This week I had the chance to review Mark Tebeau’s Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees and Stephen Robinson’s Putting Harlem on the map. One of the major themes of this week’s reading was that of supplementing a project with digital technology. Robinson, Tebeau and Moretti“connect[ed] stories (and their layers) to other stories, providing a historiographical, thematic, temporal, geographic, or human context, deepening the experience through making contextual meaning.” Tebeau and Robinson illustrated how people are using digital technology to supplement user experience. Although the authors come from different fields, both relied on the use of GIS systems in their respective projects. GIS were a means to provide additional context for users. More so than Tebeau, Robinson and Moretti were able to utilize their research in order to challenge existing historical interpretations. Robinson used maps based on a 1930’s real estate atlas to give life to previously overlooked areas of Harlem. Moretti put forth a compelling theory explaining the rise and fall of novel production worldwide.
The digital added ‘place’ into the mix through such means as geolocation services and interactive maps. This allows for a more dynamic oral history more readily accessible to today’s population. Tebeau describes the digital facilitating a “layered, story-based approach” not readily possible by means of traditional oral history. Location can enhance or alter the how one experiences oral history. For example, Cleveland Historical offers a vivid account of a man, Rick Calabrese, growing up at a family West Side Market. The oral provides the rich sensory experience while the geolocation service “underscores and evokes the sensory and experiential context of the market.” The Cleveland Historical Society and Stephen Robinson in Putting Harlem on the Map make use of geolocation software in order to provide users the opportunity to “experience the landscapes where these memories were lived.” Robinson utilized a historical real estate atlas and GIS software in order to paint a picture of 1920’s Harlem at a smaller scale than previously possible.
Robinson and Morreti both used a “geospatial database… to incorporate and organize a range of material that historians typically treat as ephemera or pass over as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis.” Robinson utilized newspaper records in conjunction with GIS in order to provide a fresh look at the demographics of Harlem in the 1930’s. To name a few contributions of Putting Harlem on the Map it allowed for a re-examination of race relations and nightlife in Harlem. Moretti was able to analyze an extensive amount of data and condense the results into an easy to understand visual representation of literary trends spanning hundreds of years and across continents. What I see as his contribution is providing a unique interpretation on the rise and fall of the novel throughout time. This analysis would not have been possible if he did not rely on qualitative data analysis. I imagine digital software made this analysis easier but the research could have been conducted without it.
New dilemmas confront historians with the incorporation of digital technology. One such challenge is how to incorporate raw and edited interviews into cohesive story. Oftentimes context is needed in order for interview to make sense, you can’t just cut an paste part of interview- the audience won’t feel the full effect . Tebeau references the “Agora Theater and Henry Loconti…Henry Loconti places the development of the Agoro within the broader context of the development of the music business…if this context provides the best way to understand the development of Agora , it is nonetheless told in a fashion that is difficult to bring directly into the exhibit context of Cleveland Historical because of its length and need for explanation.” Another possible dilemma is that of providing continuity in the narrative while moving from place to place. In Putting Harlem on the map Moretti points out that neighborhoods change. Would be more effective and conducive to the story line to place different oral histories in same location to better provide continuity and an engaging narrative? There isn’t a right or wrong way to go about this.
All three projects provided us a unique look at arguably ‘played out’ history. Bringing place into history by means of the digital is an excellent way to help users experience and live history. In addition, the use of the digital brings history to a whole new audience. With this new audience comes the challenge of making the history accessible and engaging. I am optimistic that the digital as well as trends in the field will foster a relationship between the audience and creators in order so people have a stake in their experience.
Mark Tebeau. “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Oral History Review, Vol. 40 Issue 1. 2013, p25-35
Stephen Robertson, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” Writing History in the Digital Age. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12230987.0001.001/1:8/–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#8.2
Franco Moretti, “Maps,” Graphs Maps and Trees (e resource) https://catalog.libraries.rutgers.edu/vufind/Record/5109606