Tagged history


Confessions of a Premature Digital Humanist


Traditional interpretations of the history of the Digital Humanities (DH) have largely focused on the field’s origins in humanities computing and literary studies. The singular focus on English departments and literary scholars as progenitors of DH obscures what in fact have been the DH field’s multidisciplinary origins. This article analyzes the contributions made by the US social, public, and quantitative history subfields during the 1970s and 1980s to what would ultimately become the Digital Humanities. It uses the author’s long career as a social, quantitative, and public historian (including his early use of mainframe computers in the 1970s to analyze historical data) and his role and experiences as co-founder of CUNY’s pioneering American Social History Project to underscore the ways digital history has provided a complementary pathway to DH’s emergence. The piece also explores the importance of digital pedagogy to DH’s current growth and maturation, emphasizing various DH projects at the CUNY Graduate Center that have helped deepen and extend the impact of digital work in the academy.

“And you may ask yourself—Well… How did I get here?”
Talking Heads, “Once In a Lifetime” (1981)

Much actual and virtual ink has been spilled over the past few years recounting how the field of Digital Humanities came into being. As a social historian and someone who has been involved in digital work of one sort or another since the mid 1970s, I am somewhat bemused by what Geoffrey Rockwell has aptly termed the “canonical Roberto Busa story of origin” offered by English department colleagues (Rockwell 2007). That canonical DH history usually starts with the famous Father Roberto Busa developing his digital concordances of St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings beginning in 1949 (the first of which was published in 1974) with critical technical support provided by Thomas Watson, head of IBM.[1] It quickly moves from there to recount the emergence of humanities computing (as it was originally known) in the 1980s, followed by the development of various digitized literary archives launched by literary scholars such as Jerry McGann (Rossetti) and Ed Folsom (Whitman) in the 1990s (Hockey 2004). In this recounting, academics in English, inspired by Father Busa, pushed ahead with the idea of using computers to conceive, create, and present the digital concordances, literary editions, and, ultimately, fully digitized and online archives of materials, using common standards embodied in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which was established in 1987.[2] The new field of Digital Humanities is said to have emerged after 2004 directly out of these developments in the literary studies field, what Willard McCarty terms “literary computing” (McCarty 2011, 4).[3]

As a historian who believes in multi-causal explanations of historical phenomena (including what happens intellectually inside of universities), I think there are alternative interpretations of this origin story that help reveal a much more complicated history of DH.[4] I will argue in this piece that the history field—particularly historians working in its social, public, and quantitative history sub-fields—also made a substantial and quite different contribution to the emergence of the Digital Humanities that parallels, at times diverges from, and even anticipates the efforts of literary scholars and literary studies.[5] I will first sketch broader developments in the social, public, and quantitative history sub-fields that began more than four decades ago. These transformations in the forms and content of historical inquiry would ultimately lead a group of historians to contribute to the development of DH decades later. I will also use my own evolution over this time period (what I dub in the title of this piece my “premature” Digital Humanism), first as a social and labor historian, then as a media producer, digital historian, and finally now as a teacher of digital humanities and digital pedagogy, to illustrate the different pathways that led many historians, myself included, into contributing to the birth and evolution of the Digital Humanities. I will use my ongoing collaborations with my colleagues at the American Social History Project (which I co-founded more than 35 years ago) as well as with Roy Rosenzweig and the Center for History and New Media to help tell this alternate DH origins story. In the process, I hope to complicate the rather linear Father Busa/humanities computing/TEI/digital literary archives origin story of DH that has come to define the field.

Social and Labor History

Social history first emerged in the pre-World War II era with the founding in 1929 in France of the Annales school of historical inquiry by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch and carried forward by Fernand Braudel in the 1950s and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in the 1970s. The field of social history found fertile new ground in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. The “new” social history was very much a product of the rejection of traditional political history narratives and a search for new methodologies and interdisciplinary connections. Social history examined the lives and experiences of “ordinary people”—workers, immigrants, enslaved African Americans, women, urban dwellers, farmers, etc.—rather than the narrow focus on the experiences of Great White Men that had dominated both academic and popular history writing for decades if not centuries. This changed historical focus on history “from the bottom up” necessitated the development of new methodological approaches to uncover previously unused source materials that historians needed to employ to convey a fuller sense of what happened in the past. Archives and libraries had traditionally provided historians access to large collections of private and public correspondence of major politicians, important military leaders, and big businessmen (the gendered term being entirely appropriate in this context) as well as catalogued and well-archived state papers, government documents, and memoirs and letters of the rich and famous. But if the subject of history was now to change to a focus on ordinary people, how were historians to recount the stories of those who left behind few if any traditional written records? New methodologies would have to be developed to ferret out those hidden histories.[6]

The related sub-field of labor history, which, like social history, was also committed to writing history “from the bottom up,” illustrates these methodological dilemmas and possibilities. Older approaches to US labor history had focused narrowly on the structure and function of national labor unions and national political parties, national labor and party leaders, and what happened in various workplaces, drawing on government reports, national newspapers, and union records. The new labor history, which was pioneered in the early 1960s, first by British Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, sought to move beyond those restricted confines to tell the previously unknown story of the making of the English working class (to appropriate the title of one of Thompson’s most important works). Hobsbawm and especially Thompson relied heavily in their early work on unconventional local and literary sources to uncover this lost history of English working people. The new labor history they pioneered was soon adapted by US labor historians, including David Montgomery, David Brody, and Herbert Gutman and by graduate students, deploying an array of political and cultural sources to reveal the behaviors and beliefs of US working people in all of their racial and ethnic diversity. The new US labor history embraced unorthodox historical methodologies including: oral history; a close focus on local and community studies, including a deep dive into local working-class newspapers; broadened definitions of what constituted work (e.g. women’s housework); and working-class family and community life and self-activity (including expressions of popular working-class culture and neighborhood, political, and religious associations and organizations). I committed myself to the new labor history and its innovative methodologies in graduate school at UCLA in the early 1970s when I began to shape my doctoral dissertation, which sought to portray the ways black, white, and immigrant coal miners in the West Virginia and Colorado coal fields managed to forge interracial and interethnic local labor unions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Brier 1992).

Public History

A second activist and politically engaged approach to communicating historical scholarship—public history—also emerged in the 1970s. Public history grew in parallel to and was made possible by the new academic field of social history. To be sure, while social history spoke largely to the history profession, challenging its underlying methodological and intellectual assumptions, public history and the people who self-identified as public historians often chose to move outside the academy, embedding themselves and their public history work inside unions, community-based organizations, museums, and political groups. Public historians, whether they stayed inside the academy or chose to situate themselves outside of it, were committed to making the study of the past relevant (to appropriate that overused Sixties’ phrase) to individuals and groups that could and would most benefit from exposure to and knowledge about their “lost” pasts (Novick 1988, 512–21).

Public history’s emergence in the mid-1970s signaled that at least one wing of the profession, albeit the younger, more radical one, was committed to finding new ways and new, non-print formats to communicate historical ideas and information to a broad public audience through museum exhibits, graphic novels, audio recordings and radio broadcasts, and especially film and television. A range of projects and institutions that were made possible by this new sub-field of public history began to take shape by the late 1970s. I worked with fellow radical historians Susan Porter Benson and Roy Rosenzweig and the three of us put together in 1986 the first major collection of articles and reports on US public history projects and initiatives. Entitled Presenting the Past, the collection was based on a special theme issue of the Radical History Review (the three of us were members of the RHR editorial collective) that we had co-edited five years earlier.[7] Focusing on a range of individual and local public history projects, Presenting the Past summarized a decade of academic and non-academic public history work and projects in the United States (Benson, Brier, and Rosenzweig 1986).[8]

Stephen Robertson, who now heads the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM)[9] at George Mason University, has correctly noted, in a widely read 2014 blog post,[10] that we can and should trace the origins of the much newer sub-field of digital history, a major contributor to the Digital Humanities’ growth, to the public history movement that was launched a quarter century earlier (Robertson 2014). Robertson goes on to suggest that this early focus on public history led digital historians to ask different questions than literary scholars. Historians focused much more on producing digital history in a variety of presentational forms and formats rather than literary scholars’ emphasis on defining and theorizing the new Digital Humanities field and producing online literary archives. This alternative focus on public presentations of history (i.e., intended for the larger public outside of the academy and the profession) may explain why digital historians seem much less interested in staking out their piece of the DH academic turf while literary scholars seem more inclined both to theorize their DH scholarship and to assert that DH’s genesis can be located in literary scholars’ early digital work.

