Research Guides–No Longer a Job for Librarians Only

[Today’s post is a guest post by Maureen Tannetta. She graduated with a Masters in Library Science from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Library Information Sciences.  She writes regularly for School Library Monthly and served on the board of the Massachusetts School Library Association in 2011-12.  She currently is researching public policy histories using digital humanities within the public history program at Northeastern University.]

The world of research guides was formerly the turf of librarians.  Often called “libguides,” these electronic pages organize the latest authoritative resources on just about any topic in neatly stacked hyperlinked webpages.   More and more, libguides or research guides are authored by experts in their own field using Springshare accounts and then posted in any number of academic and public forums.   As a librarian, I say it is about time that the work of sharing resources is now. . . well shared.  No longer do librarians have to fain the perception that they are know- it-alls—though some probably wish that perception could remain.  Below is a short list of research guides for Digital Humanities which I have evaluated.    Some were created by librarians, but not all.  Those in the field of Digital Humanities can probably list and evaluate others and I encourage that!



Have no doubt, a librarian can sometimes be a good thing when creating a libguide, if the individual is an expert in the particular field as is the case in this research guide by a Rutger’s digital humanities librarian.  Rutger’s Krista White has created “a resource guide for learning about and starting projects in the Digital Humanities.”  The site invites those facing learning curves in the field of digital humanities to use her guide to get over them.  White’s guide even serves as a sort of newsletter for digital humanities, featuring links to the movers in the field such as Michael Edson, the Smithsonian Institute’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy.



This guide to digital humanities was created by a graduate student, Rhiannon Sorrell in a graduate English studies program at the University of Rhode Island.  It has a very comprehensive guide for listings of DH initiatives.  Under her tab “digital collections and projects” there are three sensible categories: online collections, international initiatives and projects and archives.”    Sorrell also did her homework  under her “blogs and centers” tab, collecting links to blogs written by both DH scholars and major non-profits.  Clearly the research guide has not had a lot of activity being a school project for a 2012 class, but practicing DH scholars referencing or incorporating the work into a research guide, will find Sorell has provided lots of legwork.



The Harvard University Digital Humanities Café was created in “response to graduate student’s increasing interest in exploring the field.”  This is an example of what happens when a research guide is restricted to a librarian’s realm without proper recognition that they have too many other duties.  The site has older links and hasn’t been updated.  It references a link for contributions called Perspectives, but it’s buried.  



The Duke University DH guide is fairly basic with links to digital humanities initiatives notably limited to projects at ivy league institutions, but I did like the link DH Chronology tab which features a digital humanities timeline put together by John Unsworth, the new Head of Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University.  Check out the Brandeis “libguides” or research guides.  Unsworth has it right by setting up an interface that allows scholars in the field to work on their own resource guides in all subjects from hard sciences to humanities fields, though they have no guide yet specifically for DH.  Ironically, Unsworth is the former Dean of Library Information and Sciences at the top rate University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign program, but clearly he is an advocate for having experts in the field create these research guides alongside or in place of librarians.


Williams, DH, and Open Access

This post is an overview of and response to George H. Williams’ “ Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” article from Debates in the Digital (2012).  Out of all the readings required and suggested for this week, George H. Williams’ article brought up some of the most interesting issues regarding specific digital projects, Digital Humanities as a field, and the Humanities in general. Williams states pretty bluntly to the reader that the Digital Humanities and digital projects have not done enough to ensure their work is presentable and accessible to users, particularly those with disabilities. Whereas education technology and commercial web design have been far more proactive at accommodating their platforms, web sites, and tools to suit alternative sensory needs, DH projects have ignored this aspect in design and operation. In fact, digital projects and tools have frequently, by their very design, prevented people from using digital sources altogether. Instead, George H. Williams calls for digital humanists and those creating digital projects and tools to approach their design and operation using principles of universal design. DH must approach their projects from the assumption that they will make their material available and accessible to the broadest range of users.

