Historical Research Data – Planning for Digital Possibilities

The Issue

How can historians use research data (i.e. photos, oral histories, text) in new ways?

I think a lot about data these days. As a CLIR Fellow in Digital Scholarship at the University at Buffalo, I am concerned with the role libraries can/should play in making research data accessible, usable, and re-usable. But I cannot help but approach that issue from my experience as a graduate student and social historian. Over the years, I have gathered spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data, tons of images, and oral history interviews in order to understand the individual and collective experiences of people from the past – and to tell stories.

As I collected data, I knew I wanted to use it in creative ways beyond the printed word. I was especially interested in historical mapping and visualizing migration. But how would I get from the the primary source to a completed project? When and where does a history graduate student learn how to gather and document data in a way that will facilitate creative re-use?

My hope is that history departments will work with libraries to incorporate digital methodologies into graduate curricula and to help students plan for flexibility in the interpretation and dissemination of their research. While the monograph is not going away in the immediate future, it will likely change form (see, for example, the Fulcrum platform at the University of Michigan). And there are so many dynamic ways to analyze and share research – through websites/online exhibits, text mining, podcasts, audio documentaries, blogs, topic modelling, historical maps, published datasets, digital collections, social media and more. But when we do our research we’re not always thinking about how it might be re-purposed and communicated in the digital realm. This is especially true for new graduate students.

Quality Matters

Learning about the possibilities early on can save time and money later. It is increasingly important to think not just about the content, but also the form and structure of our research. For example, when I record an oral history interview, I might be most concerned with capturing voices, but less attentive to background noise like a TV. After all, I will transcribe the interviews and incorporate the information into my dissertation or book manuscript. The quality of the audio may not seem as important as the spoken words. Still, spoken words are so powerful and contain tone and inflections not adequately conveyed in text.

What if I decide a few years later that I want to create an audio documentary or podcast episode using interviews? Or incorporate media into my dissertation? Then quality matters, a lot. But I can’t go back and recreate these interviews.

When I’m transcribing data from a property deed or court record into a spreadsheet, I will save on time and stress if I do so in a format that lends itself to computer analysis or visualization, or at the very least that is consistent. Here are examples of how my understanding of spreadsheet data has changed over time. One is a spreadsheet of biographical community data I started in 2007 to try to understand social and kinship networks (some of the columns are hidden for display clarity). The other is a more recent spreadsheet of WWI draft card data (started years ago, but “cleaned up” in recent years).
Click on the spreadsheets for a clearer view.

Spreadsheet of messy data
Spreadsheet of Messy Data
Spreadsheet with organized data
Spreadsheet of Organized Data

When I was a graduate student I was fortunate to learn something about structuring data because I took an Introduction to Quantitative Historical Methods at the ICPSR Summer Program in 2008, which resulted in a poster on Rural African American Migration within the South (presented at the 2008 Social Science History Association meeting).

Poster showing statistics on African American rural migration within the South

That poster drew upon aggregate census data, but also World War I draft registration card data I had transcribed. In that class, I learned a bit about putting data into spreadsheets, but the emphasis was on basic statistical analysis and not the larger world of digital projects and data visualization and analysis. Of course that was 2008. Now that the digital humanities has caught fire, more librarians are teaching these skills, and perhaps a handful of history faculty. But it’s still uncommon. I have been fortunate that I’ve received scholarships to attend other institutes, but not everyone can travel for logistical and financial reasons. I want to give credit to Paige Morgan and Yvonne Lam for expanding my skills in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute course Making Choices About Your Data.

Plan for the Future

Being aware of what the digital possibilities are for historical research can open up doors down the road – new publication forms, collaborative digital projects, new forms of community engagement. Libraries are a great place to learn about tools and methodologies, but they also need to be integrated into departmental curricula.

Of course we still have to reckon with the fact that we are humans pressed for time. Technology won’t solve that, and in some ways it complicates the choices we make. At times I have chosen expediency over flexibility and content over form, and later regretted it. I felt prompted to write this post because I’m interested in analyzing court testimony from a federal peonage case from 1906. Perhaps I will encode the testimony with TEI, or at the very least, make searchable text available online. But I took pictures of documents with an old-model, poor resolution camera when I could have used a scanner at the archives. Taking pictures of 1000 pages was faster. As I think about the possibilities of text analysis, I regret that I did not choose the option that would give me more flexibility down the road (the poor image quality makes OCR a mess, although still might try some image manipulation). I am a fast typist, so maybe….and in fact I have been transcribing (this is testimony by Emory Nichols in United States vs. Charles M. Smith, Sr., et al.)

