Go Fast / Go Slow: Supporting Digital Public Humanities At Various Speeds

Tweet by (the awesome!) Kristen Mapes, documenting the shared interest in “Slow DH” by many attendees at ACH 2019.

Hi! This post is a revised version of some remarks I gave on a “Space and Place” panel at ACH 2019. It’s also a kind of roundup of some conversations that happened at this fantastic conference. Many of the images here are screenshots of slides from my talk. Thanks to everyone cited here who informed my thinking; any faults or bad takes are completely my own.

One of the more popular tweets to come out of the first Association for Computers and the Humanities Conference (#ACH2019 on Twitter) was the observation by Kristen Mapes (who is great!) that there seemed to be “a call for slow DH, for spending time with archives and data and material and the people within them.” I agree that there seemed to be a lot of advocates for “Slow DH” in Pittsburgh, and I wanted to think about these investments from the perspective of a digital public humanities practitioner who works with non-academic community partners, collaborators, and publics.

On the Minimal Computing roundtable at ACH, Marisa Parham asked “What does it mean to validate new kinds of work?” and I think this question has a lot of relevance to place-based digital public humanities initiatives, many of which involve forms of collaboration with off-campus stakeholders, non-academic publics, speculative dimensions, people in precarious positions. In considering when and how digital public humanities might complement “slow” work with faster and more public-facing benchmarks and outputs, I want to acknowledge that the validation of these forms of labor requires that our institutions reimagine and reevaluate how it staffs centers, labs, and departments, how our “conditions of possibility” (a phrase I have heard Thomas Padilla use in other contexts) are inevitably limited if we do not attend to the various institutional realities shaping the work of digital public humanities. 

On another ACH panel this past week, Stuart Varner asked, “Is the library solely a collections space, or is it also a productive space?” An ethical approach to acknowledging the realities of collections and preservation work might consider how laborers traditionally aligned with these tasks might be explicitly resituated to do alternate forms of digital scholarship, but I also strongly believe that creating “productive spaces” in libraries and other institutional spaces requires us to create space for valued and compensated collaborators with experience and knowledge of various forms of production that are speculative, community-oriented, iterative, designed with knowledge of particular publics and their needs and interests. 

It’s exciting to see “public digital humanities” as a major sub-topic of next year’s international DH conference. But as a specialist in digital public humanities speaking from the perspective of contingent labor, I’m also skeptical of occasions when DH practitioners have conveniently (but not always convincingly) decided that they already do work that resonates with various publics and meets their needs and interests. If we are serious about supporting digital public humanities or public digital humanities, then we need to work on how our institutions value its specialists, its forms of collaboration, its needs at the levels of design and outreach and implementation. There’s often a pretty wide gap between the grant application or the conference paper and the realities of doing digital public humanities.

I’ll note that I have been an advocate for and practitioner of a kind of “Slow DH” for some time. My investments in more deliberate and iterative methodologies originate in part from my experiences as Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker) on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive as a doctoral student at Northeastern. Due to available resources (specifically, funding and staffing who could work full-time on the initiative), we operated on a very accelerated timeline, completing a significant amount of project in just over a year. The pace of Our Marathon was also in part motivated by a sense that the publics that we and other cultural institutions working on related projects were prioritizing in and around Boston would expect and value programming and outputs that coincided with the one-year anniversary of these tragic events. But this pace also at times adversely affected project work: it takes time to build relationships with potential collaborators, to design digital work that resonates with the user experiences and expectations of desired publics, to look ahead to long-term preservation. Some of this work did in fact extend well into the future, culminating in a revised digital home for the project that was made public in time for the five-year anniversary of the bombings.

Due to these experiences, I’ve tried to argue for the value of developing digital projects over time, to demonstrate the value of iterative approaches and designing roadmaps that consider scale and scope in the context of available resources. I’ve written a bit about this approach in the context of Mapping Violence, a project directed by Dr. Monica Muñoz Martinez that I have worked on in various capacities over the last four years here at Brown. I’ve also written about what motivated me to design a Fall 2017 “Digital Public Humanities” course around a collaboration with the Providence Public Library Special Collections Department where our “deliverables” materialized in the form of recommendations rather than fully-formed, public-facing digital projects. The decision to focus on these particular forms of collaboration, labor, and output output — as opposed to, say, a set of student-curated online exhibits of digitized materials — were made in large part because the PPL and I began discussing the benefits of partnering up months before the semester began, so we were able to learn more about our particular contexts, expertise, and needs. In many respects, this collaboration is the kind of “slow” digital humanities advocated by many conference attendees, and obviously it’s a methodology I’m invested in. Recommendations materialized in the form of presentations to PPL staff and stakeholders. Students did not assume expertise in the cultural experiences of collections stakeholders, or PPL archivists and librarians, instead learning about archival labor and its various processes and workflows. 