The first main issue brought up with this call to action lies in the definition of universal design. Williams makes the point that “universal design” is entirely different from merely making a project accessible. Certainly a project constructed with the goal of universal design will, by definition, be more accessible. However, universal design represents much more than just eventual accessibility. The difference between “accessibility” and “universal design,” according to Williams, lies in the conception of the project from the beginning stages. Whereas accessibility approaches design and operation as specifically geared towards disabled users, consequently limiting its functionality for non-disabled users, universal design conceives the project as an attempt to make it as useable and available to the widest variety of users. Williams cites Ronald Mace, who describes universal design as describing “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (qtd. 204 DDH).  Universal design, according to Williams not only considers the physical or socioeconomic limitations of the user, but also the limitations of the devices from which the users are trying to access the project. Many projects only conceive of their users as accessing their projects from laptops or desktops, when this limits the access of tablet and mobile devices users.

But why should digital projects feel obligation to conceive their design and operation with the goal of universal design in mind? When I first started reading this article, I immediately thought, “Why should digital humanist and projects be held to a higher standard than traditional humanists?” Taken simply, if one equates the digital project to a traditional scholarly monograph, why should the digital project be required to be accessible to disabled users when so few scholarly monographs are? What about audiobooks, one might ask? Do they not make books accessible to blind people? Yes they do, but very few books actually provide audio editions or are available as audio books. I did a quick Google search asking what percentage of books has a companion audio book. A WikiAnswers query came up ( which revealed that according to the 2009 edition of the Library Book Trade Almanac, in 2007 of the over 185,000 books published only approximately 4.3% were available in an audiobook format. Furthermore, a significant number of these audiobooks were for works of fiction. If scholarly monographs are not held to the standard of universal design, why should digital humanists?

I think there are two portions of Williams’ argument that specifically address this question. The first is logistical, based on legal issues, whereas the second concerns a more with an aspect of Digital Humanities as a field we have explored throughout the semester. The first response is pretty straightforward. In the United States, and many other countries, there are laws that require projects receiving government funding to ensure that disabled users have access to the material. While not all digital projects receive government funding, many of them do. And even though, according to Williams, these laws have not been strictly enforced concerning the acceptance and operation of federal funding for digital projects, not designing a digital project in a way that accessible to those with disabilities does open one up for legal recourse according to the letter of the laws. Therefore, Williams states we must get ahead of the curve and design projects that are accessible to avoid legal action or prevent our projects from being denied federal funding should a time come where they decide to enforce these disability laws.

Whereas this aspect is more preventative, I think the most compelling argument for digital humanists to design projects with universal design in mind deals with DH as a field and their embracing of “Open Access” as instrumental in the operation and ethos of Digital Humanities as a field. If DH stresses their acceptance of Open Access, does limiting the availability of their material by the very design of the project seem hypocritical? Shouldn’t open access imply availability to all—not just the average seeing and hearing desktop or laptop user? This is the question that convinced me that digital humanists must try to approach projects from the perspective of universal design. True “open access” must consider accessibility for both those with disabilities and those who use alternative devices to view digital material than a personal computer. So should digital humanists be held to a higher standard than traditional humanists? I think they should as long as Open Access remains one of their most vociferous rallying calls.


Northeastern University’s 2013 Annual Graduate History Conference a Success

Northeastern’s 2013 Annual Graduate History Conference, held on the March 16 and 17, 2013, was a success due to a collaborative effort by history graduate students and faculty, led by Sana Tannoury Karam.  The conference, entitled “Migration, Mobility, and Movements: Crossing Borders in World History” hosted 12 panels, ranging from “Using Digital Tools in Graduate History Research” to “Refugees and Rebels: Activism Across Borders”.   Papers addressed topics such as the role of the Estonian singing tradition in ending communism, the meaning of ‘home’ to second and third generation Japanese Brazilians, and spatial representations of Muslim community centers in the contemporary urban West.  Presenters traveled domestically, including from states such as Florida, Arizona, and New York, and internationally, from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan, to attend.

