On Collaborations with Archivists in Digital Public Humanities

Archival materials in the Providence Public Library Special Collections room.

In the Fall of 2017, I taught a graduate-level course in Digital Public Humanities for the second time here at Brown. The first iteration of this course, which I taught in the Spring of 2016, took a survey approach to digital humanities and DH contexts for Public Humanities. Students were invited to create speculative or “proof of concept” applications of our readings to public humanities contexts they were interested in exploring further. These student projects (which they described on the course’s blog) were extremely innovative and inventive, and they documented the class’ various interests in minimal computing, provenance metadata, augmented reality, and other topics. At the time I was pretty comfortable with both the survey model and an approach to student project development “ that clearly situated itself as the first step in an iterative, still-developing process.” For many students, this was their first DH class or their first time working with and thinking about digital tools and methodologies. It was also my first course in Public Humanities, so I wanted to learn more about student interests and expectations in our program.

For this second iteration of Digital Public Humanities, I was interested in having students work with an external collaborator (something our program actively encourages instructors to consider when developing courses). Thankfully, I didn’t have to look far: as I was beginning to brainstorm, Jordan Goffin, Head Curator of Special Collections at the Providence Public Library, reached out to me (via Twitter: see, Twitter can be useful sometimes!) to see if I’d ever thought about collaborating with the PPL on a digital project. Some readers familiar with Brown’s resources may be surprised to learn that an archives-oriented Digital Public Humanities course here wasn’t collaborating with The John Hay Library, The John Carter Brown Library, The Haffenreffer Museum, or other more “local” resources on campus. These organizations are all thinking a lot about digital contexts for their materials, and they have in the past collaborated or consulted with our students and faculty on these (and other) topics. But beyond the fact that the PPL reached out to me, I was also ignorant about what materials it held in its Special Collections and curious to find out more. What I quickly learned was that the Providence Public Library had been thinking a LOT about digital spaces. More specifically, they were really interested in how these digital spaces informed and encouraged use of materials by local communities in Providence, as well as how digital contexts for archival materials might reflect the value of these materials by the communities represented in these collections.

I really learned a lot from collaborating with the PPL last semester, and I wanted to share some reflections on this work here in case other instructors are thinking about having students work with archival materials on digital initiatives. That being said, I also think these comments may be of interest to archivists looking for particular kinds of collaborations, and I hope it raises questions for students to ask their instructors when they are encouraged (or required) to complete digital projects with archival dimensions. Before diving too deep into the course, I’d first like to thank (and document!) the collaborators who made it all possible. Thanks first to the PPL team for investing time and resources into this work: Jordan, Angela DiVeglia, Kate Wells, and Janaya Kizzie. Thanks also to Lou Costa and Phyllis Pacheco for spending so much time with the students working with The PPL’s Lou Costa Collection (more on that in a bit!). I couldn’t have asked for a better set of students for this course, and I know the PPL and I learned an invaluable amount from our collaborative work with them: thanks to Molly Berg, Emma Boast, Eleonora Carboni, Mimi Eisen, Emily Esten, Julieanne Fontana, Annie Furuyama, Thad Gibson, Amelia Golcheski, Maddie Mott, Aly Myers, Molly Pailet, Bryn Pernot, Julia Renaud, and Rebecca Rex. Special thanks also to Patrick Rashleigh (who came to class via Brown’s Center for Digital Scholarship to discuss how we read and use data visualizations), and to Susan Smulyan, Jim Egan, Marisa Brown, and Sabina Griffin for their support of the class and for their feedback on its formation and development at the JNBC.

After Jordan reached out to me on Twitter, we set up a meeting to make introductions and talk about potential collaborations. I spent most of this meeting asking questions: I was interested in what collections PPL staff were particularly excited about, what previous digital projects had involved special collections materials, what they were currently working on, and what kind of availability they had if a collaboration with my class made sense. I came into this conversation without a particular project or idea in mind, so I was perhaps more open to ideas and approaches than a faculty member with a book idea or a project focused on a particular historical period, subject, or genre. In fact, one of my major research interests has been collaborative work on digital public humanities projects: its aims, methodologies, workflows, models, audiences, outcomes (this has made me very employable and legible on the academic job market, lol). Another research interest, visible in my dissertation and elsewhere, has been remediation: specifically, I’m interested in what we can learn about our investments in particular material forms, in aesthetic sentiments, and in certain physical and social dimensions of cultural consumption when we change those conditions with the use of digital tools, devices, networks, and publication platforms.