Quantitative History

A third, and arguably broader, methodological transformation in the study and writing of US history in these same years was the emergence of what was called quantitative history. “Cliometrics” (as some termed it, a bit too cutely) held out the possibility of generating new insights into historical behavior through detailed analyses of a myriad of historical data available in a variety of official sources. This included, but was certainly not limited to, raw data compiled by federal and state agencies in resources like census manuscripts.[11] Quantitative history, which had its roots in the broader turn toward social science taken by a number of US economic historians that began in the late 1950s, had in fact generated by the early 1970s a kind of fever dream among many academic historians and their graduate students (and a raging nightmare for others) (Thomas 2004).[12] Edward Shorter, a historian of psychiatry (!), for example, authored the widely-read The Historian and The Computer: A Practical Guide in 1971. Even the Annales school in France, led by Ladurie, was not immune from the embrace of quantification. Writing in a 1973 essay, Laurie argued that “history that is not quantifiable cannot claim to be scientific” (quoted in Noiret 2012). Quantitative history involved generating raw data from a variety of primary source materials (e.g., US census manuscripts) and then using a variety of statistical tools to analyze that data. The dreams and nightmares that this new methodology generated among academic historians were fueled by the publication of two studies that framed the prominence and ultimate eclipse of quantitative history: Stephan Thernstrom’s Poverty and Progress, published in 1964, and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross, which appeared a decade later (Thernstrom 1964; Fogel and Engerman 1974).

Thernstrom’s study used US census manuscripts (the original hand-coded forms for each resident produced by census enumerators) from 1850 to 1880 as well as local bank and tax records and city directories to generate quantitative data, which he then coded and subjected to various statistical measures. Out of this analysis of data he developed his theories of the extent of social mobility, defined occupationally and geographically, that native-born and Irish immigrant residents of Newburyport, Massachusetts enjoyed in those crucial years of the nation’s industrial takeoff. The critical success of Thernstrom’s book helped launch a mini-boom in quantitative history. A three-week seminar on computing in history drew thirty-five historians in 1965 to the University of Michigan; two years later a newsletter on computing in history had more than 800 subscribers (Graham, Milligan, and Weingart 2015). Thernstrom’s early use of quantitative data (which he analyzed without the benefit of computers) and the positive critical reception it received helped launch the quantitative history upsurge that reshaped much US social and urban history writing in the following decade. Without going into much detail here or elaborating on my own deep reservations about Thernstrom’s methodology[13] and the larger political and ideological conclusions he drew from his analysis of the census manuscripts and city directories, suffice it to say that Thernstrom’s work was widely admired by his peers and emulated by many graduate students, helping him secure a coveted position at Harvard in 1973.[14]

The other influential cliometric study, Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross, was widely reviewed (including in Time magazine) after it appeared in early 1974. Though neither author was a social historian (Fogel was an economist, Engerman an economic historian), they were lavishly praised by many academics and reviewers for their innovative statistical analysis of historical data drawn from Southern plantation records (such as the number of whippings meted out by slave owners and overseers to enslaved African Americans). Their use of statistical data led Fogel and Engerman to revise the standard view of the realities of the institution of slavery. Unlike the conclusions reached by earlier historians such as Herbert Aptheker and Kenneth Stampp that centered on the savage exploitation and brutalization of slaves and their active resistance to the institution of slavery, Fogel and Engerman concluded that the institution of slavery was not particularly economically inefficient, as traditional interpretations argued, that the slaves were only “moderately exploited,” and that they were only occasionally abused physically by their owners (Aptheker 1943 [1963]; Stampp 1956 [1967]). Time on the Cross was the focus of much breathless commentary both inside and outside of the academy about the appropriateness of the authors’ assessments of slavery and how quantitative history techniques, which had been around for several decades, would help historians fundamentally rewrite US history.[15] If this latter point sounds eerily prescient of the early hype about DH offered by many of its practitioners and non-academic enthusiasts, I would argue that this is not an accident. The theoretical and methodological orthodoxies of academic disciplines are periodically challenged from within, with new methodologies heralded as life- (or at least field-) changing transformations of the old. Of course, C. Vann Woodward’s highly critical review of Fogel and Engerman in the New York Review of Books and Herbert Gutman’s brilliant book-length takedown of Time on the Cross soon raised important questions and serious reservations about quantitative history’s limitations and its potential for outright distortion (Woodward 1974; Gutman 1975; Thomas 2004). Gutman’s and Woodward’s sharp critiques aside, many academic historians and graduate students (myself included) could not quite resist dabbling in (if not taking a headlong plunge into) quantitative analysis.

Using a Computer to do Quantitative History

Though I had reservations about quantitative history—my skepticism stemming from a general sense that quantitative historians overpromised easy answers to complex questions of historical causation—I decided to broaden the fairly basic new labor history methodology that I was then using in my early dissertation research, which had been based on printed historical sources (government reports, nineteenth-century national newspaper accounts, print archival materials, etc.). I had been drawn to coal miners and coal mining unionism as a subject for my dissertation because of the unusual role that coal miners played historically as prototypical proletarians and labor militants, not only in the United States, but also across the globe. I was interested in understanding the roots of coal miners’ militancy and solidarity in the face of the oppressive living and working conditions they were forced to endure. I also wanted to understand how (or even if) white, black, and immigrant mineworkers had been able to navigate the struggle to forge bonds of solidarity during trade union organizing drives. I had discovered an interesting amount of quantitative data in the course of my doctoral dissertation research: an enumeration of all coal strikes (1,410 in number) that occurred in the United States in the 1881–94 period detailed in the annual reports of the US Commissioner of Labor.[16] This was what we would now call a “dataset,” a term that was not yet used in my wing of the academy in 1975. This critical fourteen-year historical period witnessed the rise and fall of several national labor union organizations among coal miners, including the Knights of Labor, the most consequential nineteenth-century US labor organization, and the birth of the United Mine Workers of America, the union that continues to represent to this day the rapidly dwindling number of US coal miners.

In my collaboration with Jon Amsden, an economic and labor historian and UCLA faculty member, the two of us decided to statistically analyze this data about the behavior and actions of striking coal miners in these years. The dataset of more than 1,400 strikes statistically presented in large tables was simply too large, however, to analyze through conventional qualitative methods to divine patterns and trends. Amsden and I consequently made a decision in 1975 to take the plunge into computer-assisted data analysis. The UCLA Computer Center was a beehive of activity in these early years of academic computing, especially focused on the emerging field of computer science.[17] The center was using an IBM 360 mainframe computer, running Fortran and the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (the now venerable SPSS, originally released in 1968, and first marketed in 1975) to support social scientific analyses (Noiret 2012).

IBM 360 Computer, circa 1975
Figure 1: IBM 360 Computer, circa 1975

Amsden and I began by recording some of the characteristics involved in each of the 1,410 coal strikes that occurred in those 14 years: year of the strike, cause or objective of the strike, and whether a formal union was involved. To make more detailed comparisons we drew a one-in-five systematic random sample of the coal strikes. This additional sampled data included the number of workers involved in each strike, strike duration, and miners’ wages and hours before and after the strike. We laboriously coded each strike by hand on standard 80-character IBM Fortran coding sheets.

IBM Fortran Coding Sheet
Figure 2: IBM Fortran Coding Sheet

We then had a keypunch operator at the UCLA Computer Center (no doubt a woman, sadly unknown and faceless to us, righteous labor historians though we both were!)[18] transfer the data on each strike entry to individual IBM Fortran punch cards, originally known at Hollerith cards (Lubar 1992). That process generated a card stack large enough to carry around in a flat cardboard box the size of a large shoe box.

Fortran Punch Card
Figure 3: Fortran Punch Card

We regularly visited the UCLA Computer Center in the afternoon to have our card stack “read” by an IBM card reading machine and then asked the IBM 360 to generate specific statistical tabulations and correlations we requested, trying to uncover trends and comparative relationships among the data.[19] The nature of this work on the mainframe computer did not require us to learn Fortran (I know DHer Steve Ramsay would disapprove![20]), though Amsden and I did have to brush up on our basic statistics to be able to figure out how to analyze and make sense of the computer output. We picked up our results (the “read outs”) the next morning, printed on large, continuous sheets of fanfold paper.

