New Project: A New Digital Home for Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

On Friday April 15th 2018, Northeastern University launched the new version of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Why a new site? Given that materials were being added to Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service for long-term preservation and that the five year anniversary seemed like an ideal deadline for that migration work, I recommended that the library’s Digital Scholarship Group create a new project landing site that was more engaging and had a curatorial hand reminiscent of our original project site. My role involved doing final passes on metadata (that was fun), inventory work during the migration, consulting on site design and layout, and creating and updating narrative and curatorial text. The bulk of the migration and redesign work was done by a fantastic team of librarians and graduate students: many thanks to Amanda Rust, Sarah Sweeney, Caroline Kilbanoff, Lauren Bergnes Sell, Megan Barney, and David Heilbrun. In addition to the many individuals documented and thanked on our About page (a section whose length and detail reflect our investments in what Sharon Leon notes is important contextual info for audiences as well as fellow practitioners invested in similar efforts), I’d also like to thank Julia Flanders and Dan Cohen for their continued support and attention to this project, as well as Northeastern’s College for Social Sciences and Humanities and NULab for their investment in its legacy.

On April 23rd (the day of the 2018 Boston Marathon!), I was a guest on PRI’s The World, a daily national broadcast that airs locally in Boston on WGBH. You can listen to the segment on Our Marathon below (or here).

Here are some other places where I’ve discussed my work on this project (the Additional Resources section of the site has further reading from some of our collaborators and contributors).

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Digital History Is More Than Just Sitting Behind Your Laptop

Slide from my talk at Salem State, outlining major questions for consideration.
Slide from my talk at Salem State, outlining major questions for consideration.

Note: On March 26th, 2018, I had the privilege of giving a talk titled “Digital Humanities, Hyperlocal Histories, and Community Archives” at Salem State College. Thanks to Roopika Risam, Susan Edwards, and Salem State’s Digital Humanities Working Group for inviting me to campus. In my talk, I discussed recent collaborative work with graduate students in Brown’s Public Humanities program and community partners like the Providence Public Library Special Collections department: you can read about those efforts here. I also talked a bit about lessons learned from my work on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. I’ve circulated that portion of the talk below.

For more information about Our Marathon, check out this recent publication (co-authored with Alicia Peaker), and this talk I gave at the American Studies Association conference a few years ago. If you’re in the Boston area, come to Northeastern on Monday, April 23 to “Storytelling, Archives, and Resilience,” a panel commemorating the five-year anniversary of the bombings (and announcing a relaunched Our Marathon project site).

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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.

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New Project: Public Work, a public humanities podcast

A few weeks ago Amelia Golcheski and I launched Public Work, an interview-style public humanities podcast that features lots of voices from Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage . Amelia and I have been working on Public Work since the Fall of 2017, and we’re excited to have an actual podcast out in the world after all that time. You can hear us on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and you can get updates on new and upcoming episodes @PublicWorkPod on Twitter.

Are you thinking about starting a podcast at your institution? What follows is an overview of some of the work that went into this project, with attention paid to some of the resources needed to pull it off and some thoughts on project longevity. There are lots of resources online for folks interested in doing podcasts, so I’m thinking of these reflections as more thoughts that might resonate primarily with people working in academic contexts: students, faculty members, librarians, postdocs, etc.

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DH2017 Poster Roundup: Mapping Violence and Day of Public Humanities

2017 marks my third trip to the biggest DH conference in the game, and for this go-round I wanted to bring the work of some of my awesome collaborators (and some of the collaborators themselves!) at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage to the event.

The work documented in these posters is highly collaborative and it involves undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members in American Studies and Public Humanities. It’s been interesting to think through the relationships between these two fields and DH during my time at Brown; the ASA’s Digital Humanities Caucus has been super helpful in the former, and I wonder if there’s more people interesting in talking about the latter. I was excited to see “public DH” in Amanda Visconti’s paper title, for instance. And while “public humanities” isn’t explicitly named in the titles of any other posters and discussions, there’s clearly a lot of interest in questions of “access” based on the number of presentations here utilizing that keyword. “Access” is this year’s conference theme, but public humanities folks might find the range of uses interesting nonetheless. Additionally, “public humanities” is showing up in several tweets about presentations (like here and here, in tweets referring to a talk by my pal and partner in digital public humanities, Lauren Tilton!), suggesting that attendees invested in the term are recognizing its presence in methodologies and project emphases.

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Days of Future Past: Augmented Reality and Temporality in Digital Public Humanities

Uncanny X-Men #141 (1981 [1980])
In July 2017, I presented a version of this talk on a panel on “Temporality” at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keydh on Twitter) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The project  I discuss here, a digital tour of the Nightingale-Brown House, will debut in September 2017. I’ll update this post with a direct link when we go live!

I wanted to start by outlining three of the major questions I hope to raise in this discussion of a digital house tour I’ve been working on at Brown University’s Public Humanities program. This presentation will focus on the details of our particular project, but I hope this overview is useful to people who are specifically interested in the metaphor of the tour in DH as well as anyone who might have thoughts on temporality as it relates to DH work and the interfaces we rely on (or develop) in various initiatives.