The conference’s Keynote speaker, Dr. Donna Gabaccia, is the Rudolph J. Veccoli Chair of Immigration History and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.  Her research focuses on international migration studies, United States immigration and labor history, comparative women and gender studies, and world history.  In Dr. Gabaccia’s speech, she described the historiography of her field of immigration studies and the way in which her understanding of immigration gradually led her to the study the “mobility” in world history.

The 2013 Northeastern University Graduate History Conference has built upon years of knowledge drawn from past graduate conferences.  Its continued success is a result of the culmination of the experience derived from prior conferences and the competent and gracious cooperation of the History Department’s faculty, staff, and graduate students at Northeastern University.  We look forward to seeing how the 2014 Annual Graduate History Conference will continue the legacy of providing an environment conducive to sharing and refining graduate student research.Image

International Women’s Day and Female Liberation

The celebration of the International Women’s Day evolves around women’s economic, political, cultural and social accomplishments. In fact, the first National Woman’s Day was designated by the Socialist Party of America in 1908. It honored the rights of the female garment workers who went to protest in NYC against unequal pay, inability to vote and child labor.[1] That particular strike inspired and mobilized other women of the socialist movements throughout Europe and Russia against injustices in the early 1900s, including the women’s liberation campaign in Uzbekistan in the 1920s.

“Take off your (black pall, your coverall), open your face, be beautiful for all! Split and crush your chains to pieces, get rid of them, be free,”[2] proclaimed the poet Hamza Niyazi in his poem To Uzbek Women, dedicated to the campaign of unveiling in Uzbekistan.

The heavy head-to-toe veil of horsehair and cotton was a mandatory requisite for all Uzbek women and girls over the age of ten. The Bolshevik government viewed burqa as a symbol of patriarchal oppression, ignorance, and degradation. Therefore, the success of hujum had ideological implications. The Bolshevik strategy shifted from a real proletariat to “a surrogate for it.”[3] The aim was to transform Central Asia into a socialist society by utilizing women as tools of their agency. Undoubtedly, the economic factor played a critical role in women’s involvement into socialized production. The unveiling campaign, hujum, defined as an “assault against the moldy old ways” of a female seclusion and inequality [4] was inspired by such prominent Marxist feminists as Nadezhda Krupskaya (the wife of Vladimir Lenin) and Clara Zetkin under the initiative of the Communist Party’s Woman’s section, Jenotdel.

On March 8th, 1927, thousands of women gathered together throughout the region to publicly cast their veils into a celebratory bonfire. The outcome of the campaign was overwhelming; thousands of women that day burned their burqas and marched around the city proclaiming new freedom. Hujum sparked a twofold reaction in the society. Many unveiled women were murdered or stoned either by their own relatives or the Muslim radicals. Other women continued to veil to demonstrate the resistance against the Soviet ideology. The initial execution of Hujum intended to last six months yet the campaign of unveiling stretched by the end of World War II.

8th of March 1927

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the courage and perseverance of the ordinary women who played a transformative role in the history of their communities. In the context of early women’s socialist movements, International Women’s Day provides a new perspective of women’s ability to network and mobilize. This day serves as a reminder that progress in realizing women’s rights is yet to be made.

Photo credit: Great Soviet encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

[1] “Why Women’s Day.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2013.

[2] Bilʹshaĭ, V. L. 1957. The status of women in the Soviet Union. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House. 189.

[3] Masselll, G. J. 1974. The surrogate proletariat: Moslem women and revolutionary strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919-1929. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. 93

[4] Northrop, D. T. 2004. Veiled empire: Gender & power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 12.

DH vs. DLA

I am writing this post in reference to an article referenced in DHnow’s editor’s choice section. It refers to Rafael Alvarado’s post entitled “Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts.” In this article Alvarado responds to William Pannapacker’s February 18th article from The Chronicle entitled “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities.’” In this post I hope to summarize some of Pannapacker’s argument, reference some of the more intriguing responses made to his article on The Chronicle website and by Alvarado, then provide some of my own thoughts on this issue.

