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.
Welcome to Haunted Home Pages, a semi-regular series of blog posts in which Jim McGrath spends October 2017 communicating with the internet’s afterlife via The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine . For all the posts in this series, click here.
I wanted to kick off Haunted Home Pages with a look back at The Master of Horror, Stephen King. I went through a huge King phase back in junior high and high school, and I will provide an embarrassing image of myself from this period to prove just how into King I was back then!
The Wayback Machine has entries for stephenking.com stretching back to November of 1998, but this March 2000 cached page is the first one I found to provide a clear vision of the author’s “web presence.” We’re greeted with a static home page that visualizes the site’s architecture as a large circle with a smaller one devoted to “Links” orbiting it (half of the larger home planet of All Things King is dedicated to a timeline, while the other half covers a range of topics about the author).
The section dedicated to “rumors” is disappointing to gossip hounds (like me) since it’s primarily about fan correspondence and autograph policies, though there is a question about an alleged haunted house run by King on Halloween (“this is not true and never has happened.”). “the man” is a biography of King (co-authored by Tabitha King, his wife) spread across a number of individual pages: each page has about a paragraph of text on it and includes a link to a printer-friendly version. There’s also a brief note about a 1999 appearance by King on Dateline that apparently led to fan concerns that the author was “unable to write”: this note isn’t clearly dated on the home page, which seems to aspire to the “endless present” of static home pages then and now. King’s site in this incarnation was “designed, maintained, and hosted” by i-forge Design Factory, a company whose own home page from this period is sadly hidden from the Wayback Machine by robots.txt.
The next major transformation of King’s personal web site comes in 2000, when the author decided to add a “downloads” section in order to sell The Plant, “an epistolary novel set in the 1980s (before email, in other words, and when even the fax was a fringe technology).” As the project’s Wikipedia article notes, King would never complete the novel, but it was a fascinating experiment in self-publishing via electronic means, especially given the author’s stature and his commitment to transparency. You can read what was completed on The Plant, as well as commentary from King during and after this publishing experiment, on the current “live” version of the author’s site, free of charge.
Last week, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage joined a number of other universities in a Frederick Douglass birthday party transcribe-a-thon to support the (awesome) Colored Conventions Project. I wrote about how our day went over at the JNBC blog:
Transcription may seem like a mundane or even dated way to contribute to a digital project in the twenty-first century: can’t scholars and archivists use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract text from scanned documents? As someone who has worked on a number of digitization projects, I can tell you that the technology we imagine to be freely available doesn’t always match the realities of doing digital humanities scholarship, and the available resources can vary from project to project. While we are right to be suspicious of third-party platforms, apps, and social networks that ask for our personal data in exchange for use of their services, we are often not required to think as much about the labor that goes into the creation and support of our shiny digital interfaces. Do you know how Google Docs handle collaborative writing across a range of devices and issues related to version control when they arise as you’re drafting something? Have you ever wondered what makes Clippy so useful (or annoying)? Exposure to the nuts and bolts of a digital project like CCP can often help us gain new perspectives on the materiality of the web, the technical dimensions of systems and actions we take for granted, and the challenges of doing public-facing digital work that circulates alongside well-funded and well-oiled machines made by Google and other heavyweights on the web at-large
It was fun and easy to collaborate with the CCP: I was particularly impressed by how much work they put into ensuring that their remote collaborators had everything they needed to make their events run smoothly. They’re a fantastic model for how to do public-facing digital humanities work within and across institutions, and I hope to work more with them in the future! It was also great to get some of our students, faculty, and community affiliates working on and thinking about the labor involved in digitization projects.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we experience time online. We are increasingly aware of the presence and influence of time on the web, thanks in part to timestamps, our ability to “undo” the mistakes of the present and recent past, desires for version control, the general sense that we are staging performances on social media that are preserved as quickly as they are enacted. We joke about the poor researchers of the future who try to learn about our era from our Twitter archives. We wonder about mid-sentence delays between the latest Donald Trump tweets because we have clear evidence of the gaps in time in the form of metadata. The algorithms giving shape to our News Feed on Facebook helpfully remind us of the products our dead friends continue to “like” in the present tense, as if they are still alive.
Time, if not broken, is certainly complicated and at times disoriented by the web, in part because of how much information we have, the kinds of records we keep, have access to, produce, and inhabit, and the lenses and interfaces we use to read, write, broadcast, and communicate online.
In his remarks at an interfaith prayer service in Boston on April 18th, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama noted more than once to his audience that “Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.” In the hours, days, and weeks following the events of April 15th, 2013, many people used social media to document how “at home” they feel or once felt in Boston.
I’m interested in ideas of home and digital spaces in the context of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Our Marathon, a community project hosted by Northeastern University, is a crowdsourced digital archive of close to ten thousand stories, photos, and social media about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I started working on it as a graduate student research assistant in May of 2013, became Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker, now at Bryn Mawr) in the fall of that year, and I continue to work on it as we preserve our digital assets and make them more accessible in the short and long-term via Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.
I’m particularly interested in discussing Our Marathon and what it might tell us about home and digital regionalism, home and digital archives, and home and digital public humanities.