from platform as presentation to platform as research workshop (as presentation).
I’ve been thinking a lot about and tinkering with the emerging platforms for digital humanities publication such as Omeka and Scalar. They are marvelous and promising platforms for presentation, but what worries me is that they are imagining digital humanities projects as, in the end, simply new forms of the book, article, or exhibition.
This seems like only part of what the digital can do. The fact that these platforms are in the end modes of traditional publication in disguise speaks directly to the persistence of picturing scholarship as unidirectional soloing rather than cooperative, ensemble work that mingles individuality with communal knowledge investigation. I suspect as well that the platforms reveal how, despite the best efforts to begin to change them, there is still far to go in rethinking policies about promotion and advancement in academia.
From what I can tell, the missing piece in Omeka and Scalar is the design of a digital platform and interface that imagines the digital environment as a research workshop rather than a presentation, publication, or curation. Better said, what a new software platform and interface might do is foreground more emphatically the new possibilities of the research workshop as presentation, publication, and curation.
This is particularly a concern when it comes to archivally-driven research (though it is relevant to other bodies of evidence as well). The questions is this: what could a digital “publication” look like if it were imagined as a research workshop? Or another way of putting it is: what would a digital humanities laboratory look like online?
With the Making History in a Virtual Archive, what I’m starting to imagine is the digital research workshop as the central element. In place of presentation and passive reception the goal is a platform for more active use of archival materials. In this case, these archival materials relate to vernacular music and the folk revival, but the notion of designing a successful digital research workshop is relevant for any collection or body of digitized materials.
A digital research workshop might involve the following two elements as central design and development goals and challenges: (1) annotation; and (2) arrangement.
- (1) Annotation. What kinds of digital tools and interfaces would allow users to annotate digital repository objects effectively, to collate and rearrange annotations, to layer annotations upon annotations of their own and others. The key here indeed might be “layers.” I am thinking of something along the lines of “layers” in Photoshop: the ability to pile on or pull off multiple levels of annotations from an archival object, to search across annotations to combine them into new layers, and to pull out annotations to begin to assemble interpretation. Something like this:
Annotation layers: a sketch.
- (2) Arrangement. Arrangement (really rearrangement) pushes more intensely at the use of archival objects to develop historical interpretation. The idea here is to create a platform for the manipulation of archival objects—not manipulation in the negative sense (airbrushing out Stalin’s enemies from a photo kind of thing)—but rather the idea of “touching” primary sources (and even secondary sources) to generate new ways of looking at evidence from the past. This is something like Stephen Ramsey‘s idea of “deformative readings” in literature, but here applied in revised form to historical evidence. It’s thinking of the historian as remix artist, developing collages, rearrangements, reconfigurations of primary sources (remember not as final product but as process) in the search for newer and truer meanings of the past. The challenge here would be to develop tools, interface, and design framework for the ability to do this around digital repository objects (without losing the “original” of course) and to sustain an open source community for inventing (rearranging?) new tools of arrangement.
With both annotation (and re-annotation) and arrangement (and rearrangement at the center of a DH research workshop platform, the boundaries between archive, research workshop, presentation/publication/exhibition, and scholarly communication begins to get reconfigured through the digital.
As I final note, I should say that this turn toward digital research workshop as the center of a digital humanities platform came to me from the topic of my own DH research on mid-twentieth-century United States folk revival festivals and vernacular music. Despite its many problems and issues (and there were many), one of the most intriguing ideas of the folk revival was to place process front and center rather than product. Folk festivals held workshops in which individual performers and their audiences interacted in ways that, while still privileging the performer, became more about the shared experience of exploring folk traditions and updating them in new ways. They were less about putting on “a show” (a presentation, publication, or curation) than exploring the process that went into a show. Better said, the show of a folk festival workshop was the process of showing folk music creation.
With the festival workshop, you had meta-musical performance as the musical performance. The workshop became a way of keeping things vernacular, of getting to the democratic levels of cultural exchange and history making—the hand-to-hand and face-to-face and human-to-human levels—that showbiz and commodification and professionalization (and the digital?) always threaten to erase even as they sustain something like vernacular culture, folk music, and intellectual engagement with humanities topics.