The pressure to maximize time in the archives will always be present. And the impulse to put data into spreadsheets in a way that is quick and useful for us to visually absorb, but is not machine readable, will remain. But I hope that history departments will start to incorporate digital research methodologies into curricula and help scholars think beyond the text. What are the possibilities and how might we plan for them?

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Community Connections in the Digital Humanities

In June and July of this year I moved from a community-based non-profit to a research library at an R1 institution. At the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill, NC, I managed the development of a public-facing digital oral history project, and as a CLIR Fellow at the University at Buffalo I am building support in the library and on campus for digital scholarship. There are many connections between these two types of work, yet understandings of community and audience are very different.

Since the beginning of my academic career in 2001, I have found myself torn between these two contexts. I love research, ideas, analysis and the opportunity for discussion and debate the academy provides, but I loathe the hierarchies, silos, and ivory-tower mentality. The Jackson Center perfectly matched my desire to use history to make a difference, to transform society. But we were under-resourced, and I missed the professional development and networking opportunities in the academy, especially as it related to the digital work I was doing.

As a community member in Chapel Hill, I decided to take advantage of the fact that UNC was down the road, even though I sometimes felt like an interloper. I did this even before I was at the Jackson Center, because I was writing my dissertation in relative isolation away from my home institution. I joined a digital humanities happy hour and the digital humanities listserv. I racked up fines with a community borrowers card, presented at a symposium, attended talks, brown bag lunches, and workshops. Some of the workshops were open and some required a university ID to register, so those were off-limits.

I was fortunate in seeking out resources because I was familiar with the academic environment. I knew what to look for, and for the most part, where to look – but not everyone does. Even though I felt like an outsider because I wasn’t a student or faculty, I could fall back on my academic credentials. That speaks volumes about how academic institutions are perceived and the messages sent (intentionally or unintentionally) about who belongs and who doesn’t.

The academic/public divide is an old one, but I see the digital humanities as an opportunity for bridging this chasm. The culture of the digital humanities is collaborative, and often public-facing. In the best circumstances it is publicly engaged. While I understand that digital humanities/digital scholarship activities on campus are designed to primarily serve faculty and students, I hope that we can start to think outside outside the academy walls, and ask – is there someone else I can reach out to who might be interested in this? Can we open up our workshops and institutes and explicitly invite the public? Can we invite community speakers to digital humanities events? How can we reach the growing numbers of contingent academic laborers and independent scholars? How can we make digital projects relevant to broader audiences and seek out collaborative possibilities? How can libraries support faculty and students who want to engage the public?

I want to acknowledge that this work is being done at some institutions and discussions are happening in a variety of places. I hope the conversations continue and we learn from one another. For example, when I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in Victoria, British Columbia, in June, I was able to go to a DLFxDHSI unconference on digital libraries, digital humanities, and social justice. In one of the sessions we explicitly talked about making community connections. I was excited to find out about the new book Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel. Conversations are happening on Twitter – #aadhum2018, #femdh, #transformdh and more.

I have found THATCAmps to be welcoming spaces. In 2015 I attended a Community Archives THATCamp at UNC. Some of what I learned there I was able to use later at the Jackson Center. Often Special Collections and Archives or Digital Humanities Centers foster these connections. Last year Vanderbilt’s Center for Digital Humanities had a working group on Digital Initiatives in Community Engagement (it may be ongoing). There is a growing call for people engaged in the digital humanities to to think about its intersections with the public humanities. See, for example, Will Fenton’s The Digital Humanities as Public Humanities.

The tendency, however, is for universities to think of “community” as the campus community. As digital humanities/digital scholarship programs continue to expand at colleges and universities, I hope those of us working in departments, institutes, and libraries can look for ways to be more open and inclusive.

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Professional Liminality

Note – I wrote this post several months ago (May) and didn’t immediately publish it – then I got a job and life got crazy (it’s now August). For those of you in experiencing professional uncertainty, don’t give up.

