Bracero History & Shelley-Godwin Archives Practicum

Hi everyone and welcome to the world of digital archives! I am sure we are all familiar with a variety of different digital archives, with different topics, tools, and setups, but today we are looking at the Bracero History Archive and the Shelley-Godwin Archive. These have quite different topics yet both are fairly straightforward and user-friendly.

The Bracero History Archive

First, the Bracero History archive is part of a collaborative effort from different universities and institutions, most notably the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to document the history of the Bracero guest worker program. This program involved millions of Mexican agricultural workers coming to the United States as guest workers between 1942-1964. With an online archive, these contributors, including community members, could upload and make accessible the history of these workers, which was especially important due to a previous lack of source material and an underrepresentation in historical research.

Home page of the Bracero History Archive

The archive itself was created on Omeka and is fairly aesthetically simplistic. There is an option to view the whole archive in Spanish. From the main page, the first tab you can click on is the archive, which has a way to view all of their items (with 3,209 total!), as well as images, documents, oral histories, and contributed items specifically. The archive’s specialty is its oral histories, as there are 737 currently available, with interviews of the braceros themselves, as well as their wives and families. Many of the interviews are conducted in Spanish and some are conducted in English, especially ones with younger generations of family members.

Oral history section of the archive

Another strength of the archive is its availability of teaching materials and a lengthy bibliography of secondary sources on the Bracero program for educators and researchers interested in learning more (in the tabs Teaching and History). The archive also seeks contributions from the community itself as there are videos and documents leading someone through how to submit materials with access to the archive’s Omeka page (in the tab Resources). There is even a Contributed Items section of the archive where these materials (there are 47 items here) came from the public. The archive also clarifies which sources are which with a comment at the top of these items: “This item was contributed by a user and has not been curated by a project historian.”

An example of one of the contributed items

Lastly, there is also further information about the Bracero program, the staff involved in the project, and the site, virtual, and collecting partners that helped this project come to life. Overall, it is apparent that many different institutions came together to create this digital archive in order to help ensure that the Bracero program was documented in a digital space. I would argue that a digital archive fits this project well for a few reasons: it seeks to include contributions from different institutions and individuals in one digital space, the site houses its hundreds of oral histories, and it is able to provide further resources for those interested in delving more into Bracero history.

The Shelley-Godwin Archive

Now to Frankenstein. No, seriously, my next digital archive is the Shelley-Godwin Archive, which houses digitized manuscripts of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin, as well as their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. The archive calls them “England’s First Family of Writers” yet perhaps the most popular is Mary Shelley for authoring Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The archive is a partnership between the New York Public Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, as well as other contributors, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Impressively, “in total, these partners libraries contain over 90% of all known relevant manuscripts.”

Home page of the archive

From the home page, you can delve straight into exploring the archive, but our first stop is the About page, where we get a deeper look into the development of the project and a brief biography of the Shelley-Godwins. Next, the Explore the Archive page lists each of the works and manuscripts available for use, which are arranged by title and then by manuscript shelf mark.

For example, if you click on the Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus link, it will take you to a brief description of the work, a few secondary sources on it, the manuscripts of the work available on the archive, and a timeline of Mary Shelley’s writing process, with links to the different manuscript drafts and copies in the archive. From the page of a certain piece of work, or back on the Explore the Archive page, you can discover the manuscripts available. One of these is Bodleian MS. Abinger c. 56, which is from one of the notebooks Shelley used to draft Frankenstein.

A view of one of Mary Shelley’s digitized manuscripts

When you click on one of the pages, you get to perhaps the most distinctive and interactive part of the digital archive. You can see above an example from the same Bodleian MS Abinger c. 56 manuscript. For each page, you can see both Shelley’s original handwriting and a transcription of what she wrote. There are many interesting things you can do on this page, such as view it as metadata or have it highlight either what Shelley wrote or what her husband commented on the pages in each step of the writing process.

One thing I do want to mention is that the availability of metadata and transcriptions depends on the manuscript. While Frankenstein has extensive transcriptions available in order to view the tools I mentioned, others, such as a few of William Godwin’s pieces, have much more limited or even no transcriptions. There are even a few pieces of work that are listed yet are only shown “in the physical order of the manuscript leaves.”

Moving on, the search function is currently off as they are switching to a different system. On the last tab Using the Shelley-Godwin Archive you can see their old search system in the tutorial video and it appears to be a pretty classic search setup, with ways to refine your results and a view of the search terms in the different works. The Using the Archive page also has tips for accessing the materials and tutorials for how to use the different features of the archive.

Overall, I was pretty impressed by this archive and it was interesting to view one that was focused on literature and manuscripts of famous writers rather than a historical topic. I particularly enjoyed the way you could view manuscripts with both the original writings and the transcription, which helped the piece come alive and showed the progress of each writer’s work.

