Final Thoughts…

For my final project, I researched and wrote a paper surveying the landscape of how archiving is being practiced online in light of our increasing dependence on born-digital cultural production. By exploring the full range of search engine results for archives focused on the events of 9/11, I was able to collect a manageable sample that could be used for comparison in an attempt to identify common threads among the disparate archives, formal and informal, labeled as such and not. By breaking down each example to identify its sources, its funding, its intended audience, its content, and its organization, I was able to use those fundamental characteristics to develop a typology of 9/11 web archives.  This process allowed me to cultivate a thorough understanding of what already exists, what new models may emerge, and what the ongoing preservation concerns might be. I will be able to use this conceptual model to underwrite future projects that explore digital archiving practice as an essential component of communicating cultural memory.

Having chosen to do a traditional paper rather than the digital option, I missed the opportunity to learn about executing a digital humanities project from the producer side through the process of trial and error. While I would have enjoyed working on the digital project that I proposed, the paper better served my immediate need to understand more about this aspect of historical practice that is not often the focus of scholarly work within media studies. The role of digital media, particularly the Internet’s facilitation of social networking and content-sharing, in the negotiation of competing mnemonic narratives of the past is a matter of increasing importance as new technologies continue to emerge and demands the attention of researchers going forward.

Search Engine Scholarship: Leary’s “Googling the Victorians”

As illustrated by his charming “L.E.L.” example, Patrick Leary makes an argument that the widespread adoption of Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) has had a profound effect on the mundane labor of his academic subfield, meaning historians focused on the Victorian Age. While the idea of using cutting-edge (by early-millennial standards) tools like Google for the study of a period that seems even more distant if measured in iterations of time between iPad models appears paradoxical, his point about the revolutionary new horizons of fortuitous discovery of once-inaccessible information made possible by the Internet is one that is easily generalized to all areas of scholarly work. I can personally attest to the immeasurable value of web-based tools like Twitter for supporting my own research, whether through constant exposure to news and current events relevant to my projects, enriching exchanges with distant scholars of similar interest, or managing practical matters like knowing when proposal deadlines and conferences are approaching.

Leary also clarifies an important paradox of ICT-assisted scholarship. On one hand, much of the time we have spent in class discussing online archiving and other formal digital humanities initiatives has centered around pondering questions of how best to standardize formats, ensure file compatibility, organize labor and resources, etc. What Leary reminds us—the flip side of that coin—is that the work that produced the rich stores of content that have already benefited his research projects (as well as our own) was produced haphazardly, for unrelated or unexpected purposes, and that even these “corrupt” or uncorrected sources provide important information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Furthermore, I would argue that the randomness of these resources belies their lasting impact on the shape of an increasing percentage of scholastic enterprise.

As an example, when I was developing my Master’s thesis, which included a historiographical approach to contextualizing a series of films noir from the 40s and 50s, I struggle to imagine the outcome without resources like Google’s digital collection of Time and Life magazines. These texts were essential to establishing a sense of what major political and social events were covered popularly immediately surrounding the release of each film and often included coverage of the films themselves. Similarly, the scattered archives of digitized film reviews, both from major papers like The New York Times and smaller regional or local outlets, made it possible to explore whether these controversial films were received differently by critics in urban areas than their rural counterparts. The availability of these resources, for whatever reason (perhaps explained by Google’s unspoken “We did it because we can!” mantra and pre-paywall NYT decision-makers thinking “Content, we need content! Put the old stuff online!”), definitely shaped the course of that project—and being able to do the “legwork” while sitting on my couch in pajamas didn’t hurt either.

Leary’s enthusiasm, like mine, is tempered by important questions about how search engine protocols reshape the processes of reading and citation and whether the absence of those familiar faculties strips out essential context. He is also critical of what he describes as a growing inability to acknowledge or even identify the limitations of Internet research, a lack of critical interpretation of information found online, and a decline in general respect, particularly among students, for the still-necessary skills required to work with analog resources (somehow it always comes down to “Kids these days!”). Leary imagines the impending terminus of this shift as a phenomenon he calls “offline penumbra,” where the assumption that everything of value is or should be online effectively negates the existence of anything that isn’t.

Can you think of specific examples of how Googling has radically altered your research? Has it ever failed you in an expected or unexpected way? Has the impact of ICT and search engines in particular remained constant since this article was published in 2005? Are there any digital media tools that have evolved more recently that you think will have a similarly broad impact? Any thoughts on the “offline penumbra”?

