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Archives and Collaboration: Reflecting on the Early Caribbean Digital Archive’s Participation in the Digital Humanities for Caribbean History Workshop

By Liz Polcha

On March 31st, the Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA) was invited to share our project’s research at the Digital Humanities for Caribbean History workshop, held at Harvard’s HipHop Archive and Research Institute, and co-sponsored by both the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and Harvard’s History Design Studio. Vincent Brown, the Charles Warren Professor of History at Harvard and the director of Harvard’s History Design studio, organized the event around three teams of scholars who are engaging with the digital humanities and Caribbean history in their respective projects. The ECDA was excited to join scholars from both Louisiana Slave Conspiracies, an interdisciplinary project from the University of California, Berkeley, and In the Same Boats: Toward an Intellectual Cartography of the Afro-Atlantic, a visualization focused project from Columbia University. Professor Brown structured the workshop so that each team member had a chance to share their contribution to the project, valorizing the differing roles of faculty, graduate students, librarians, and website developers as equally important in sustaining a collaborative project. Each project spent 30-40 minutes presenting their work, followed by an hour-long Q&A which left plenty of time for engaging conversations between presenters and audience members. At the end of the day, Laurent Dubois, professor of Romance Studies in Duke University’s History department, gave a short summary of the larger ideas and conceptual frameworks he had observed throughout the presentations and discussions, such as the notion that digital work forces us to have complex conversations about categories. Professor Dubois pointed out that what is generated from these projects is often vast and un-archivable, and that all three highlight an opening up of the imagination with an almost utopian view of alternate realities—itself a long-held tradition of Caribbean scholarship and writing.

As graduate students working for the ECDA, we can’t emphasize enough how much we enjoyed participating in Professor Brown’s workshop and being part of this collaborative, engaging format. In an attempt to summarize our many thoughts and ideas from the workshop, we’ve each written out below a short reflective statement on our own participation in the event, and why we think more digital humanities projects should be following Professor Brown’s model for collaborative presentations.

Ben Doyle: I’ve had the pleasure of presenting the ECDA project across a number of different forums and formats over the years. The intended purpose has typically been to showcase the project, declare its mission, and generate excitement around its digital affordances to potential user audiences. However, few of these events have included an opportunity to share and get feedback specifically on the many challenges of actually building and maintaining the ECDA. I was particularly excited by the Harvard Digital History symposium’s invitation to offer such an account, to address both the project’s challenges and its successes. Defining project success, a topic raised across the forum, has been one of the more complicated aspects of this project. In my portion of the presentation, I wanted to clarify what success means, or at least has come to mean, for our project, particularly in light of some major shifts our project has taken in the past year (e.g., transitioning to a new platform and the addition of new members to our project team). I wished to emphasize that the ECDA, despite (or perhaps as demonstrated by) its many fits and starts, has been a wonderful success. Success in this context is not so much measured by quantifiable components like the number of archival items digitized and ingested, the size of our current vs future user base, offered tools and resources for engaging the archive, site traffic, etc., but by those components that are often left out of the “success stories” of digital projects.

This forum provided our project a rare, and perhaps needed, occasion to introduce into our project narrative the human components of our work. It really was refreshing to hear included in the presentation and following discussions the success stories as relayed and experienced by the team. It was also reassuring to learn that other projects face many of the same challenges we have but have also had similar successes, where the people behind and in front of our projects are learning new and effective ways of building knowledge and partnerships productively and collaboratively together. It was great to hear personalized narratives of how members were shaping and, in turn, being shaped by their digital work. As I stated in my portion of the talk, I am looking for ways to better acknowledge and understand such human(istic) experiences afforded by our digital work by documenting such experiences more transparently, including narratives in our project (self)assessment practices, and applying these accounts toward future development work and collaborations. The conversations and feedback across the day’s event I feel have guided me closer toward this goal. I feel I left the event with a much clearer perspective and increased enthusiasm for how our project team, and others, learn and grow as teams, and how that growth can be used to more carefully measure something we might call “project success.” I am excited for the ECDA project team to sustain this necessary line of discussion with this new community and with others in the future. And I am personally thankful to Vincent Brown, both the Louisiana Slave Conspiracies and In the Same Boat project teams, and the rest of the participants of the day for inviting us into such an open and candid discussion of doing Caribbean DH.  

Dania Dwyer:  For me, this event provided the ECDA team the opportunity to talk not only about what we do but about the unique challenges that have come with building a digital archive from the ground up. Working on the classroom page for scholars and teachers has meant conceptualizing a space for two audiences that are not always separate but are largely intertwined. Preparing our talk helped us think about how our conceptualization of the space would be received by an audience whose profile is akin to those whom we imagine would be using the space. We asked ourselves: Can our classroom page provide a means for pedagogical collaboration around teaching with the archive? How can we encourage more than just downloading of materials, but ongoing participation and contribution? How can creating such a space reorient students’ ideas about authorship, textual engagement, and knowledge production, even as we ask them to assume roles (like curator) that might be new to them?  One participant was intrigued by our goal of expanding to K-12 education. As a K-12 teacher herself, she felt the pedagogy aspect of our project has a place in conversations currently taking place around reform in the teaching of history at that level.

