Project Reflection, Poster Presentation, and Course Reflections

Hi everybody! It’s hard to believe that the semester is already wrapping up. When I first set out to do this project, I thought that I would only discuss the findings that I procured from the primary source documents themselves. However, as the project progressed, I recognized that it wasn’t just these documents that needed explaining, but also the digital analytical tools that I was utilizing. Each tool presented its own benefits and drawbacks, and as I uncovered these aspects of the tools, I needed to redefine the scope of my project, to the point that a discussion of these tools, and how they impacted my findings and methodology, required explaining in their own section.

Paradoxically, my findings were both expected and unexpected. On the one hand, I did expect that the concept of “State Rights” would primarily be utilized in the South. However, I did not anticipate that the number of Northerners who used the term would be so few. Even after the Supreme Court released its decision on Dred Scott, which essentially extended slavery to the free states, Northern references to the term were outnumbered nearly 4:1 by Southern references.

The answer to why people invoked “State Rights” was less surprising to me. Being that the term was referenced most frequently during “flashpoint” years, when political controversy and federal action occurred, it became apparent that the term was used whenever federal action was deemed injurious to individuals, and not as a part of regular political philosophy. This would explain why references to the term appear overwhelmingly during years like 1832, 1834, and 1857, and why it would appear so rarely during the rest of the years that were examined.

As far as Americans’ understanding of what “State Rights” meant to them, it would seem that for many Southerners and Democrats, it was a shield against any federal action that was not expressly beneficial to them. For instance, during the Nullification Crisis, the tariff, which was mainly meant to benefit the factories of the North, was deemed unconstitutional, even though it was within the rights of the Congress to create such a law. For many Northerners and Whigs/Republicans, the concept of “State Rights” was seen as a tool used by Southerners to suppress political activity, especially activity originating in the North.

This class has been incredibly useful for learning about the tools and methodology that can be employed in history-making. Without this class, I might not have learned about tools like Google Ngram and Chronicling America until much later, and tools like these will help me make future projects run more efficiently. Additionally, reading articles and books on digital history and methodology have presented me with a different perspective on the nature of historical inquiry, and made me reconsider the kinds of questions that I should be asking.

It’s been great getting to know all of you throughout this semester, and I hope to see you in some of my future classes!

My project poster.

And here is a link to the current draft of my print project paper:

Print Project: State Rights

For my print project, I chose to pursue a study of state rights throughout 19th century American history. As I mentioned in my project proposal, the inspiration for this project came from my curiosity as to how a political philosophy, with roots over 200 years old, has managed to remain politically relevant up to the present day.

Before I even began collecting data and doing research, I established several guiding questions to help me throughout the creation of my project. These questions included: “Who advocated state rights? “Under what circumstances might these people have advocated state rights? “How did Americans’ understanding and relationship with state rights evolved overtime?” I also had to choose digital analytical tools that I thought had the best “fit” for my project goals, and in the end, I decided upon Google Ngram and the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” search database. The former allowed me to help visualize trends between different key terms across time, while the later helped me find and accumulate primary source material in a quick and convenient manner.

To pursue this study, one of the considerations I made was to I restrict the timeframe being studied to 1800-1860. I had several reasons for doing so. One reason was that Google Ngram does not allow you to search years prior to 1800, so this marked a starting point for me. I chose 1860 as an end date because its before the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is when federal action increases drastically. I also broke up this 1800-1860 period into three parts, since Google Ngram’s line graphs will appear smoother if a longer time frame is chosen.

As I went about my research, I would utilize the search criteria for Google Ngram to help me locate periods of time when the term “State Rights” was utilized more frequently in literature, and relate it to positive and negative terms, in order to determine whether Americans understanding of the concept was constant, or rather, caused by political controversy. Once a flashpoint was identified, I would then use Chronicling America to analyze primary sources, and to determine differences between how Northerners and Southerners discussed state rights, if at all.

Because Ngram does not distinguish between regions, only frequency of the terms, using Chronicling America’s “search by state” function allowed me to search by Northern/Southern states, giving me a rough estimate as to whether one section of the US was talking about it more than the other. Additionally, Chronicling America has a feature where terms that you enter into the “advanced search” are highlighted on the page when you open up a document, which made reading the sources very convenient.

Digital Archives: What are and aren’t they? (Readings 5-9)

For the second half of this week’s readings, we will be looking at articles that ponder the more theoretical aspects of digital archives, and whether it is even appropriate to call digital collections “archives.”

The first article, The Rationale of HyperText, Jerome McGann highlights his vision for the optimal digital archive, one composed of hypermedia, and which incorporates both visual and auditory elements. In making the case for his hypermedia archive, McGann points out literary limitations that inhibit non-digital archives, such as the need to create new editions, which can be inaccessible to readers. Hypermedia, McGann argues, circumvents such difficulties by allowing readers to easily navigate through large masses of interconnected documents. Additionally, he lays out several design decisions that current projects should consider, such as the utilization of hypermedia in terms of the largest and most ambitious projects goals, as opposed to the project’s limitations, and that projects should be designed in the most modular and flexible way, so that changes in hardware and software have minimal impact upon the project. (McGann)

The next reading, What do you Mean by Archive, by Trevor Owens, seeks to understand the variety of meanings that “archive” takes on, depending on the context. One meaning of archive regards its usage in an organizational context, where the purpose of the archive is largely as a “place in the organization that is required to retain and organize records of the organization…In this case, a big part of the the work of an archive is to make sure they are keeping around only what is deemed to be useful for particular future use cases.” In this context, the archive is very selective. The second context Owens highlights is the archive as a “particular kind of collection.” Usually, these kinds of archives are collections of papers that center around a specific theme or person. The third context is as a context menu in computing. In this case, the archive is more of a back-up to an original copy of a document, but is still relatively accessible. The fourth, tape archives, are the physical, magnetic tapes, which many institutions use as their cheap, rudimentary forms of back-ups, ones which are the most unresponsive, and least likely to be accessed. The fifth context, web archives, are organizations and programs, such as “Wayback Machine,” which crawl the internet, saving and storing copies of websites. Finally, there are digital archives, like the September 11th Digital Archive, which are crowdsourced, and largely follow the format of McGann’s hypermedia dominated digital projects. As a whole, Owens’ article highlights the difficulty in defining “archive,” and how that meaning can change depending on what medium it is based in. (Owens)

The third article, On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born Digital Archive, by Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, investigates the laptop and hard drives of Susan Sontag as a case study of born-digital archives. In doing so, the article highlights several drawbacks and benefits to born-digital archives. One of the main points that the article argues is that in born-digital archives, there exists a paradox in that they have to balance the need to preserve hard drives and files in a manner that protects them from degradation, while also allowing them to remain relatively accessible. Additionally, digital archives suffer from unique challenges, such as the need for old programs and documents to be converted into a format that modern programs and software can make use of. However, the authors argue that the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks, and point out that digital archives are far more spatially-efficient than conventional archives, with boxes and boxes worth of documents being possible to condense into a single laptop. (Schmidt and Ardam)

The fourth article, Archives in and as Context, by Kate Theimer, makes the case for why digital collections do not constitute legitimate archives, and why people in the digital humanities might make that mistake. For instance, she points out that often, people in the digital humanities call their collections “archives” because the objects are selected. However, she argues that there is more to archives than just a selection process, and instead, maintains that “an archives is a repository for the historical records of its parent organization.” Furthermore, she lays several fundamental principles of archives, such as “provenance,” “collective control,” maintenance of the “original order imposed by the source of records,” and that the objects be “primarily original or unique materials and not published ones.” Since digital collections do not adhere to these strict guidelines, Thiemer believes that they should not be referred to as “archives.” (Thiemer)