IBM 360 Fanfold Paper
Figure 4: IBM 360 Fanfold Paper

It was a slow and laborious process, with many false starts and badly declared and pointless computing requests (e.g., poor choices of different data points to try to correlate).

Ultimately, however, this computerized data analysis of strike data yielded significant statistical correlations that helped us uncover previously unknown and only partially visible patterns and meanings in coal miners’ self-activity and allowed us to generate new insights (or confirm existing ones) into the changing levels of class consciousness exhibited by miners. Our historical approach to quantitative analysis was an early anticipation, if I can be permitted a bit of hyperbole, of Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” techniques in literary scholarship (Moretti 2005), using statistical methods to examine all strikes in an industry, rather than relying on a very “close reading” of one, two, or a handful of important strikes that most labor historians, myself included, typically undertook in our scholarly work. Amsden and I wrote up our results in 1975 and our scholarly article appeared in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History in 1977, a relatively new journal that featured interdisciplinary and data-driven scholarship. The article received respectful notice as a solid quantitative contribution to the field and was reprinted several times over the next three decades (Amsden and Brier 1977).[21]

One of our key statistical findings was that the power and militancy of coal miners increased as their union organizations strengthened (no surprises there) and that heightened union power between 1881 and 1894 (a particularly contentious period in US labor history) generated more militant strikes in the coal industry. Our data analysis revealed that these militant strikes often moved away from narrow efforts to secure higher wages to allow miners across the country to pose more fundamental challenges to the coal operators’ near total control over productive relations inside coal pits. Below are two screen shots, both generated by SPSS, from the published article: a scatter diagram (a new technique for historians to employ, at least in 1975) and one of the tables. The two figures convey the kinds of interesting historical questions we were able to pose quantitatively and how we were able to represent the answers to those questions graphically.

Scatter Diagram of Multi-establishment US Coal Strikes, 1881 to 1894
Figure 5: Scatter Diagram of Multi-establishment US Coal Strikes, 1881 to 1894

Figure 5 above shows the growth in the number of multi-establishment coal strikes and the increasing number of mines involved in strike activity over time, a good measure of increasing union power and worker solidarity over the critical 14-year period covered in the dataset.

Table 3: Index of Strike Solidarity, comparing Union-Called Coal Strikes with Non-Union Strikes
Table 3: Index of Strike Solidarity, comparing Union-Called Coal Strikes with Non-Union Strikes

Table 3 employs a solidarity index that Amsden and I developed out of our analysis of the coal strike statistics, based on the ratio of the number of strikers to the total number of mine employees in a given mine whose workers had gone out on strike. The data revealed that union-called strikes were consistently able to involve a higher percentage of the overall mining workforce as compared to non-union strikes and with less variation from the norm. This table lay at the heart of why I had decided to study coal miners and their unions in the first place. I hoped to analyze why and how miners consistently put themselves and their unions at the center of militant working-class struggles in industrializing America. I might have reached some of these same conclusions by analyzing traditional qualitative sources or by looking closely at one or a handful of strikes. However, Amsden and I had managed to successfully employ a statistical analysis in new ways (at least in the history field) that allowed us to “see” these developments and trends in the data nationally and regionally. We were able therefore to argue that the evolving consciousness of miners over time was reflected in their strike demands and in their ability to successfully spread the union message across the country. I should note here that the United Mine Workers of America had become the largest union by far in these early years of the American Federation of Labor. In sum, we believed we had developed a new statistical methodology to analyze and understand late nineteenth-century working-class behavior. We had used a computer to help answer conceptual questions that were important in shaping our historical interpretation. This effort proved to be a quite early instance of the use of digital techniques to ask and at least partially answer key historical (and, by definition, humanities) questions.

From Quantitative History to the American Social History Project

Around the time of the 1977 publication of the coal miners on strike article I decided to follow my public history muse, morphing from a university-based history scholar and professor-in-training, albeit one who had begun to use new digital technologies, into an activist public historian. I had moved to New York City soon after completing the computer-aided project on coal mining strikes to learn how to produce history films. This was a conscious personal and career choice I made to leave the academy to become an independent filmmaker. My commitment to historical ideas having a greater public and political impact drove my decision to change careers. On my first job in New York in 1977 as research director for a public television series of dramatic films on major moments in US labor history I met Herbert Gutman, one of the deans of the new labor and social history whose work I had read and admired as a graduate student. I spent the next two years researching and producing historical documentaries and other kinds of dramatic films.

The author in 1980 doing research for an educational television project on NYC history at the Columbia Univ. library. (Picture credit: Julie List)
Figure 7: The author in 1980 doing research for an educational television project on NYC history at the Columbia Univ. library. (Picture credit: Julie List)

Two years after meeting Gutman I was invited by Herb, who taught at the CUNY Graduate Center, to co-teach a summer seminar for labor leaders for which he had secured funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH summer seminars, in an innovative combination of academic and public history, were designed to communicate to unionized workers the fruits of the new social and labor history that Herb had done so much to pioneer and to which I had committed my nascent academic career in graduate school at UCLA. With the success of these summer seminars, which we taught at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1979 and 1980, Gutman and I decided to create the American Social History Project (ASHP) at CUNY. We reasoned that reaching 15 workers each summer in our seminars, though immensely rewarding for all involved (including the two teachers), was not as efficient as creating a new curriculum that we could make available to adult and worker education programs and teachers across the country. The project quickly received major grants in 1981 and 1982, totaling $1.2 million, from the NEH and the Ford Foundation, and under Herb’s and my leadership we rapidly hired a staff of a dozen historians, teachers, artists, and administrators to create a multimedia curriculum, entitled “Who Built America?” (WBA?). The curriculum mixed the writing of a new two-volume trade book focused on working people’s contributions to US history with a range of new multimedia productions (initially 16mm films and slide/tape shows, VHS videos and, later, a range of digital productions, including two Who Built America? CD-ROMs and several web sites such as “History Matters”). ASHP also had a second, clear orientation, in addition to developing multimedia materials: We built a vibrant education program that connected the project in its first few years with CUNY community college faculty and also New York City high school teachers who used our media materials (including specially designed accompanying viewer guides) in their classes that helped deepen and refine Who Built America?’s pedagogical impact on students. We hoped this multimedia curriculum and ASHP’s ongoing engagement with teachers would broaden the scope and popular appeal of working-class and social history and would be widely adopted in high school, community college, and worker education classrooms around the country as well as by the general public.[22]

I should note here that my early exposure to electronic tools, including being a “ham” radio operator and electronics tinkerer in high school in the early 1960s and using mainframe computers at UCLA in 1975, inclined me to become an early and enthusiastic adopter of and proselytizer for personal computers when they became publicly available in the early 1980s. I insisted in 1982, for example, against resistance from some of my ASHP colleagues who expected to have secretarial help in writing and editing their WBA? chapter drafts, that we use personal computers (I was Kaypro II guy!) to facilitate the drafting and editing of the Who Built America? textbook, work on which began that year (ASHP 1990, 1992).[23]

Kaypro II Computer
Figure 8: Kaypro II Computer

ASHP stood outside of the academic history profession as traditionally understood and practiced in universities at that time. As a grant-funded, university-based project with a dozen staff members, many of us with ABDs in history who worked on the project full-time (not on traditional nine-month academic schedules), ASHP staff were clearly “alt-ac”ers several decades before anyone coined that term. We wore our non-traditional academic identities proudly and even a bit defiantly. Gutman and I also realized, nonetheless, that ASHP needed a direct link to an academic institution like CUNY to legitimize and to establish an institutional base that would allow the project to survive and thrive, which led us to instantiate ASHP inside of CUNY. The American Social History Project, in fact, celebrated its 35th anniversary in CUNY in October 2016.[24] That was a consequential decision, obviously, since ASHP might not have survived without the kind of institutional and bureaucratic support that CUNY (and the Graduate Center) have provided over the past three and a half decades. ASHP, at the same time, also stood outside of the academic history profession in believing in and in producing our work collaboratively, which militated against the “lone scholar in the archive” cult that still dominates most academic scholarship and continues to fundamentally determine the processes of promotion and tenure inside the academy. Public history, which many ASHP staff members came out of, had argued for and even privileged such collaborative work, which in a very real sense is a precursor to the more collaborative work and projects that now define much of the new digital scholarship in the Digital Humanities and in the “alt-ac” careers that have proliferated in its wake. Well before Lisa Spiro (2012) enumerated her list of key DH “values”—openness, collegiality and connectedness, diversity, and experimentation—we had embodied those very values in how we structured and operated the American Social History Project (and continue to do so), a set of values that I have also tried to incorporate and teach in all of my academic work ever since.

