Let’s Put on a Show

The “History” of an Early Digital Humanities Project

April 16, 2014

I am hardly an expert in the digital humanities, although I was the director of a fairly early example of the projects that characterized the field during the first phase of the movement, when content tended to trump technology and many of us had romantic and ultimately naïve notions of what it meant to “democratize” history, in the words of Ed Ayers, the developer of the iconic The Valley of the Shadow.

In 1999, the year I started the Children in Urban America Project, Ayers published a kind of status report of the emerging field of digital history (you can see it at http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html).

Not surprisingly, Ed was ahead of the curve, and his analysis and predictions about the potential of digital humanities are useful for understanding their evolution since then.

My own small experience in the field provides a snapshot of one part of its history.

Fifteen years ago I began the Children in Urban America Project, an on-line archive of several thousand documents and images on the history of children and youth in Milwaukee from 1850 to 2000. Funded mainly by a $176,000 National Education Project grant from the NEH, CUAP was inspired by The Valley of the Shadow, everybody’s favorite online archive at the time.

Over the next four years, twenty eight graduate students (and a handful of undergrads) and a revolving door of six computer and media consultants (none of whom had really ever worked on such a project) digitized newspaper articles, memoirs, public documents, oral histories, and countless other genres of documents that we organized into the categories of Work, Play, Schooling, and Health and Welfare, with another self-explanatory section called “Through Children’s Eyes.”

The work was intense, but fun, with most of the grunt work performed during the summers when upwards of a dozen students would sign on to the project.

A decade-and-a-half is a long time in anyone’s life but in the digital humanities it’s several generations. I’m pretty sure I never referred to the site as “digital humanities” when we were building it.

I still use the site in my Childhood in America class and the facets of the project that I particularly liked in 2002, are still my favorites: the many examples we were able to obtain of the points of view of children and youth, access to a series of original paintings of children and the local urban landscape by a local artist named David Lenz, and the still-useful “Special Topics” that provide brief histories of topics ranging from newsboys  and the Boys’ Club to a socialist newspaper for youth and a 1960s “freedom school” to polio and Milwaukee’s famous “Summerfest” music festival. CUAP, if I do say so myself, is still a nice piece of work.

But boy is it old-fashioned. There are no interactive maps or timelines, no data mining or textual analysis, no pop-ups providing textual or graphic contexts, no multi-media or 3-D recreations of historic sites. It consists of a very attractive logo (a kite flying over a pastel cityscape), a few pictures, and about 5400 documents that are easily searchable and easy to use, but static, unchanging—a straightforward digital library. But nothing more.

I rediscovered the NEH panel’s evaluations while cleaning out my office the other day, and although the members of the panel were quite impressed with the project, several, almost as an afterthought, suggested that we hadn’t worked out the technical aspects with the same amount of diligence as the content.

In a hand-written note below his typed comments, one panelist said point-blank, “My concern is that the project would give more thought to exactly how (technically) the translation of the idea into a website will be made.” Yet the panelist gave us an “E” for excellent and the NEH starting writing checks.

Our application would have been laughed out of the meeting rooms in the Old Post Office building in Washington, because we were truly clueless. We had an idea of what we wanted the finished product to look like and how it should function, but my university had few resources—human or technological—to help with a major project like this.

I found an ally in an adjunct professor of journalism who was developing software that would allow the student newspaper to load articles onto its website.

Although it seemed pretty amateurish, everything went fine at first, and we managed to get much of the site loaded and nearly usable—until the software began to erode and the server we shared with the school newspaper deteriorated.

After a year in which nothing could be loaded and the site was unavailable, I was able to revise the grant budget to include the purchase of software for the newspaper that would allow the “lost” material to be migrated to the new server.  The transfer went well, and a few years later, when Marquette changed the data management system for its entire website, IT took over the maintenance of CUAP, and it has been safely stable ever since.

I’m not certain of the moral of this fable, but it does represent a certain mindset from the “early days,” before the rapid development of hard and software have raised the stakes, the costs, and the benefits of digital humanities projects. The explosion of interdisciplinary enterprises, digital applications, and grant opportunities make our little efforts in the early 2000s seem almost innocent in their wide-eyed optimism.

It was a little like the old movies from the 1940s when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland could help solve problems by simply shouting “Let’s put on a show!” and making the barn into a stage.

It was fun, and it led to the creation of some still useful resources, but it was just the first step in this increasingly prominent part of our profession.

James Marten is Professor and Chair in the Department of History at Marquette University; President of the Society for the History of Children and Youth; and past President of the Society of Civil War Historians. 

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