Pannapacker’s article relates a popular conundrum surrounding digital humanities and Dhers: ”A persistent criticism of the digital-humanities movement is that it is elitist and exclusive because it requires the resources of a major university (faculty, infrastructure, money), and is thus more suited to campuses with a research focus.”[1] This research focus seems to discourage smaller liberal arts (more teaching-focused) colleges from pursuing the digital humanities. I had never thought of this before, but it seems about right, at least from my experience. I attended a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree and it was not until I arrived at Northeastern that I even heard the term. This might have been my own fault for being an oblivious undergraduate student, but even if my school engaged in DH projects, they were certainly not well organized. Pannapacker views this as a problem since liberal arts colleges might be more suited to utilize and experiment with new pedagogical approaches and research projects in the digital humanities than the more research-driven universities.

Pannapacker outlines nine suggestions to help liberal arts colleges to become active participants in the DH community. Most of his suggestions have to do with faculty members interested in DH being proactive about informing other faculty members, working with the administration, building internal DH communities, encouraging faculty-student collaborative projects, and becoming involved in practical guidance to undergraduate students seeking work outside of academia. These suggestions seem pretty straight forward, but there are two in particular that I feel require more attention and analysis. First, Pannapacker recommends liberal arts professors to “seek external partnerships.” One of the key roadblocks to DH in small liberal arts colleges is the lack of sufficient institutional financial support available to them. However, this is surmountable through cross-institutional collaborative work. A project might be more conceivable if it can receive financial support from three small liberal arts colleges whose professors are working on it than if the project is conceived and attempted “in house.”

Pannapacker’s “controversial” suggestion lies in his call to, “stop calling it ‘digital humanities.’ Or worse, ‘DH,’ with a knowing air.”[2] This returns to the issue of perceived exclusivity in digital humanities. But it goes even further than issues of institutional support and acceptance. It concerns the scope of “DH”—to use the term we know for now—and its projects. Digital Humanities have for quite some time stressed DH’s interdisciplinary nature. But, does the name “digital humanities,” necessarily—or if not necessarily, than perhaps de facto—exclude academics who are not involved in humanities disciplines? Pannapacker believes this is the case, and despite the “brand visibility” of the term, he feels in order to more accurately reflect the field, encourage more interdisciplinary support, and enable the participation of liberal arts colleges, the term “Digital Liberal Arts,” or DLA, is a much more appropriate term.  DLA not only covers a much broader array of academic disciplines than DH, but it also provides equal weight to the research and teaching dimensions of DH work.

But does the name really matter? From the nature of many of the article’s comments, it appears it does. The issue involving what to “rename” DH is the topic of most of these replies. Suggestions range from Binary Humanities, Computational Humanities, and Digital Scholarship, to “Computer Guided Inquiry and Creation,” but the sentiment is largely the same: the term “digital humanities” is not representational of the field. But again, I wonder whether the name for the field really matters. Will a simple name change from DH to DLA really open up the field to more participants as Pannapacker suggests? I think the simple answer is no. On the other hand, I do feel that is why Pannapacker provided nine suggestions rather than just the name change. The name change is only one part of the solution. One cannot just change the name without actively adapting the field to encapsulate and epitomize this transition at the levels of pedagogy, research, and institutional involvement.

I think this concern, in particular, is effectively addressed by Rafael Alvarado’s response post. Alvarado supports adopting the term digital liberal arts over digital humanities for three main reasons. First DLA is representative of arts and sciences, as well as disciplines in between, whereas DH appears limited only to humanities-based disciplines.[3]  The second and third reasons are closely tied together. The second refers the DLA’s explicit relation to the classroom, the lab, and the studio. It is not some higher research project removed from the classroom. Unlike how DH can be conceived, DLA is not just a method for scholarly “publication” (in quotes to imply the broadest definition of publication).  Third, DLA is equally concerned with research and pedagogy. This is very similar to the second point, but this aspect is concerned not only with the practical implications of teaching and researching DH, but the theoretical side as well.