In the two years since I finished my PhD in history, I have been at a crossroads, a liminal professional space. It is uncomfortable, yet it has also created an opportunity to reflect. What motivates my work and what kind of work makes me greet each new day with enthusiasm? I recognize I’m privileged to have this luxury. Because I have an advanced education, there is a good possibility that I’ll find a job that is financially stable, intellectually engaged, and – I hope – socially transformative (even in a small way). But it has not been easy. I have a background in science, social science, and the humanities. I have worked in an independent research archives, science library, and community non-profit; I have been a graduate research and teaching assistant, published in my field, and and continue to do research. I’m committed to work that has relevance for local communities and the general pubic. Finding a job that values this range of experiences is difficult, even though I would argue that it helps me think outside the box and collaborate with diverse groups of people. What I’m realizing is that I’ve been focused on a mission – making information accessible in a way that can shift societal power imbalances. Should I be jumping through hoops for specific jobs? There is a logic to my path, but I may not have communicated it well. Still, I don’t want to be confined to a professional box. I want to be at the intersection of research, teaching and community in the humanities, regardless of the specific title. Is there a place for me?

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Social History and the Power of Naming

As a social historian, I love weaving together the small fragments of history into a story. I can’t speak for all social historians, but I think many of us share a desire to upend hierarchies of power by uncovering the experiences of everyday people. For me, looking through a big dusty, unwieldy volume of deeds in a courthouse, and discovering the names of the trustees who helped build a small rural church in 1923, is thrilling. Crazy, I know.

Family history researchers might be excited to locate their ancestors in documents, but I love learning the stories of people and places to which I don’t have a close connection. I transcribe small pieces of historical data, hoping to link them together into broader understandings of family and community. Names provide an avenue for doing this. But I also think it is important to recognize each individual. Even in bottom-up social histories, some names are chosen and others are left out. I find it frustrating that in historical writing I cannot name everyone who is part of the larger story. There is no feasible way to individually acknowledge all the members of a Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union local or NAACP chapter, even though each person sacrificed to make the world a better place. Digital projects offer that opportunity.

As I move forward with my digital work on the Missouri Bootheel, I will be sharing the names of the people who made change happen and some of the archival documents (depending on copyright status) connected to their lives. I hope this will provide a different perspective on grassroots leadership and courage in rural areas. I also hope it will be useful for genealogists digging into their family history. Stay tuned – I’ll begin by adding the names and federal court testimony of men and women who were held in peonage in New Madrid County, MO in 1906. While doing so, I’m going to try out Tropy, the new photo organization software by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

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Black Farm Workers Protest Housing Discrimination in 1941

“We demand, by this petition, that the Farm Security Administration stand its ground and that these 80 homes in question be given to Colored as was the plan in the beginning.”

In my last post I highlighted the fact that African Americans have been historically excluded from parts of the Bootheel.  This exclusion affected land ownership, employment, and access to housing and education.  There are many examples of African Americans fighting against rural apartheid and resource inequities, but this history is infrequently told.  This post highlights one of those instances.  While some residents of the Bootheel might know about the Delmo housing projects, they may not know they were born out of worker activism.

In the 1930s, as a result of changes in federal farm policy and farm mechanization, many white landowners decided not to renew the (usually verbal) contracts of sharecroppers and chose to hire farm day laborers.  This meant hundreds of families were evicted from their homes, because housing was tied to sharecropping arrangements. This affected Black and white families, but Black families were hit the hardest, in part because they were often excluded from housing and employment opportunities.  The Farm Security Administration, in January 1940, agreed (after a large roadside sharecropper protest) to build small housing communities for farm workers.  One of these communities, South Wardell (later renamed Homestown) was slated to be for African American farm workers.  White residents in Wardell and the surrounding area, with the support of Representative Orville Zimmerman, signed petitions against the housing for Black workers.  Black farm workers and sharecroppers fought back, many of whom were members of the Missouri Agricultural Workers’ Council at Hayti, a union affiliated with UCAPAWA, the United  Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America.

Here is a partial transcription of that petition, including the names of those who signed.  Note that I have transcribed the names as they were typed in the government copy.   A full copy from the National Archives can be found here.  Also, see the photos and interview of Mozetta Hull Henry for the story of a family who grew up in the community these workers saved.

If anyone recognizes these names/families and has stories to share, I would love to hear more.

