Reflections on Day of Digital Humanities 2020

Photo taken during a class visit to Brown’s John Hay Library earlier this semester (Spring 2020)

Today is Day of Digital Humanities, so I figured it would be fitting to write a blog post (don’t worry: I also wrote a Twitter thread). Once the semester wraps up here in a few weeks, my plan is to blog a little more. People with blogs tend to say that they plan to blog a little more and then they never blog a little more. I have been one of these people before! We will see what happens.

I first participated in Day of DH in 2014, I think (I also posted in 2015, as part of a group blog co-authored by Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group). I found a blog post where I talk about presenting on Our Marathon at the annual Digital Commonwealth conference (an event I presented at again in 2019 and attended virtually this year!). Six years later, I am a few weeks in to work on another crowdsourced digital archival initiative: the Rhode Island COVID-19 Digital Archive.

This project is co-run by Kate Wells of the Providence Public Library and Becca Bender at the Rhode Island Historical Society. Myself, Jeremy Ferris (PPL), and Dana Signe K. Munroe (RIHS) round out the core project team right now. My specific role will have a specific title in the next week or so as we update our “About” page, but I’ve been supporting the project in a range of areas: project development, design, and scope, Omeka-related work, user experience, outreach, approaches to crowdsourcing, curation, and long-term preservation (among other things). But everyone in the core team has been attending to these areas and other project contexts in various ways; we clearly delineate particular tasks and bring our own various forms of expertise to the table, but we also value everyone’s perspectives on all aspects of the project. It’s a small team (which makes that last bit easier than it would be otherwise) but it’s been a really positive collaboration so far. We currently have over a hundred contributions. Materials include photos of fliers and signs, expressions of concern for neighbors, documentations of home life in quarantine, mask selfies, zines, puppet shows, and more. Work is shared under a Creative Commons license. The project definitely has some iterative dimensions to it and we’re refining things on a daily and weekly basis. 

When I first started seeing COVID-19 archival initiatives popping up on my Twitter feed, I wrote a quick thread asking the folks taking on this work to think about it for a bit. Having previously worked on a crowdsourced digital archive centered on a traumatic event and its aftermath, I urged caution and deliberation, especially when considering projects that may involve student labor or classroom contexts. When I wrote that thread, a person I care very much about was dealing with what we are pretty sure was COVID-19 (though we were unable to confirm because we did not have access to testing). Since then, I’ve been working with undergraduates and graduate students who have been variously impacted in negative ways by COVID-19 and its wake. I have colleagues and friends employed in positions of contingent labor in higher ed who will soon be out of work due to hiring freezes. My own contract is up in the end of August and my future work prospects beyond that are uncertain. I still remember the first long weekend here in Boston, when all of my friends in the service industry learned in a matter of hours that their employers were shutting down, with no sense of when it would be safe to reopen. I have given money to GoFundMe campaigns and bought what I could from local businesses. 

I have found the work days unbearable at points, and the effects of a bad day at the virtual office can hang over the house and follow me on my long walks around the neighborhood. As I was drafting this post today, the Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts has reported its highest single-day death toll since the pandemic “began.” I have friends and relatives living in cities and states overwhelmed by cases, in addition to folks living in places where the local government is encouraging a return to normalcy and calling to reopen various businesses and public gathering places. There’s a lot to process, and things seem to change every day, mostly for the worse.

I would not have joined a project about this subject matter if I did not already know and trust Kate from previous collaborations, if I did not come to greatly appreciate the perspectives and care demonstrated by the rest of the team. If you are someone who is thinking about taking up this sort of work (or if your institution is considering it, or if you find yourself in a course where the instructor has assigned COVID-19 work, or your boss has tasked you with doing something related to the pandemic), I’m happy to talk more about my current experiences and my previous experiences on Our Marathon.

Day of Digital Humanities contributors often make visible the range of approaches being taken in DH, the labor that goes into these efforts, the tools and methodologies being deployed, the human lives behind these academic endeavors. It’s often an event with very feel-good and positive vibes. But it’s hard not to think about the dark days ahead, especially when many of us have already lived through our share of dark days (and others have experienced far worse things than I have in academic / digital humanities / public humanities spaces, among other contexts). I’m not sure how long I’ll continue to work at academic or even cultural heritage institutions, to be honest. I have six figures in student loans and other debt pulling me down on a constant basis. I’m very tired of so many different aspects of the work of digital public humanities: the privileging of wealthy individuals, tenured academics, and elite institutions, the absence of reliable funding and stable / permanent positions, the devaluing of labor, experience, and expertise, the gaslighting, the professionalization and degree marketing, the distance between institutional branding and institutional support, the subtweets, the op-eds, the fact that the most interesting and creative work seems to be happening in other places and professional spaces.  This list could go on. I’m tired. My friends are tired. I’m sure we’re all tired of writing about this stuff, tbh. My plan is to blog about other stuff besides this stuff down the road. Then again, this post was supposed to be a more traditional “hey, check out this new project” kind of post. So we’ll see.

You’ve caught me at the end of a particularly bad Day of Digital Humanities, I’m afraid. I’m sharing in the interest of transparency, I suppose.

Tomorrow is another Day of Digital Humanities. And working with great people on projects like the Rhode Island COVID-19 Digital Archive remind me why I haven’t completely walked away from this kind of work. Today, at least. Tomorrow is another day.

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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