It’s important to note that the PPL Special Collections has invested significant time, energy, and resources into building relationships with Providence residents, organizations, and community members. These are relationships that can be difficult to establish and sustain if you’re a graduate student in a two-year degree program, or if you’re an instructor who is balancing other on-campus obligations, or if you’re a postdoctoral fellow who commutes in from Boston 3-4 times a week (me). And they’re relationships that community members are rightly skeptical of when they seem motivated primarily by the “deliverables” privileged by academic forms of knowledge production: the conference paper, the journal article, the book, the grant application, the digital humanities project.  

After some discussion, we decided that it would be very useful if PPL Special Collections had students think about possible digital contexts for two collections that had been recently acquired by the library and one established collection that the PPL wanted to think more about in relation to digital projects (quotes below are from PPL descriptions):

  1. The Lou Costa Collection, which “documents the Cape Verdean community in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence in the 20th century” and highlights a community that “has been completely dispersed by a combination of urban development and gentrification since the 1980s.”
  2. The AS220 Collection, an “organizational archive” of the Providence cultural institution that collects “over 30 years of organizational records, including the creative output of artists, performers and musicians who have used their venues to create and showcase their work.”
  3. The Daniel Berkeley Updike Collection on the History of Printing, which “contains about 7,500 volumes, 600 letters and other manuscripts, hundreds of prints (mostly portraits of printers, typefounders, booksellers and publishers), much printed ephemera” and also “ type specimen books, ranging from the 16th century to the 21st century.”

One decision we arrived at fairly early in the process was that we weren’t invested in one of the more traditional “deliverables” of a DH-y collaboration with an archive: the public-facing project. There were lots of reasons why we came to this conclusion: the materials weren’t digitized or ready to be digitized yet; we didn’t assume that students had the digital skills or subject knowledge or relationship with collection stakeholders, let alone the interest or time while juggling other semester work, to design, prototype, and publish fully-formed projects; and the PPL had other needs and interests that a collaboration with students might be able to more productively help on. Specifically, they imagined students almost like consultants who might help them prepare for longer-term investments in digital projects by closely examining materials, conducting environmental scans and literature reviews of relevant digital projects and their required resources, communicating with collection stakeholders and potential audiences for the collection to survey imagined or desired uses. And in terms of audiences for student work, we felt that presentations and documentation for PPL staff made more sense than, say, a blog post, or a fake grant application, or a research paper.

I felt good about these initial conversations, but I also wanted to make sure that we documented expectations formally so we would have a paper trail to refer back to in case things got difficult or weird. I was more worried about this from the perspective of the instructor, in the sense that I wanted the PPL and students to have a clear sense of imagined expectations and collaborative goals. The PPL and I drafted and approved the following statements in a “Collaborative Breakdown”:

Over the course of the semester,

Jim will:

-clearly document the project objectives in syllabus materials (including relevant course credit percentages)

-coordinate efforts with PPL Special Collections in relation to visiting the PPL for class visits and document/update that schedule accordingly

-consult with students and PPL Special Collections when relevant in relation to progress on project work

-provide relevant context to help students complete work via course readings and resources

students will:

-be introduced to contemporary work in digital public humanities, digital humanities, and digital history via a survey of readings, projects, methodologies, tools, and resources

-learn about best practices related to the digitization, preservation, and curation of special collections materials

-gain professional experience through collaborating with a local cultural heritage institution with particular goals on a digital public humanities initiative

-communicate with Jim and relevant staff at PPL Special Collections (if/when necessary) and visit the PPL to access relevant materials

-complete a presentation for an audience of PPL Special Collections staff and their peers

-complete work on a “pop-up” exhibit (optional)

-complete additional work related to course requirements

PPL Special Collections will:

-Provide an introduction to PPL’s physical and digital collections and discuss the provenance of the physical collections, the process of deciding what to digitize and how to digitize it, and the challenges encountered along the way.

-Schedule individual appointments and open hours times for students to work with materials and discuss details about collections, users and library goals.