I think therein lies the key issue in these posts. Digital humanities is an emerging and expanding field. More universities are recognizing it across the academy. Scholars are increasingly participating and collaborating on digital projects. It is even a catchy and notable “buzzword.” It is both descriptive and marketable. However, for a community that stresses openness, accessibility, and interdisciplinarity, perhaps it is now being limited by its terminology. Now I recognize that changing the name of the Digital Humanities to Digital Liberal Arts will not, and should not be the catchall solution to institutional and disciplinary resistance, yet I do believe that the term “Digital Liberal Arts” encompasses the overall vision and broad themes that DH should focus on addressing. DH needs to find a way to continue to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries. DH must strike a balance between research and pedagogy. Whether or not that means changing the name from DH to DLA is largely irrelevant—although I feel there are certainly advantages to it. Posts like Pannapacker’s and Alvarado’s are precisely the types of debates DH—or DLA, if you will—should be engaged in at the theoretical level. Even if the name DH remains, digital humanities must adopt the practical and theoretical implications and applications of Digital Liberal Arts.

But for the sake of argument, let’s compare the terms. Digital humanities gained popularity because it was marketable and connected the field to long established and respected fields in academia. Coined in 2004 in “A Companion to Digital Humanities,” by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, “digital humanities” represented a direct challenge to the term “humanities computing.” Notice that the change was from computing to digital, while the term “humanities” remained the same. This was because “digital” was seen to more accurately describe the various new methods, not just “computing,” applied to humanities research. This is important because it shows how the field of humanities computing expanded further than term described. It grew to include digital methods and practices that “computing” could not accurately convey. Therefore, as the field evolved, so did the name.

Now, before continuing in this line of argument, what does the term “humanities” signify? Traditionally, the core humanities subjects have been History, Linguistics, Literature, Performing Arts, Philosophy, Religion, and Visual Arts, whereas Liberal Arts refer to a much larger disciplinary pool.[4]  DH projects have increasingly begun to address topics that do not fall in these traditional designations of humanities. The Social Sciences and Sciences have simultaneously been creating digital projects and utilizing digital methods for research and analysis. Reflecting on both the evolution of the term “digital humanities” from “humanities computing” and the exclusivity of a strict definition of humanities subjects, does it not make sense that as the field has evolved to include much more than traditional humanities, the term to describe the field should do so to?

But some will argue that the reason why DH has stuck around is not necessarily because of its concrete definitive power, but instead because it is the most popular and catchy word to describe the field. A popular and catchy term is necessary in theorizing, publicizing, and marketing the work done in a particular field. That is why the term DH is valuable. It is known and it is marketable. It is also simple to say or talk about—in my opinion, this is why the term “Computer Guided Inquiry and Creation” could never catch on. But I feel DLA is just as catchy and marketable as DH. Both utilize the word digital (which has its own debate surrounding it[5]) and both are well-established terms to describe a varied group of academic disciplines. I only see two main differences. DLA is more inclusive of the various disciplines participating in the digital community, but DH is established whereas DLA is not. One of these differences can be easily addressed (the latter), whereas the former is irreconcilable due to static definitions. Accordingly, I agree that the term “digital humanities” must evolve and change to a more applicable and inclusive term. And at this point, I feel Digital Liberal Arts represents the most worthwhile contender to do so.


[1] William Pannapacker. “Stop Calling It ‘Digital Humanities.’” The Chronicle. February 18, 2013. Web. accessed February 24, 2013 <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rafael Alvarado. “Start Calling it Digital Liberal Arts.” The Transducer. Rafael Alvarado. Web. accessed February 24, 2013 <;.

[4] Although from Wikipedia, this represents relatively common knowledge. I list this website for the reader to look to, if they so choose.

[5] One aspect of this debate is if we say “digital humanities,” does that necessarily mean we are calling all other humanities “analog,” which I just not true. On a more lighthearted note here is a joke: A DHer says to a friend, “I do digital humanities.” The friend responds, “So you use your fingers and toes?”


DH: Evolution-Extinction?

