New Horizons @ AAS

AAS SealHappy American Archives Month! This week, The Junto spoke with Molly O’Hagan Hardy, Digital Humanities Curator and ACLS Public Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society.

JUNTO: How did you get interested in digital humanities, and what kind of training do you recommend? What are the basic technical skills that history students and faculty should seek out, and where should they go to do so?

HARDY: A number of forces combined early in my graduate career to ignite my love of book history.  As my dissertation research on eighteenth-century copyright developed, I saw how questions of remediation and agency in book production raised by luminaries in the field such as D.F. McKenzie and Adrian Johns resonated in work on contemporary media and contemporary media theory, as articulated by scholars such as Matthew Kirschenbaum and Lisa Maruca. My dissertation remained rooted in 18th-century transatlantic literature and book history, but with the projects that grew out of it, I increasingly found myself in the digital humanities field.

My own background is in literary studies, so I am a little wary of speaking about the field of history, but I will share my thoughts. First and foremost, stay period-focused and continue work on that which excites you. Look out for the DH projects in your field. I think it is better, especially early on, to find out what DH projects exist in your research areas, rather than to embark on an entirely independent project. Consider: is there an ongoing project that your dissertation/book research might contribute to?  Is there a project that you rely on heavily and would like to learn some of the mechanics behind? Contact the folks working on those projects and perhaps find ways to contribute.

As far as learning skills, I would say that for the most part, they should be project-driven. I don’t think I would have taken even the modest steps that I have in learning TEI without all of the dissertation research I did on the pamphlet I am encoding; my efforts to create a digital edition of the pamphlet would have dwindled long ago.  As for places to learn skills, if you cannot learn them in your own department, check to see what library science courses your university offers. And there are a number of opportunities beyond the confines of your campus to learn skills and meet folks in the DH community, such as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, Rare Book School, and NEH-funded seminars, which take place on a number of campuses. And Twitter. You will learn about these and other opportunities on Twitter, as well as find out about ongoing and upcoming projects. I have found Twitter a great way to reach out to folks whom I want to learn from; after a brief Twitter exchange, it is much easier to approach a potential collaborator or mentor at a conference or symposium.

JUNTO: What does a DH Curator do?

HARDY: This is a good question as the position is new to the AAS and to archives generally. I combine my knowledge of the DH field, book history, the 18th-century, and archives to oversee a number of digital research and pedagogical projects using AAS materials, both in house and in the larger scholarly community. In so doing, I address questions about both how to build these projects and how they can be preserved in meaningful and useful ways. In addition to working with specific projects, I serve as an ambassador for AAS collections in the DH community, making sure that those who are working on projects germane to our collections know how we might be a part of their work. In turn, I also curate the DH community for my colleagues here at AAS. Because DH is amorphous and too some extent, still developing, there is a lot to keep on top of, so I try to pay attention to as many relevant projects and initiatives as I can to ensure that the curators and catalogers here know of work being done in their areas of expertise.

JUNTO: What’s next for the American Antiquarian Society’s digital projects?

HARDY: So much! We are about to launch a “Digital AAS” webpage on our website, so please stay tuned for that. It will be the best place to learn about both in-house DH projects and outside projects using AAS materials. Perhaps the project that will be of most interest to readers of The Junto is our effort to transform our Printers’ Files into an online database. Starting with Isaiah Thomas’s research for his ambitious The History of Printing in America (1810), the AAS holds the largest collection of data on early American printers. Most of this data can be found in the 134 drawers and 325,000 cards of biographical, printing, and publication history, cards that detail the lives and works of most people working in the book trade in the colonies and then the United States before 1820. In his 2008 parting words as president of the Bibliographical Society of America, John Bidwell remarked that “bibliographers can be grateful to the AAS for [this] valuable source of biographical information,” and pressed for the creation of a national biographical dictionary of the early American book trade. We are now doing just that, but instead of compiling a printed book, we are creating an online database. Let me detail a bit of how this project has emerged and what our hopes are for it.

Starting in 1927, Avis Clarke, the AAS’s first trained cataloger, compiled the Printers’ File during her 43-year tenure here, and her work has been picked up by our catalogers who have corrected and augmented this information in their own contributions to the National Authority Files. In many respects, Joseph Adelman, former NEH fellow at the AAS, and Ashley Cataldo, indefatigable library assistant at AAS, were the first to take up the gauntlet that Bidwell threw down, as they began the project of transforming Clarke’s cards into a database a few years ago. In the further development of the database, we are consulting with creators of the British Book Trade Index, and we are also in conversation with preeminent early American book historians Jim Green of the Library Company and Michael Winship of the University of Texas. We are still in the early stages of transforming this remarkable treasure trove into an online database that, though curated by AAS staff, will be able to be corrected and expanded by online users. If anyone is interested in participating in data entry for this project, we would love the help!  Please be in touch with me.

JUNTO: As libraries move beyond digitization, what sort of preservation or access strategies can new media serve to support?

HARDY: There are a number of ways to answer this question, so I will focus on just one: the creation of open access, online editions. TEI has become the lingua franca of scholarly digital editing, and though the learning curve is rather steep, as I mentioned above, there are a number of places to learn encoding. This encoding is, for the most part, not going to happen at archival institutions. They do not have the resources for such projects, but institutions of higher learning often do, and this opens an exciting opportunity for partnerships between archives and such institutions. Some of this work has already begun as DH projects have begun working with restricted access databases that house materials. Examples include 18th Connect, housed at Texas A&M, who works with the English Short Title Catalog and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), and the Textual Creation Partnership, which began at the University of Michigan and Oxford University, to create standardized, accurate XML/SGML encoded electronic editions of early printed books through partnerships with Early English Books Online, ECCO, and Evans Early American Imprints. Increasingly, these partnerships to create such editions will happen directly through the archives themselves, and these open access, deeply encoded editions will enable exciting possibilities for all sorts of innovative DH projects.

JUNTO: As you know, October is American Archives Month. Over the past few years, how have you seen digital resources change how researchers interact with a cultural institution like the Society? How will digital projects shape the future of the Society’s mission, and your own approach to research?

HARDY: Digital resources have become one more way to open up the archive in meaningful ways. In addition to all of our online resources that offer a window into our collections, our digital resources have become another way of building scholarly communities around our collections. In my time as an AAS research fellow in 2012, I came to value that sense of community, and I see the digital realm as just one more way to extend its reaches. DH projects often rely on collaboration among people who can be far-flung, and I see the AAS serving as a nexus point that unites some of that work. These digital projects are, in my mind, the natural extension of the AAS’s mission. In the19th century, the AAS stood at the forefront of textual preservation by collecting much of that would have otherwise been lost in the dustbin of history, and in the 20th century, it continued that tradition not only by continuing to acquire early American materials, but also by developing unparalleled detailed cataloging records. Catalogers at the AAS have focused on the importance of metadata for decades, and I hope that a number of digital projects will be born not only out of the digital surrogates we produce, but also out of the extensive metadata our records include. Such metadata play a key part in remediating archives as we have seen and will continue to explore in DH projects at the AAS.

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