“We, the Colored sharecroppers, tenant-farmers and farm day laborers, are making a strong protest to our Seat of Government, at Washington, D.C., against any such action [exclusion].  We have suffered most, we have suffered longest.  When more homes were built for Whites than were built for Colored, we kept silent, even when we knew that the Colored of the group greatly outnumbered the Whites.

Now that there is an attempt to cheat us out of the meager allotment that the Farm Security Administration has given us, we say again, it is wrong and we resent it.

We demand, by this petition, that the Farm Security Administration stand its ground and that these 80 homes be given to Colored as was the plan in the beginning.

If this petition is ignored, we, the sharecroppers, tenant-farmers and farm day laborers of Pemiscot County shall depart from this County in a body on March 20, 1941.  And it is agreed that in other Counties that the sharecroppers, tenant-farmers, and farm day laborers shall not accept the group homes offered them, if their brothers in Pemiscot County are denied the homes due them.

And once again this great American Nation and the World shall know that this Government of our United States of America, that preaches Democracy so loudly, has failed to practice its own preaching.”

  1. J. W. Littlefield
  2. Mamie Littlefield
  3. Boyd Wade
  4. Birdee Wade
  5. Samuel Collins
  6. Oliva Collins
  7. Horace Vaughn
  8. Alice Vaughn
  9. Willie Ward
  10. Pearl Ward
  11. Alford Anderson
  12. Amanda Anderson
  13. Lush Berry
  14. Johnie Williams
  15. Sam Fredrick
  16. A. Garland
  17.  Agusta Garland
  18. Mary Nailer
  19. Florence Goberson
  20. Isaac Byrd
  21. Maggie Byrd
  22. Major Johns
  23. E. K. Tipler
  24. Andrew Hall
  25. Sullivan Hall
  26. H. D. Rowe
  27. John Rhodes
  28. Leoeta Rhodes
  29. John Reed
  30. Laura Reed
  31. Henry Drew
  32. Joseph Farrell
  33. Jessie Seewood
  34. M. C. Williams
  35. John Helem
  36. Jessie Bordens
  37. Louise Bordens
  38. C. Milton
  39. Sharan Moore
  40. Jessie Dirling
  41. Lee Deerings
  42. Randolph Wilson
  43. Clarense Cerasby
  44. Laura Weed
  45. Frank Walker
  46. Ruben Ford
  47. Joshua Ford
  48. Georgia Ford
  49. E. D. Crawford
  50. Minnie Crawford
  51. J. B. Butler
  52. Louis Butler
  53. Louis T. Johnson
  54. Lucile Johnson
  55. John Thomas
  56. Emma Thomas
  57. Alvin Mayfield
  58. Will King
  59. Dack Sharp
  60. Gennie King
  61. Morris Mayfield
  62. Bud Noble
  63. Will Singrams
  64. John Wynch
  65. Deeda Clarks
  66. Rosa Smith
  67. Vernon Loyd
  68. Emmet Salker
  69. Shed Harris
  70. Delmer Boon
  71. Alvin Boyd
  72. Louis Dunn
  73. Levi Shaw
  74. Alma Shaw
  75. L. Q. Shaw
  76. Frank Faulkes
  77. Dora Williams
  78. Ben Bailey
  79. Ora Bailey
  80. Sylvester Huffman
  81. Prentice Washington
  82. Wm. Griffins
  83. Lillie Griffin
  84. Charlie Kelly
  85. Inex Kelly
  86. D. C. Mathew
  87. Mamie Mathew

[Below the numbered signatures are the following names]

Martha Maples, Ola Williams, Augusta Holms, Emma Mabins, Elouise Bridgeford, Lillie Esten, John Crawford, Jack Esters, Joseph Smith, Inez Moore, C. J. Varney, Nelson Barns, S. D. Jones, Robert Redditt, W. L. Harris, Joseph Ross, Albert Roger, Ike Daters, Pearl Cooks, Versia Mitchel, Annie Mae Hunt, Bertha Mansfield, Beatrice Patterson, R. B. Mayfield, J. W. Littlefield.


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A Historical Glimpse of White Supremacy in Missouri

The recent events in Charlottesville, VA have put white nationalism and white supremacy at the center of many public conversations, at least for the moment.  People are calling it a “turning point,” although it remains to be seen whether that is true or what it means.  Dylan Roof’s murder of nine African Americans (and shooting of three more people), at Emanual AME Church in Charleston, SC should have been a turning point.