Nicole Infanta KellerPresenting on this panel with my ECDA colleagues gave me the opportunity to reflect not only on how I’ve seen the project change, but also on how my own responsibilities have shifted during the course of my participation. While I had been involved TEI schema development in the summer of 2014, my acquisitions work did not begin until the fall of 2015, when I was tasked with locating individual texts according to the proposed contents of the archive’s first two exhibits, on early Caribbean slave narratives and obeah narratives. The acquisition of such materials was, and continues to be, sometimes simple, as in the cases where out-of-copyright works have been digitized by Google Books, HathiTrust, or Internet Archive. Where desired texts are not readily available, as the Acquisitions Lead, I have been cultivating partnerships with important libraries. More often than not, the ECDA would have to incur digitization charges. Without adequate funding, this means that there are some texts, important to our archive, that we won’t be able to ingest in the near future. While the open-sourced acquisition of materials can be a lengthy and difficult process, through collaborations with other institutions, our database is continuing to grow. It is through these partnerships that the nature of our acquisitions has changed; rather than searching for individual texts, we are more likely to undertake bulk ingestions based on an individual library’s Caribbean holdings.

Putting this experience in context, reflecting on what I learned about other projects and on discussions arising from Q&A, particularly around the relationship between form and knowledge, I have been thinking about categories and genre in relation to current and future acquisitions. The shift in my responsibilities, from individual works to larger quantities of a library’s Caribbean collection, has me thinking about how our archive will be representing and possibly reproducing the political scenarios that first shaped the holdings of our partnering institutions. What is the danger of privileging works because they are freely accessible over those that are more difficult to obtain and ingest? While our project is informed, ideologically, by the idea that emerging technologies can produce new types of knowledge, I think it’s important to be wary of the extent to which the technology of digitization informs the structure of the archive.  I will continue to consider questions of this nature as I move forward in my position; I have the Digital Histories of the Caribbean Workshop to thank for that.

David Medina:  Dania Dwyer and I presented on what the project is calling the Classroom Space. In short, the ECDA is building a space in which students, researchers, and instructors can find and contribute materials for learning or teaching early Caribbean concepts. The symposium was a great opportunity to articulate our own goals and challenges. The symposium fostered a great deal of discussion on the application of digital humanities methodologies and tools to Caribbean studies, and our portion of the presentation invited a fair amount of questions regarding our project’s methods. One scholar was interested in our goal to bring the ECDA’s resources to K-12 education and gave us a great deal to think about. What, for example, would a space that presents materials that are useful for both students and teachers look like? And how would this space accommodate students and teachers working in K-12 classrooms and beyond?

Discussions also revolved around the challenges and triumphs of bringing together scholars from distinct disciplines–from historians to geologists–to work on one shared project. Seeing how each team was comprised of a similar “motley crew” of scholars made me think about the pioneering spirit of most digital projects. One takeaway that I’m going to continue thinking about is this ever-present pioneering spirit that all teams embodied. So even though we still have a long way to go in the construction of the project’s classroom space, knowing that we supported by other such digital pioneers leaves me feeling as if anything we set out to do is possible.

Liz Polcha: As the project manager for the ECDA, much of my work involves coordinating with team members, organizing and planning our meetings, and making sure we are all working towards a common goal. But I also do quite a bit of research writing for the project, and have since I was hired as the “Research and Metadata Lead” in fall 2015. My contribution to the ECDA’s presentation was to speak about the ways in which the project incorporates humanities scholarship and research, in both the writing of scholarly introductions for the texts in our archive, and in writing extensive metadata for each archival item. Interestingly, in the Q&A, most of the questions I received were not about metadata or research, but instead about project management, labor, and collaboration. This discussion about labor and working conditions was initiated when Elizabeth Dillon, the ECDA’s co-director, pointed out that all of the graduate students who work for the project are paid, and have always been paid for their work. The conversation continued throughout the day, for example, when Kaiama Glover and Alex Gil explained that their project, In the Same Boats, was an exercise in both minimal computing and ethical labor in order to test out how collaboration works. I’m interested more broadly in how these conversations about ethical labor practices permeate not just our division of labor and working relationships in the digital humanities, but also how an awareness of labor alters the way we write metadata, create graphic vocabularies for the uncertain (as Amani Morrison discussed in relation to the Louisiana Slave Conspiracies project), and build data models to represent our research. Overall, I loved the collaborative presentation format for this workshop because it offered a surprisingly rare opportunity for each team member to hear about the complexity and challenges of their colleagues’ work—we learned so much about our project and each other, and about the collaborative strategies of the two other projects. I left the workshop feeling re-energized, and motivated to keep the conversation about collaboration and division of labor going.

Lara Rose: Participating in the Digital Histories of the Caribbean Workshop, organized by Vince Brown, was a significant moment in my fledgling academic career, because it helped me understand where the ECDA fits into the landscape of smaller-scale digital projects who are doing anti-colonial work. It feels sometimes like we are treading water or running around like the proverbial chickens, especially since we share a campus with the ever-impressive, long-standing Women Writers Project. However, being at this workshop was a potent reminder that, even though the work is hard and confusing and sometimes disorganized, it is important work to do: Because if we aren’t drawing attention to the significance of the Caribbean, who will be? It was also refreshing to engage in lively conversation about the diverse practices and goals of each of the three projects. I was inspired listening to Amani Morrison on the Louisiana Slave Conspiracy Project grappling with the idea of what it means to map an event that never took place, the record of which only exists in hearsay. And, and Liz already mentioned, Kaiama Glover and Alex Gil made provocative remarks about resisting the desire to create one website that achieves every goal. When I asked about the intention of In the Same Boats to include visualizations in their mapping for gender or ethnicity, for example, their response was “we can give you the code and you can help us with that.” Although the realities of the theory of communal labor will continue to spur debates, I do think it is one way of working against the individual “silos” that we’ve all been hearing so much about lately. The promise of the digital humanities has always been the ability to engage in deeply collaborative work–this workshop was a salient precedent for just how definite that promise can be.

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