Week 6: Digital Collections and Digital Preservation

This week’s readings focused on efforts to preserve and collect the past online, and assessments of those efforts. As the readings make clear, digitization of primary sources–and creation of new ones in the digital medium–has been one of the main ways that digital technology has affected history research. As Alison Babeu’s Rome Wasn’t Digitized in a Day noted (and I alluded to in my Week 3 post), thus far it seems many have simply incorporated the ability to search and find documents into their already-established techniques for dealing with “analog” documents. But these articles also allude to other ways that scholars can more specifically use the power of computing in exciting ways, to mine these primary sources. Babeu, in particular, gives an excellent analysis of the challenges and accomplishments of digital technology for the classics.

Another major focus of the readings–and what I found most interesting–was what it takes to build such online archives. While I knew that building online archives was complicated, I didn’t realize just how much so until these readings–and indeed, I gained a new appreciation for the complexity. This applies both to digitization of extant texts, and online collecting efforts. T. Mills Kelly and Sheila Brennan discuss difficulties–such as soliciting contributions–in creating the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, and suggest that creating an online archive for even major events like the 2005 hurricanes is more difficult than they anticipated. It makes me feel better that some of my work’s online solicitations of material–about things nowhere near as significant as the hurricanes–have not worked so well! This article and Dan Cohen’s comparison of collecting efforts after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks of September 11, 2001 also showed the importance of leaping into action to collect right after major events, and indeed of having an infrastructure in place.

One question I wonder, though: in this age of social media, might it be easier to get people to share for a project like the HDMB? Might it be easier now than even 6 years ago? Or might there be a barrier for many people in sharing for an archive versus on a largely public forum like Facebook or a completely public (and now even archived!) forum like Twitter?

All in all, this week’s readings gave me a greater appreciation of efforts to collect and preserve the past online. With the increased research power that digital technology provides comes increased effort to get extant material online, to collect new material online, and to preserve what is already online. Kudos to those making these efforts!

The Deerfield Raid, in Multiple Forms

I looked forward to this week’s reading, about creating the websiteRaid on Deerfield: the Many Stories of 1704,” because it connected the strands of my career to-date in academic, digital, and public history.

When I took David Silverman’s Colonial North America seminar (syllabus in Microsoft Word format) in spring 2005, we read a scholarly monograph on the same subject: Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney‘s masterful Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield. As I read the article and explored the website, I thought back to that book and the resultant class discussion, particularly what the differences in format say about history in digital versus book form.

One of the similarities that struck me was the quest of Haefeli and Sweeney–both involved in producing the website–and the creators of the website to tell the story from multiple perspectives. This reflects a positive trend in recent historiography on Colonial North America. Richard Melvoin followed a similar path in his 1992 New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield, which differed from traditional New England town studies in that it begins with a Native American settlement, then the succeeding English settlement.

The website and Captors and Captives, due to their technology, approach this quest for multiple perspectives in different ways. The book follows a more traditional narrative strategy. With chapters on New England towns, New France, mission Indians, and independent Indians between New France and New England, it brings the reader to the time of the raid by discussing the development of the societies that clashed on that fateful day in February 1704. Then it interweaves the stories of the multiple groups into a cohesive narrative of the leadup to the raid, the raid itself, and its aftermath.

The website, meanwhile, allows visitors to explore the different perspectives separately. Instead of the multiple perspectives being narrated together, as in the book, the site provides the multiple perspectives through tabs, combined with an overview of each vignette.

Each approach, besides being suited for its technology, offers certain advantages and disadvantages instructive for any public digital history project.

The separation of the perspectives in the website can be both an advantage and a handicap. An advantage, in that each site visitor can more thoroughly “immerse” himself or herself in each side of the story. Indeed, one could follow the entire story from one perspective, then shift over to another perspective.

Or the person could follow the story from just one perspective–and leave it at that. As we discussed in class recently, such a layout makes it easier both to present and ignore multiple perspectives. When a visitor videotaping my history talk at the Alamo wanted to ignore the Mexican government side of my interwoven narrative, he had to make the effort to turn off the camera. Presumably his video appeared choppy.

A visitor to the “Raid on Deerfield” website does not need to make such an effort to ignore the other perspectives presented, whereas a reader of the book would have to make an effort similar to Jefferson’s with the Bible to do the same.

These caveats not meant to disparage the effort made on the website. They should only serve to remind us of an issue that we as digital historians should address; that said, we may just need to “let go” and allow visitors to do what they will with the content we put out there.

Thus, I concur with my classmate and fellow public historian Chris that “Raid on Deerfield” is what digital public history should be. As he notes, the website erases some of the issues that we public historians face with limited space for exhibitions: the Web allows us to go in-depth, as we would in a book, while presenting the story graphically and in digestible chunks, as we would in an exhibition. Rather than the “taste” that history exhibitions are supposed to provide (hoping visitors will then go buy the book in the gift shop), the website allows both for tastes and for in-depth looking.

The website also brings this story to many more people. The book, while widely available, has presumably not reached a large audience. It is not available online through the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–creator of the website–nor Historic Deerfield (although a companion book is), and it ranks number 896,523 on Amazon.com. I was unable to find visitation numbers for the website, but I think I’m safe in assuming many more people have seen it than have read the book. Even if visitors to the website chose to ignore other perspectives, they were at least presented with them–and with a memorable, educational, generally neat website, at that.

Virginia: Farming only since 1614?

The other night on my way to class, I found myself behind a truck with one of Virginia’s many custom license plates. But this one’s tagline intrigued me: “Farming since 1614.” As the pickup and I crawled down Lee Highway, I started to wonder, “Why 1614?”–particularly in light of Jamestown’s founding seven years before.

As it turns out, the Commonwealth chose 1614 because that was the date Virginia colonists first exported tobacco across the Atlantic. Being that Virginia’s economy depended upon the export of tobacco throughout the colonial period, I suppose I could see that logic.

But it still begs the question. Surely the Jamestown colonists at least practiced some subsistence agriculture before that time? Indeed they did–but even if they hadn’t, where would they have gotten their food?

Oh yes. From the Powhatans. Where did the Powhatans get that food? They farmed.

And there I exposed my Eurocentric bias. Virginia has not only been farming since 1614. In fact, agriculture in the present-day state goes back at least four or five centuries further.

While I’m in favor of the cause the license plate fees support–the Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation–I’m not such a fan of the plate’s message. It promotes the idea that Europeans brought civilization, including advanced arts like agriculture, to this continent. More importantly, it perpetuates the myth that Native Americans were uncivilized and not making full use of the land–the same myth European colonists would tell themselves after walking through miles of cornfields.

The Commonwealth should not be perpetuating such myths through its license plates. Many more people will see that license plate than, say, this blog post (not that exceeding my numbers would be difficult), or works about Native American agriculture.

As such, the Commonwealth should teach a lesson, and in the process boost state pride. How about a new message: “Farming for 1000 years”?