Excerpts from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (1981 [1980])
This talk takes its title from “Days of Future Past,” a 1980 storyline from Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men serial in which a member of the superhero team travels back in time to stop the bleak future she calls home from existing in the first place. “Welcome to the 21st century,” reads a caption box on the opening splash page of #141. Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and their collaborators present readers with a dystopian vision of 2013 and a ragtag team of surviving heroes so desperate that they’re “toying with the basic fabric of reality” in an attempt to travel back in time to literally rewrite history.

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New Project: Day of Public Humanities (#DayofPH)


I’m excited to announce my involvement in Day of Public Humanities (#DayofPH), a public humanities initiative about public humanities. So meta! When I started working at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, I inevitably got questions from friends in and beyond academic contexts about what this “public humanities” thing is and what kind of work I do. Many of us here get these questions, so myself, Robyn Schroeder (Postdoctoral Fellow and Director of Graduate Studies in Public Humanities), and Inge Zwart (graduate student in Public Humanities) decided to spend the past year researching the term, its uses, its limits, its past, present, and future. While doing this work, we became particularly interested in how and why public humanities practitioners came to embrace the term “public humanities” and what forms of labor they do on a daily basis. Like the Day of Digital Humanities (#DayofDH) initiative, #DayofPH asks practitioners to make their labor visible, reflect on the field and where it’s going, and show people what cool things they’re up to. We hope you can join us on May 9th, 2017!

You can learn more about #DayofPH on our web site. Specifically, you can find suggestions for how to participate on May 9th, blog posts highlighting some of the day-to-day work we do here at the JNBC, and recommendations for further action before and after May 9th. We also talk about the project on the JNBC blog. We’re excited to see what other people are working on, what “public humanities” means to them, and how we might all learn to become better Public Humans.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about this project on Twitter (@JimMc_Grath) or via email (james_mcgrath[at]brown). And if you’re attending NCPH next week, I’ll be there too, so please get in touch if you’d like more info!

 

New Post at the JNBC Blog (the Colored Conventions Project and the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-Thon)

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.

Digital Storytelling: Student Visualizations and Re-visualizations

I’m teaching a graduate-level class in Digital Storytelling at Brown this spring. You can view our course site here. Last week served as an introduction to three key terms and concepts that we’ll be working with all semester: data, networks, and visualizations.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending HILT (for the second time!), where I completed a course on Database Design for Visualization and Analysis taught by Nicole Coleman. Nicole began the course with a great exercise that doubled as both an icebreaker and an introduction to some of the major ideas we’d be working with all week. Instead of throwing us headfirst into spreadsheets and digital tools, she split the class up into smaller groups and asked us to tell a story about our group in a hand-drawn visualization. This assignment inevitably involves the gathering of data and the questioning of what that data tells us, as well as what it might be used to tell others. It then quickly leads into a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of visualizations, especially when you’re wrestling with a desire to retain more complex and varied dimensions of networks and relationships.

Our groups focused on commonalities as well as deviations. For example, I recall that one group was interested in mapping educational backgrounds geographically, in part because there were questions about whether digital scholarship was perhaps too localized and dominated by particular schools, programs, and regions of the world, and the group wanted to make visible the routes people took as students and emerging professionals.  Some of these conversations could be difficult: they mapped “in crowds” and highlighted outliers and outsiders, they revealed certain investments in particular degrees, colleges, and career paths. They were also incomplete at times: a route might have ended or taken a turn in one direction due to personal reasons or professional obligations beyond a degree, for instance.

In any case, the exercise stuck with me, so I modified it slightly and brought it into our Digital Storytelling course. You’ll see what our class came up with below. A quick word before we dive in: I’m intentionally leaving the names of students out of this discussion, in part because it was course work in progress created without awareness of its potential digital afterlife, and in part because the students working on the visualizations varied thanks to the way Brown students “shop” for courses early in the semester (I have thoughts about “shopping,” but that’s another story). Future reflections on course work will explicitly credit particular students (and may, at times, be collaboratively written by them).

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Grad Student DH Roundtable in Common-place

I wrote about my experiences doing digital humanities work as a graduate student over at Common-place. Here’s a snippet:

While I’ve heard that the phrase “public humanities” makes some people want to set their hair on fire, I’ve found that the investments many digital humanities practitioners place in public-facing work have been particularly important, and I try to explore the various implications and challenges of doing public humanities work in my courses and in my own projects. My work in Brown’s Public Humanities program at times might begin (and sometimes end) with digital initiatives aimed entirely at non-academic audiences (i.e. audiences who might not be looking to use materials or data for their own academic projects or publications). Or it might entail working with a range of collaborators—librarians, community organizations, undergraduates, archivists—with various ideas about the kinds of intellectual labor they’re invested in, interests that don’t always privilege scholarly monographs or the critical lenses privileged by my graduate training in, say, an English department. These digital projects require skill in project management and development, attention to design choices and interfaces and their impact on user experiences, knowledge of long-term preservation issues, and discussions about various forms of public engagement, among other factors.

Common-place is primarily intended for early American Studies scholars, but I think this piece may be of interest to DH folks doing work outside that particular field as well. The roundtable discussion is made up entirely of recent graduates and current grad students from Northeastern University (all of whom were former NULab fellows as well!), and it documents graduate student experiences at at a moment in the school’s institutional history when its community of digital humanities scholars and researchers (including, of course, Northeastern’s awesome librarians and archivists!) was just starting to materialize. Anyway, it was fun to write: thanks to Liz, Ben, and Abby, as well as Ed Whitley, Kathy Foley, and the good people of Common-place.