Category Archives: digital humanities

Aristocrats, Agendas, & Adams

Some days I think the biggest problem facing digital historians is our workflow. We are already expected to juggle archival research and secondary readings with teaching and writing. Add a digital project into the mix and the temptation to pull out one’s hair becomes almost irresistible. The madness increases when you are the primary programmer on your own project.

I feel your pain.

Last weekend I was despairing of the many moving parts that will (in the next eighteen months) constitute my dissertation. I realized that I was spending all my time on the database I am building to house my research and complete my analysis. The database is indispensable (and being spun-out into an open source project to help others), but it is only one part of my project. Then I had a brain wave, courtesy of my favorite Founding Father, John Adams.

According to Adams, the greatest threat to a successful republican government was a society’s aristocrats — people with the time, talents, charisma, and/or money necessary to accomplish their goals. Such people (and he was one) would always want to be in control, but in a republic The People, not the aristocrats, were supposed to govern. Adams’ solution was to shut the aristocrats into the upper house of the legislature (read: Senate) where they would have sufficient scope for their talents but not enough power to hijack the whole system.

Last weekend, I realized that my database is the “aristocrat” of my dissertation. It is powerful, attracts attention, and brings me funding, but it has become a drain on my time and energy out of proportion to its role in the larger project. So, I am going to try a constitutional experiment.

I am giving myself one day each week to work on the database. I’ve chosen Wednesdays to coincide with my office hours at NINES. With any luck, this concentrated time will push me to be more productive, while freeing up the rest of my time to do the research and writing necessary to complete my degree. Of course, everything comes back to the database in the end: my research is loaded into the data structure and analyzed for patterns, which I then explore in the prose of my dissertation.

But hopefully, a system of checks and balances will keep me stable.

Scholar != Island

I am a NINES Graduate Fellow for 2009-2010, and this post was written for the NINES Blog. To see it in its original context, click here.

I recently gave a presentation on letters as primary sources — their format, use in historical inquiry in general, role in my dissertation research (and database design) specifically, etc. (My talk was part of an ongoing series called “Original Sources” held on Friday afternoons in the Harrison/Small Library at the University of Virginia. For more about the series, or to the hear the podcast of my talk, click here.) In the Q&A session that followed, the organizer, Kelly Miller, asked me one of the now standard questions in digital humanities: “Has the adoption of digital technology changed how humanities scholars see themselves in relationship to their work?”

I was really glad to get the question, because it is one that I have heard many other scholars answer over the years. The response I have invariably heard is: YES! Digital technology makes humanities scholars more reliant on other people to get their work done, particularly the programmers who translate their vision into databases and websites, using skills that the scholar frequently does not have or fully understand. This loss of independence is a source of anxiety to many who work in the field of digital humanities (the level of anxiety varies greatly from scholar to scholar), keeps other scholars from fully exploring the possibilities of new technologies, and can sometimes cause friction between humanities scholars and the technologists they work with.

I see the issue differently. I don’t think that digital technology has made humanities scholars any more dependent on other people than they were before the “digital revolution.” Scholarship in the humanities has always been (in my humble opinion) a collaborative process: we complete our first works of scholarship under the watchful eye of thesis and dissertation advisors, workshop early drafts of our papers, participate in conferences, offer to buy our colleagues a cup of coffee if their expertise can shed light on something we’ve become interested in, wrestle with anonymous reviewers and editors to perfect our manuscripts prior to publication, and so on. We also rely on an army of documentary editors, archivists, and research librarians to organize primary sources and help us find the materials we need. We return these favors by answering other scholars’ questions and writing the long acknowledgement sections that go at the beginning of our monographs.

After I responded to the question, Mary-Jo Kline (author of the original The Guide to Documentary Editing) gave her opinion that the early adoption of digital tools by libraries (particularly putting finding aids and library catalogues online as well as an increasing percentage of the actual collection) has increased scholars’ tendency to view themselves as working in isolation because now they can locate and/or access so many materials without ever having to enter a library or speak to a librarian.

Of course, adopting digital technology has changed how humanities scholars research, analysis, and publish their scholarship, but not because we’ve fallen from a higher plane of independence. If anything, we have gained powerful allies in our ongoing struggle to share our work with the world. If you disagree, then the comments thread is your oyster.