I had to include a Frankenstein gif…

To conclude, these were both interesting examples of digital archives and ones I could see being useful for research projects, educational programs, and personal use. The Bracero archive highlighted its collaborative approach to documenting Bracero history, especially within its oral history projects. The Shelley-Godwin archive had distinctive tools and ways of visualizing these writer’s works as they transitioned from the drafts to the final piece.

Understanding Digital Content: Kirschenbaum

Is digital content ephemeral? Matthew G. Kirschenbaum challenges this assumption in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination to prove the materiality of digital media content.  In his interdisciplinary study of new media—grounded in comparative media, bibliography, textual studies, book studies, and computer science, specifically computer forensics—Kirschenbaum  delves into the “ephemeral nature of memory and media” arguing that digital media content is physical, durable, and individualized rather than ephemeral, unstable, and identical (15). A lot of the more technical aspects of this book were over my head, but I will do my best to explain some of the key concepts presented in Mechanisms.

Screen Essentialism, Medial Ideology, and Computer Forensics

Nick Montfort’s notion of “screen essentialism” refers to the “prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies that would have been unknown to most computer users before the mid-1970s” (31).  While most new media studies focus on the “phenomenological manifestation of the application or digital event on the screen,” Kirschenbaum argues that “we must be able to identify and retrieve all its digital components”—the code, hardware, storage devices, etc. (4).  Similarly, Kirschenbaum discusses Lev Manovich’s argument that new media is “characterized by a ‘database paradigm’ manifested in the modular nature of a digital production’s constituent objects and the lack of an essential narrative or sequential structure for how those objects are accessed and manipulated” (77).  In short, we must “follow the bits all the way down to the metal” to truly grasp the nature of digital content (xiv).  Going hand-in-hand with screen essentialism, Kirschenbaum’s “medial ideology” “substitutes popular representations of a medium…for a more comprehensive treatment of the material particulars of a given technology” (36).  

Mechanisms is distinct in its application of computer forensics to new media.  Applying computer forensics to electronic textual studies challenges the “supposed ephemerality, fungibility, and homogeneity” of new media (19). A forensic approach reveals concepts that provide new ways of approaching electronic textuality—trace evidence and individualization. These concepts reveal that electronic data assumes visible and material form through processes of instrumentation that suggest phenomena we call virtual are in fact physical phenomena lacking the appropriate mediation to supplement wave-length optics; that is, the naked eye” (19).

Storage and the Hard Drive

A significant portion of Mechanisms is dedicated to storage.  Storage media takes various forms including MP3s and iPods, floppy disks, CDs, USB drives, and the hard drive.  Kirschenbaum urges the reader to think of “storage media as a kind of writing machine” ( 19).  He calls for a “machine reading” of the hard drive in which the “object is not the text but a mechanism or device” (88).  Kirschenbaum stresses the importance of understanding the function of the hard drive and recognizing it as a physical phenomenon rather than an abstraction: “Absent are the range of small, localized glitches of characteristic of other media—the typo in the newspaper, the scratch on the vinyl record, snow on the TV channel—that remind us of their mundane materiality” (135).

What is Materiality in an Electronic Environment? Forensic and Formal Materiality

Kirschenbaum’s theory of electronic materiality distinguishes between “forensic materiality” and “formal materiality.”  Forensic materiality is grounded in the principle of individualization—“the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike” (10).  Examples of forensic materiality include digital inscription, computation, and storage media. 

Formal materiality, a more abstract concept, refers to the “imposition of multiple relational computational states on a data set or digital object” (12).  Essentially, formal materiality can be understood as the manipulation of data and symbols in the digital environment.  Although data and symbols—Kirschenbaum uses an example of an atom versus a bit—are not physical in terms of having mass, we should still see them as having a material presence.  Furthermore, the process of setting and resetting symbols creates “layers” that are both “relative” and “self-contained” (12).

It is important to note that Kirschenbaum warns against associating forensic and formal materiality with hardware and software respectively.  Rather, “forensic and formal materiality are perhaps better brought to rest on the twin textual and technological bases of inscription (storage) and transmission (or multiplication)” that shed light on the “duality of a mechanism as both a product and a process” (15).

Kirschenbaum demonstrates the relationship between forensic and formal materiality in his “walk-through” using a hex editor to view the Mystery House ROM. 

Allographic and Autographic Computation

Properties of digital computation are what account for the “immaterial nature of digital expression” (137).  Nelson Goodman claims that “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (133).  Kirschenbaum illustrates this concept by comparing a copy of the Mona Lisa to a copy of the book Frankenstein—while the former is a “copy of an acknowledged original” [autographic] the latter is “a perfectly valid way of experiencing the work” [allographic] (133-134).

