DH Open Office Hours: Ethics

Ethics in history in general, and in public history and digital history more specifically, are a delicate thing. Finding a way to balance the historical record against the social justice movements of today requires more than just words. It requires actions. Giordana Mecagni, Northeastern’s Head of Archives, talked about some ways that can be done.

The first things she emphasized was actually getting items that represented invisible groups of people. At Northeastern’s archives, that can be exceptionally difficult. Northeastern’s relationship with its neighbors, who often are not the upper class white men who are usually remembered in archives, is shaky at best. In fact, Giordana told us that it was an uphill battle just to convince the communities that Northeastern was not aiming to hurt them, which gives some indication of how badly Northeastern has treated them in the past. And Northeastern’s archives are far from the only ones to have this kind of problem. Making the initial decision of whether to keep certain aspects of history or not makes everything an archive does inherently non-neutral. Giordana is trying to bring new, less privileged collections into the Northeastern archives in order to tell their stories as well.

In addition to the physical archives, Giordana also takes the education component very seriously. A significant component of her job is bringing the archives into the classroom. She is committed to teaching students not only that the archive exists, but how to use it ethically. She also brings the education online and talked to us about how to be good archivists and historians online. The biggest thing that she kept drilling was that nothing in history is neutral. Nothing in archives is neutral and it is our responsibility, as historians and archivists, to being good stewards of these kinds of resources. And that includes getting the information and access out into the world, rather than staying holed up in the archives alone.

While I already agreed with much of what Giordana said, it was really interesting to hear about some of the difficulties she has had with trying to break down the boundaries that had previously controlled Northeastern’s archives. I hadn’t really thought about the practical struggles of trying to get the content into the archives itself. People who have not been treated well by historians or archivists before are not likely to trust them with their own artifacts and records. And they are not wrong! There’s no guarantee that the archive will handle the history of the artifacts well, as they have not done so in the past. So then the question becomes, how do you manage that kind of relationship? Giordana emphasized going out into the community and inviting the community into the archives to build trust, something that has worked for her. It is not perfect, and the ultimate goal is to get those communities in charge of their own history by hiring them to run archives and write histories, but until we successfully achieve that, being ethical, rather than neutral, is essential.

Posted in Events | Leave a comment

DH Open Office Hours: Marketing Yourself

This particular Open Office Hour, hosted by the Digital Scholarship Group, was all about how to market yourself as a digital historian in the current job market. I think it would have been significantly more helpful for me if I was not still struggling to figure out what I want to do when I graduate, which threw any more practical questions I could have asked were out the window.

It was valuable to hear from people who stood where I am now, however. The two presenters, Caroline Klibanoff and Jim McGrath, have both gone on to work in the field. Jim McGrath is Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown in Digital Public Humanities. For him, digital humanities opened up an entire world, one that he is continuing to pursue. He talked about how that transition had worked for him, and emphasized the importance of being able to give an “elevator pitch” kind of explanation of who you are and what you bring to the table. Being able to quickly and concisely give an explanation like that helps cement you in the interviewer’s mind, and any advantage you can leverage is a very good thing, especially in this job market.

Caroline Klibanoff works at the MIT museum in a much more traditional public history role. As the Exhibitions Project Manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum, her work is significantly less oriented towards digital history projects. However, she still found that her knowledge of digital humanities was incredibly useful when interviewing. Having the skills and tools to do digital humanities well helped her land interviews and then gave her a strong basis for her to talk about her other skills as well and helped set her apart in the interviewer’s mind.

One of the really helpful pieces of advice they gave was to go to as many interviews as possible. Caroline in particular said that going to every interview helped make her more comfortable speaking about herself and her skills. She went to a lot of interviews before she received any offers and believes strongly that by relaxing and just practicing in as many different places as possible helped make her interviews natural, rather than tense and stilted. All the studying and preparation in the world cannot make up for the comfort that comes when you are truly practiced at something.

Another valuable thing they both emphasized was going to conferences whenever possible. Meeting people in person and connecting with them is the single best way to get jobs. Connections can help, not only because they may know of openings that you would be well suited for, but also because in a small field like public history where everyone knows everyone, being a known quantity is incredibly helpful.

Overall, there was less information specifically about getting a job in the digital humanities than I was expecting, but it was a valuable talk about how to look for a get a job in public history. 

Posted in Events | Leave a comment

Welcome Event: NUlab and DSG

I attended the Digital Scholarship Group and NULab’s FAll 2018 Welcome Event on September 24th. The event was preceded by a chance to meet with Dr. Monica Martinez and chat over donuts and talk to her about her project, Mapping Violence, in a less restricted, more open way. I found that personally very valuable. Dr. Martinez gave similar initial explanations at both the chat and the more formal presentation, but was able to go into a significant amount of detail about specific things, both about the content of her project and the digital components she used at the chat. She was an excellent speaker and was incredibly comfortable answering any and all of our questions.