When the semester began, I shared this documentation with students, along with a slightly longer description of collections materials and a blueprint for major project deadlines. I wanted to be upfront with students interested in taking the course: this collaboration was a very specific and focused take on the topic of “Digital Public Humanities,” after all. While we had three special collections tabbed for use, the PPL and I weren’t committed to making the class work on all three: we wanted students to have the ability to focus on projects they were interested in, and we also didn’t know how large or small the class would be. We ended up finding students who were interested in all three collections, so we were able to establish project groups for each one. The only aspect of this initial collaboration that completely vanished was the “pop-up exhibit” angle, which was conceptually unclear in my framing and a sizable amount of additional labor: the “pop-up exhibit” is a legible enough genre to students in Public Humanities and I wanted to consider it as an option, but the logistics of prepping materials, space, promotion, etc. seemed excessive and unnecessary here. We already had plenty to do!

I like to provide clear documentation of collaborative project expectations and resources to help students conduct collaborative work with one another, so I also provided a breakdown of the specific “deliverables” involved in this work and a sketch of how project development might unfold across our available time. And while many of our students bring previous professional or academic collaborative experiences to the classroom, I didn’t want to assume that the knowledge of how to conduct collaborative work was self-evident. That being said, I also want to acknowledge the authority and skills of graduate students, so after frontloading discussions of collaborative logistics and their available resources and discussing the best uses of class time for this work (we ended up setting aside particular times for PPL site visits, in-class group work, informal consultations with me, and independent project meetings that could be held in the classroom or elsewhere), I encouraged groups to establish their own workflows, project milestones, and collaborative mechanics within the larger framing of their deliverables.

I may think more about establishing more formal conventions for my role and authority in relation to projects in later versions of this course, not because students weren’t capable of coming up with great projects and game plans, but more because I think at times the explicit approval of the instructor helped reassure groups that they were doing exemplary work. It can be tricky to balance the power dynamics between instructors, students, and the PPL: the PPL and I wanted students to pursue their own interests and rely on us when needed, but we were also aware of the weight that our recommendations carried.

As collaborators, the PPL Special Collections team showed students some of the systems, conventions, and material conditions involved in archival labor: processing collections, creating metadata, imagining user stories, considering questions of accessibility and interests in particular kinds of use and re-use. They also productively encouraged students to imagine themselves as part of a wider community of imagined users, and to consider the perspectives informing various collections stakeholders. For example, we discussed the ways in which Brown University graduate students are part of the story of gentrification of Providence, conditions that inform the transformation of Fox Point and the lives represented in the Lou Costa Collection. We examined the countercultural dimensions of AS220’s programming and approach to the daily work of a cultural institution and how a digital space might be designed to reflect those investments. And we imagined the wider dissemination of images in the Updike Collection beyond their material conditions and original sites of publication, considering the ways they might be productively restaged, reprinted, and reused on social media networks.

Because we had established a relationship with PPL where students were expected to provide ideas and recommendations but not “products” in the form of web sites or apps or polished content for public consumption, I also tried to focus the literature survey elements of the course on introducing interesting and relevant digital humanities texts, contexts, and projects without the expectation that students would be able to replicate these models. The experiential learning components of the course were more focused on the work of collaborating with the PPL and relevant community archival stakeholders: students learned about the logistics, mechanics, and conditions of archival labor and its applicability to digital contexts, but they weren’t expected to digitize and publish materials, demonstrate proficiencies with certain programming languages or content management systems, or mimic the kind of multi-year, grant-funded, interdisciplinary, academically-oriented digital humanities project offered up as models by some practitioners at the level of a sole semester schedule. So we’d talk a lot about the challenges of creating a “generous interface” for a digital collection and investigate models, but students were not expected to then generate something that matched that scale of generosity. We learned about the range of possible narratives available through visualizations (as well as the limits of those narratives), but students did not spend lab sessions working with ArcGIS or R to propose specific uses of metadata. Readings (which you can see here) were meant to inspire possibilities for approaches: in some cases students decided to document the needed allocations of resources, tools, or labor for projects at particular scale, but they were not expected to take up this work and complete it in the duration of the course.    