In other terms, allographic does not demand perfect—only success within a given range of variation.  With autographic, however, there is one condition for success and no tolerance for variation (136).  Kirschenbaum uses the example of placing tokens within the same square versus on the exact same spot on a chessboard.


“…computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality…” (135).

All of this is to say that digital media is complex.  It is both a product and a process.  It is ephemeral in nature yet material in practice.  It is stable yet volatile.  It is kind of imaginary yet locatable and measurable.  Behind every piece of digital media is an intricate material matrix.  And we must have “awareness of the mechanism” to fully understand the physicality, nature, and significance of digital content (88).

What did you think of Mechanisms?  Why is understanding the materiality of digital content important? What are the implications of viewing new media as ephemeral? How do you think these concepts relate to our work as historians and public historians? —for example, new media being actively stored in archives and museums?  Thanks for reading!

Talk Digital to Me: Class Readings 3/17

As many of us grew up in a technological age, full of digital pets (tamagotchi, anyone?), digital sports (Wii Tennis is the only tennis I will play for fun) and alternate digital lives (Sims, Webkins), we may think we understand what it means for something to be “digital.” However, to fully embrace our roles as digital historians, we must look beyond our simple understanding of the word and look at the history of the digital and what lies beyond what we usually see presented on the screen. Jonathan Sterne’s article will show us how to conceptualize the digital vs. the analog, Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer give us guidelines for preservation practice with various digital formats, and finally Jefferson Bailey’s article demonstrates the journey of physical sources through digital evolutions.

P.S. Questions at the end of this post will be further discussed in class so if you start thinking about your answer now, by Wednesday you’ll probably be ready to talk about it.

In Jonathan Sterne’s article “Analog,” he discusses the complex lineage of the term “analog” and the increase in its use as the word “digital” began its meteoric rise at the end of the twentieth century. He argues that analysis of the words themselves, their use, and their relationship reveals that the connection between the analog and digital is of better use to us as a complicated web, rather than a stark separation of difference. In order to enrich our historical understanding and broaden our interpretation, we must expand the analytical use of both words. This is accomplished by seeing them not only in opposition to one another, but as strange companions in the interpretation of history. Listing the digital as a “villain” does nothing for us as historians, in the same way that a nostalgia for “analog days” teaches us nothing about history. If we cling to the commonly accepted binary of digital/analog and equate it with even more accepted binaries such as material/immaterial, real/symbolic, we lose the richness of the word and lessen its analytical power. Sterne argues against these accepted conceptions of reality and argues for the use of media theory as an alternative:

These are cherished fallbacks, but they actually push us away from some of the
most important questions media theory can ask today: how meaning and collectivity work together; how symbols and technologies both define what it means to be human and how humans fit into the larger world, ethically, ecologically, politically, historically; and
how we might live well in the large-scale societies we now inhabit.
” (42)

Sterne ultimately argues for the use of media theory to expand conceptual understanding of the digital by moving past the digital/analog binary. Now that we’ve opened our minds to the breadth of interpretation for the digital, we can look at the complexity of digital formats in Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer’s guidelines from the Library of Congress. They track the detailed specifics of preservation and best practice in digital formats for different file types. I won’t get into too many details, but the content is important for us as historians to consider for the future of preservation in the digital world and in our own projects to know what will be sustainable and what may become unusable over time.

“Figure1. “A team mans a Bazooka at the Battle of Osan. Members of the 24th Infantry Division, first United States ground units to reach the front, go into action against North Korean forces at the village of Sojong-Ni, near Osan. At right is Private First Class Kenneth Shadrick, who was killed by enemy fire a few moments after this photo was made, thus becoming the first United States soldier to die in the Korean campaign.” Photo by Charles Turnbull. Image from Wikimedia Commons.” TAGOKOR Article

Jefferson Bailey demonstrates both the potential degradation of materials over time, their reuse and their evolution through formatting by providing a biography of TAGOKOR’s “life.” TAGOKOR is a “file [that] contains 109,975 records, detailing twenty different categories of casualties, including those killed, wounded, hospitalized, missing in action, and captured.” Bailey analyzes the use and custodial care of the record collection as it worked its way through various digital formats. He argues that the  “regenerative nature of preserved records” allows them to be reinterpreted and gives them a “parallel history” through the history of their preservation.

“And so the biography of TAGOKOR, like all archival records, is one both already written and never completed, both continually becoming and terminally changeless, forever poised between incident and encoding, articulation and preservation, record and reinterpretation, finality and vitality.”