ASHP’s engagement with collaborative digital work began quite early. In 1990 we launched a series of co-ventures with social historian Roy Rosenzweig (who had been a valued and important ASHP collaborator from the outset of the project a decade earlier, including as a co-author of the Who Built America? textbook) and Bob Stein, the head of The Voyager Company, the pioneering digital publisher. Roy and I had begun in the late 1980s to ruminate about the possibilities of computer-enhanced historical presentations when Bob Stein approached me in 1990 with a proposal to turn the first volume of the WBA? trade book (which had just been published) into an electronic book (ASHP 1990).[25] Applying the best lessons Roy and I and our ASHP colleagues had learned as public historians who were committed to using visual, video, audio, and textual tools and resources to convey important moments and struggles in US history, we worked with Voyager staff to conceive, design, and produce the first Who Built America? CD-ROM in 1993, covering the years 1876 to 1914 (ASHP 1993).[26] As noted earlier, our use of multimedia forms was an essential attribute that we learned as practitioners of public history, a quite different orientation than that relied on by literary DHers who work with text analysis.

The disk, which was co-authored by Roy Rosenzweig, Josh Brown, and me, was arguably the first electronic history book and one of the first e-books ever to appear. The WBA? CD-ROM won critical popular acclaim and a number of prestigious awards, inside in the academy and beyond (Thomas 2004). It also generated, perhaps because of its success, a degree of political notoriety when its inclusion by Apple in the tens of thousands of educational packs of CD-ROMs the company gave away to K-12 schools that purchased Apple computers in 1994-95 led to a coordinated attack on WBA?, ASHP, and Apple by the Christian Right and the Moral Majority. The Radical Right was troubled by the notion conveyed in several of the literally hundreds of primary historical documents we included in the CD-ROM that “gay cowboys” might have been involved in the “taming” of the West or that abortion was common in early twentieth-century urban America. The right-wing attacks were reported in the mainstream press, including the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

Putting the ‘PC’ in PCs,” Newsweek, February 20, 1995
Figure 9: “Putting the ‘PC’ in PCs,” Newsweek, February 20, 1995

The Right, however, ironically failed in all the furor to notice the CD-ROM’s explicitly pro-worker/anti-capitalist politics! The Right tried to get Apple to remove the WBA? CD-ROM from the education packs, but Apple ultimately backed ASHP and WBA?, though only after much contention and negative publicity.[27]

Despite this political controversy, the first WBA? CD-ROM and early historical web projects like Ed Ayers’s Civil War-era The Valley of the Shadow (1993) helped imagine new possibilities for digital scholarship and digital presentations of historical work. I would suggest that the appearance of the first WBA? CD-ROM nearly a quarter century ago was one of the pioneering instances of the new digital history that contributed a decade later to the emergence of the Digital Humanities, making Roy, Josh, and me and our ASHP colleagues what I have termed in the title of this article and elsewhere in print “premature digital humanists.”[28] That said, I do believe we missed an opportunity to begin to build connections to other scholars outside of history who were undertaking similar digital work around the same time that we completed the WBA? CD-ROM in 1993. Jerry McGann, for example, was beginning his pioneering work at the University of Virginia on the Rossetti Archive and was writing his landmark study “The Rationale of HyperText” (McGann 1995). And while we became aware of each other’s work over the next half dozen years, we never quite came together to ponder the ways in which our very disparate disciplinary approaches to digital scholarship and presentation might have productively been linked up or at least put into some kind of active dialogue. As a result, digital history and digital literary studies occupied distinct academic silos, following quite different paths and embracing very different methodologies and ideas. And neither digital history nor digital literary studies had much in common with the digital new media artists who were also working in this same period and even earlier, grouped around the pioneering journal Ars Electronica.[29] This was a missed opportunity that I believe has hindered Digital Humanities from being more of a big tent and, more importantly, allowing it to become a more robust interdisciplinary force inside the academy and beyond.

In any case my digital history colleagues and I continued to pursue our own digital history work. Roy Rosenzweig, who taught at George Mason University, founded the Center for History and New Media in 1994 a year after the first WBA? CD-ROM appeared. Our two centers next collaborated on several award-winning digital history projects, including the History Matters website mentioned earlier, which made many of the public domain primary source documents presented originally in the WBA? CD-ROM available online. This proved to be a particularly useful and accessible way for teachers at both the high school and college levels to expose their students to a rich array of primary historical sources. And, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, our two centers were invited by the Sloan Foundation to collaborate on the development of the September 11 Digital Archive (9/11DA). As Josh Brown and I argued in an article on the creation of the 9/11DA, September 11th was “the first truly digital event of world historical importance: a significant part of its historical record—from e-mail to photography to audio to video—was expressed, captured, disseminated, or viewed in (or converted to) digital forms and formats” (Brier and Brown 2011, 101). It was also one of the first digital projects to be largely “crowdsourced,” given our open solicitation of ordinary people’s digital reminiscences, photos, and videos of the events of September 11th and its aftermath. As historians faced with the task of conceiving and building a brand new digital archive from scratch that focused on a single world historical event, we were also forced to take on additional roles as archivists and preservationists, something we had previously and happily left to professional librarians. We had to make judgments about what to include and exclude in the 9/11 archive, how and whether to display it online, how to contextualize those resources, and, when voluntary online digital submissions of materials by individuals proved insufficient to allow us to offer a fully-rounded picture of what happened, how to target particular groups (including Muslims, Latinos, and the Chinese community in lower Manhattan) with special outreach efforts to be able to include their collective and individual stories and memories in the 9/11DA. Our prior work in and long-term engagement with public history proved essential in this process. We ended up putting the archive online as we were building it, getting the initial iteration of the site up on the web in January 2002 well before the lion’s share of individual digital submissions started pouring in. The body of digital materials that came to constitute the September 11 Digital Archive ultimately totaled nearly a quarter million discrete digital items, making it one of the largest and most comprehensive digital repositories of materials on the September 11 attacks.[30]

While literary scholars confront similar issues of preservation of and access to the materials they are presenting in digital archives, they usually have had the good fortune to be able to rely on extant and often far more circumscribed print sources as the primary materials they are digitizing, annotating, and presenting to fellow scholars and the general public. Public historians who are collecting digital historical data to capture what happened in the recent past or even the present, as we were forced to do in the September 11 Digital Archive, do not have the luxury of basing our work on a settled corpus of information or data. We also faced the extremely delicate task of putting contemporary people’s voices online, making their deepest and most painful personal insights and feelings available to a public audience. Being custodians of that kind of source material brings special responsibilities and sensitivities that most literary digital humanists don’t have to deal with when constructing their digital archives. Our methodologies and larger public imperatives as digital historians are therefore different from those of digital literary scholars. This is especially true given our commitment in the 9/11DA and other digital history archiving projects like the CHNM’s “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank” (on the devastating 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes Katrina and Rita), as well as ASHP’s current CUNY Digital History Archive project. The latter focuses on student and faculty activism across CUNY beginning in the late 1960s and on presenting historical materials that are deeply personal and politically consequential.[31]

It is important to note that while ASHP continued to collaborate on several ongoing digital history projects with CHNM (headed first by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt after Roy’s death in 2007, and, since 2013, by Stephen Robertson), the two centers have moved in different directions in terms of doing digital history. CHNM’s efforts have focused largely on the development of important digital software tools. CHNM’s Zotero, for example, is used to help scholars manage their research sources, while its Omeka software offers a platform for publishing online collections and exhibitions. CHNM has also established a strong and direct connection to the Digital Humanities field, especially through its THATCamps, which are participant-directed digital skills workshops and meetings.[32] On the other hand, ASHP has stayed closer to its original purpose of developing a range of well curated and pedagogically appropriate multimedia historical source materials for use by teachers and students at both the high school and college levels, intended to help them understand and learn about the past. Emblematic of ASHP’s continuing work are The Lost Museum: Exploring Antebellum American Life and Culture and HERB: Social History for Every Classroom websites as well as Mission US, an adventure-style online series of games in which younger players take on the role of young people during critical moments in US history.[33]

