Hyperlocal Histories and Digital Collections (DLF Forum 2018 talk)

This is a slightly extended version of a talk I presented at the Digital Library Federation 2018 Forum, held in Las Vegas in October 2018. Thanks to students in my Fall 2017 “Digital Public Humanities” course; the Providence Public Library Special Collections department; Diane O’Donoghue; Julieanne Fontana, Angela Feng, and Jasmine Chu; Monica Muñoz Martinez; Susan Smulyan; and the Rhode Tour project team for their contributions to my thinking and work on this topic. And thanks to Bethany Nowviskie for making DLF Forum a supportive space to consider these and other issues

So, “hyperlocal histories.”

What’s the difference between terms like local, regional, hyperlocal? I’m more here to tell you how I came to be invested in the term “hyperlocal” and less interested in having it overshadow or undercut other terms you’ve found useful in your own work. In the same way that recent pressure has been productively placed on our uses of the term “community,”  on where, how, and why ideas of community are constructed, situated, limited by particular acts of language, my intention in introducing the “hyperlocal” as a framework is to see it in conversation with other words, use-cases, methodologies, implications.

My professional interest in the hyperlocal began as a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, through my work as Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker) of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, a collection of crowdsourced stories, photos, and memories of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. Our mantra, reprinted on bookmarks and promotional content, was “No Story Too Small.” We were interested in created an accessible record of the bombings documenting a wide range of stories and perspectives.A project like Our Marathon is perhaps legible, familiar, conventional in terms of an approach librarians, archivists, faculty members, and community partners might take to work related to local and hyperlocal history. But it is also time and resource-consuming work, an attempt to address several perceived needs simultaneously: collecting, documenting, crowdsourcing, digitizing, curating, publishing, and preserving recent and still-unfolding history. There are other ways to do what we did, and certainly other ways one might get involved in work related to hyperlocal history.

Narratives of community formation and solidification, of competing claims and tensions, of fact and fiction and everything in between and beyond this binary, all of it can and should coexist in our records of hyperlocal history. These varied perspectives are frequently entwined and made further complicated by a city’s unwillingness to be one thing and stay that way forever, or even for a little while.

To work towards the goal of a crowdsourced, polyvocal, varied archive, we left Northeastern University campus, reached out to local libraries who had expressed interest in supporting our project, and planned programming that enabled us to introduce the archive and solicit contributions to a range of communities and neighborhoods. We used the content management system Omeka to encourage crowdsourced submissions and quickly make our collections materials public on the web.

Our Marathon ended up with thousands of items in its collection. By many of our own metrics, we were a successful initiative. But we also learned a great deal about what we could have done differently in the work of collecting, curating, and preserving local history, the forms of labor and ideas of value informing (and impeding, overshadowing, deterring) community collaboration, the distance between the methodologies and material dimensions of digital humanities projects and the publics they sought to describe or claimed to serve.

I’ve tried to apply some of these lessons to ongoing work at Brown’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC), and I’ve been fortunate to be in the company of students, faculty, librarians, archivists, and community partners who are working on efforts encouraging the documentation, preservation, curation, and re-use of hyperlocal historical materials.

I’ve placed the digital at the end of this list of questions intentionally, because some of the most productive and inspiring work I’ve seen and participated in at Brown hasn’t rushed into the creation and dissemination of digital collections, archives, projects. That being said, considering and planning for potential digital contexts has been a part of early work on these initiatives in various capacities. There are certainly roles those of us invested in digital humanities, digital librarianship, and digital scholarship can fill in this work, and it’s been beneficial to have representatives from these areas be part of early (and even preliminary) conversations and planning, as projects concerned with local history begin to take shape. But it may not be as a Primary Investigator. The physical space of the library or the classroom may be one of several sites of project labor rather than its central hub. Reading a collection as data may not resonate with collaborators and audiences in the same way that it does for us.

The imagined uses of materials may not neatly align with the kind of work valued by our employers and academic peers. And it may not fit smoothly with established workflows and forms of support: I know, for example, that digital projects with plans to actively collect, publish, and even revise materials can be challenging to work environments used to migrating or preserving finished collections. But I think we can work to make the value of our roles in this work clear and tangible, and we might also find that we need to create and support new kinds of cultural laborers at our institution, or we might need to propose forms of monetary compensation or other tangible, material manifestations of support for community partners and off-campus collaborators.

In the summer of 2017, Jordan Goffin at the Providence Public Library Special Collections Department reached out to see if I’d be interested in working with the PPL to explore digital contexts for their materials. The PPL had recently acquired two collections documenting important aspects of the city’s recent history: the Lou Costa Collection, which focused on photographs and other records of the Cape Verdean community of Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood, and the AS220 Collection, collecting material from the 30+ year history of a non-profit community arts organization and downtown institution. We decided to work with graduate students in my Digital Public Humanities course to propose digital work that showcased these materials and made it accessible and engaging to local audiences and project stakeholders.