Each of these articles give us new ideas and information to ponder as we move forward in class. Do we need to define the words we use in describing the digital/analog worlds? What are the benefits of defining it? What does Jonathan Sterne say is the best approach to the analog/digital dichotomy? How can we use the Library of Congress guidelines as historians (digital or otherwise)? Is it every historian’s job to understand the potential degradation of digital materials and actively make choices to prevent the loss of the source? What does the evolution of the TAGOKOR file teach us about preservation? How does the way that we preserve things change the object itself? Does this cast doubt on archived materials? Or simply open the door to further, more complex forms of analysis?

All fabulous things to think about, and discuss, next time we meet. Until then, happy reading! Drop any questions for me in the comments or any topics you’d like to make sure we talk about together.

Mapping the Ancient Roman Empire: Digital Proposal

Hello everyone, I am planning on constructing a digital mapping project displaying the Ancient Roman Empire and highlighting multiple moments throughout my presentation in which I think makes sense since the Roman empire was active for so many years, and makes up an important part of human history. As for programs to use for this project I am thinking of using either Word Press, Google My Maps, or ArcGIS Story Maps. I think it would be a cool way to spend my time refreshing my knowledge on what I know about Roman history especially since I was fascinated with the history of civilizations since I was a teenager. I’m also thinking about pairing up the map with a piece of writing to go along with it that expresses the progressive evolution of the ancient empire, and I would like to provide more details about priorities for the empire in its efforts to sustain itself for how long it eventually did. I want to talk about the empires major success and failures, and maybe even include some memorable people that took over powerful roles in their life.

The Rich History - Map of the Roman Empire at it's Height | Roman empire, Roman  empire map, Byzantine empire
Roman Empire

I am thinking of presenting the class with images to present a picture or model of the span of the growth of the Roman Empire throughout the centuries and briefly touch on reasons why things change and why some things stay the same. I think some of the questions that I can ask myself with how to go about this project could possibly breed a creative side in my project development skills when coupled with a topic like this and for that, I would like to say that I enjoy this kind of proposal type blog because it gives us an opportunity to organize our thoughts on what ideas could work best for a digital history project. I also have developed a deep sense of comfort in deciphering the meaning of a map as I was taught early in my education to do so. I think it’s a valuable thing I could add for more value.

Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus)
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Finally, I can wrap up the most memorable parts of the history in the written add-on whilst creating the map to create a better visual representation of the memorable events and turning points in the Roman Empires’ existence. If anyone that likes my idea would like to work with me or give me suggestions or pointers on something I could include let me know in the comments I would greatly appreciate a comment with a suggestion. Fascinated with the topic and I’m confident I can do a good job as I organize my plans on execution through this proposal.

A Life on Our Planet: Print Proposal.

In September of the year 2020, Broadcaster, environmentalist, and naturalist David Attenborough released a documentary on Netflix that I found myself a big fan of and enlightened me to be a better person by taking into account the way we treat our natural world. The film takes into account the disaster that occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine in April 1986. A disaster was caused by a flawed reactor design that was operated by inadequately trained personnel. The result of this flaw and poor operation of the reactor resulted in a steam explosion and fires that released radiation into the environment. There were deaths as a result of exposure to radiation and an evacuation of approximately 350,000 people took place and as a result, Chernobyl was completely empty and abandoned. In this documentary, David Attenborough shares with us the natural development that occurred in Chernobyl years after the accident and dives into his witness statement to the world in the case of humans vs. the natural world.

Chernobyl disaster | Causes & Facts | Britannica
Chernobyl nuclear-station in Ukraine

For my print proposal, I would like to write an essay in which I cover my perspective on the unique tragic incident that makes for an interesting background information story in the documentary “A Life on Our Planet”. In the paper, I would consider the perspective of David Attenborough as he narrates through the film and focus on the things he says throughout the film that paints a bleak picture of the future of our world because I think he has shared valuable lessons with the world and I think he is a good role model. In the film, the narration is backed up by research and factual informative evidence that indicate that our world is headed in the wrong direction when taking into account the natural health of our planet on a wide scale including habitats for natural species, human life, and plants living on our planet. The information talked about in the narration can make for a good conversation in my essay about the film, the history of our biogeographical world, and possibly explore questions that may provide solutions to some of the shortcomings of the human race in its attempt to become more environmentally friendly. My vision and decision to write on this documentary stems from the sense of initiative that I got after watching the documentary to become a more environmentally friendly person.

Celebrate Sir David Attenborough's birthday: From 'Planet Earth' to 'The  Hunt', watch his best documentaries - The Hindu
David Attenborough spending time with a turtle resting by the sea-shore.

I am excited for this because I truly find this to be an incredible topic of research and a subject area in which I find myself intrigued to further develop a conversation in a well-written analytical paper. Also, I think this topic is interesting because it brings in a historical event that occurred to explain a natural phenomenon while also educating the viewers about the problems our world is facing. Let me know what you think in the comments!