The PPL and I thought these recommendations were productive, carefully researched, and conscious of the range of participants and potential audiences. But I was also struck by the reaction of one presentation attendee, a community archivist who had recently partnered with the PPL to ensure that collections materials were preserved and in a place where they could be accessed and used. The work to digitize this collection would require significant investments in time, labor, money, and other resources, and an ethical and careful approach to digitization and imagined public-facing outputs (interface design, searchability, forms of digital curation) would take time. While appreciative of this work, they also seemed frustrated by some aspects. Specifically, they seemed to want to see more immediate and explicit examples of use and engagement with materials in digital spaces. For example, the archivist had spent time taking students in the course on a tour of the neighborhood whose stories and people were represented in the collection, a form of engagement with local history that took time to prepare and deploy, but operated at a much faster pace than the plans for digital curation and engagement.

Digital Humanities and Hyperlocal History: Ethical forms of collaboration, Best practices in digitization and preservation, in viewing digitized collections as (linked open) data. Post-custodial archives and efforts to decolonize archival collections and institutions, Development of open-source and free tools for curation

When I recounted this story at ACH, a few audience members laughed knowingly. I too have had the experience of demystifying the realities of digital labor with various collaborators in and beyond academic institutions. But I have taken this reaction seriously, and I think more of us working on or working towards digital public humanities projects and contexts should too. I do still value the “slow” approach and I want to acknowledge some of the other ways that slower methodologies in digital humanities work have positively impacted efforts in public humanities.

But I’m increasingly interested in forms of use: creative, speculative, iterative, public-facing work, some of which de-centers some of the values held at digital humanities centers or libraries. Work that circulates beyond library servers, or is reliant on third-party technologies, or is ephemeral or not as “new” or “innovative” or sprawling. Work that isn’t always “slow.” I’d argue that digital humanities practitioners could devote more time, energy, and resources to reviewing the mechanics and methods of storytelling and exploring what can be creatively remediated in digital contexts while considering what resonates with particular audiences. 

Forms of use in Hyperlocal history and Digital Storytelling: how digital objects can be curated, remixed, and recontextualized by various publics:
Podcasts, physical/ digital/augmented exhibitions, physical/digital/augmented tours (physical markers, soundwalks), art projects, interactive fiction, games, comics, maps and visualizations, genealogical research, Twitter threads, Instagram posts

With that in mind, my Spring 2019 “Digital Storytelling” course emphasized the storytelling strategies of comic books, video games, interactive fiction, podcasts, and memes, among other materials. We connected these projects and methods to more traditional forms of digital humanities. We looked at some of the digital stories already being told about Providence. And one of the course requirements was that students collaborated in groups on place-based audio storytelling projects. I used this framing instead of “podcasts” because I wanted students to think about the potential for audio storytelling to augment experiences moving through physical spaces, and to acknowledge how many of us consume forms of audio stories on commutes, walks, etc.

The logo for Crimetown Season One

The popularity of the first season of Crimetown, which centered on Providence’s long history of organized crime, was one context informing our work in place-based audio storytelling. For me, Crimetown is further evidence of the ways that journalists and documentary makers have demonstrated the interest in and audience for digital storytelling more effectively than many digital humanities practitioners.  The creators of Crimetown worked with local archival materials and archivists at the Providence Journal and the Rhode Island Historical Society to create these place-based audio narratives, interviewed various participants and witnesses to the events they were interested in, and considered aspects like sonic textures and audience consumption habits in creating these stories. 

There’s a lot that I don’t like about Crimetown: it feels at times extractive and authoritative rather than attentive to the impact of its stories on the city of Providence, and it at times seems to embrace the sensationalized and voyeuristic dimensions of True Crime, especially when it makes space for certain perspectives from organized crime. There are lots of differences between DH and documentary work and journalism in terms of professional contexts, methodologies, ideas of value, and available resources, but I think we should be paying more attention to these sorts of projects.

Cultural heritage organizations with limited resources for digital scholarship do gravitate towards “out of the box” digital tools and methodologies that can be quickly and consistently deployed. Rhode Tour, a project that started before I came to Brown, utilizes Curatescape, which provides an Omeka theme designed with mobile devices and use-cases in mind as well as an app. Utilizing a paid tier of Curatescape has enabled a collaboration between the Rhode Island Council for The Humanities, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and us to provide a range of authors invested in aspects of Providence’s history to tell place-based, multimodal stories designed for smart phone users. 

But as the Minimal Computing roundtable at ACH compellingly discussed (can you tell that I loved that roundtable?), privileging replicability and “best practices” in digital storytelling methodologies can also be limiting. In the context of Rhode Tour, Curatescape enables multimodal stories to be quickly and easily created and published, but attention to how these stories resonate with users and how they acknowledge the realities of augmented reality (i.e., balancing the attention of the physical environments it encourages us to explore in Rhode Island with the amount of content it calls to our attention via our smart phones) have varied. 