The final article, Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History by Owens and Padilla, explores some of the fundamental concepts of digital history, the unique challenges of digital history, and questions that one must ask when pursuing digital history. For instance, in one section titled “Digitized Primary Sources,” the authors discuss why an institution or organization might digitized one primary source over another. An example they give highlights that many institutions prioritize digitizing materials from before 1923, in order to avoid copyright issues. In the section “Born Digital Sources,” the authors define born digital sources as those sources that “started off digital; email messages, digital photographs, websites, databases, etc.” One of the hypothetical questions that the authors pose for born digital sources is “how were the sources created, managed and used, and how does that impact what one can say about it?” They note that these contexts behind the born digital sources can reveal a great deal about them, giving the example of a message sent that states “Sent from my iPhone.” Because of this, the existence of typos or briefness of the message can be explained. Overall, the article presents a broad inquiry into the nature of digital humanities, the methodology that is employed in creating digital histories, and the key questions that need to be considered when pursing digital history. (Owens and Padilla)

Mapping the Works Progress Administration in New York

The New Deal is often identified as being one of America’s great political undertakings, encompassing a family of administrations and acts intended to help get Americans back to work. This was not the only way that the New Deal was intended to re-build America, though, as the work that the New Deal stipulated was meant to contribute to the long-term improvement of infrastructure and environment as well. For instance, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) was a New Deal project that saw the construction, expansion, and improvement of America’s forests, wildlife refuges, and other natural settings. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created to bring prosperity to its area of operation through such means as production of fertilizer, hydroelectricity, re-direction of waterways, and education of local farmers on modern agricultural methods.

File:FDR in 1933.jpg - Wikipedia
Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One New Deal project that always interested me was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, which was founded in 1935, was designed to get Americans working towards building various civic centers, roadways, and waterways, or improving upon older ones. These included, but were not limited to, schools, town halls, fire departments, sewers, roads, and bridges. The WPA employed millions of Americans for these ends, and ultimately, thousands of infrastructural projects were finished by the time the WPA was discontinued in 1943. Because much of the infrastructure created by the WPA continues to exist and function to this day, the WPA is one of the most enduring New Deal projects. Included among the buildings created by the WPA is my town’s middle school, which is partly where my interest in the WPA comes from.

e-WV | Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Poster for the Works Progress Administration.

For my digital project, I propose creating an interactive map which shows the locations of New York schools that were created as a result of the WPA. The objective of the project would be to show the enduring legacy of the New Deal, and how it continues to contribute to the general welfare of the United States, particularly for education. Being that the current presidential administration is posturing itself towards sweeping efforts on boosting vaccine production, domestic computer chip production, and financial assistance for small businesses, it would be pertinent to create a project related to the New Deal, and the effort to bounce back from the Great Depression.

The Evolution of “States’ Rights” in 19th Century America

Throughout American history, there have been several political phenomena that have become defining characteristics of American politics, such as individualism and sectionalism. Phenomena like these have deep roots in America’s past, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In spite of this, however, these concepts are rarely invoked consciously. Conversely, the concept of “states’ rights” is not just a significant political concept in American history, it has been (and continues to be) invoked by politicians and private citizens alike.

Whose Vision of America Won Out—Hamilton's or Jefferson's? - HISTORY

“States’ rights” can be traced as far back as the 1790s, when the Jeffersonian and Federalist factions sparred over what they deemed the correct course that the government should take, especially between the issue of a centralized or de-centralized government. That was not the only time when “states’ rights” was a central concept in American politics, and it would only become more relevant as the 19th century unfolded. In the present day, this concept has become increasingly invoked by, and affiliated with, American conservatives. But in the past, the issue was less partisan, and had different connotations from today.

States' Rights vs. Federal Authority (Discussion) - The American Civil War

This being the case, I am interested in studying the evolution of “states’ rights” throughout the 19th century, and to utilize digital historical tools and methods to do so. One way that I will do this is by using Google Ngram to identify periods when the term was used more, and to draw correlations between it and other issues of the time. I will also utilize the Library of Congress’ database, so that I may find specific documents relevant to the issue of “states’ rights.” Finally, I will run certain texts and documents that I find on the LOC website through Voyant, so that I may draw further correlations between “states’ rights” and other issues that are paired with it, like tariffs, slavery, taxes, etc. Ultimately, I hope that this project will help me identify certain patterns between the invocation of “states’ rights,” and the occurrence of certain political crises that arose simultaneously with “states’ rights” usage. If this is accomplished, then hopefully it will demonstrate the fluidness by which the concept is invoked, and determine when, and how, it is invoked.