(repost from for Ryan Cordell’s Doing the Digital Humanities class at Northeastern University)

A lot of talk (in class, over Twitter, in the Around DH Google Doc, and in recent blog posts) has been the issue of the shelf life of digital projects—or “arsenals” as Price would have it. Is it okay for digital projects to have a finite end date? Or should we expect continuous updates and maintenance? Particular to Around DH, is it okay to choose projects that are “completed” or that haven’t been updated recently? Or should we only highlight current and active projects?

Another series of similar questions concerns the Around DH project itself. Does this project have a shelf life? Will this have its 80 days, then a full platform exploring these 80 days in detail, but without additional posts? After the eighty days will it stop being updated like the September 11th Digital Archive that Rosenzweig and Cohen refer to in their DH Guide? Or will it continue to be updated? Will we have new posts integrated later? Perhaps a new Around DH in 80 days each year? These are some questions we will need to address early, particularly so that we can incorporate what is necessary into the content and design stages in our project.

Cohen and Rosenzweig’s introduction brings up five hazards of doing the digital humanities: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. I think this question of the temporal life of DH projects rests in the durability hazard. How long should a digital project last? And what happens when it is finished? Its not like the finished project is a book or manuscript that can be stored on a shelf in the library or in a box in an archive. How do we save full websites and digital content?

I think another really crucial issue arises here as well, which I believe represents a sixth, related but separate, hazard to doing the digital humanities. I will call it an issue of “evolution-extinction.” The digital and web-based environment is a rapidly changing medium. New methods of coding and necessary Internet plug-ins are developed each year to meet novel and unpredictable demands. What then happens when a digital project, which has stopped being updated, can no longer be read or recognized by these new mechanisms?

Think of it like a laser-disc and laser-disc player. Very few people have the means to view these. As laser-discs gave way to VHS cassettes, which gave way to DVDs, then Blue-Rays, then digital streaming and mpegs, and so on, not only have many of these laser-discs been lost or discarded, but so have the laser-disc players, and even the machines we need to convert these to more useable formats. Or even look at how digital storage has changed even from just eight years ago. I remember still using floppy discs to save and transport my high school projects. As we have utilized USB drive and platforms such as Google Drive, floppy discs have become obsolete. Today you would have to search hard for a computer that could read its information—that is if the information even survived on the disc that long without deteriorating.

Now apply this to a digital project that is hosted under a particular domain name. If it is not updated, we run the risk of not being able to even view the information that it had been posted or supplied. And if we cannot read the material in a web platform, how do we preserve it? That is why I consider it an issue of evolution-extinction. As digital technologies and the digital environment change, so to must the DH projects, or at least the means to view and utilize their information, evolve. If not, they run the risk of extinction—or permanently disappearing from digital record. These websites are not physical entities, but rather are tied to complex interpreting mechanisms and technologies tied to the web.

I guess this then brings up the question of how do we preserve digital projects? Do we print out facsimiles of all its content and store them traditionally? Then what is the point of it being a digital project to begin with? Or do we save the page’s coding (HTML, SGML, XML, or some other variant) somewhere else? But then we also need to save the mechanisms by which we can read and interpret the page’s coding. How do we do that and where do we store it? Do we store in the updated digital space? Or do we maintain non-updated digital hardware and software precisely to read the information? Or do we take it upon ourselves to adapt the previous coding to conform to newer technologies?

To this point, I have used the generic term “we” when proposing these hypothetical questions concerning the preservation and adaptation of digital projects, but who is this “we?” Whose responsibility is it to preserve, maintain, or adapt digital projects? Is it the creator’s? Is it the programmer’s? Or is it the interested viewer’s? Besides the question on how we preserve digital projects we are still left with this question of who. Some people might assume it’s the creator’s or the programmer’s responsibility to constantly update the digital project, but is this a realistic expectation? Digital projects do require funding to operate and continue. Moreover, the creators or programmers of digital projects begin new projects after, and often before, the completion of a previous one.