From ASHP to ITP and the Digital Humanities

I moved on in my own academic career after formally leaving ASHP as its executive director in 1998, though I remained actively involved in a number of ongoing ASHP digital projects. These included the development of a second WBA? CD-ROM, covering the years from 1914 to 1946, which was published in 2001 (ASHP 2001) and is still available, as well as the aforementioned 9/11 Digital Archive and the CUNY Digital History Archive. As I morphed over three decades from analog media producer, to digital media producer, to digital archivist/digital historian, I became keenly aware of the need to extend the lessons of the public and digital history movements I helped to build to my own and my graduate students’ classroom practices. That was what drove me to develop the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy (ITP) certificate program at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2002. My goal was to teach graduate students that digital tools offered real promise beyond the restricted confines of academic research in a single academic field to help us reimagine and to reshape college classrooms and the entire teaching and learning experience, as my ASHP colleagues and I began doing more than 30 years ago with the Who Built America? education program. I always tell ITP students that I take the “P” in our name (“Pedagogy”) as seriously as I take the “T” (“Technology”) as a way to indicate the centrality of teaching and learning to the way the certificate program was conceived and has operated. I have coordinated ITP for almost 15 years now and will be stepping down as coordinator at the end of the spring 2017 term. I believe that the program has contributed as much to digital pedagogy and to the Digital Humanities as anything else I’ve been involved in, not only at the CUNY Graduate Center where I have been fortunate to have labored for almost all of my academic career, but also in the City University of New York as a whole.[34] One of the ITP program’s most important and ongoing contributions to the Digital Humanities and digital pedagogy fields has been the founding in 2011 of the online Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, which is produced twice-yearly and is directed by an editorial collective of digital scholars and digital pedagogues, including faculty, graduate students, and library staff.

Working with faculty colleagues like Matt Gold, Carlos Hernandez, Kimon Keramidas, Michael Mandiberg, and Maura Smale, with many highly motivated and skilled graduate students (too numerous to name here), and committed digital administrators and leaders like Luke Waltzer, Lisa Brundage, and Boone Gorges, as well as my ongoing work with long-time ASHP colleagues and comrades Josh Brown, Pennee Bender, Andrea Ades Vasquez, and Ellen Noonan, I have been blessed with opportunities to help create a robust community of digital practice at the Graduate Center and across CUNY. This community of scholars and digital practitioners has helped develop a progressive vision of digital technology and digital pedagogy that I believe can serve as a model for Digital Humanities work in the future. Though far from where I began forty years ago as a doctoral student with an IBM 360 computer and a stack of Fortran cards, my ongoing digital work at CUNY seems to me to be the logical and appropriate culmination of a career that has spanned many identities, including as a social and labor historian, public historian, digital historian, digital producer, and, finally, as a digital pedagogue who has made what I hope has been a modest contribution to the evolution and maturation of the field of Digital Humanities.


[1] Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, traveled to New York City in 1949 and convinced IBM founder Thomas Watson to let him use IBM’s mainframe computer to generate a concordance of St. Thomas Aquinas’s writing, Busa’s life work. The best book on the key role of Father Busa is Steven E. Jones. 2016. Roberto Busa, S.J., and The Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards. New York: Routledge. Geoffrey Rockwell argues that an alternative to starting the history of DH with Busa is to look to the work of linguists who constructed word frequency counts and concordances as early as 1948 using simulations of computers (Rockwell 2007). Willard McCarty, one of the founders of humanities computing, has recently suggested that we could probably trace DH’s origins all the way back to Alan Turing’s “Machine” in the 1930s and 1940s. See McCarty, Willard. 2013. “What does Turing have to do with Busa?” Keynote for ACRH-3, Sofia Bulgaria, December 12. http://www.mccarty.org.uk/essays/McCarty,%20Turing%20and%20Busa.pdf.

[2] The origins of the TEI are described at http://www.tei-c.org/About/history.xml.

[3] See especially the following contributions on DH’s origins in Debates in the Digital Humanities: Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “What is DH and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/38; and Steven E. Jones’s “The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (as the Network Is Everting)” http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/52. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens reproduce a similar chronology of the literary origins of DH in their 2013 introduction to Literary Studies in the Digital Age (https://dlsanthology.commons.mla.org/introduction/). Willard McCarty is apparently working on his own history of literary computing from Busa to 1991. It is interesting to note, on the other hand, that Franco Moretti, a literary scholar, a key player in DH, and author of one of the field’s foundational texts, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, readily acknowledges that academic work in quantitative history (which I discuss later in this essay) helped shape his important concept of “distant reading” (Moretti 2005, 1-30). Distant reading is a fundamental DH methodology at the core of digital literary studies.

[4] I am obviously not tilling this ground alone. There are several major projects underway to dig out the origins/history of Digital Humanities. One of the most promising is the efforts of Julianne Nyhan and her colleagues at the Department of Information Studies, University College London. Their “Hidden Histories: Computing and the Humanities c.1949-1980” project is based on a series of more than 40 oral history interviews with early DH practitioners with the intention of developing a deeper historical understanding of the disciplinary and interdisciplinary starting and continuation points of DH (Nyhan, et al. 2015; Nyhan and Flinn 2016).

[5] My colleague Michael Mandiberg has astutely noted that DH has other important origins and early influences besides literary studies and history. He suggests that DH “has been retracing the steps of new media art,” evidenced by the founding of Ars Electronica in 1979. https://www.aec.at/about/en/geschichte/.

[6] One of the pioneers of this new social history methodology, the Philadelphia Social History Project, based at the University of Pennsylvania, employed early mainframe computers in the late 1970s to create relational databases of historical information about the residents of Philadelphia (Thomas 2004).

[7] Radical History Review 25 (Winter 1980-81). The RHR issue had two other co-editors: Robert Entenmann and Warren Goldstein.

[8] The Presenting the Past collection included essays by Mike Wallace, Michael Frisch, and Roy Rosenzweig analyzing how historical consciousness has been constructed by history museums and mainstream historical publications, as well as essays by Linda Shopes, James Green, and Jeremy Brecher on how local groups in Baltimore, Boston, and in Connecticut’s Brass Valley created alternative ways and formats to understand and present their community’s history of oppositional struggles.

[9] Roy founded CHNM in 1994. The center was appropriately named for him following his death in 2007.

[10] A much-expanded version of Robertson’s original blog post appeared in the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities (Gold and Klein 2016): http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/76.

[11] A useful introduction to quantification in history can be found at “What Is Quantitative History?” on the History Matters website: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/numbers/what.html. Historian Cameron Blevins also discusses the origins of quantitative history in his essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016: http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/77.

[12] Carl Bridenbaugh, a traditional historian of colonial American history, sharply attacked those who would “worship at the shrine of the Bitch goddess QUANTIFICATION” (quoted in Novick 1988, 383–84; capitalization in the original).

[13] I devoted a chapter of my dissertation to a critique of Thernstrom’s conclusions in Poverty and Progress and subsequent publications about the political impact of a large “floating proletariat” on working-class social mobility in US history, which he concluded served to undercut working-class consciousness. My dissertation argued otherwise.

[14] Thernstrom had been teaching at UCLA, where I first encountered him while working on my doctorate. He departed for Harvard in 1973 just in time for Roy Rosenzweig to become one of his doctoral students. Roy completed his dissertation in 1978 on workers in Worcester, Massachusetts, which incorporated little of Thernstrom’s quantitative methodology, but instead employed much of Herbert Gutman’s social and labor history approach. See Rosenzweig, Roy. 1985. Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

[15] Peter Passell, a Columbia economist, in a review of Time on the Cross, declared: “If a more important book about American history has been published in the last decade, I don’t know about it” (Passell 1974). The authors, Passell concluded, “have with one stroke turned around a whole field of interpretation and exposed the frailty of history done without science.”

[16] The strikes were detailed in the third and tenth printed annual reports of the US Commissioner of Labor. U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Third Annual Report. . .1887: Strikes and Lockouts (Washington D.C.: U.S. GPO, 1888); U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Tenth Annual Report. . .1894: Strikes and Lockouts (Washington D.C.: U.S. GPO, 1896).

[17] UCLA was one of the first campuses on the West Coast to develop a computer center, growing out of its early ARPANET involvement. With Stanford, UCLA had participated in the first host-to-host computer connection on ARPANET in October 1969. See http://internetstudies.ucla.edu/. I have no idea what model number of IBM 360 UCLA was using in 1975, but it may well have been the last in the line, the Model 195. See http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/mainframe/mainframe_FS360.html. See also Roy Rosenzweig’s (1998) important review essay on the history of the Internet, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet”: http://rrchnm.org/essay/wizards-bureaucrats-warriors-hackers-writing-the-history-of-the-internet/.