Many people think of white supremacists as part of the societal fringe, but it is important to think about how the ideology has operated throughout our country’s history and has been practiced by people one might consider “upstanding citizens” or who have been identified by other terms of respectability.  White supremacy has been foundational to the development of our nation.  One way white supremacy and white nationalism have operated has been through policies and practices that deny African Americans (and other people of color) access to territory.  By territory, I mean an area of land, held by government or private ownership.  The goal of such exclusion was to create all-white spaces: counties, townships, towns, etc.  This still happens today, but I want to share an historical example from around 1919 in Southeast Missouri, also known as the Bootheel.

C. F. Bruton Real Estate and Investment Co., The Modern Promised Land, Southeast Missouri-Northeast Arkansas Promotions, ca. 1919, Southeast Missouri State University Archives and Special Collections

In the early 20th century, drainage projects in the region made thousands of acres of land available for farming.  It was rich alluvial soil that beckoned farmers from the South and Midwest.  Real Estate companies, railroads, private owners, and lumber companies began marketing and selling land.  Local businessmen established commercial clubs focused on promoting town and regional development.  In the Bootheel, the 1910s were probably the peak of this activity (although it continued into the 1920s).  Clarence F. Bruton, who was originally from Boone Co., MO, moved to Sikeston in Scott County between 1900 and 1910.  He established real estate and investment company, which published The Modern Promised Land around 1919.  It contained accolades about the region’s soil, water, schools, churches, and more. At a future date I’ll scan the entire publication and put it in the Documents &  Exhibits part of my site, but for now, I’m sharing a small piece.

The publication tells readers that one of the “positives” of moving to the region was the absence of African American farmers and the racial segregation of schools.  One of the target audiences for this pamphlet was Midwestern farmers in Indiana and Illinois.  At this time there were very few African Americans living in rural Scott County.  Many people wanted to maintain the status quo, which meant white landowners rarely sold land to African Americans in this county.  Until widespread cotton production took hold around 1922-1923, there were few Black farm laborers or sharecroppers.  This exclusion of African Americans from economic opportunities is one example of how inequities from the past directly connect to wealth inequality today.  It also illustrates how white supremacy was a part of everyday business and was practiced by everyday people.

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Starting Small

I was inspired to write this post when I sat down on my porch this morning to have coffee.  My intention was to enjoy a leisurely start to a relatively cool but humid Saturday morning here in North Carolina while reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds by adrienne maree brown.  Almost immediately I read the words:

“Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small).”

These words reminded me of something Sarah Patterson, co-founder of the ColoredConventions.org project, said on the last day of the HILT workshop I attended titled “Black Public Publics in the Humanities”:

“Challenge the idea that small, partial, or incomplete datasets are insignificant.”

Often the scope of what we want to accomplish – whether in social movement building, our career, or a particular project such as a dissertation, book, or DH project – can be daunting.  It can lead to writer’s block, procrastination, and stall us out.  In historical scholarship or a digital project, we might hold back the archival traces and small glimpses of people’s lives in favor of those people for whom more information is available.   Yet as both these quotes argue, we should value the small, for it is small actions, small pieces, that are the foundation and fabric of something larger.  One has to start small, otherwise how will you have room to build and grow?

I take this as inspiration on many fronts, but today I will enjoy uploading some historical traces to the Omeka site I am developing.  Next time, I’ll muse upon how it applies to career development.

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Starting Anew

ca. 1910s Little River Drainage District Collection, Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

I created this site over a year ago with the intention of developing a professional online presence and sharing my forays into digital history. Life got in the way and I realized I was too focused on becoming an expert on a tool before making anything public. In academia we tend to downplay or hide our mistakes and failures, but learning is messy for everyone!  It’s best to learn by doing, so here I am.

I titled the blog Grounded History for many reasons. I am, at my core, a social historian. I’m interested in the stories of everyday people, in what happens at the grassroots level. And while I love learning about theory, emotions, ideologies, etc. I never want to lose sight of the materiality and physicality of history. I have a particular interest in rural landscapes and the literal ground we (and others in the past) have traversed.

I have recently returned to my research after a post-dissertation hiatus and am exploring the intersections of race, labor and geography in the Missouri Delta. Instead of waiting months or years to share information in a published scholarly article, I will be sharing interesting maps, stories, bits and pieces along the way.

Stay tuned for more on the lumber industry in the Missouri Delta during the WWI-era!

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