Digital Humanities
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Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

“Urban Humanities: A Symposium on Research Development, Digital Archives, and Documentary Practices” (NYU, May 13, 2014)

The Humanities Initiative at NYU held the URBAN HUMANITIES: A Symposium on Research Development, Digital Archives, and Documentary Practices to promote awareness of existing initiatives in New York City, and to foster the development of new work in urban humanities. Two of the main questions addressed during this symposium were, “What new opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration do digital tools afford scholars working with archival resources?” and “How might new digital tools make the history, art and culture in New York City visible in new ways, to new publics?” The following panelists contributed knowledge about areas of their work that revolve around digital humanities: Chair: Peter Wosh, Director, Program in Archives and Public History at NYU, 
Anne Karle-Zenith Digital Services Manager for the Metropolitan New York Library Council, 
Lacy Schutz Director of Collections at the Museum of the City of New York, 
Donald Mennerich Digital Archivist at NYU and Respondent: Jane McNamara New York Council on the Humanities. These individuals spoke about the challenges they have and currently face while working on digital humanities projects within their respective institutions. Some of these challenges included issues of digital preservation, managing born-digital assets, privacy, public engagement and funding.

Lacy Schutz is the Director of Collections at the Museum of the City of New York, heading a department responsible for the physical and intellectual stewardship of the museum’s permanent collections. Part of her job is to oversee the production of digital assets and make them available online, and she has spent the past year working on a crowd-sourcing metadata project funded by the National Endowment of Humanities (N.E.H). During the symposium spoke the museums digitization and management of projects, which are collectively comprised of 177, 432 digital images, 139 terabytes of space, and 138, 690 physical images. These include the Wurtz Bros. Collection of photographs, which document the construction of large buildings, which dramatically changed the landscape and economy of New York City. Along with The Martin Wong Graffiti Collection, materials from a federally funded art project, J Clarence Davies real estate photographs. She has also been working on a project to translate Yiddish Theatre with funding from the Lemberg Foundation.

Out of all of these projects, I find the digitization of the Wurtz Bros. Collection and J Clarence Davies real estate most intriguing because they document the gradual construction of the Bronx and Manhattan, New York City. This collection helps acknowledge that this city was not always vastly populated with millions of people, high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. Being able to digitally access the photos that show the city in its natural state, can create a nostalgic experience about the city, as well as, provide historical reference visuals documenting the developmental stages of one of the most recognized cities in the world. When discussing the handling of these photographs and others, Schutz noted that she and her team use a lightbox in the digitization process to view the photos. She exclaimed how amazing it is to view photos in this way because you are often able to see things in the photos that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This brings up the various possibilities of new ways to experience old mediums in the digital humanities. The museum was able to add more valuable and contextual metadata to the photograph collections because of these clarity enhancements provided by the digital tools.

In regards to funding, the NEH awarded the museum a $3.1 grant to carry out these DH projects. As Schutz put it, “if there’s a grant out there for it, the Museum will usually just apply and do it because there’s funding for it.”  While the museum was awarded this sizable grant, it brings into question the motivation and dedication to the projects being undertaken simply because their being funded; not to mention the relative rarity of DH grants awarded generally. Even though any adequately trained group can execute a digitization project, what DH usually brings to the table is a sense of drive and desire to innovate and authenticate the human experience using digital formats or platforms. Applying for a grant solely because there is funding for it is arguably beneficial because at least the project will be executed, however, there is potential for a loss of innovation and insights that could have been added by a group or individual that has genuine interest and background in the subject matter being addressed in the DH project. “In order to attract and sustain [substantial] funding, it has proven essential for projects to receive internal support during a period of incubation so that they may prove their worth by successfully reaching an initial set of benchmarks” (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner & Schnapp, 2012). Because of this reason, I see potential in more collaborative efforts between larger institutions that may be more equipped to carryout the technical components of DH projects, with smaller institutions, groups or individuals that have more specialized knowledge and insight into specific subject areas.

Donald Mennerich is the Digital Archivist at NYU and he discussed the complexity of computer forensics when working with born digital assets. He emphasized the importance of examining digital media in a forensically sound manner in order to identify, preserve, recover, analyze and present facts and opinions about the digital information. This is particularly important for archives when digital formats, hardware and software become obsolete, and its important to know whether any metadata has been lost. These types of clues and discoveries can lead to better preservation of materials as they were in their original state, such as confirming the identity of the original author and date of creation. While computer forensics tools are quite mature, they all could be improved to better work with digital archives. Mennerich stated that he is constantly finding workarounds for various tools because they were designed for legal or criminal investigations, not working with archival collections. He notes that these types of digital tools “aren’t there yet,” at least not tools specific to our community of practice. Even open-source software tools tend to lack a component that allows information gathered to be shared with others in an accessible way. He gave an example of The Leary archives project, which he spent several hours investigating and purchasing hardware for, and foresees it likely taking countless more hours to get everything working for and effective transfer. This highlights a technical issue hindering DH from flourishing more quickly, and that is the actual digital preservation and forensics of the materials and projects being produced. Centralizing the documentation and sharing of methodologies attempted, whether successful or not, can help further and quicken the progress of the DH field.

Jane McNamara sits on the board of the New York Council on the Humanities and thus has a hand in deciding, which grant applicants for their DH projects will be awarded. Her insights were instrumental in understanding what it is that makes a DH grant application competitive; stand apart and constitute a successful DH project. Her response to this question is to not only incorporate, but also, build a DH project around Public Engagement. During the panel discussion, McNamara advocated keeping the audience at the forefront of the grant proposal process, designing for the public, with them in mind before and throughout the entire DH project process. This includes, specifying and identifying an intended use requires identifying and defining users and user communities, as well as, the uses” (Gorman, 2004). Some aspects to think about when designing for the public are discovery, accessibility and the user-experience. Ensuring that the DH project not only exists on an online platform, but that it is relatively finable, easily navigated and engaging. The NEH has initiated two grants centered around public engagement: Bridging Cultures and Digital Projects for the Public which support projects that include websites, mobile applications, games, and virtual environments that significantly contribute to the public’s engagement with humanities ideas. Building projects around the public is essential in achieving fundamental goals, and seeing expansion of digital humanities field in the future.

References:

Burdick,A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T. & Schnapp, J. (2012). The Project as a Basic Unit. Digital Humanities, 124-125.

Schreibman, J., Siemens, R. & Unsworth, J. (2004). A Companion to Digital Humanities. ed. Retrieved from: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/

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