some digital humanities projects, as experienced by Guy

Edmonton Pipelines (http://edmontonpipelines.org/)

Developed by students and faculty at the university of Alberta, this is a storehouse of ideas for reimagining cities. Etymologically, ‘Pipelines’ is both a nod to the city’s oil-rich history and a metaphor for “channeling understanding through dense urban space.” The site contains a vast array of projects in various stages of development; all aim to correct Edmonton’s status as an “under-narrated” city. A selection of the site’s more novel ideas (IMHO):

  • “Vertical Suburbia” tags various parts of the city fringe using Google Maps. Each place tag contains its own story that contributes to a larger narrative about life in the orbit of an urban center. Like many Pipelines projects, it contains a strong dose of creative non-fiction.
  • “Dis/Integration” tracks the demise of a local hospital that has stood vacant since the 1990s. A useful timeline is included, as are some nifty before/after images. The new and old photos occupy the same frame; the default setting shows half of each, but users can toggle between eras with a neat sliding interface. The project is reminiscent of Mark Klett’s Rephotographic Survey Project of the 1970s, one of my favorite ways of showing change over time. This is one of Pipelines’ least textually-dependent offerings.
  • “Desire Lines” maps what we in the Park Service call social trails — shortcuts or other unsanctioned paths that reveal expediencies or inefficiencies in the existing infrastructure surrounding them (apparently Edmontonians are quite the corner-cutters). Each footpath comes with its own piece of prose. This project in particular owes a lot to cognitive mapping, the study of landscapes as they are lived — by those who live them, of course.

Verdict: more provocative than precise, the site seems dedicated to impressionistic explorations of urban space. Interface-wise, it leans heavily on GoogleMaps. Project admins accept submissions and contributions from those outside the academy — which is awesome.

VisualEyes (http://www.viseyes.org/)

University of Virginia’s VisualEyes site contains a number of sample projects; I chose “Vinegar Hill: Memoryscape,” a multimedia chronicle of a Charlottesville neighborhood lost to urban renewal. The site opens with an attractive tag cloud (made with Wordle) drawn from property appraisals in the neighborhood.

The next tab, an aerial timeline, utilizes black-and-white views of the neighborhood’s gradual changes. Starting with the initial rumblings of redevelopment in the 1950s, users can follow the neighborhood as it disintegrates and reforms; short news clippings can be toggled on or off, as well.

The next tab features a 1960 neighborhood survey map from the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Users can toggle superimposed layers indicating property values, African American ownership, and owner occupied/rental status. Photo icons dot the map, allowing users to see street views made from composite historic photographs; numerous aerial photos are available, as well as an interview with a former Vinegar Hill resident. If you want to get real fancy, this map has a Boolean search function — so if you want to see all the houses occupied by African American owners, you can do that.

The fourth and final tab chronicles the exodus from Vinegar Hill after 1961. Users can trace where homeowners and renters moved using a simple timeline function (the same as used for the aerial timeline); hazy boundaries of African American residential areas can be turned on or off. For comparison’s sake, the project offers a timeline that juxtaposes a longtime black resident (Dr. J.A. Jackson) and a white resident (Dr. W.D. Haden). Events from each man’s life scroll by once you press play; an intermediary layer between their news feeds lists national events of relative significance.

Verdict: a wealth of information in a framework that could be applied to countless other neighborhoods. Heavy use of timeline feature, but it doesn’t feel at all repetitive. The mixture of aerial photographs, composite street views, and newspaper clippings fosters a feeling of immense power in the user (this user, anyways).

History Engine (http://historyengine.richmond.edu/)

Another eastern school with a digital scholarship lab, Richmond offers this comprehensive collection of student-produced articles. The subject matter is wide-ranging, spatially and thematically; luckily, a basic search and an advanced search are available. Each article has a similar length (~400 words) and format (date, location, tags, and course/institution from which the article originated); citations of primary and secondary sources are listed at the end (unfortunately, each citation in an article merely leads back to the article listing itself). The ‘explore by tag’ function allows users to search via a cloud tag of the site’s subjects — African Americans, race relations, and slavery are three of the most popular. Each page of search results comes with its own timeplot, a simple line graph noting the temporal trends among your search results; for example, of the 668 articles under the tag ‘race relations,’ a plurality (25) of them list 1873 as their date of occurrence.

The aim of HE is to create a forum for publishing student research that will in turn serve future researchers. Only registered students can contribute, and each submission is vetted thoroughly by “library staff, archivists, professors, and teaching assistants” before it is uploaded. By focusing on “episodes” — small moments like letters, store receipts, parades — HE hopes to unhinge historical knowledge from the burdensome framework of textbooks. Instead, Richmond wishes to promote understanding of the past as it was lived. Teachers are encouraged to contribute to HE within the framework of their classes; in some cases, instructors have even facilitated inter-institutional cooperation in order to offer comprehensive perspective on a certain event/period/place. There is a citation guide and a style guide for students, as well as resources on primary and secondary source research.

Verdict: I hope to use this for an undergraduate class someday. While it doesn’t contain any flashy maps or graphs, History Engine serves as a textual reminder of the collaborative possibilities inherent within the digital humanities. It is essentially an open source textbook, filled with discrete chunks of knowledge in an easily searchable format. As the project gains more participants across the nation, its subject matter will diversify dramatically.

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