Image of Angela DiVeglia's Rhode Tour of vacant places in Providence, Rhode Island

One of the most interesting Rhode Tour projects has been a Spring 2019 tour created by Providence Public Library Special Collections librarian Angela DiVeglia. DiVeglia was tasked with creating exhibition programming for the PPL while the entire building was being gutted and renovated, so she used Rhode Tour to tell the histories of vacant and open spaces in Providence. In addition to forms of digital curation that effectively acknowledged the amount of time and engagement users might have in these physical spaces, DiVeglia used analog signage to make the histories of these spaces visible and encourage inhabitants of these spaces to think about these changes over time. She also invited readers of these signs to call a hotline number and leave messages that share their experiences and memories of these places. Working with limited resources, DiVeglia created a narrative that spanned digital and physical spaces and could be engaged by a range of city inhabitants. The tour could be “taken” as a whole, or users could seek out individual “nodes.” Or the various publics utilizing the physical spaces of Providence mapped and annotated by DiVeglia’s signage might encounter signs and engage with stories of local history further through Rhode Tour.

I want to close by highlighting two projects created by students in our program. 

Logo for the "Providence's Chinatown" project


Providence’s Chinatown was a Spring 2018 exhibit and walking tour created by Julieanne Fontana and Angela Feng, students working with the Rhode Island State Archives, the Chinese Historical Society of New England, and two faculty members in American Studies. Modeled on work done in Boston’s Chinatown by Tufts faculty member Diane O’Donoghue, CHSNE, and other collaborators, this project remediated digital images related to Providence’s Chinatown (a neighborhood that does not “exist” in the present makeup of the city) on large panels hung through parts of the city. Students were interested in digitization and digital curation as well, but the emphasis on highly-visible public programming on the streets of Providence arguably did much more to make these histories apparent in the city. I think more of us in DH should consider the effectiveness of this kind of programming and consider where and how our work in digital spaces might benefit from these kinds of sites of engagement and curation. 

I was particularly struck by the impact of seeing materials digitized, enlarged, and projected onto physical streets and public spaces, and even if collections stewards and digital archivists lack current capacities or expertise to initiate these programming strategies ourselves, I wonder how they might better encourage these particular opportunities for engagement in the ways they disseminate and contextualize materials. And while Fontana and Feng spoke with me about how they might further this work with the creation of a digital archive, I think prioritizing and modeling these particular forms of storytelling and curation was important. 

Logo for "transit and place: providence in motion"

transit and place: providence in motion is one of the place-based audio storytelling projects from my Spring 2019 course. This student project team (Chandra Dickey, Nina Goetzen, Aly Myers, and Meera White) wanted to linger on spaces, materials, and histories quickly passed through on a particular bus route in Providence’s public transportation network: the Kennedy Plaza bus hub, the history of the RIPTA organization, the “Poetry in Motion” public art initiative aimed at passengers. Students created a story structured around an imagined bus ride (complete with the sonic textures of getting on, riding, and leaving the bus) and kept their narrative to fifteen minutes so that it might be heard on a commute. Given the ubiquity of podcasts and their importance to commuters on public transit, I thought this was a really clever and engaging acknowledgement of the conditions in which digital stories are enjoyed.

Conference presentation slide screenshot with a list of questions about digital public humanities: 

Use that extends into physical, local sites reminds us to think of digital collections in augmented and networked realities
How do opportunities for digital storytelling acknowledge these realities and playfully/creatively engage with these conditions?
How do we create conditions that value and support the work of digital storytelling and digital public humanities?

As I advocate for (hopefully not-too-distant!) futures of digital public humanities initiatives invested in hyperlocal histories, I want us to embrace the benefits of fast and slow. I acknowledge that these calls for more public-facing efforts require additional work, people, and resources, and that the “slow” work of digital humanities is often needed to realize efforts that make use of digitized materials. But I also think that the sites of public engagement and use promised down the road after the slow work is done have often failed to materialize. There are many digitized collections and materials shared online that have yet to be utilized in public-facing contexts beyond online portals. Many individuals who are involved in the work of building and sharing online collections might argue that this work extends beyond their current capacities, expertise, or familiarity with what particular publics want to see or do with materials. I’d agree, but I think it’s fair to say that further resources need to be devoted to the people who do care about this important digital public humanities work.

It was great to be on an ACH panel where peers were taking the interests and needs of publics seriously. For example, Anne Sarah Rubin, Dan Bailey, and their partners on the Visualizing Baltimore initiative have worked with the Maryland Historical Society to consider physical exhibition spaces where their resource-rich project might be presented to local publics, and they have plans to secure funding that attends to forms of engagement and sites of dissemination. And the work being done by Ana Lucic, Mihaela Stoica, and John Shanahan on public library data collected from the “One Book One Chicago” program is particularly geared towards helping public librarians consider how their limited resources can be used to create programming that resonates with city residents. Elsewhere at the conference, questions about how a “collections as data” approach to cultural materials might extend into pedagogical sites encouraging data literacy were being raised. 

I’m sure there were other great conversations I missed at ACH between presenting, attending talks, and sneaking out to catch a Pirates game. I was thrilled to see digital public humanities taken so seriously at this major conference by a range of attendees and participants, and since several of the organizers are involved in shaping DH2020, I’m extremely optimistic that attention to this kind of work will persist in major gatherings of digital humanities practitioners.

The title from this post riffs on (sorry) the song “It’s Trivia” by The Thermals, a song that kept playing in my head the more I heard the calls for “Slow DH” at the conference.

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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