ecda Presents: a Forum Hosted by the History Design Studio at Harvard University: Digital Humanities for Caribbean History

(2017-03-31) The following is a talk I gave along with my colleagues on the early Caribbean Digital Archive (ecda) at a forum hosted by the History Design Studio at Harvard University: Digital Humanities for Caribbean History

I very special thank you to Professor Vincent Brown (Harvard) and the History Design Studio for inviting the ecda project team to engage in this forum discussion on the affordances and challenges of building Caribbean digital projects.


Good morning, My name is Ben and I have been responsible for the research and development of the ecda project site for roughly the past 5 years.

We have all been invited here today to discuss the affordances and challenges of building digital Caribbeanist projects and collaborations. By way of an initial response, I’d like to open my overview of the development history to our project with a more personal, that is to say, less technical, account of things. Particularly, I wish to address at the outset the human component that lives both behind and in front of our project, as I believe this to be a necessary focus for any address of the challenges of academic digital work in our case and more broadly.

Over the past five years I have been called on by a wide range of audiences to give an account of our project. Unsurprisingly, I typically offer an overview of the how and so what of building digital archives. I must admit, however, I am increasingly unsatisfied with this narrative. I’ve have desired for quite some time now to tell a slightly different story. One that is less about archives, platforms, digitization standards, roadmaps, infrastructures and architectures and more about the complexly human and deeply personal connections I believe our unique professional positions and important intellectual labor afford us as digital humanists. In other words, what I mean to suggest here is that if there is a story to the ecda’s development it is, in fact, primarily one about the forging of human relationships, more specifically open, meaningful, and sustainable partnerships.
By partnerships I don’t mean those we establish out of necessity, say with other institutions, projects, and in some cases even other persons. Partnerships of necessity undoubtedly play a role in securing the welfare of Digital humanities projects, not to mention the wellbeing of those, often students and contracted workers, whose labor is vital to the ongoing development and management of our projects. However, these kinds of partnerships are most often determined by the unavoidable technical, monetary, and structural conditions of necessity. Alternatively, the partnerships I mean to address here are rooted not in necessity but in meaningful human connection, made possible through desireable and open forms of collaboration, and more often than not demonstrated and solidified through a shared rebellion against such conditions. One might even prefer to call these friendships. I often do.

As a matter of framing the following development narrative, I want to propose here that the greatest affordance of the digital humanities so far has been its ability to motivate us toward becoming better at being human together through our profoundly personal and deeply meaningful shared practices in building. These are the kinds of partnerships I am interested in learning to better cultivate and the story I hope to promote as relates to our ongoing digital work. Primarily because they are in fact so complex and yet so critical to what we do. This has been a challenge for us, as I’m sure in some regard for you all as well, but it’s a productive and positive challenge that I believe we are primed to address together.
If our development histories demonstrate anything it is the way cooperative, intentional togetherness constitutes the actual lifeblood of our projects as well as our professional and personal selves. If ethical and open forms of human sociability are often, if not always, the subject of our scholarly work, they are also what make that work liveable… and I strongly believe they are likewise what make possible that sustainable future we desire for ourselves, each other, and our digital projects.
This is the human element to our digital futures…

Emphasizing this is important to me for several reasons: First, I’ve have become increasingly more aware and troubled by the absence of the human components, personal connections, and collective growth that drive this project forward from our official record. As I am the one authoring the first draft of this, I’m looking for ways to make these as present and purposeful as the technical, financial, institutional details project documentation tends to preserve. Second, I believe that for all this project’s various fits and starts, its most notable successes have been the professional, intellectual, and personal growth of the people behind it, building it, developing new skills, connections, and understanding together as a community of colleagues and partners. And finally, I’m pointing to the human element behind our work because it lives on the front-end as well. And it is here where we have met the greatest challenge: engaging directly and consistently with those with whom we intend this project will support. We have made progress toward involving the broader early Caribbeanist community into our processes of building, but we are actively seeking out ways to do this better. It’s a real challenge, for any project, but it is one we are hoping to meet together.

Now who wants to see 5 years of development flash by in about 2 min?
There are 5 primary phases of development the ecda has gone through that I will quickly cover here.
The fall of 2012, which was our early process of shared learning in how to do digital work
The launch of ecda 1.0 in the Winter of 2013 and subsequent project redesign
The develop, and eventual beta test, of our ecda 2.0 WordPress instance across the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2016
And finally, this past summer where we officially migrated into a CERES project toolkit site under the support of Northeastern University’s Digital Repository Service, which eli will be covering in more detail next.

Our initial development phase focused on learning how to acquire, store, and publish historical materials in an archival context. When the project first got underway, it consisted of Elizabeth Dillon, Nicole Aljoe, as co-Directors, and myself along with Elizabeth Hopwood, who is currently helping to run the DH center at Loyola, Chicago. We were all new to digital work. None of us had any background in the library sciences, web development, or, if I’m being honest, copyright and fair use practices. We had to learn on our feet and we had to learn quickly. .

Our role at this early stage was primarily to do digital research. To track down as many early Caribbean texts we could from a set of 100 core works suggested by scholars of the field. This process was difficult, but would prove extremely valuable in our future discussions about the current state of digital archives and our vision for a more accessible, interactive, contributive archive model.

