Thinking About Digital Spaces and Physical Spaces

It has been fun to think about what digital spaces are, what do they look like, and how are they created. As a person who is still learning about digital humanities and public humanities scholarship, Stephen Robertson’s “Putting Harlem on the Map” and Mark Tebeau’s “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era” felt like models for creating digital projects that serve and include the communities they are representing. Unlike The Cleveland Historical Project which has direct access to the communities it is working with, Robertson is reading historical and legal documents to imagine and recreate what Harlem looked like in the 1920s in his project: Digital Harlem. His project wants to really convey the sense of Harlem to visitors by employing the discipline of urban history and honing the specificity of location(s) to a place.

To capture an innovative take of Harlem in the 1920s, Robertson and his team look at archival records, criminal records, especially probation records, to map out what a typical day for a Harlemite looked like. Robertson states, “”since our research concerned a neighborhood and since legal records almost invariably include information on locations, I envisioned our database as linked to maps” and visualized Harlem on a smaller-scale where the specificity and sort of ‘zoomed-in’ lens creates more of a feel of Harlem rather than a macro sense of the neighborhood through its literature (Robertson). This smaller scale created a “second wave of spatial turn in humanities scholarship” that looked at “spatial issues more materially” (Robertson).  He also looked at newspapers and their locations to geolocate (or geotag?) a moment in Harlem’s history- here he is linking memory, storytelling, and place. Robertson describes his experience: “trying to understand those maps draws me down to the level of individual places and to the relations between them, into the web of locations in which individuals lived their lives—where they resided, worked, and spent their leisure time. Used in this way, the geospatial web can capture “the confluence of multiple rhythms” that Henri Lefebvre argued make up everyday life, offering a new perspective on what it was like to live in Harlem” (Robertson).

The Cleveland Historical Project focuses on sound and oral history in order to the story of the city through storytelling and sound. In this project, geolocation is also used as a tool to be specific and spatially-conscious while also linking a sound or interview to a location when possible. For example, “geolocation allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning. Cleveland Historical’s tour feature connects stories (and their layers) to other stories, providing a historiographical, thematic, temporal, geographic, or human context, deepening the experience through making contextual meaning” (Tebeau). Similar to Robertson, Tebeau recognizes the significance of geolocation in The Cleveland Historical Project: “geolocation allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning” Cleveland Historical’s tour feature connects stories (and their layers) to other stories, providing a historiographical, thematic, temporal, geographic, or human context, deepening the experience through making contextual meaning” (Tebeau).

What I think is extremely remarkable about the Cleveland Historical Project is that it offered the community the opportunity to be a part of the scholarly production, and helped foster conversations for communities in Cleveland by providing spaces and resources to do this work: “We train the community in documentary techniques, including oral history collection, and we support them with a team of student and volunteer facilitators and interpretive storytelling workshops. Not only has this built sustainable projects through enhancing collaborators’ command of the oral history craft, it also has allowed our research team to collect a large number of oral histories on a wide variety of subjects. Then, those same collaborative teams log interviews, index them, and select audio segments as building blocks for interpretive stories about the city and its communities”. As Trebeau stated, this process has made “knowledge production more democratic”. By including the witnesses and citizens of Cleveland in a project about their city, the “Cleveland Historical emphasizes active human curation as being vital to understanding place and community identity” which in turn fosters community engagement and ensures transparency. Furthermore, the project demonstrates how oral history and digital practice combat power relations in traditional story telling by “reimagin[ing] communities as part of the scholarly production” not only through the function of oral history but also by training members of these communities to be a part of the process of archiving, documenting, interviewing etc.

These two projects further illuminated on the necessity of public scholarship and digital (public) humanities work. Reflecting on my current research proposal, I need to continue asking myself how will the communities I’m representing take part in this process. After listening to digital archivist Jarrett Drake last week, I’m also wondering if archives and digital projects need to last forever. I’m kind of troubled by that notion because their existences combat erasure and systemic omissions of history. However, in the example of the Cleveland History Project, I believe that even if the app ceased to exist, the community would carry on with another project or form of resistance through the skills many folks have been taught. If I think about the recovery work of Digital Harlem, then I’d disagree with that notion and hope that these digital projects could become immortal in a sense especially with the growing lack of access to public archives.

Aside from the functions of digital humanities projects, the aforementioned projects have illuminated me to the microcosms that create and define our cities. Things that seem so small as the rustling of a train on tracks, music, people gathering – sound- can connect memory and location to define a place. What other small pieces of a city (that we may be taking for granted) really contribute to our understandings of them? I think it is super important to catalog and document cities in some way especially with ongoing gentrification, migration, and activisms that redefine time, place, and space, especially in my hometown of Newark, NJ.

This picture depicts what the Hahne’s Building looked like decades ago in Downtown Newark.

Now, in 2017 the Hahne’s Building has been renovated as a third space for community members, artists, and Rutgers students and faculty to ‘meet’. And, it had a Whole Foods Market and apartments for rent. It would be interesting to create a project that digitized the city of Newark.

These pictures reflect how much one building has changed in a couple of years. This changed has redefined and impacted our city.



Note-none of these pictures are my own nor do I claim to own them. Source: Google




About ohh_kei

I'm a New Jerseyan who loves to read, write, dance, hike, and learn. As the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants, I enjoy learning about different peoples and cultures. I look for narratives of migrants/immigrants that discuss struggles within immigration, identity formation, assimilation and being bi-cultural in the United States. I currently am pursuing my PhD in American Studies at Rutgers University.
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2 Responses to Thinking About Digital Spaces and Physical Spaces

  1. lornaebner says:

    Hi Keishla,
    Thanks for sharing. I’ve also been wondering about longevity in regards to digital communities, would you want your project to continue or have a definitive ending? And how are you thinking about sustaining it? What do you think about digital archives or programs that are complete, but still available to the public?
    Also great question about what other aspects can fully round out the presentation of a place. That is something I had not considered. Other than events, are there other aspects of say, the location of the Hahne’s building that would give you a better representation of it?


  2. trapanesed says:

    Thanks for sharing. I like how you mentioned that Tebeau and Robinsons projects are serving the community, I got the same impression. Also, I identify with you not knowing whether Tebeau created the project or was just writing about a project created by Cleveland Historical. I’m impressed by how well you are able to extend you blog posts and make that personal connection. Its great you were able to think to include the Hayne building and last weeks seminar into the conversation. I also think a digital Newark project would be cool.


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