This Week in Digital Humanities and Pedagogy

Each week, a member of the JITP Editorial Collective assembles and shares the news items, ongoing discussions, and upcoming events of interest to us (and hopefully you). This week’s installment is edited by Leila Walker.

A Message in a Bottle

Last month, a German fisherman found a message in a bottle that had floated in the Baltic for 101 years. The postcard, written by Richard Platz and thrown into the sea in a brown beer bottle in 1913, will be on display at the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg until May 1. But what did Platz’s message say? News reports focused on the emotional response of Platz’s granddaughter, Angela Erdmann, who never met her grandfather, and on the handwriting analysis that confirmed the author’s identity. But “much of the ink on the postcard had been rendered illegible with time and dampness,” and so the content of the message itself is brushed aside in favor of the larger story of its physical recovery.

What is the relationship between physical recovery and content retrieval in archival research? Thomas De Quincey famously compared human memory to the palimpsest, an ancient manuscript on which text had been written, erased, and written over as the expensive material was passed down and reused through generations. In De Quincey’s time, recent technological advances allowed scientists to recover the layers of text that had been erased but never entirely obliterated (a situation all too familiar in this digital age). The palimpsest embodies two different historical narratives relevant to us as we navigate digital and analog archives: the information recorded and resurrected on the palimpsest’s surface tells one story, while the palimpsest’s journey as a material object physically handled by succeeding generations tells another. For De Quincey, the true astonishment of the palimpsest “lay in the resurrection itself, and the possibility of resurrection, for what had so long slept in the dust.” De Quincey was less interested in the material history of the palimpsest than in the technological advances that allowed access to its obscured contents.

I have been interested lately in the interplay between these histories, between the accessibility of information and the accessibility of information’s material history (and the material history of information’s absence), especially as we consider the digitization of physical archives. How can we retain the mystery of the physical object, the story told by its inaccessibility, as we reveal its contents to the digital world? At a recent talk at NYU, Molly O’Hagan Hardy illuminated some of the challenges involved in translating the layers of research and self-correction performed by early bibliographers into a digital catalogue for the American Antiquarian Society. For example, the physical cards providing information on early American printers (a labor of love by a now long dead librarian) included a handful of white cards in a sea of salmon. While each salmon card provided information on a single printer, the white cards, filed at the beginning of the B’s, listed the names of Black American printers. The existence of these idiosyncratic cards led Hardy on a research project that revealed their origin in a long-ago query: a researcher seeking information on Black American printers was informed that the records were organized only for searches by name, not by race or ethnicity. The researcher’s reply—a list of names of Black American printers—became a part of the archive that marked an absence even as it corrected it. When these records were digitized, metadata fields for the printer’s race or ethnicity derived from these cards obviated the need for the cards’ incorporation into the database as distinct entries. Correcting the archive in its digital form erased the history of what made the corrections necessary in the physical archive. How, I wondered, can we mark past absences in information architecture when calling attention to those absences prompts a restructuring that erases absence? The serendipity of the physical archive led to Hagan’s discovery of those idiosyncratic cards and their history, much as serendipity led to the recovery of Platz’s bottle and as material and economic realities led to the accidental retention on palimpsests of texts that would otherwise have been lost to the vagaries of historical interest. How, I wonder, can we use digital tools to create opportunities for a kind of archival serendipity that seems so firmly rooted in the physical?

The question of facilitating chance encounters in the archive is—and should be—of central concern as feminists and people of color struggle toavoid erasure” in the archive. Alan Liu, in his keynote at the Texas Digital Humanities Conference last week (see Adeline Koh’s storyfied tweets), suggested emphasizing “the language of ‘discovery,’” which “can include invention alongside remembering the past.” Of equal importance must be the issue of facilitating serendipitous discoveries through accessible design in our data, our databases, our archives, and our classrooms. These concerns are linked: what histories we access and how we access them. Tweeps writing from last week’s Accessible Future workshop at Emory brainstormed ways to make our digital projects more accessible through accessibility plugins and closed captioning as they discussed ways to “broaden our understanding of the ways in which people use digital resources” while we create and preserve digital information and archives. “Disability concerns are everyone’s concerns,” as Sara Hendren has argued, and by attending to the diverse ways that we encounter archives we are likely to encounter new challenges and innovative approaches that transform both the content and the structure of the historical archive.

Upcoming and Ongoing Events and Deadlines

Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting than Bronze
Through April 25, 2015
The Grolier Club

The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Personal Computing
Through July 19, 2015
Bard Graduate Center Gallery

Feminist Pedagogy Conference 2015: Transformations
April 17, 2015
City University of New York Graduate Center

Our Memories Are Cut and Paste: QTPOC Zinesters Speak
April 25, 2015
Brooklyn Museum

Technologies of Memory: Digitization and the Future of the Nineteenth Century
May 5, 2015
New York University

Digital Diversity 2015: Writing | Feminism | Culture
May 7-9, 2015
Edmonton, Canada

Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Issue 8
Submission deadline May 15, 2015

Culture & Technology: European Summer University in Digital Humanities
July 28-August 7, 2015
Application deadline May 31, 2015
University of Leipzig

Peripheries, Barriers, Hierarchies: Rethinking Access, Inclusivity, and Infrastructure in Global DH Practice
September 25-26, 2015
Proposal deadline June 1, 2015
University of Kansas

Network Detroit: Digital Humanities Theory and Practice
September 25, 2015
Proposal deadline June 1, 2015
Detroit, MI

Society for Disability Studies Annual Conference
June 10-13, 2015
Atlanta, GA

HILT 2015 (Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching)
July 27-31, 2015
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

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