Today’s guest post is by Carl Robert Keyes, an associate professor of history at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He recently began tweeting: @TradeCardCarl.
On the Luddite to Early Adopter spectrum I fall somewhere around “Printing Presses Are Cool.” It was thus with a bit of trepidation that I approached the Digital Antiquarian Conference (May 29-30) and the accompanying Digital Antiquarian Workshop (June 1-5), hosted by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The conference was open to all (with nearly 200 people registering), but the workshop was restricted to eighteen participants selected from those who submitted applications in advance, not unlike the summer seminars in book history and visual culture sponsored by the AAS.
The presentations at the conference were invigorating; to a greater degree than many conferences I have attended, a sustained sense of excitement permeated the room throughout the keynote addresses, papers, and discussions. Yet it quickly became clear that at least three different disciplinary languages – history, literary criticism, and information science – were being spoken even as participants sought ways to integrate them into a single discourse. The conversations also suggested that colleagues in literature have made more progress exploring the field (or is it a methodology – or both?) of digital humanities than their counterparts inhabiting history departments. That’s not to say that much fine work is not being done by historians, both public historians and those affiliated with colleges and universities, but rather that historians have yet to collectively embrace digital humanities methods and projects as extensively as our counterparts in literature.
Limited space precludes a précis of each paper or even of each panel, so I will instead focus on aspects of the two keynote addresses that resonated with me, a novice in most things digital. Other participants would likely write a much different conference roundup, and I encourage readers to consult the slides that accompanied several papers and the Twitter feed to see how various participants presented and responded to current and proposed work in the digital humanities. (Many participants also tweeted links to additional resources.)
The conference commenced with a keynote address by Kenneth Carpenter (Harvard Libraries, retired) and Michael Winship (English, University of Texas Austin). Setting the tone for subsequent presentations, Carpenter and Winship did not promote unconditional exuberance for the digital humanities and, especially, the surrogate texts that offer increased access thanks to a continuing evolution of technological tools. Instead, they encouraged the perspective that digital resources should be considered complements to, rather than replacements for, original sources. They also cautioned that the metadata attached to digital resources sometimes includes errors and flaws: scholars who work exclusively with digital surrogates should do so with caution.
Carl Stahmer (Director of Digital Scholarship, University Library, University of California, Davis), in a keynote delivered the following day, did not explicitly disagree, but he did advocate for examining questions that can now be asked of original sources and/or better answered using methods that certainly were not part of my graduate training, including hyperspectral imaging and beta radiography (see above comment about sometimes divergent disciplinary languages). To demonstrate the efficacy of digital methods, Stahmer used feature point extraction as an example. Image recognition software allows for computers to search databases of digitized images and assess them to find specific examples of distinguishing characteristics (for instance, a woodcut included in several publications or individual pieces of type with distinct wear marks from a particular printer’s shop). Scholars then have much more information to construct new narratives and interpretations based on more readily identifying and examining sources in digitized archives (and, when possible, the original documents as well).
The week following the conference, eighteen scholars with various levels of experience working on digital humanities projects took part in the inaugural Digital Antiquarian Workshop, an intensive program that alternated between seminar discussions and hands-on exercises utilizing the AAS’s unparalleled collections of early American printed materials. Molly O’Hagan Hardy (ACLS Public Fellow and digital humanities curator, AAS) and Thomas Augst (English, New York University) put together an impressive syllabus for the week, introducing participants to both the wide array of AAS staff with specialized expertise and a variety of digital humanities tools and resources, including TEI coding (Text Encoding Initiative), MARC standards (MAchine-Readable Cataloging), oXygen XML Editor, and advanced data pull methods and analysis using online catalogs.
In many ways, metadata was the name of the game throughout the workshop. Since catalog records provide the infrastructure for so much of the analysis conducted in the digital humanities, many of the readings, discussions, and exercises revolved around the history and practice of cataloging historical sources, including graphic arts and manuscripts in addition to printed texts. We heard echoes of the two keynotes throughout the week, as the readings and instructors alternated between recognizing the limitations of digital methods and celebrating the possibilities they offered.
Hardy and Augst served as the primary instructors for the workshop, but in many ways they acted more as facilitators, having arranged for presentations and exercises led by each of the AAS’s curators (books, children’s literature, graphic arts, manuscripts, and newspapers and periodicals), half a dozen or more catalogers with various realms of specialization, and outside guests (including Michael Winship, Dawn Childress, a technological innovations librarian from Pennsylvania State University, and Tom Blake, the digital projects manager at Boston Public Library). Thanks to the diversity of instructors, I departed the workshop not only with a better comprehension of digital humanities methods and projects but also with a better understanding of the processes, especially the intricacies of cataloging, that go into making original sources available to researchers. As a regular in the reading room at the AAS, I did not previously understand or appreciate the complexity of the informational infrastructure and the often behind-the-scenes contributions of librarians, curators, and catalogers that make my work possible.
The workshop was a crash course, but I did not leave having mastered any particular method or technological resource (nor was that my goal or the intention of the organizers). I did, however, depart with several small-scale digital projects in mind (some that I can pursue with students in my public history class or in collaboration with undergraduate research assistants) and sufficient introduction to the resources – both people and tools – I will need to bring them to completion. I will probably never be an early adopter, much less on the “bleeding edge” invoked by Stahmer, but the Digital Antiquarian Conference and Workshop demonstrated to me the power and viability of digital humanities methods and projects.