For example, students working with the AS220 Collection designed a playful, throwback interface (inspired by Nancy Drew video games some of them had played as children) that introduced visitors to institutional records and programming from “A Year In The Life of AS220.” After taking a physical tour of Fox Point with Lou and his collaborator Phyllis Pacheco, students working on the Costa Collection proposed an interactive digital tour of the neighborhood that embraced the subjective dimensions of Lou’s memories, confronted the role gentrification had played in the transformation of this space and its residents, and invited users to bring their own perspectives on what makes a neighborhood in conversation with the history of this particular place over time.     

These recommendations were presented at the PPL to staff and collections stakeholders. They did not circulate publicly: the PPL instead used recommendations as part of materials for grant applications related to the work of digitization and curation. My Digital Public Humanities course was, for many students, their introduction to digital curation, metadata creation, interface design, UX. Many of these students were also new to Providence, and in the context of the Costa Collection, several were living in the Fox Point neighborhood, benefiting from and complicit in the gentrification that had displaced its Cape Verdean population. Their recommendations were informed by course materials, by their own independent research, by working closely with PPL staff members and community archivists to learn about the shape and intentions of these collections, by reflecting on their developing relationship with the city, its people, its history. Students learned firsthand about particular forms and methods of library and archival labor; PPL staff benefited from student spec design and DH research that they did not have time for among their other duties.

There are limits to this approach to hyperlocal history: students go on to other courses at the end of the semester; DH preaches iterative approaches but often values finished, public work over speculative, slow methodologies; grant-writing and implementation follows its own schedule; the course is taught by a postdoc (who needs a job, by the way). But we learned a lot from this particular kind of experiential, collaborative approach, and we’re working on future collaborations with the PPL in and beyond the classroom.

When considering histories, perspectives, and materials underrepresented or absent from collections, we might think about programming that highlights these gaps, our desires to address them, and ways communities who might be represented by these records might benefit from their preservation and visibility. We might also de-center the digital collection, choosing instead to prioritize community needs and interests that might be aided by our resources and networks. In August 2016,  Diane O’Donoghue, Director of the Program for Public Humanities at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life organized (with many collaborators) a physical exhibit about Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood in the physical space of Chinatown, utilizing digitized archival materials for physical posters and digital projections. O’Donoghue and her collaborators did this work in part to campaign for the re-opening of a Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library (which did re-open in February 2018).

O’Donoghue, who is also visiting faculty at the JNBC, inspired two of our Public Humanities graduate students at Brown, Julieanne Fontana and Angela Feng, to create programming around Providence’s Chinatown (which no longer exists). Through a collaboration with Brown American Studies faculty, the Rhode Island State Archives and the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE), they reached out to former residents of the neighborhood, collected memories and materials, and created a walking tour and physical exhibit.

An eventual goal of this project is the creation of a digital archive, but work there requires a substantial commitment of time, money, labor, and other resources. Julieanne, Angela, and other collaborators realize that the timeline for these plans extends beyond their time at Brown, so for now they have been organizing and digitizing materials they have gathered during their tenure, creating preliminary metadata and a schema, digitized materials, and making connections to preserve and pass off materials to the institutions supporting this in the present and future.

Other projects at and around the JNBC with hyperlocal emphases and digital sites of collection, curation, and publication include Mapping Violence, a dataset and visualization of acts of state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on the Texas-Mexico border in the early twentieth century. American Studies faculty member Monica Munoz Martinez has worked with the JNBC and Brown’s Instructional Technology Group for four years and counting to develop this project, while Monica has also written a (recently published) book on this research and worked with collaborators in Texas to petition for physical markers documenting these events and the state’s complicity in these scenes of violence. The work of creating the markers and finishing the book has arguably raised the visibility of these histories more than a visualization on a web site might, but the data-oriented approach Monica has taken to reviewing and documenting this history has arguably helped make the scope and severity of these killings more legible, harder to ignore. And Monica’s work with undergraduates and graduate students at Brown in the creation of the dataset and the exploration of potential forms of visualization has led many members of the Brown community to see the value of digital humanities approaches.

The tour seems to have great potential as a metaphor and technology for those interested in hyperlocal history work. The JNBC supports Rhode Tour, a collaboration with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and Rhode Island Historical Society that presently offers two dozen location-based digital tours of The Ocean State, optimized for mobile use via a responsive site and a free app. Utilizing the Curatescape theme with Omeka, the project remediates archival materials from a range of local and national sources, bringing it into conversation with place-based narratives written by students, historians, archaeologists, museum professionals, oral historians. Beyond the project’s home page, work has led to collaborations with local educators on developing lesson plans and to the uses of Wikipedia as a site of dissemination for archival materials and local knowledge. I’ve been delighted to see project participants and audiences gain interest in ways to link and share local knowledge, to read it as data. Podcasts on hyperlocal histories of Providence are another extension of this work, given Rhode Tour’s interest in using audio footage, the long history of audio storytelling in the context of the tour, and the recent success of Crimetown, a podcast that draws on archival materials from the Providence Journal. We’re currently developing a Crimetown-esque podcast that utilizes materials from the PPL’s Rhode Island Collection, for a planned Spring 2019 launch.

Digital librarians and archivists may not necessarily become the makers of tours and podcasts themselves, but communication and collaboration with interested local partners can help them learn more about desired uses of materials, how accessible items of interest and their terms of reuse are, where materials are discoverable and why their current framing might privilege other interests.

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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