Saturday, January 3, 2015

More From Christian James on the Digital History and Library/Archive Front

New York Public Library
For Christian's previous AHA 2015 post click here.--JF

Later Friday, I attended two panels about important historical research issues in the digital era.
The first, Session #42: “Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication,” presented case studies, suggestions and perspectives on how to use software to manage archival sources. Ashley Sanders started off the panel by giving a broad overview of digital history and tools and resources such as Zotero, Omeka, Evernote, and H-Net Commons and Crossroads. (Sanders is a PhD candidate in History and a Network Developer for H-Net.)

Nancy Brown and RachelKantrowitz discussed specific software applications further in depth. Brown talked about her creation of a keyword taxonomy to organize piles of image scans in Adobe Lightroom. Kantrowitz discussed using Devonthink Pro to make her scanned documents searchable through optical character recognition (OCR) and cross-reverencing her scans while writing using Scrivener.

Nora Slonimsky put the panel in a sort of meta-historical perspective by sharing some of her research in intellectual property concepts and laws of the early American republic. In this historical context, there was a clearer distinction between the labor of authorship and intellectual content; this pitted copyright disputes between the “indolent compilers” and the “industrious authors.” Slonimsky's implication for digital scholarship seems to be that clearer distinctions such as these would give historians greater flexibility to share the process (i.e. source files) and products of their research.

The question of sharing research almost dominated the ensuing roundtable and audience discussion, at the prodding of panel chair Leah Weinryb Grohsgal. Grohsgal asked panelists if they would not share their research to collaborate with libraries and archives and help other historians, while the panelists and some audience members shared reservations. (The sharing of research files is becoming a significant aspect of academic research in the natural and physical sciences, a comparison I would have liked to have seen discussed.) Another contribution came from Rosenzweig Center forHistory and New Media Director Stephen Robertson, from the audience, who pointed out that the work described here enables further digital scholarship, principally text mining. Sharing the panelists' research could therefore enable new paths of inquiry.

After checking into my hotel and having dinner with a friend, I stopped by the late evening plenary session on the “New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library.” I typically don't attend events like this, opting to turn in early or socialize instead. At 8:30pm the dim lights made me a bit drowsy, but the intense panel conversation easily kept me awake.

Joan W. Scott led the panel by diving directly into her active efforts to “save” NYPL, prompted by The Nation magazine's article slamming the Central Library Plan (CLP) to close Manhattan branch libraries and remove research collections from the famed 42nd Street branch. Her recap was a blow-by-blow account, but unfortunately, given her position as an eminent scholar, presented more of the controversy and less reflection on the future of library research.

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times architectural critic, gave a very nuanced account of events as he tried to judge the CLP on its own merits and intended goals. He nonetheless reached a similar conclusion to Scott: that the Plan benefited real estate developers at the expense of researchers and New Yorkers.

NYPL had a chance to respond. President Anthony Marx, who was not listed as a speaker on the online program, was the next panel speaker. Marx admitted that the CLP did not work and that NYPL responded to public outcries by stopping it. (A major part of this admission, though, was the recognition that 42nd Street renovations would go over-budget.) Marx still wants to keep more, not less, print books on-site and increase programming for a range of constituent demographics. Association of Research Libraries' Elliott Shore also responded by putting NYPL's woes in a continent-wide crisis of funding. In this context, Shore thinks that old, nostalgic visions of research libraries like 42nd Street are historically-constructed and can no longer be institutionally supported.

There was little time for audience discussion following the panel's presentations, but the Q&A tone seemed to both acknowledge the possibilities of digitization while doubling down on the need for collaboration between stakeholders and the preservation of on-site research collections. The audience also seemed unclear on Shore's proposed solutions, perhaps because, as Scott pointed out, his references to consortia and other collaborative initiatives as 'meta-librarianship' sounded unintelligible to the audience. Perhaps more work explaining (or debating) these solutions and their utility to cash-strapped libraries is needed.

Joan W. Scott referenced a forthcoming book (Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library), by Scott Sherman, due June 2015) on the CLP controversy. At the end of the panel, free copies of Simon Verity's book of cartoons on the controversy were given out. This episode is now, literally, in the books. But as I saw in these two panels yesterday, the future of historical research is yet to be written.