Many, many events have come and gone without comment in the last two months on this blog. Significantly, in January I went to both the AHA in New Orleans and to the Digital Humanities Winter Institute (DHWI) at the University of Maryland. On the former, there’s a post brewing particularly about a round table I was responsible for as Chair of the CLAH Teaching Committee. That, and the music and food in NOLA.
DHWI was as a very interesting experience. I took a class on large scale text analysis in R taught by UNL’s Matt Jockers. There was tons of code, and a learning curve for me in getting used to R’s data structures and syntax. I’ll admit I struggled a bit with visualizing in my head the various types of matrices that constitute much of R’s data structures. I have more to say about this class too, but in another post.
I drove each day to College Park from Baltimore together with Alex Galarza. Alex and I talked a lot sitting in traffic on I-95. At some point during the week we ended up in a discussion on something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last year or so– frameworks for long form (historical) narrative online. We both share some misgivings about many of the platforms currently in use in Digital History projects, including WordPress, Drupal, Omeka, KORA, etc.
I’m not a designer, and I think that I lack a vocabulary to explain exactly what my misgivings are about the current platforms and how they affect the potential for presenting long form historical argument. In the case of the platforms I listed above, in each case the idea of constructing a long form narrative on the platforms always feels like a hack. WordPress is a great platform for writing blog posts. It doesn’t take much, though, for an individual post to get to the tldr level. The UI of a blog sets limits, at least of expectation, on the length one will spend reading an individual piece. That’s not, of course, the condition of an Omeka or Drupal, both of which might be used in a blog-like manner, but which are intended at a more fundamental level as expressions of modeled relationships between entities that exist in their databases. The way that the elementary entities of the various CMSs are conceived affects the organization and delivery of information using that platform. Raf Alvarado gave an excellent talk on this very thing a few years ago at THATCamp Prime. I put up my notes from that session a few years ago, which was the best presentation I’ve ever heard of the connection between the ontology of a CMS and its resulting product. I bring it up here because I think that Raf’s idea about the way platforms (CMSs) model content has direct bearing on my own discomfort with them as current options for long form historical narrative.
Let’s take Omeka as an example. In Raf’s presentation he noted that for Omeka, the elementary unit is the ITEM. Items belong to Collections, and have Dublin Core metadata, keywords, and tags associated with them. Combinations of items, organized by membership in collections or linked through metadata, keywords, or tags allow information to be accessed through Exhibits. Raf described this, borrowing a term from Landow’s Hypertext, as “Axial Hypertext,” or a “sequential content model.” On the face of it, it may seem that a sequential content model would be the best for historical presentation, encouraging the reader to go through a sequence curated by the scholar through the construction of exhibits. Reading that sentence, I imagine you imagining a museum, which is appropriate given the genealogy of Omeka. But, it highlights what remains an unspoken divide in historical scholarship– between what is traditionally called “public” vs. academic history. The narrative of a public history exhibit, and that of an Omeka site as well, is intimately tied to Item objects. This isn’t the case in the kind of history I and most of the History professoriate write.
Long form narrative is not object oriented, to butcher a phrase associated with philosophy and computer programming. While historical writing is certainly evidentiary, it’s not a sequential presentation of evidential objects. Omeka doesn’t force one to parade objects, but it is predisposed to organizing information in that manner. I’m not trying to pick on Omeka either, because I have problems with all of the major platforms and the models they impose on the information-knowledge complex. They can also all be hacked for the purpose of long form historical narrative.
Why does this matter, even? We have epubs for tablet reading. Isn’t that the electronic substitute for the book? It is I guess, but it falls short for me for two reasons. 1. Epubs truly do cede design elements to the platform. 2. Epubs do little to utilize the interactivity made possible by hypertext. They’re an ugly simulacrum of the book. I also don’t like the movement of more and more information to apps, as opposed to on the open web. There isn’t too much I can think of about the epub experience that can’t be replicated on a well designed website that is by intention responsive to screen size and computer type.
This discussion cropped up on twitter a couple of weeks ago. Alex storified it. It was started by a query about allowing users to create their own narratives from archival collections. It’s a cool question, and one that is really similar to the idea behind Scalar or Scholars Lab’s plugin Neatline for Omeka.
I’m really less interested in existing or new platforms that can be coerced into long form historical narrative, especially those where evidence objects are the central focus of the platform’s “data object.” I’m more interested in general design principles for presenting either wide-ranging or deeply analytical historical work online. Digital History has focused more on the object of evidence, in part because of its roots in public history and in part because really the Web provided for the first time the capacity to share sources ubiquitously. As a result of that orientation, and with exceptions of course, DH has not offered much to historians working in a more academic mode. And that’s a shame. And that’s a shame that has affected the perception of DH in the traditional academy. If you doubt that, read the Introduction to Allan Megill’s *Historical Knowledge, Historical Error, which is essentially a scathing review of Valley of the Shadow. The problem, if it is one, is the extent to which Digital History has turned it’s practitioners into curators or archivists to the neglect of long-form narrative and analysis.
What would a framework for historical narrative include?
- A minimalist interface.
- Good typography that conveys the seriousness and temporality of the narrative. With today’s screen resolutions, I think we can go with serif fonts and large type. We’re not selling SAAS or any commodity, so why take our typographic cues from that world?
- Navigation. Finding one’s place, and finding it again is important for scholarly reading. Together with navigation would be, I’d say, the ability to cite by paragraph. And, to be honest, I’m neither a fan of scrolling or pagination. But maybe that’s just me.
- I’d really like some means to visualize embedded metadata/rdfa/microdata as well.
What else? What else would you want to see in such a framework? The upside of such a framework is it could be used with any platform, or by itself with book-length works written in Markdown. This isn’t exactly the direction the conversation on twitter was taking, but as Jeremy Boggs tweeted in the storified conversation:
— Jeremy Boggs (@clioweb) January 23, 2013
With the ease of authoring with Markdown, I think he’s exactly right that there’s still much to explore with just HTML and CSS.