Category Archives: Archives

The Long Goodbye

“What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet,” seems to be conventional wisdom these days. To quote the definitely not hysterical or hyperbolic headline used by the New York Times: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” Like much conventional wisdom, though, when you actually investigate them, these slogans turn out to be complete nonsense. The Internet is not some kind of perpetual memory machine. The “right to be forgotten” laws in the EU and the 1 million+ URLs Google has evaluated for removal over the past year alone are only the most visible tip of a vast subterranean system of digital decay. Consider all of the missing pages, broken links, and buggy websites that we encounter on a daily basis. Some of this misplaced material can be found with a few minutes of dedicated sleuthing, but a great deal of it will be lost forever. Consider all of the hand-wringing and discussions and lengthy policy studies within the digital humanities community over the issues of preservation and sustainability. If the Internet is forever, why is maintaining a digital project such a big problem?

homestar404Online artifacts are a lot like biological organisms: they are born, they live, and they die. Even the terms used to describe their transmission, such as meme and “going viral,” draw on evolutionary theory. And in this new Darwinian frontier, survival is not automatic. The web is littered with half-finished, abandoned, lost, or outdated digital humanities projects. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is poor institutional support. IT departments are often loath to commit any resources to maintain sites or databases created by students and faculty. (I have encountered some pretty egregious examples of this.) And academic institutions have been slow to realize that support for digital projects is a core part of their basic educational mission. A handful of exceptional sites have endured, with strong institutional commitments. It took two years, a $100,000 grant, and a team of staff and student workers to resuscitate the Valley of the Shadow project, which ended in 2007. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which debuted in 2008, just won a major grant to recode the entire site and add new data and foreign language translations. Most projects are not so lucky. And when scholars are forced to trudge out on their own, with little or no long-term support structure, we all suffer.

I had some fun with the problem of sustainability in my Digital History course last year. One of our core texts, Digital History: A Guide... by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, has an entire chapter on preservation. Although the book itself is a decade old, the concepts and analysis remain remarkably fresh, and it is still a popular touchstone that is widely assigned in DH courses on the undergraduate and graduate level. Given the rapid pace of technological development, however, a new edition is badly needed. DH staples, such as Omeka and WordPress, or even Twitter and Wikipedia, were not yet on the radar when the book was published, and many of its examples are comically outdated. The authors spend several paragraphs discussing Jim Zwick’s famous website: “Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898–1935.” So I asked my students to evaluate the site for themselves. Of course, this was an impossible task, since the site no longer exists.

If done carefully and respectfully, I have found that tricking my students with phony texts or assignments like this can be both fun and enlightening. In this case, I offered to treat the entire class to an expensive meal if any one of them could find me a copy of Zwick’s site, in any format. Despite vigorous efforts on the Wayback Machine, Google, and even the Darknet, no one could find any trace of it. I gave them the entire semester to complete the challenge, and they still turned up nothing. Aside from a few tantalizing reviews, this huge, popular, exemplar DH project had been completely wiped from the face of the earth. Zwick’s death in 2008 means that the site, and all of its related data, guides, and analysis, will probably never return. At least in its original form, it has been lost forever. What goes on the Internet does not always stay on the Internet. (My students received a pizza lunch at the end of the semester anyway.)

dennisnedryAnother reason for the diminishing returns of existing DH projects is the publish-or-perish cult that dominates mainstream academic work. It is more advantageous to your CV, and way more exciting, to move on to a sexy new project than to spend all of your time and energy updating or preserving work that you did years ago. Although I try my best to maintain my legacy projects, I am as guilty of this as anyone. I did not update the underlying infrastructure or theme for this blog for years, and only did so recently because the server that hosted it was scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, Yale has committed to supporting my digital projects for the long haul, even after my graduation. They gave me a new domain for this site and an updated platform with admin privileges and server-side access. So I will be able to continue to maintain the site now that I have moved on to another position at some podunk school in New Jersey. I will be able to update the overall feel and UX for the site, make it more responsive and mobile friendly, and adapt to any new changes on the tech horizon. (A big shout out to Pam Patterson, Trip Kirkpatrick, and the rest of the ITG staff for offering a wonderful legacy support structure. I could not have kept this site alive without them.) Meanwhile, archived snapshots of earlier versions of the site are available on the Wayback Machine. Unfortunately, it is not a complete archive. Contrary to popular belief, not everything is automatically indexed by the Wayback Machine, or Google, or other similar services. When I realized this a few years ago, I had to go back and manually request the Machine to crawl and capture this site, page by page. If any folks out there know a better way to ensure that your site is archived on a comprehensive and regular basis, please get in touch.

A post about preservation and sustainability seems like a fitting way to close out this blog (or at least this iteration of it). When I started this site about five years ago, I was one of maybe two or three grad students at my university who had any interest in digital tools and methodologies for research and teaching. There seemed to be a pressing need for a voice in the History Department, or in the humanities more generally, to raise the profile of DH work and show something of the potential and excitement of this new area of scholarship. Material on this blog has been featured on Digital Humanities Now, HASTAC, the Historical Society, and other places, and has hopefully contributed in some small way to that goal. This year, Yale launched a multi-million dollar Digital Humanities Lab, which has been many years in the making. Carol Chiodo, my co-blogger and longtime associate, is one of the founding staff members. I can’t really claim that this site contributed much to the establishment of the DH Lab at Yale, but I hope that it at least helped to add to the groundwork or general milieu that made the Lab a logical possibility. Certainly, the site has benefited my own career, building bridges to new topics, allowing me to meet new colleagues from all over the world, providing conference invites, interview requests, and job offers. It allowed me to preview some of my more serious scholarly work, or respond to pressing issues, or just vent some of my pent up silliness. Even if I do not have much time to continue to grow this site in the years ahead, I plan to keep it alive for as long as possible, and I promise to make sure that it is archived and accessible for future generations. Because in the rapidly evolving digital world, permanency is not something that can be taken for granted.

Prelude to an Open Access Presentation

This week is the eighth annual Open Access Week, and people all over the world are hosting events and liberating archives. For me, on this particular week, open access means sharing a conference paper. Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend a gathering of young scholars at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, in Hull, England. Part of the Antislavery Usable Past, a multifaceted, multiyear project funded by the British Government, the workshop brought together those working on both historical and contemporary forms of enslavement. The organizers asked us to reflect on the “lessons and legacies” of previous abolitionist movements. The topics ranged from slavery in the Middle Ages through present-day anti-trafficking and reparations campaigns, and the participants were super friendly and supportive. I got to meet some new European colleagues, and I even got to hang out with Shamere McKenzie, who runs an NGO for slavery survivors. My paper, entitled “John Brown in Africa,” looked at capitalism and the lessons of missionary abolitionism.

Under normal circumstances, I would never publish a conference presentation. They are works-in-progress, lacking proper citations, full of half-baked ideas and assumptions, and directed at a small group of experts – hardly appropriate for the unwashed masses. The paper that follows is no different. Yet the conference message of learning from the past to inform the struggle against slavery (and its legacies) in the present, deserves a wider audience. And the fortuitous conjunction with Open Access Week convinced me to cast aside my objections in this case. So, with all of the customary apologies for its flaws and in the spirit of open access, I will post the full text of my presentation as a separate article. Links embedded in the text will point to some of the original slides that I used in my talk (or the occasional outside reference). And, as always, your comments are welcome.

History Leaks

I am involved in a new project called History Leaks. The purpose of the site is to publish historically significant public domain documents and commentaries that are not available elsewhere on the open web. The basic idea is that historians and others often digitize vast amounts of information that remains locked away in their personal files. Sharing just a small portion of this information helps to increase access and draw attention to otherwise unknown or underappreciated material. It also supports the critically important work of archives and repositories at a time when these institutions face arbitrary cutbacks and other challenges to their democratic mission.

I hope that you will take a moment to explore the site and that you will check back often as it takes shape, grows, and develops. Spread the word to friends and colleagues. Contributions are warmly welcomed and encouraged. Any feedback, suggestions, or advice would also be of value. A more detailed statement of purpose is available here.

The $14 Million Question

Yesterday a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book composed and printed in British North America, sold at auction for a record-breaking $14.16 million. Members of Boston’s Old South Church decided to sell one of their two copies to help fund their cash-strapped congregation, and while the amount fell short of the auction house estimate of $15-30 million, it is certainly enough to buy a whole lot of snazzy sermons, baptismal fonts, and really uncomfortable pews. A number of talented and distinguished historians, including Jill Lepore and David Spadafora, have weighed in on the broader context and significance of this standard devotional text, printed in the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. Amid all of the excellent scholarly analysis and public humanities work, however, no one seems to be asking the big question: why is someone willing to pay millions of dollars for a book that anyone with an internet connection can get for free? In an age of increasingly universal digitization, when nearly every major print publication prior to 1923 is available online, why do some public domain printed books sell for princely sums?

In 1947, when the last Bay Psalm Book sold at auction for $151,000, a researcher needed to physically travel to a major library in order to view an original copy. In the Northeast, there were plenty of optionsYale, Harvard, Brown, the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, the American Antiquarian Society. South of New York City, there was nothing. West of the Appalachians, the only choice was the private Huntington Library in California – and their copy was missing seven pages, including the title page. The only copy available to researchers outside of the United States was at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. Bibliophiles published facsimile editions as early as 1862, but their production and circulation were limited. Depending on how far one had to travel, and factoring in layover times, scheduling, family and work obligations, and local arrangements, the onetime cost of consulting this small piece of religious history could be enormous. Gripes about the digital divide notwithstanding, the analog divide was and is much worse.

In 2013, copies of the the Bay Psalm Book are everywhere – the Library of Congress, the World Digital Library, even the Old South Church. In fact, almost every single book, pamphlet, and broadside published in colonial America is available for free online or at a participating library through Readex’s Early American Imprints series. Yale’s copy of the Bay Psalm Book, which, coincidentally, was the one purchased at the aforementioned auction in 1947, is available in full here. That book sold for the equivalent of about $1.5 million in present-day terms. No copies of this august tome have been discovered or destroyed since 1947. So why is the same book worth over $14 million today? What accounts for this tenfold increase in value?

I can think of several reasons why someone would pay so much for a book that is available to everyone for free. If there are significant deviations or marginalia between and among different copies or editions, each copy is more or less unique and thus uniquely valuable. Yet the differences among the various Bay Psalm Books are fairly well documented by this point and are not that extreme. Another reason might be personal profit or prestige. To his credit, David Rubenstein, the billionaire investor who purchased the book at yesterday’s auction, plans to loan it out to libraries around the country and to place it on deposit with a public institution. Although he may derive a good deal of personal satisfaction from this arrangement, I do not think that private gain is his primary goal. That leaves one more motive – the simple pleasure of the physical artifact.

The Early Dawn - rarer than the Bay Psalm Book and just as significant, but considerably less expensive. Courtesy of Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.
The Early Dawn – rarer than the Bay Psalm Book and just as significant, but considerably less expensive. Courtesy of Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library.

Perhaps one reason why the value of the Bay Psalm Book has increased ten times over the past 60 years is that paper, photographic, and digital reproductions have increased exponentially over the same period. In an era of digital alienation, there is greater romance in the physical object. To touch, to feel, to smell, even to be in the near presence of a famous text creates a kind of living connection with history. Such documents become, as Jill Lepore writes of the United States Constitution, “a talisman held up against the uncertainties and abstractions of a meaningless, changeable, paperless age.”

This is nothing new, of course. Since the days when early Christians passed around the head of Saint Paul or the foreskin of Jesus, and probably long before that, people have always been fascinated by sacred relics. Presumably, this is why so many tourists flock to see the original Declaration of Independence or the Wright Flyer in Washington D.C. One can read almost everything there is to know about the Declaration or the Wright brothers on an iPad while waiting in line at Stop & Shop, but there is something ineffably special about being in the presence of the real thing.

Even so, what justifies such an outrageous price tag? There are almost a dozen copies of the Bay Psalm Book, all available, to some extent, to the public. And there are plenty of rare and valuable historical documents that seldom see the light of day. A few years ago, I found an 1864 edition of the Early Dawn for sale online for less than $200. Published by American abolitionists at the Mendi Mission in West Africa starting in 1861, it is a periodical that ties together the struggles against slavery and racism across two continents. It is invaluable to our understanding of global politics, history, religion, and the state of our world today. In this sense, it is just as significant as the Bay Psalm Book. It is also extremely rare. As far as I know, there is only one other extant issue from the same time period. Fortunately, I was able to convince my colleagues at the Yale Divinity School to purchase and properly preserve this one-of-a-kind artifact so that it would be available for future researchers (click the image above for a full scan of the paper). I am sure that every historian who has worked on a major project has a story similar to this. If not an online purchase, then it is a special document found in an archive, or an especially moving oral history.

There are countless unique and historically significant documents and manuscripts moldering in libraries and repositories around the world. Some of them are true gems, just waiting to be discovered. Most of them remain unavailable and unknown. And yet our society sees nothing wrong with a private citizen spending a small fortune to acquire a copy of the the Bay Psalm Book. There is no question that the venerable Old South Church deserves our support, and I have no doubt that its congregants do important work in their community and abroad. But how many lost treasures could have been brought to the world for the first time for the cost of this single public domain text? How much digitization, transcription, or innovation could $14.16 million buy?

Cross-posted at HASTAC