researching and teaching digital history as the art of annotation.
Homer Simpson as Historian? From Josh Smith, Annotating an Image in WPF.
As I continue to plan out this spring’s Digitizing Folk Music History course with the ace librarians, archivists, and technologists at Northwestern University’s library, I keep returning to the concept of annotation as a core concern for digital historians.
I suspect that literary scholars have done a lot of thinking about annotation, but have historians? Chauncey Monte-Sano has a good post about teaching annotation on the teachinghistory.org website. Her post is directed toward K-12 education (important!). But I think the art of annotation also has bigger implications for historical teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. So too, it proposes new modes of research, publication, and scholarly communication in the field of history.
If we broaden the term annotation to mean commentary on other objects, texts, data, and information, it becomes both practically and metaphorically the very stuff of historical interpretation. It is the assembly and analysis of artifacts, documents, media, statistics, and other kinds of evidence. It is the very glue that holds evidence and argument together in primary research. Which is to say that it is the stuff of argumentation, the art of building an interpretation out of close, creative, convincing analysis of evidence.
Annotation is not only a key to historical research; it also plays a key role in historiography. Reviews, forums, debates, discussions are, in some sense, annotations of annotations, queries and commentary about the annotative linkages between evidence and interpretation made by others.
It seems to me that annotation and the digital go well together, for the digital is geared toward enabling, representing, and capturing the flow of argument and argumentation. And annotation, at its essence, is just this flow. Therefore I would argue that the digital can take annotation places that print could not. Now, I love print, and I think it remains a unique and essential technology for historical scholarship, far better than the digital at many things. But print tends to freeze things in place (part of what makes it great). The digital seems potentially far better at allowing us to develop, track, and push forward the stream of interpretations upon interpretations, evidence upon evidence, readings upon readings of the past.
This points toward new modes of historical scholarship that the digital can add to our repertoire of analytic tools. Certainly infrastructure building is needed: we do not quite yet have the right tools, interfaces, database structures, affordances, interoperabilities, and other technical capacities to get the flow of annotation going. CommentPress and its new iterations are one starting point. Other tools are in development as well, not only for text annotation, but also for multiple modes and forms of evidence (audio, video, maps, visualizations, quantitative data, and so on). But we are not there yet (that’s okay, we’re just getting started).
I think there is an additional conversation we need to have about the relationship of annotation to tagging. How do we think through the qualitative dimensions of tagging more fully? One way would be to develop forums for comparing different historians’ decisions for tagging logics and specifications across projects. What similarities are we seeing in tagging a database of folk music festival documents and one of railroads in the nineteenth century, for instance? What differences? We need to better name, articulate, and identify the logics that guide tagging decisions. Might annotation of tags and semantic web design be one way to approach this fascinating but tricky issue?
Finally, we also need to develop new incentives and ideals of scholarly contribution. In particular I am drawn to the idea of the nanopublication currently being developed in the sciences (shout out to Claire Stewart for describing this concept to me). The nanopublication is the smallest unit of intellectual and analytic contribution to a research question. It’s easier to describe and track this kind of contribution in the sciences: a scholar might be able to connect one data point to another in a specific and easily identifiable way. In history and the humanities, the contributions are murkier, at once more individual and more collective, sometimes lining up in an orderly fashion but usually criss-crossing in a complex grid of vectors based on different assumptions, starting points, sensibilities, investments, attitudes, perceptions, and positions. Nonetheless, I think there is something to the concept of the nanopublication that aligns well with the art of annotation as historical interpretation in the digital medium.
My WordPress blog is not yet set up for you to annotate this post (!), but I welcome comments and thoughts about the concept of the art annotation as a key aspect in the development of digital history.