Consider this example: one professor decides work on a monograph whereas another professor in a similar field decides to collaborate and create a digital project. Let’s say that the first professor takes ten years to fully research, write, edit, and publish their monograph. After this book is over, what is expected of this professor? They are expected to begin brainstorming and working towards another, or at the very least a few scholarly journal articles. What of the professor working on the digital project? Let us say that they also take ten years conceptualizing, researching, collecting material for, working on coding and initial operation, editing, updating, and expanding their project. After ten years, do we not expect this professor to begin working on another project—printed or digital? Why then can we rationalize the professor releasing the monograph to leave their book as is and work on their next one, while expecting the second professor to simultaneously work on a new project and continue to maintain and update their previous one?

I certainly do not think this is fair to hold digital projects at a different standard in this regard. But who then is responsible for preserving or updating these projects? I think that is the vital question we need to be addressing today. Not only do we need to come up with methods for preservation, we need to have people interested in actually doing the preserving. I think this is where digital projects must have faith in the interested viewer. When a project reaches a terminal period, it is up to the interested viewer to make sure that the information does not disappear. It is the viewer who must make sure that at least the content of the site does not fade from digital memory. As Cohen and Rosenzweig say when describing the advantages to doing digital humanities, the digital format is flexible, malleable, and interactive. I feel it is precisely these qualities that may help to solve these issues of “evolution-extinction” and preservation.

The Management of U.S. Navy Historical Records

[This post was originally published on the course blog for Doing Digital Humanities, taught by Professor Ryan Cordell, at Northeastern University.]

In 2011, the naval inspector-general issued a scathing report about the state of the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Among the problems noted in the report were the lack of actual historians at the NHHC, employee exposure to toxic heavy metals in the archives, and the potential loss of many records due to poor preservation practices and storage facilities.

The NHHC has a 68-year backlog for digitizing records and a 30-year backlog for digitizing art and artifacts. Of the 200,000 documents in the backlog (originals and microfilm), the inspector-general estimated that 170,000 are in imminent danger of destruction because of poor storage. Not surprisingly, the employees of the NHHC report dissatisfaction with their jobs.

I find this report astonishing. Whole decades of records, especially the 1950s and 1960s, may be lost, according to the director of the NHHC. I would expect that records from the early Republic might be lost, but to lose such recent history because of poor management makes me terribly sad.  

What’s especially sad about this likely loss is that it might not be inevitable. If Cohen and Rosenzweig are right, then the history of the navy is a prime candidate for digital collections. Cohen and Rosenzweig claim, “Online collection efforts tied to a real-world event, institution, or social network have a good chance of attracting and sustaining involvement,” and the history of the navy is tied to highly developed real-world events, institutions, and social networks. Military history of all kinds has proved to be highly successful on the Internet, as evidenced by Wikipedia. A crowdsourcing effort from the Navy could alleviate at least some of the problems, and I have no doubt that the effort would find willing participants, some who even participated in the events in the records. Digitization is not an easy or inexpensive task, but perhaps at least some of the work could be outsourced to volunteers.

But I’m not necessarily writing this to condemn the previous directors (for the last 68 years!). I’m writing it in order to demonstrate that even the Internet can’t save history from poor management. There’s no real reason to think, in the era of budget shortfalls, that the backlog will go away anytime soon. There’s also no reason to think that born-digital records are any less vulnerable to bad management. “They say” that the new director of the NHHC is changing things, and I hope that’s true–but the damage may already be done for the last several decades’ worth of digital records. And at this point, there’s no easy fix for these archival problems.

The NHHC does have a digital program–with little funding and a stalled operational plan. The resources available on the website are highly valuable and very useful to a naval historian like me. But there’s so much more that needs to be done, and the design of the website makes it frustrating to use (though not as frustrating as not being able to access the print records at all). I have taken data in almost-unusable form from the website and created a more user-friendly version of part of it, with the hope that other historians may find it useful. Perhaps more historians need to take the challenge of turning the NHHC’s “analog” website into a more Web-manipulable form. Then at least the data that’s available can be used, even if decades of non-digitized records are lost.