There are costs to doing work at this pace, to privileging work that circulates less publicly, to working at a scale that makes sense to us but lacks the social media impact of announcing a fully-formed digital project. I am sure that my current standing at Brown is due in large part to the fact that I, as a graduate student, co-directed a digital archival project. But I also remember the costs of doing this work and the precedent it sets for graduate students, faculty members, archivists, collaborators. While I am greatly appreciative of my time on Our Marathon, the experiences on that project and on later collaborative digital work have motivated me to focus on what Moya Bailey calls “an ethics of pace” on digital humanities projects. I don’t want graduate students to be told that “this is how things are” when they are faced with unreasonable expectations on collaborative project work, or when their labor is later made invisible due to institutional power dynamics or outmoded conventions of citation and project documentation, or when the learning goals of a particular collaborative experience aren’t documented and even debated, and I think there are tendencies for these kinds of bad behavior to emerge when there’s pressure to make digital work public and presentable. Our collaboration with the PPL focused on histories, stories, and experiences that required us all to take our time. I don’t think every digital project needs to operate at this pace: there are certainly projects I’ve enjoyed that circulate more quickly, or develop across several public-facing iterations, or are designed for a short-term lifespan.

I haven’t talked much here about the ideas that students came up with by the end of the semester, in part because their ideas weren’t designed to circulate in this way. The PPL and I were thrilled by their project presentations, and a number of the ideas circulated there have informed developing grant proposals and event programming. And the students have also earned the authority to discuss these ideas in their own writings, conference presentations, and other forms of future labor. However, I will close with a brief list of lessons from my position as an instructor in this collaborative process.

  1. Begin the conversation by asking external collaborators about their interests and goals. Keep your own professional and academic goals in mind and make them a visible part of the conversation about collaboration, but consider when those goals might overshadow or even conflict with the goals of, say, community partners.
  2. Collaborative work interested in digital contexts can generate “deliverables” outside traditional digital public-facing models. Think about the value of forms of labor beyond the course blog, the digital exhibit, the digital archive. In fact, some of these expectations may conflict with or distract students from more generative collaborative experiences.
  3. Documentation is your friend, and it can help students and collaborators see how you envision particular project and learning goals. Documentation can also be collaboratively written, debated, and revised.
  4. Acknowledge the semester timeline and the conditions of coursework early and often. Consider the ways that digital scholarship and project work doesn’t neatly align with available resources and semester calendars.
  5. Interrogate the ethical dimensions and implications of your collaborative methodologies.

As instructors in public humanities, public history, or digital humanities (or some combination of the three!), we are often surprised to learn that we are not the first people to “reimagine” or “re-think” ideas and uses of archives: to highlight their subjective dimensions, or their lack of neutrality, or their absences. We may talk to archivists or get excited about our planned uses of archival materials in our professional pursuits, but we don’t often think about archivists or the people whose stories are part of those archival materials as collaborators (or even desired audiences). Intentionally or unintentionally, we often privilege our own limited perspectives at the expense of other archival possibilities and uses. We might find that we do have a lot to say and add to ways that archivists are thinking about and using materials, but in order to do so we should find spaces and opportunities to value and learn about work already being done well. There are certainly contexts where modes of archival creation and dissemination may require interventions or critiques from voices and communities who institutionally reside outside of traditional modes of archival labor, or particular organizations and individuals who may not be thinking as carefully about their communities or the stories their archival approaches tell about them. But among other takeaways, our collaboration with Providence Public Library Special Collections demonstrated the value of working with archivists, the “custodians of a particular kind of context,” and the important work involved in creating spaces where that archival context is not just visible, but also valued through our chosen forms of collaboration.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me (james_mcgrath@brown.edu) or find me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

3 responses to “On Collaborations with Archivists in Digital Public Humanities”

  1. Jim,

    Congratulations! It was a pleasure to work with you and your students. I felt that Lou Costa’s
    Collection was being put to use and will continue to be used by many others. The neighborhood
    tour was fun and exciting to know that there were people who were interested in the place that
    is so special to Lou and I. If you are ever in Providence and would like to continue the tour of the
    upper section of the neighborhood ( Ives St, Hope St, Gano St) I would be happy to walk with you
    and the students. Please wait until the weather gets warmer than the last time..

  2. Jim,

    Congratulations! It was a pleasure to work with you and your students. I felt that Lou Costa’s
    Collection was being put to use and will continue to be used by many others. The neighborhood
    tour was fun and exciting to know that there were people who were interested in the place that
    is so special to Lou and I. If you are ever in Providence and would like to continue the tour of the
    upper section of the neighborhood ( Ives St, Hope St, Gano St) I would be happy to walk with you
    and the students. Please wait until the weather gets warmer than the last time..

    • Thanks Phyllis: it was great working with you too! And yes, next time summer tours are a safer bet! 🙂