Mapping Violence is a digital humanities project committed to showing acts of violence, such as lynchings and police shootings, against people of color in Texas between 1900 and 1930. The project uses a map with points you can click on to see the different incidents. Whenever possible, they use names, but that is not always something they can do. Dr. Martinez emphasized that their goal is to inform, not to sensationalize, so there are minimal descriptions of the violence itself and instead the incident is placed in the greater context of history as much as possible.

The digital project is only one part of what Dr. Martinez does, however. She is also heavily involved in bringing the research she did to light in a physical, tangible way in the community by putting up markers and encouraging new or overhauled exhibitions that talk about the violence of the period. For her, history is never neutral and instead should inspire activism, even if only to force people to acknowledge the truth of the past. I found that commitment to activism inspiring. Dr. Martinez is not just talking the talk and showing the facts, she is walking the walk and doing something to try to drag long buried issues into the light. We live in an incredibly racist world, and part of changing that is acknowledging the past.

Overall, I found the welcome event very enjoyable. Dr. Martinez was engaging and interesting. Her work was a powerful reminder that nothing we do exists in a vacuum and if our words and work lacks context and  explanation, then we have failed in our duty as historians. Digital historians have this duty even more strongly than regular historians. Like all public historians, digital historians interact with the public who may not be as well informed as the specialists that usually read historians’ work. I found Dr. Martinez’s involvement in both memorials and programming to be an incredible blueprint for how handle that well. 

Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for the additional presentations because of class, but I deeply wish I could have. I am sure that they were also excellent, a testament to the emphasis that Northeastern puts on the digital humanities.

Posted in Events | Comments Off on Welcome Event: NUlab and DSG

Final Project: Plan

For my final project, I am planning on doing a topic modeling project. Currently, I am planning to use the transcribed documents from the Jane Addams Papers Project, found at https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/ to look at what kinds of topics were being discussed around her. JAPP has all of her known surviving correspondence through 1923 transcribed, as well as newspaper articles by and about her. I would be using the transcription that already exists for every document publicly available in the corpus to make it possible for the computer to read it. I know already that not every letter in the corpus has a real topic, since a significant chunk of them are essentially acknowledgments of previous letters and a promise to send a more extensive letter soon, so figuring out how to handle that is a concern for me.

Theoretically in the future, I’d be interested in doing a comparison of the topic modeling analysis to the tags and subjects applied by the humans who create the metadata that accompanies the documents. My biggest anticipated struggle is the technical elements, but I am confident I can figure that out with patience and a lot of tutorials.

Posted in Projects | Leave a comment

Colored Conventions Review

The Colored Convention Project is definitely a project with a mission. It is headed by a black woman, which I thought made a powerful statement about putting their money where their mouth was. Even though the entire staff is not PoC, it does show a dedication to the mission of the Project. Additionally, having staff, graduate students, and undergrads working together brings people with lots of different perspectives together, which I think is valuable. The mission of the Project, to link scholarship and social justice in a way that brings forgotten African-American histories to the public through digitalization, is definitely the center of the site in every way.

The resources they provide are extensive. In addition to the excellent documents and transcriptions they provide, their metadata is also helpful for contextualizing the documents well. Though I do wish they provided a very short description of the document they are transcribing to make it more searchable and help provide additional context that may be needed, I am impressed with how much information they provide through metadata and I appreciate that the metadata and tags can help me find other sources with similar themes. Being able to place everything in its context is something that is definitely important to them and as such, something they make sure they do very well. Placing both the documents and the people in context through metadata and exhibits, definitely helps give them a mission oriented presentation.

The documents themselves are largely minutes of these conventions, as well as other documents connected with the conventions. However, documents cannot be understood without some understanding of the history of the area. For the Project, that means contextualizing through exhibits. Giving that extended information helps turn the convention documents from data points on a screen into something that actually moved and affected people, the goal of any good public history project. The world is not a sterile place where people are divorced from events and separate from the people around them. For the CCP, that is I think, a key part of why they designed the website as they did, with so much emphasis on education. The fight for the freedom reverberates to today, making it relevant and the education element they provide, including curriculum and explanations of how to use the resources, all the more important.

I think that overall, the Colored Conventions Project succeeds in its goals. Though there are definitely things I would have liked to see more of, or at all, like a more topic oriented tagging system and a description of the item to help explain the context around each specific document, these complaints are relatively minor compared to the many things the Project did well. I found its emphasis on education and exhibits giving helpful information not provided in the items themselves is at least as important, if not more, than the items themselves. I wish the interface was cleaner and easier to work with, but cosmetic criticisms are more a matter of personal preference than something that truly defines the work they do.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment