Digital = Collaborative

There is no avoiding the collaborative aspects of digital projects. In the digital humanities there are the content producers and the technical facilitators working together to create works of original scholarship. I was able to attend the American Art History and Digital Scholarship: New Avenues for Exploration hosted by the Archives of American Art last Friday and was very excited to see some real life examples of art history digital scholarship. Some were from large scale institutions with a lot of funding and resources, while some were at the individual level with little to no funding. Because of this range of support and size of the projects, the digital tools also varied in complexity and both open source and proprietary tools were demoed. One of the common threads in all of the presentations was the need for collaboration and sharing of information. As art historians slowly poke their heads into the digital realm it is important to create a community of shared knowledge and strategies  to guide newcomers who want to create digital scholarship. It is also imperative for digital art history as a concept to get support from large institutions and grant funding organizations who set the level of expectations and possibilities.

I left the symposium with a few questions about the future of art history digital scholarship and digital scholarship as a highly collaborative endeavor. My first question is about tools becoming easier to use as time goes on. If tools for visualizing data become easier to use will it alleviate the need for collaborative projects? I don’t think so. As A. Joan Saab pointed out during her presentation, digital projects are surprisingly time consuming. Even if the tools are easy to use, dividing the labor makes the most sense to get projects done within a reasonable amount of time. Professor Richard J. Powell presented on an example of original digital scholarship undertaken by one of his classes. The final project is African-American Close-Up, a WordPress site that features works of art and student essays about each one. He explained the difficulties in facilitating a digital project that could be completed in one semester. He made it so the students only had to focus on writing essays about the works of art, he took care of locating the art, clearing rights, and installing WordPress. In this case the Professor was the technical facilitator/editor and the students provided the content. I thought this was a great example of collaborative art history digital scholarship that would be easy to reproduce.

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Yale Ph.D. student Lauren Tilton presenting “Re-visioning the Archive: The Photogrammar Project.”

There were plenty of examples of highly technical projects as well. The Photogrammar Project out of Yale University is an example of a project with a large interdisciplinary team working to provide different ways of visually accessing the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs available through the Library of Congress. The project presents the collection through a color coded map, and a gallery of images with linked metadata. It is the first step of a digital project – presenting the information in new visual ways, but not yet making new arguments with the data. Although, Laura Wexler said that as soon as she saw the data mapped she fully acknowledged the scope of the FSA – that they were working as far north as south. I thought the title of this presentation fit the project perfectly “re-visioning the archive.” I’m a huge fan of presenting archival collections in new, more visual ways, and I was glad to learn that the photogrammar tools would be made available on GitHub when the project is completed. What is slightly disappointing about this project seems to be the quality of the scanned images. They appear blurry on the Photogrammar site but clear and in-focus on the Library of Congress site.

All the presentations contained something new for me and through the symposium I learned a lot and could feel the enthusiasm in the audience for digital scholarship. For more information on the presentations Matthew Lincoln wrote a great blog post summarizing all of the projects.

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