[18] Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan, in an essay in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, tell a similar story about the unknown female keypunch operators Father Busa employed. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/57.

[19] These included regression analyses, standard deviations, and F and T tests of variance.

[20] In a short blog post, Ramsay argued that DHers needed to “make things,” to learn how to code to really consider themselves DHers; it caused quite a flap. See Ramsay, Stephen. 2011. “Who’s In and Who’s Out.” Stephen Ramsay Blog. http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out/.

[21] The 1977 article was reprinted in Rabb, Theodore and Robert Rotbert, eds. 1981. Industrialization and Urbanization: Studies in Interdisciplinary History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press and in excerpted form in Brenner, A., B. Day and M. Ness, eds. 2009. The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. One of the deans of U.S. labor history, David Montgomery, referenced our data and article and employed a similar set of statistical measures in his important article on nineteenth-century US strikes. Montgomery, David. 1980. “Strikes in Nineteenth-Century America.” Social Science History 4: 91-93.

[22] I continued to serve as ASHP’s executive director until 1998, when my shoes were ably filled by my long-time ASHP colleague, Joshua Brown, who continues to head the project to this day. I went on to serve as a senior administrator (Associate Provost and then Vice President) at the Graduate Center until 2009, when I resumed my faculty duties there.

[23] I needed special permission from our funder, the Ford Foundation, to spend ten thousand dollars of our grant to buy four Kaypro II computers (running the CPM operating system and the Wordstar word processing program) on which the entire first volume of WBA? was produced. I keep my old Kaypro II, a 30-pound “luggable,” and a large box of 5.25” floppy computer disks to show my students what early personal computers looked and felt like. My fascination with and desire to hold on to older forms of technology (I also drive a fully restored 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme as well) apparently resonates with contemporary efforts to develop an archeology of older media formats and machines at places like the Media Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Colorado. See http://mediaarchaeologylab.com/.

[24] This decision to formally establish ASHP as part of the CUNY Graduate Center proved particularly important, given Herb Gutman’s untimely death in 1985 at age 56. ASHP became part of the Center for Media and Learning (CML) that we founded at CUNY in 1990, which has also provided the institutional home for the Graduate Center’s New Media Lab (NML), which I co-founded in 1998 and continue to co-direct. The NML operates under the aegis of the CML.

[25] I recounted Roy’s and my visit in 1989 to a Washington, DC trade show of computer-controlled training modules and programs in my tribute to him after his death in 2007. See http://thanksroy.org/items/show/501.

[26] Because the first WBA? CD-ROM was produced for earlier Mac (OS9) and PC (Windows 95) operating systems, it is no longer playable on current computer systems, yet another orphaned piece of digital technology in a rapidly evolving computing landscape.

[27] Michael Meyer, “Putting the ‘PC’ in PCs,” Newsweek (February 20, 1995): 46; Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, “U.S. History on a CD-ROM Stirs Up a Storm,” Wall Street Journal (February 10, 1995): B1-B2; and Juan Gonzalez. “Apple’s Big Byte Out of History.” New York Daily News (February 8, 1995): 10. We managed to fend off the Right-wing attack with what was then an unheard of barrage of email messages that we were able to generate from librarians and school teachers all over the world. It’s important to recall that email was still a relatively new technology in 1995 (AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe were all launched in that year). The librarians emailed Apple in droves, convincing the company that unless it kept the WBA? CD-ROM in its education packs, the librarians would be unable to recommend future purchases of Apple computers for their schools. After the appointment of a panel of unnamed educators had endorsed the value of the WBA? CD-ROM, Apple resumed distributing copies of the disk in their education bundles for another year, with the total number of distributed WBA? CD-ROMs reaching almost 100,000 copies.

[28] I appropriated the “premature” phrase and explained its historical origins in the mid-1930s fight against fascism in a footnote to my article, “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities” (Gold 2012, fn12). The standard work on digital history is Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig. 2005. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[29] Lev Manovich (2001) in The Language of New Media notes that artists began using digital technology during the 1990s to extend and enhance their work, a key moment in what he describes as “the computerization of culture” (221).

[30] It remains, to this day, in the top 15 results one gets out of the nearly 200 million results in a Google search for “September 11.”

[31] See CHNM’s Sheila Brennan and Mills Kelly’s essay on the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” on the CHNM website at http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47. The initial online iteration of the CUNY Digital History Archive can be found at http://cdha.cuny.edu/.

[32] Descriptions and details about CHNM’s various projects described here can be found at http://chnm.gmu.edu/.

[33] Descriptions and details about ASHP’s various projects described here can be found on the ASHP website: http://ashp.cuny.edu/.

[34] My contribution to the 2012 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities was an article entitled “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities,” which argued that DHers need to pay more attention to pedagogy in their work. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/8.


American Social History Project. 1990, 1992. Who Built America? Working People and Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture and Society. New York: Pantheon.

———. 1993. Who Built America: From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 (CD-ROM). Santa Monica, CA: Voyager Co.

———. 2001. Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age (CD-ROM). New York: Worth Publishers.

American Social History Project and Center for History and New Media. 1998. History Matters: The U.S. History Survey on the Web. http://historymatters.gmu.edu.

Amsden, Jon and Stephen Brier. 1977. “Coal Miners on Strike: The Transformation of Strike Demands and the Formation of a National Union.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History: 8, 583–616.

Aptheker, Herbert. 1943 (1963). American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: International Publishers.

Benson, Susan Porter, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig. 1986. Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Brier, Stephen. 1992. “‘The Most Persistent Unionists’: Class Formation and Class Conflict in the Coal Fields and the Emergence of Interracial and Interethnic Unionism, 1880 –1904.” PhD diss., UCLA.

Brier, Stephen and Joshua Brown. 2011. “The September 11 Digital Archive: Saving the Histories of September 11, 2001.” Radical History Review 111 (Fall 2011): 101-09.

Fogel, Robert William and Stanley L. Engerman. 1974. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Gold, Matthew, ed. 2012. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gold, Matthew and Lauren Klein, eds. 2016. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Graham, S., I. Milligan, and S. Weingart. 2015. “Early Emergences: Father Busa, Humanities Computing, and the Emergence of the Digital Humanities.” The Historian’s Macroscope: Big Digital History. http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=601.

Gutman, Herbert. 1975. Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hockey, Susan. 2004. “The History of Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Roy Siemens, and John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405103213/9781405103213.xml&chunk.id=ss1-2-1.

Lubar, Steven. 1992. ‘Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate’: A Cultural History of the Punch Card.” Journal of American Culture 15: 43–55.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

McCarty, Willard. 2011. “Beyond Chronology and Profession: Discovering How to Write a History of the Digital Humanities.” Willard McCarty web page. University College London. http://www.mccarty.org.uk/essays/McCarty,%20Beyond%20chronology%20and%20profession.pdf.

McGann, Jerome. 1995. “The Rationale of Hypertext.” http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/public/jjm2f/rationale.html.

Moretti, Frank. 2005. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Noiret, Serge. 2012 [2015]. “Digital History: The New Craft of (Public) Historians.” http://dph.hypotheses.org/14.

Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Nyhan, Julianne, Andrew Flinn, and Anne Welsh. 2015. “Oral History and the Hidden Histories Project: Towards Histories of Computing in the Humanities.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 30: 71-85. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dsh.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/1/71/.

Nyhan, Julianne and Andrew Flinn. 2016. Computation and the Humanities: Towards an Oral History of Digital Humanities. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Open. http://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-20170-2.

Passell, Peter. 1974. “An Economic Analysis of that Peculiarly Economic Institution.” New York Times. April 28. http://www.nytimes.com/1974/04/28/archives/an-economic-analysis-of-that-peculiarly-economic-institution-vol-ii.html.

Robertson, Stephen. 2014. “The Differences between Digital History and Digital Humanities.” Stephen Robertson’s Blog. May 23. https://drstephenrobertson.com/blog-post/the-differences-between-digital-history-and-digital-humanities/.

Rockwell, Geoffrey. 2007. “An Alternate Beginning to Humanities Computing.” Geoffrey Rockwell’s Research Blog. May 2. http://theoreti.ca/?p=1608.

