tools.”[7] Their models allow for the “consideration of (funeral) events in situ,” which helps them better understand “how the Romans choreographed their processions to exploit the scale, orientation, sequencing, and symbolic associations of structures and places.” Similarly, media scholar Tara McPherson notes that, in some projects, databases allow for new ways of organizing data:

Our carefully collected evidence can now be animated in new ways, allowing us to present multiple lines of thought in relation to the materials at hand and to invite others to join us in this process in extended collaboration and conversation. Working with databases allows us both to present our arguments differently and to understand our materials differently.[8]

Rather than fetishizing the database, as some “first wave” scholars seemed to do, however, Digital Humanities 2.0 scholars consider other modes of “processing” a research project. They consider how particular questions or problems might lend themselves to investigation or representation through aural, visual, or interactive media; through maps, audio archives, documentaries – even video games. In some cases, a book – designed so that its material form reinforces its argument – might be the most appropriate means of giving form to an argument. This media-minded scholar, whom McPherson calls “multimodal” (I prefer her terminology because it does not privilege the digital at the expense of other, non-digital, yet equally appropriate and effective, media forms), “thinks carefully about the relationship of form to content, expression to idea.” She examines “what happens when scholarship looks and feels differently, requiring new modes of engagement from the reader/user.”[9] “How do you ‘experience’ or ‘feel’ an argument in a more immersive and sensory-rich space?” “Can scholarship show as well as tell?” “Will representing data differently change the ways we understand, collect, or interpret it?”

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[1] Willard McCarty, “A Brief History of Humanities Computing, 1964-70” [Blog Pos]
Humanist Discussion Group (May 7, 2004): http://www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/Archives/Virginia/v17/0771.html.

[2] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, et. al., “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” n.d.: 2.

[3] Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge,” May 13, 2010, Module m34246, Connexions.

[4] Anne Friedberg, “On Digital Scholarship,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 151.

[5] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[6] Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge.”

[7] Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 69, no. 1 (March 2010): 31-2.

[8] Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 121.

[9] McPherson, 120-1.

Part 2 comin’ up…

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Finds at the National Archives

From the Post Office Department records, National Archives and Records Administration:

Morse Signature
Samuel Morse had excellent penmanship.
International Pneumatic Tube Company Promotional Literature
Most pneumatic tube system maps were removed from the files for “security reasons.

At NARA II in College Park:

The “no bags” rule meant I had to cart this crap around all day.
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Archival Souvenirs

From the Western Union collection at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History:

For Mom & Dad:

Indexed Map of Western Union Telegraph Lines, Pennsylvania. Click for larger image; Bellefonte’s right there in the center!

For Dave:

Indexed Map of Telegraph Lines, Illinois

For Sue:

Switchboard at Marquette, MI, 1919

Other Finds:

Rear of Switchboard, San Antonio, TX, 1918

“Every time an incision is made in the pavement, those noisy surgeons expose ganglia that are tangled beyond belief.” -E.B. White, “Here is New York,” 1949.

Con Ed Cables & Air Pipes at 4th Ave and 19th St. (just 4 blocks from where I now live)
Above-ground Telegraph Wires, Near the Old Western Union Headquarters @ Broadway, near Fulton

“Outside, alone on a delivery run, the uniformed messenger served as both visual advertising and as the direct customer contact for the telegraph company. Boys were to appear neat, speedy, polite, and responsible, with ‘Clean Hands and Face,’ ‘Uniform Pressed and Spotless,’ and ‘Cap Squarely on Head’…” -Gregory J. Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 68.

Cincinnati Telegraph Operators Say, The New No. 6 Remington Typewriter is “The Machine” for Western Union!
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Renovation

I’m in the process of migrating everything from my clunky old html site (she served me well for the past eight years) to this super-deluxe WordPress site, which will allow for much easier updating. Thanks to Joel for his help! The move is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll pardon all the typos and broken links for the next few weeks.

The new site obviously comes with a blog — the blog that features the stimulating post you’re reading right now. I realize I’m at least ten years behind the curve on this. That’s totally okay by me: I like being anachronistic. Maybe in 2117 I’ll start tweeting.

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Into the Archives

I’m looking forward to two weeks of archival work at the NYPL here at home, and at the Lemeleson Center, the National Archives, and the Postal Museum in D.C. In reviewing NARA’s policies for visitors, I stumbled across, and was impressed by, their Digital Vaults.

