I had the honor of being part of a pecha-kucha roundtable at this year's NEASA annual conference, "Digital Revolutions: Interpreting and Historicizing American Culture." The panel was a lot of fun, and it was really great to learn about so many different projects in one short block of time. I asked the audience for any suggestions or tips on digital tools for my project, and the best tip I got actually came from a co-panelist. If you are planning any type of geospatial project, there are some good step-by-step instructions, mostly dealing with ArcGIS, at the Scholars Lab. I'm going to dedicate some time over the next week to thinking about whether ArcGIS is right for my project and what I hope to do with my data.
There were a few themes from the conference that I've been dwelling on and that might shape the way I think about my own digital projects. First is the way we think about space. Elizabeth Dillon, also part of the roundtable, showed the results of her spatial reading of Equiano's slave narrative. She decided to categorize "space," so that she could represent real and imagined (or, unvisited) locations. Another panel, also on mapping but adopting a more traditional presentation format, touched on the same topic when the speakers, Heather Duncan and Daniel Schweitzer, showed their efforts at mapping locations mentioned in Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. They, too, grappled with the difference between locations which were actually visited by the narrator and those only mentioned by him. I think this is an interesting challenge for those of us who are trying to map recorded experiences. For my own work, it's a matter of showing the known ports of call for various ships versus representing the range of options a captain or supercargo knew about and chose between. In other words, my dilemma is that mapping the actual route of a ship doesn't allow me to show the full range of possibilities or options available.
Another, related, topic that came up in more than one session I visited was the idea of the emptiness of the ocean. Kathryn Tomasek tweeted about this, which made me start thinking about the ocean in my own project, and how empty it is. Maybe someone can help me remember who/what project this was, but someone was mapping slave voyages based on a ship log that included geographic coordinates. A really great application of digital technology, but definitely not possible with my available sources. At this point, I think the ocean is going to stay empty for my project.
Finally, and probably the thing that is weighing most on my mind, after seeing all the collaborative efforts and successful use of grants to support digital projects, I wonder how much DH I can really do while still finishing my degree sometime before the end of the decade. Right now, I have a lot of things I'd like to do, but I'm just not sure how much of that I should or can do. I'm not attempting to write any new programs or create anything from the ground up, but my big time suck is going to be the transcription from manuscripts to have enough data to make meaningful analyses/representations. I guess this is something I'll have to keep considering as I move forward.
One thing I found in Providence, but not at the conference, was a great exhibit at the John Carter Brown Library called "Mind Your Business." Readers of my MA thesis will know that I'm a huge fan of double entendre titles, and followers of my current research know that I spend a lot of time thinking about merchant papers and accounts. It was very gratifying to see that the curator, Kimberly Nusco, had the same desire to track one transaction through the daybook, journal and ledger as I would have (if I ever could get my hands on a full set of account books). If only someone could do for the merchant's business office what Winterthur did with the Dominy clock shop.