Born-Digital: The September 11 Digital Archive

A collaboration between the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Rosenzweig’s Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the September 11 Digital Archive represents a significant turning point in the realm of the online archive. While previous digital humanities efforts had focused on digitizing (essentially duplicating) materials from existing physical archives with the goal of promoting broader access, the events of September 11, 2001 occurred at moment in time when born-digital materials were increasingly the primary mode of cultural production. With relevant artifacts simultaneously easier to collect and more ephemeral, this required a different approach to online archiving. As such, the September 11 Digital Archive represents a number of interesting steps forward in the conceptualization of the online archive generally. The following are some of the characteristics and issues that struck me when exploring the site

1.  What Just Happened?

The September 11 Digital Archive set a new standard for immediacy in archival practice. With the plethora of born-digital content and the speedy launch of a simple user interface, materials and personal testimonials were being collected in temporal proximity to actual events that was previously unimaginable. While the campaign to record the experiences of Holocaust survivors often captured these recollections in excess of fifty years after the fact, this archive features emails sent as early as days or weeks after the attacks. In my estimation, this has the potential to capture a different kind of cultural memory than recollections shaded by the passing of time and subsequent events.

2. Abundance: Drowning in Primary Resources

As discussed by Rosenzweig, digital archives often engender heated debates between archivists and historians over what to save and how much. In the case of the September 11 Digital Archive, it is obvious that the creators erred on the side of abundance with over 150,000 born-digital artifacts collected in the form of photos, video, audio, and personal recollections and correspondence.

3. The Archive is Dead.

The September 11 Digital Archive introduces some interesting questions for digital archivists about whether or when archiving should end. According to the website, the project responsible for creating this resource ended as of June 2004. While user submissions are still possible, they state that the website is no longer being updated. How do we decide that a digital archiving project is over? Is it a practical decision related to funding windows? Is it a scholarly decision that the period for producing valuable contributions to an online archive has closed? Can we ever consider the archive closed if materials can still be submitted? What happens when an inactive digital archive becomes outdated in terms of format or user interface? Does it affect the power of the resource if no one is adapting the vast quantities of materials collected to new types of search algorithms or other user interfaces that would enhance interaction with those collections?

4. Collaboration is king.

Beyond the original partnership between the primary civic institutions of higher education and their private funding source, the September 11 Digital Archive illustrates the essential role collaboration can have in determining the success of digital archiving initiatives. While the original project is technically over, the material was added to the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in September 2003. The archive’s website lauds this partnership as a means of ensuring the “long-term preservation” of the collection and a public acknowledgement of the importance of born-digital content by the Library of Congress. Of course, as we’ve been reading this semester, there is still some uncertainty about the true meaning of “long-term preservation” in regard to digital materials.

The September 11 Digital Archive also forged other collaborative relationships that enriched the resource. Under Special Collections, the site describes a collaboration with NPR that produced The Sonic Memorial Project, an aggregation of sounds related to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center specifically. There is also discussion of how the September 11 Digital Archive served as the “Smithsonian Institution’s designated repository for digital materials related to 9/11,” linking yet another legacy cultural institution with this project. This kind of centralization of materials into a single resource seems like an excellent model for future digital archiving projects and a useful means of overcoming the fragmentation of information across disparate sites that seems so typical of the Internet.

5. Resources NOT Narratives.

It is also interesting how clearly the September 11 Digital Archives delineates itself as a collection of resources rather than a curated narrative of events like one would expect to find in a museum or a history textbook. In its FAQs section, it directs visitors with specific questions about the timeline of events, the origins and identities of the terrorists, the activity of first responders, and the rebuilding of the site of the World Trade Center to resources created by other sources, particularly the websites of the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post.

6. Content Does Not Always Equal Context.

The final point that I want to make about the September 11 Digital Archive is that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how best to standardize vast quantities of born-digital materials for ease of search and uniformity of display for the web while still retaining important contextual information. Using the example of the “Satan in the Smoke” collection of emails, you can see how the visual layout of the document below is unfamiliar to anything we associate with reading emails, whether you use a web interface, a desktop client, or a mobile device.

Furthermore, embedded content has been pulled out and placed elsewhere on the archive site and all identifying information regarding the sender and recipient(s) have been removed. I’m not making an argument about any of these practices being right or wrong, just attempting to draw attention to the importance of context when dealing with born-digital archives, just as with any other category of artifacts, and the unique problems that the ability to strip and reconfigure digital text and data can raise.

This is just a sampling of the issues that exploring the September 11 Digital Archive triggered for me. If you noticed anything that I did not touch on, please feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comments below.

Digital Project Proposal: Chicago Cemeteries

My digital project is a bit of a flight of fancy as I will be focusing on my print project this semester, but it is still one that I find fascinating and could potentially see myself working on in the future (especially if 30-hour days are invented). The backstory of this particular project can be found in the fact that my previous apartment in Chicago lay within 50 feet of one cemetery and within one city block of three additional cemeteries. For exercise and photographic fancy, I would often wander these lush green urban gardens on gorgeous weekend afternoons enjoying the wildlife (Coyotes! Deer!) and snapping photos of monuments that intrigued me. Like a gateway drug, this led to other cemeteries further and further afield. As it turns out, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs have no shortage of dead people, some famous, some infamous, some average joes, and some average joes with fabulously eccentric monuments.

The website I am proposing would be a WordPress blog featuring photo-heavy posts about interesting monuments and mausoleums that I found in Chicago-area cemeteries. The posts would include discussion of the monuments of a variety of figures notable in national history (ex. George Pullman and Louis Sullivan), locally important characters (ex. Ruth Page, Al Capone and his gang, and Marshall Field), victims of local historical tragedies like the Iroquois Theater fire or the Eastland disaster, and other interesting residents of Chicago’s most permanent neighborhoods. Posts would also discuss relevant issues like trends cemetery architecture and monument symbolism (particular carvings, group membership symbols, etc.) related to the particular monument being discussed. While the scope would be city-wide, there would be an opportunity to curate collections related to specific cemeteries using tags, as well as statuary themes, historical events, and other useful categories. Blog posts would allow users to provide their own thoughts via comments and the site would include an integrated Twitter account/widget to push out new post notifications to followers. A dedicated email address would solicit individual users to contribute suggestions for future blog posts based on their own exploration.

The imagined audience for this blog would be primarily non-academic, catering to individuals with an interest in history generally and in Chicago history specifically, as well as a growing segment of cemetery sightseers. The hope would be to foster even greater appreciation of these sites of rich history and ensure their preservation for future generations by inspiring Chicago-area residents and visitors from all over the world to explore these sites. Chicago’s cemeteries are well loved online in social-networking sites. For example, a Flickr group dedicated to the topic has almost 300 members who have posted nearly 3,000 photos and Yelp features glowing reviews of many of the city’s more famous cemeteries, including 40 for Graceland Cemetery alone. This does not translate to a complete and in-depth representation of Chicago cemeteries online. Individual cemetery websites are inconsistent in terms of content, with many focusing exclusively on providing information regarding current and future interments and very few providing compelling evidence of the cultural heritage resources that lie within their gates. One website that I found focuses on graveyards in Illinois, but the site does not appear to have been updated since 2010 and the overall design of the homepage smacks of mid-90s geocities-style design logic. I think there is definitely a void to be filled by a user-friendly blog on this topic due to the organic interest it has already garnered and the lack of a unified resources for this type of information. A potential model for the types of posts that I am imagining would be the well-executed site AfterLife, which is dedicated to sharing English-language monument and historical information drawn from the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

See the photos included below for examples. On the left, Al Capone’s in-ground headstone (which is accompanied by a large family monument, not shown). On the right, the monument of a gentleman who really, really loved Chicago (“Forty three years resident in Chicago. Twenty three years her faithful public servant.”)

Show & Tell: Chicago History Museum

I know that we haven’t gotten to the weeks on historical web games yet, but I was googling around just to see what kind of games might exist on the topic of my beloved hometown and I found a series of very simple games for kids presented by the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum). Using flash, these games create basic platforms for engaging children with familiar aspects of Chicago history and culture (the fire, the flag, the skyline, the World’s Fair, etc.). None of the “About Us” information provides a hard date for when it was created and the targeted age range of 6 to 12 years seems a little high given the simplicity of the games and the sophistication of digital natives today, but it does seem like a cute attempt to expose kids to history and artifacts related to the Swamp City. Then again, I played around with the games for longer than I care to admit. You’ll also see the familiar guidepost beckoning to teachers in the upper right hand corner that we have discussed so often in class.

Tangentially, it has been interesting to watch this organization evolve over the years. When I was in high school, annual participation in the History Fair was mandatory and local topics were king, so I spent many afternoons filling out resource request slips (how analog!), sheepishly pushing my school ID over the high counter to the authoritarian reference librarian (eerily similar, at least in my imagination, to how Santa looked in A Christmas Story), and being terrified to sneeze too loudly in their formal archive reading rooms. It seems they’ve finally turned a corner toward public history initiatives. With their new name and novel focus on more numerous curated exhibits, a film series, and even an on-site cafe, they present a much more welcoming face to general audiences interested in Chicago history.