I’ve logged a good number of hours in various archives — but I’m a bit nervous about this trip. This time, it’s not only about me and the “content”; it’s also about my ability to handle a bunch of other technologies.

Over a decade ago, when I was working in libraries’ institutional archives and architectural offices’ company archives, my research typically involved a staff member either wheeling out a cart full of boxes full of dusty documents, or leading me into a storage room, where I was given free rein to dig through filing cabinets. Depending upon the institution’s policies (or lack thereof), I either took notes on my laptop or with pencil and paper. Some places allowed me to make unlimited copies; in those cases, I’d typically copy anything that looked remotely relevant, then review my stack of Xeroxes later that night or when I returned home after days or weeks on the road. Back then, everything was on paper. All my archival material for my first book filled at least 10 3″ 3-ring binders.

I’ve visited other archives since then — but they all seem to have had rather restrictive reproduction policies. In some places, I was permitted to take only loose leaf paper and a pencil with me into the reading room. Other places allowed laptops. But, as far as I recall, nobody allowed cameras, scanners or digital recorders. Consequently, I missed out on earlier experiences to develop my digital archival (i.e., in-the-archives) research skills.

It’s not as if I was oblivious to the ways that digital technologies had been transforming research methods — particularly archival research methods. I had been using a citation manager; maintaining a database of notes; evolving a system for storing and classifying my pdfs, images, etc. The first “Making History Podcast,” from 2007, reassured me that, at least in my PDF’ing, OCR’ing, annotating, resource-organizing, and citation-managing, I was making good use of available software and hardware. Recently, several presentations at the “Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities” conference at Yale addressed the use of digital technologies in the archives. I found Shane Lundrum’s “Camera, Laptop, and What Else?: Hacking Better Tools for the Short Archival Research Trip” particularly enlightening…. And, I must admit, intimidating. My research process sure wasn’t that regimented, and my research packing list rarely contained anything more technologically advanced then a cellphone.

I have a decent publication record — including a book with a good press and several book chapters and peer-reviewed articles — yet the relative lack of technological sophistication of my research methods for some reason made me question the effectiveness of those methods. (I think reading too many ProfHacker posts and listening to too many Digital Campus podcasts has somehow convinced me that early tech adoption is obligatory — as is the deep integration of technology into one’s teaching and research.) It made me wonder if I was missing out on something important because I don’t know how to write Applescript…and I don’t “get” Tweets…and I occasionally even have a hard time setting up a tripod. If this is where research is heading, if this is the kind of research I have to prepare my graduate students to do, am I falling behind?

Initially, my current project was only feeding into these concerns. Most of my previous archival work focused on texts — flat, static, docile paper documents. This time, I’m working not only with manuscripts and maps and blueprints, but also with archival audio, video, and film. Things with moving parts and plugs. Reading the National Archives’ policies for self-service audio and video copying left my head spinning. BNC connector? SUM jack? Awhoza? Awhatza? The list of crap I’d have to schlep down to D.C. on Amtrak seemed endless: I imagined myself rolling up to the archives in College Park, MD, with a UHaul full of recorders and cables and hard drives; the logistics of transporting all this stuff baffled me. Another issue was that I owned few of the tools they recommended — so my internal cash register was anticipating a pretty hefty bill at B&H.

Then Kevin and Jen, godbless’em, came to the rescue. Despite having a brand-new baby, they took some time to introduce me to a few audio and video recorder options, showed me how to record and upload, etc. I’ve chosen equipment for which there isn’t too steep a learning curve, but is still “robust” enough for me to maybe, someday, grow into it (I’ve always wanted to do more audio recording, so I decided to get a recorder that’s a bit fancier than I really need right now — so I can eventually learn how to use all those other features). Now I’m a bit less freaked out. I’m heading over to B&H tomorrow to do some damage.

And soon I’ll head into the archives with some shiny new geegaws in my toolbox. I just hope that all these gadgets don’t get in the way of my engagement with, and enjoyment of, the archival material. I don’t want to be so stressed out about, say, adjusting the resolution on my videorecorder or the gain on my audio recorder that I forget to engage with the content of the film or radio show I’m dubbing…or forget to appreciate that Holy crap, I’m watching something that maybe nobody has seen since 1933. If you ask me, that’s way more awesome than “super bit mapping” and Applescript.