Writing On The Past, Literally (Actually, Virtually)

annotation as a means for getting students writing on history.

You can only bring a pencil into the archive. This used to be the way it was. Otherwise, you might damage the artifacts with pen marks, whether by accident or (for shame!) on purpose. Even if you were to enter the old-fashioned archive with just a pencil, if you started writing marginalia on documents and artifacts, you would quickly be removed from the premises. The situation changes, however, when artifacts go digital, or if they are born-digital already. Then, one can annotate what amount to surrogate digital archive versions of sources without damaging them. In this way, the virtuality of the artifacts serves, paradoxically, to enhance our material engagement with them.

Students in my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar use the tool Crocodoc to explore the possibilities of digital annotation (update: since the closing of Crocodoc’s online tool by Box, which purchased the company, we now simply use the annotation functions in Adobe Reader and Apple Preview). I have found that digital annotation is a vital way to get students more “into” history in all senses of the preposition: they get more into the documents themselves, reading them more closely; at the same time, they deepen their engagement with historical method overall, getting more “into” history as a mode of interpreting the world.

Digital annotation demystifies evidence while also enlarging awareness of its significance. Documents can be written on, even defaced. They are not sacred. At the same time, through annotation students have to use the digital to slow down, rather than speed up, the process of noticing, seeing, listening, and describing empirical data and details. They have to honor these traces of the past with more respect.

Moreover, digital annotation asks students to consider more carefully the entire process by which one moves from the evidentiary record to an interpretation of it. Students are able to probe the act of argumentation—the linking of particular details from source material to what those details mean for a larger argument or narrative about the past. Often we think of the digital as atomizing prior “analog” modes of existence, breaking up streams and flows of experience into bits and bytes of binary code; but, if handled smartly, digital annotation can also encourage the act of making contextual connections rather than isolating datum.

So in Digitizing Folk Music History, when students explore something like a magazine virtually, they start to handle it as material culture, as a holistic artifact. Within that artifact, annotation encourages students to notice linkages between, for instance, the presentation of Joan Baez in casual posture on the cover of Time magazine in 1962 as related to the representation of a woman in an advertisement within the magazine, placed, of course, on a page next to the article about Baez herself.

In this way digital annotation makes connections possible within an artifact, or across different artifacts. At the same time, it also enables better analysis, which is to say the breaking down of artifactual wholes into their component parts for inquiry. When a list of annotations are exported, they can then be reorganized and reordered in ductile ways. An output list of annotations becomes the starting point for an essay outline whose arguments remain rooted in specific details from the evidence being considered for the essay. Digital annotation helps a student begin to pivot toward interpretation without leaving the evidence behind.

Crocodoc Screenshot Baez Time 5

In another post, “What Does Digital Humanities Bring to the Table?,” I discuss how digital annotation feeds into what I call the construction of “significance tables,” or simple spreadsheets that use each column to track the movement from annotated detail to description of that detail to a crystallization of the significance of that detail for a larger argument. The key goal overall is to use technological approaches such as digital annotation to keep details from the evidence present and to document the process of contextually connecting that evidence to other datum. This helps students become better at the skill of simply noticing and scrutinizing things, listening to the traces of voices lodged in primary sources from the past. And it helps students begin to position those traces into evidence-based argumentation and interpretation that does not get detached from the historical record.

The more I have worked with students on digital annotation, the more I have been struck that the ability to notice details, describe them, and maintain the connection of our arguments to them is critical not only to the practice of history, but also of democratic deliberation. Digital technologies so often seem to degrade these processes. They detach and isolate voices. They decontextualize. They dematerialize. They dehumanize. But digital technologies, despite their evocations of virtuality and simulacra, despite the ways in which they, at first, seem to create a world in which everything is immaterial, in fact might be harnessed to improve our capacities for receiving specific evidence more openly, for noticing concrete details more accurately, and for more effectively conveying how the data all add up, quite precisely, to things that matter.

More from Digitizing Folk Music History 2014 Edition and Digitizing Folk Music History seminar in general.

More on the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project.

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