Rosenzweig, Roy. 1998. “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet.” American Historical Review 103: 1530-52. http://rrchnm.org/essay/wizards-bureaucrats-warriors-hackers-writing-the-history-of-the-internet/

Shorter, Edward. 1971. The Historian and the Computer: A Practical Guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Spiro, Lisa. 2012. “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13.

Stampp, Kenneth. 1956 (1967). The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Knopf.

Thernstrom, Stephan. 1964. Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thomas. William G. II. 2004. “Computing and the Historical Imagination.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Woodward, C. Vann. 1974. “The Jolly Institution.” New York Review of Books. May 2.


The author thanks Jon Amsden, Josh Brown, Matt Gold, Steven Lubar, Michael Mandiberg, Julianne Nyhan, Stephen Robertson, and Luke Waltzer for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

About the Author

Stephen Brier is a social and labor historian and educational technologist who teaches in the PhD program in Urban Education and is the founder and coordinator of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy doctoral certificate program, both at the CUNY Graduate Center. He served for eighteen years as the founding director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and as a senior administrator for eleven years at the Graduate Center. Brier helped launch the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy in 2011 and served as a member of the journal’s editorial collective until 2017.

Other People’s Digital Tools: Adaptive Reuse, Cold War History, and the GSA’s Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website

Brian Beaton, University of Pittsburgh


This essay focuses on a property disposal website run by the General Services Administration (GSA). The website inadvertently grants intimate access to Cold War–era buildings and built environments that were previously “Off Limits” to civilians, including students and scholars of Cold War history. I begin the essay by discussing the heavy building that occurred within the mainland US during the Cold War era and explain why, in the 1990s, US policymakers suddenly came to view themselves as having too much defense-related property. I then discuss the online auction website currently used by the GSA to dispose of Cold War properties and outline the website’s key features. I also provide an example of a large military base in California that was sold through the GSA’s website and subsequently re-developed for new and unrelated purposes, a process that many architects and planners call “adaptive reuse.” In Part 2 of the essay, I explain how the GSA property disposal website can be used for teaching purposes despite its intended goal of serving private land developers. In my discussion, I borrow the term “adaptive re-use” and elaborate it into a digital humanities concept.


The Cold War era (1940s–1980s) was a time of heavy building within the mainland United States. The construction of the interstate highway system, which in part began as a civil defense scheme, fueled the rapid decentralization of American cities and mass suburbanization. Large defense contracts spawned countless new science, engineering, and manufacturing facilities dedicated to defense-related research. The US federal government also built a considerable number of military bases. From the 1940s to the 1980s, there were nearly 200 military bases constructed in the mainland US (Chambless 1998, 102). Although more commonly remembered as a geopolitical and cultural event, the Cold War was also a significant moment in the history of American architecture and infrastructure. The Cold War unfolded through built space and transformed the US landscape.

A growing fascination among US policymakers with the idea of computer-mediated warfare and the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s altered the US government’s perceived needs in terms of keeping and maintaining defense-related property.1 By the last decade of the twentieth century, the US had lost its principal geopolitical rival, and civil defense seemed on the verge of virtualization. As a result, the 1990s saw a rapid reduction in the heavy building of the Cold War era, and much of the defense-related property built during the Cold War came to be re-conceptualized as unnecessary and surplus.2 To this end, the Department of Defense began actively selling off many Cold War–era properties to private land developers, a process that continues in the present day. The developers commonly demolish the properties or adapt them for new and unrelated purposes. Every day, more Cold War sites are torn down, demolished, and then re-built and reused—sometimes leaving little to no record of their existence.

Architects and planners commonly call this type of property re-development “adaptive reuse.” Other common examples of adaptive reuse include the conversion of power plants into art galleries, factories into residential lofts, and abandoned box stores into small clinics or hospitals. The practice of adaptive reuse has gained currency in the building and planning professions for several reasons: cost and time-saving possibilities that can be gleaned (but not always) from adapting an existing site for new purposes instead of building from scratch; a growing interest in sustainable building practices that conserve land and resources by mitigating new construction; and an attraction to the distinctive challenges that many adaptive reuse projects present to builders and planners who understand themselves to be in creative, problem-solving industries (Coffey 2004, 56-7; Shipley, Utz and Parsons 2006, 505-520; Hunter 2007, 10, 13-14). Adaptive reuse has been called an “art form with a cause” (Coffey 2004, 56). The practice often has an environmental, aesthetic, and economic politics to it.

In this essay, I borrow the term “adaptive re-use” and elaborate it into a digital humanities concept. My focus here is the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website used by the General Services Administration (GSA) to sell off Cold War–era properties to private land developers. The GSA’s property disposal website allows potential buyers to browse through a wide variety of aging defense architecture. Visitors to the website can search for properties by state, property type, or region using simple dropdown menus (see Gallery 1). Visitors can also move through image galleries and obtain detailed property information.

Gallery 1. Screen captures from the GSA’s property disposal website. Accessed August 26, 2012.

Cincopa WordPress plugin

The website auctions everything from office buildings, bases, hospitals, test facilities, laboratories, garages, patrol stations, and warehouses to empty lots, silos, parking lots, and checkpoints. In doing so, the website inadvertently grants intimate access to Cold War–era buildings and built environments that were previously “Off Limits” to civilians, including students and scholars of Cold War history. For example, Figure 1 shows a former army reserve facility in suburban Cleveland that was initially built between 1958 and 1962. Vacated in 2008, the army facility was auctioned off through the GSA’s property disposal website in the spring of 2012. As is typical of the website’s design, prospective buyers were able to access a series of image galleries during the auction process in a manner that simulates a visit to the property in person.

Figure 1. Screen capture from the GSA’s property disposal website. Army reserve facility in Cleveland. Accessed August 26, 2012.

Although seemingly abandoned, the properties listed on the GSA’s property disposal website are often contested places with complicated individual histories. A good example can be found in the case of El Toro Marine Corps Base in Orange County, California. Opened in the 1940s, the federal government targeted the base for closure in the early 1990s. Local officials initially aimed to convert the base to a sizeable commercial airport. After generating considerable anti-airport activism, the project eventually unraveled when a series of ballot measures designated the land for non-aviation use.3 In 2005, a capital investment partnership led by Lennar Corporation acquired the entire El Toro lot through the GSA website with a combined winning bid of $650 million (USD). The initial redevelopment plans for the former military base included 3,500 new homes, 28,000 square meters of retail and office space, a research and development corporate office complex, a set of university branch campuses, a 45-hole private golf course, and a massive public park (Lennar Homes of California, Inc. 2005).4 As part of these re-development efforts, a San Diego recycling company contracted by Lennar and a local NGO dismantled many of the installation’s 1,200 buildings and structures—trucking the doors, floors, windows and wood to nearby Northern Mexico as part of a transnational development project (Rowe 2006).

In 2007, I went to Orange County to conduct fieldwork and to document El Toro’s disassembly (see Gallery 2). Within months of my fieldwork, most of the buildings were unrecognizable, stripped, or gone.

Gallery 2. The disassembly of El Toro Marine Base. Photographs by author.

Cincopa WordPress plugin

In the following section of this essay, I shift my attention from documenting processes of physical disassembly to thinking about digital making and re-making. Specifically, I explore how the GSA property disposal website used to sell El Toro and similar properties might be used for teaching purposes despite its intended goal of serving private land developers. My claims are the following: (1) the GSA’s property disposal website provides unique and free Cold War content; (2) it functions like an authentic, albeit buggy, beta version of a digital archive documenting Cold War–era buildings and built environments. Therefore, (3) like the very properties the GSA website features, the website itself is open to “adaptive reuse” into a more properly functioning digital archive geared toward students and scholars of Cold War history.

Adapting the GSA’s Website

Thematically, the content within the GSA’s website connects to much of the recent scholarship in Cold War studies, including work on Cold War ruins, work on Cold War geographies, work on elite, off-limits, and technical spaces, work on Cold War domestic environments, and comparative work on “imperial debris.”5 The website makes visible the physical leftovers of abstract geopolitics. Given the content of the website, my discussion here is largely aimed at instructors working in history, anthropology, and allied fields who incorporate digital humanities training into their classrooms. My larger goal, however, is to use this particular case to also expand the idea of “adaptive reuse.” To put forth a working definition: adaptive reuse involves having students assess other people’s digital tools and then work on modifying those tools into scholarly works, resources, or products. The adaptive reuse proposed here can be carried out in three separate steps.