The most obvious and immediate challenge had to do with access. In many cases, the texts we were looking for were locked behind institutional paywalls, and as we would soon learn, even institutional access didn’t mean we could download and redistribute. Our early acquisitions policy was, in a manner of speaking, a matter of piracy. Although much of this early work would eventually be scrapped for more ethical, stable forms of acquisition, which our ever impressive acquisitions manager Nicole Keller will discuss later, we learned a lot about how digital archives operate, how they are designed, and how they often limit rather than facilitate open and effective research.

Our first store space was Dropbox, but as we increased our acquisitions that store space quickly met max capacity. We began researching possible web platforms for storing and to eventually publish our materials. We ultimately decided on Omeka because it allowed us to ingest items in a way that mimicked library cataloging, particularly by way of structured metadata. And its curation and exhibit building features seemed promising.

Following our first ingestion phase and the creation of Professor Aljoe’s beta Early Caribbean Slave Narrative Exhibit, we launched our first live site, albeit a bit prematurely, in the Winter of 2013 while Liz Hopwood, Nicole Aljoe, and I attended a conference in Martinique. This trip was extremely valuable to the project as it introduced us to a range of early Caribbeanist scholars who had wonderful feedback about the current and future state of our project. They stressed the importance of both textual access as well as digital accessibility; and they emphasized their desire for more opportunities to employ digital methods in their analysis of their texts and in their scholarship. These conversations significantly shaped our approach to building ecda 2.0 and our decisions to migrate out of Omeka into WordPress.

It was around the launch of ecda 1.0 where we were introduced to the TEI, which is a method for encoding textual materials for preservation and computational processing purposes. Elizabeth Hopwood (along with Liz Polcha, our current project manager, and a team of graduate students) over the next two years develop a customized encoding standard for marking up early Caribbean texts for our project. This component is currently on hold, and we can discuss this more during the Q&A.

As we began to better understand the practices and affordances of doing digital work, we reassessed our project model and our web platform. Over the next year we began developing a new conceptual and technical framework for building, one that pushed on the political structures built into the historical archive as well as those of our Omeka platform.

Our initial concerns with working in Omeka had to do primarily with limitations on front-end user’s discoverability of records, the design of the reading interface or lack thereof, and the ability to curate our materials into scholarly and pedagogical exhibits.

Ironically, the structured archival framework Omeka provided us and that we greatly needed also exposed an equally important need for more dynamic engagement with the archive by the front-end researcher. We were particularly unhappy with the pathways offered from an initial search to the archival item. And we began to envision an alternative setup that would compile together into a single interface the historical object, its record data, associated scholarship, and eventually added features to increase not only the discoverability but the active learning of new research materials.

Out of our development and testing of Omeka we began to see an opportunity for offering one way into a “radical remix” of the digitized colonial archive. We wanted the ecda to become a space for scholars and students alike to openly and collaboratively experiment with new ideas and develop together new approaches for studying early Caribbean culture and texts.

In our work with students, we saw the challenge of getting them to engage the archive using digital methods when there remained such a technical gap between our own materials and interface and non-integrated digital tools. This is a visual of a final course project by three Northeastern students who developed maps through Google Maps engine using our archival materials. While working with them through this process was extremely rewarding pedagogically speaking, from a project developer’s perspective, it exposed some major issues of our project site to support or guide more advanced and dynamic kinds of digital approaches.

In the fall of 2015 we began work on our WordPress site for ecda 2.0. We went with WordPress primarily because of its flexibility, its emphasis on content authoring, as well as its feature rich library of plugins. Over the next year we built a development WordPress site, spending the bulk of that time researching and testing plugins that would support the aims of the Co-Lab: Exhibit building, timeline creation, mapping, annotation, online community engagement, and personalized project dashboards for users.
For all the community site addons WordPress enabled for us, it fell extremely short in helping us to manage our archival materials. In fact, the biggest challenge we faced, which stalled our release of 2.0 on time, was finding ways to create a manageable store space in WordPress. What we gained in customization and features we lost in sustainability as an archive.

Hope is not lost! There is a rather happy ending to this story….
This past summer we were invited on as a project through Northeastern’s digital repository service. Eli, who is a lead developer and long time friend of the ecda, is going to talk in more detail about the DRS setup, its offerings for digital projects like ours, and plans for future development, of which we are particularly excited about.
As a quick overview from our project’s perspective however, I will touch quickly here on a few key ways we have greatly benefited from this new partnership already.
First and foremost, the DRS provides us with a central store space for our archive materials, managed by an expert team of data and web systems specialists, digital archivists and librarians. We have been provided a customized WordPress instance that is directly connected to our stored archive materials. Through this connection, and by way of some smart and exciting custom tools built into the project site, ecda 2.0 will allow users to …

Have a more streamlined browsing experience. Additionally this takes much of the technical, heavy lifting off of the ecda project team members

More direct and dynamic exhibit building options

A clean and approachable backend for composing web content

Mapping features that pull location data from our metadata

The ability to create timelines with our materials

Leaving us to spend time designing more streamlined ways for users to engage and shape the digital Caribbean archive

Long-term developments …
Community Forums
Text and PDF Annotation
Transcription Workflows
Custom Exhibit templates
DATA Generation & Analytics on Archive Materials
Api’s & open-data
Coming Soon…
Soft launch of 2.0 focusing Browse and discoverability of texts
2.1 Soft launch of Co-Lab and the ecdaClassroom