Step 1. The first step of any adaptive reuse project should likely be assessment. The assessment process can be structured as an in-class, group activity or as an individual assignment. Assessment involves asking students to think about the following: What content or services does the digital tool in question currently provide to, or perform for, its users? What features would need to be added, modified, or removed to make the digital tool in question recognizable and functional as an academic entity? In the case of the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website, the website freely provides original content by inadvertently exhibiting some of the built spaces in which the everyday work of the Cold War happened—capturing the moment just before many of those spaces are sold, redeveloped, and possibly lost from the records. However, the designers of the GSA website organized its search features with property buyers and investors in mind, not students and scholars of Cold War history. In fact, the GSA’s website categorizes each property by its current zoning status and future possible uses (e.g. commercial, industrial, residential), not by its past uses, and certainly not by its potential academic value. Moreover, the Cold War–era properties are mixed together on the website with other surplus government real estate, like old lighthouses and post offices. There are currently no filters that allow users to view only the Cold War–era buildings and built environments. In addition, the GSA website does not currently archive its auctions. Visitors to the website can only view ongoing and upcoming auctions; they cannot access records for properties that were previously sold. These types of observations are what students might draw out during the assessment process. In this particular case, much of the content featured on the GSA’s website has obvious academic value but the design of the website makes that content difficult to use and share for academic purposes.

Step 2. The second step of this adaptive reuse project would be to have students work on adapting the digital tool in question. Depending on the technical proficiency of the students and equipment availability, students might produce mock-ups on paper, write proposals, create wireframes, or actually take up the challenge of adapting the tool for academic use. In the case of the Real Property Utilization and Disposal Website, the work required to turn the website into a functional digital archive geared toward students and scholars of Cold War history might include the following: cataloguing properties based on their past use instead of current zoning status; creating new search features predicated on scholarly terms and interests; building filters for the properties to prevent unrelated government real estate from being intermixed with the Cold War–era buildings and built environments; developing a means to archive the website’s content; developing a means to allow visitors to comment on properties or to create their own image and data galleries; making space for interpretive essays, discussion, or commentary; addressing the stewardship and preservation issues when it comes to digital content; or adding a bibliography that directly connects the website to recent scholarship in Cold War studies—to offer just a few examples.

Step 3. The third step of this particular adaptive reuse project would be to have students present their work and to reflect upon the creative challenges that are specific to adaptation. If the students produced mock-ups or proposals, they can still demonstrate technical proficiencies by addressing how those ideas might be implemented, and by discussing feasibility. If students actually took up the challenge of adapting the tool in question for academic use, the opportunity to present their adaptation(s)—be it one small component or a complete and working tool redesign—affords them the opportunity to explain their initial plans, to outline the work completed, and to generate observations about working in, through, and upon decisions and designs previously made by others. Students might also be asked to consider whether adaptive reuse has a politics to it when performed within the context of the digital humanities. Beyond the skill-building aspects of this type of assignment, might it too be an “art form with a cause” that has aesthetic, environmental, or economic stakes?


Because the purpose of the GSA’s property disposal website is to aid the US federal government in the process of auctioning off surplus properties, it is designed to suit the needs of potential property buyers. It therefore allows visitors to move through image galleries and obtain detailed property information. But the GSA website can also be re-envisioned as an incomplete digital archive, and rediscovered as a potential site for scholarly and pedagogical projects. As such, like the very properties the GSA website features, the website itself is open to adaptive reuse.

Adaptive reuse projects like the one proposed in this essay offer the potential to scaffold digital humanities training by adding new levels of challenge and practice. Given that many digital humanities projects being developed in the present day will age and thus require, over time, episodic retooling, “adaptive reuse” also has the potential to grow as a digital humanities concept from a level of practice, as described and proposed here, to a specialized area of design knowledge, skill, and expertise. Adapting other people’s digital tools can be a key part of the process of learning how to make one’s own. It might also become the very thing that helps sustain the digital humanities over time by mitigating obsolescence, conserving resources, and creating the possibility for new types of tool aesthetics, layerings, and politics.


Barboza, Tony. 2012. “Orange County’s Planned Great Park a Victim of Hard Times.” Los Angeles Times, October 27. Accessed November 1, 2012. latimes.com/news/local/la-me-great-park-20121027,0,6001604.story

Castillo, Greg. 2010. Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.  OCLC 351318481.

Chambless, Timothy M.  1998. “Pro-Defense, Pro-Growth, and Anti-Communism: Cold War Politics in the American West.” In The Cold War American West, edited by Kevin Fernlund. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. OCLC 39069512.

Coffey, Daniel P. 2004. “Adaptive Re-use.” Contract 46: 56-57. ISSN 1530-6224.

Farish, Matthew. 2010. The Contours of America’s Cold War. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC 617508692.

Gray, Chris H. 2003. “Posthuman Soldiers in Postmodern War.” Body & Society 9: 215-226. OCLC 438108206.

Hunter, Pam. 2007. “Saving Time and Money with Adaptive Re-use Projects.” Design Cost Data 51: 10, 13-14. http://www.dcd.com/insights/insights_jf_2007.html.

Kaiser, David. 2004. “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics.” American Quarterly 56: 851-888. OCLC 608755840.

Komska, Yuliya. 2011. “Ruins of the Cold War.” New German Critique 38: 155-180. OCLC 701896732.

Krasner, Leonard. 2002. Internet for Activists: A Hands-on Guide to Internet Tactics Field-tested in the Fight Against Building El Toro Airport. San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press. OCLC 53891514.

Lennar Homes of California, Inc. 2005. “Lennar and LNR Place Winning $650 Million Bid for All Four Parcels of El Toro Marine Base, California.” News Release, February 17.

Lockwood, David E. and George Siehl. 2004. Military Base Closures: A Historical Review from 1988 to 1995. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. OCLC 61151373.

———. 2008. “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America.” Cultural Anthropology 23: 361-398. OCLC 438095863.

O’Mara, Margaret Pugh. 2006. “Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War Politics, Scientific Elites, and High-Tech Spaces.” In The New Suburban History, edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 62090790.

Rowe, Jeff. 2006. “Habitat for Humanity Salvaging Building Materials at El Toro.” Orange County Register, August 10. http://www.ocregister.com/news/old-36671-habitat-buildings.html.

Shipley, Robert, Steve Utz, and Michael Parsons. 2006. “Does Adaptive Reuse Pay? A Study of the Business of Building Renovation in Ontario, Canada.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 12: 505-520. OCLC 366072723.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2008. “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruinations.” Cultural Anthropology 23: 191-219. OCLC 438095852.



About the Author

Brian Beaton is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences. His research and teaching interests include science and technology studies (STS), archives, social and cultural theory, information workplaces, design, public and applied history, scholarly communication, digital humanities, and public policy.



  1. For an overview of the interest in computer-mediated warfare among U.S. policymakers that covers key development in the 1990s see Chris Hables Gray, “Posthuman Soldiers in Postmodern War,” Body & Society 9 (2003): 215-226.
  2. For more on changing views regarding defense-related property see David E. Lockwood and George Siehl, Military Base Closures: A Historical Review from 1988 to 1995 (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2004).
  3. For an overview of the efforts to prevent El Toro from becoming a commercial airport see Leonard Krasner, Internet for Activists: A Hands-on Guide to Internet Tactics Field-tested in the Fight Against Building El Toro Airport (San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press, 2002).
  4. For a status update concerning the project see Tony Barboza, “Orange County’s Planned Great Park a Victim of Hard Times,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2012, accessed November 1, 2012. Accessed November 1, 2012. latimes.com/news/local/la-me-great-park-20121027,0,6001604.story.
  5. For recent work on Cold War ruins see Joseph Masco, “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 361-398; Yuliya Komska, “Ruins of the Cold War,” New German Critique 38 (2011): 155-180. For recent work on Cold War geographies see Matthew Farish, The Contours of the Cold War (Minneapolis, MN: 2010). On elite and technical spaces see David Kaiser, “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics,” American Quarterly 56 (2004): 851-888; Joseph Masco, Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Margaret Pugh O’Mara, “Uncovering the City in the Suburb: Cold War Politics, Scientific Elites, and High-Tech Spaces,” in The New Suburban History, eds. Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 57-79. On domestic environments see Greg Castillo, Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); For a discussion of “imperial debris” see Ann Laura Stoler, “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruinations,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (2008): 191-219.

Images are for demo purposes only and are properties of their respective owners. ROMA by ThunderThemes.net

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar