The Pirate Problem

Jolly Roger FlagLast summer, a few blocks from my house, a new pub opened. Normally this would not be worth noting, except for the fact that this bar is staffed completely by pirates, with eye patches, swords, and even the occasional bird on the shoulder. These are not real pirates, of course, but modern men and women dressed up as pirates. But they wear the pirate garb with no hint of irony or thespian affect whatsoever; these are dedicated, earnest pirates.

At this point I should note that I do not live in Orlando, Florida, or any other place devoted to make-believe, but in a sleepy suburb of Washington, D.C., that is filled with Very Serious Professionals. When the pirate pub opened, the neighborhood VSPs (myself very much included) concluded that it was strange and silly and that it was an incontrovertible fact that no one would patronize the place. Or if they did, it would be as a lark.

We clung to this belief for approximately 24 hours, until, upon a casual stroll by the storefront, we witnessed six pirate-garbed pubgoers outside. Singing sea chanteys. Without sheet music. The tavern has been filled ever since.

Such an experience usefully reminds oneself that there are ways of acting and thinking that we can’t understand or anticipate. Who knew that there was a highly developed pirate subculture, and that it thrived among the throngs of politicos and think-tankers and professors of Washington? Who are these people?

My thoughts turned to pirates during my experience at a workshop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a week ago, which was devoted to the digitization of the unparalleled Southern Historical Collection, and—in a less obvious way—to thinking about the past and future of humanities scholarship. Dozens of historians came to the workshop to discuss the way in which the SHC, the source of so many books and articles about the South and the home of 16 million archival documents, should be put on the web.

I gave the keynote, which I devoted to prodding the attendees into recognizing that the future of archives and research might not be like the past, and I showed several examples from my work and the work of CHNM that used different ways of searching and analyzing documents that are in digital, rather than analog, forms. Longtime readers of this blog will remember some of the examples, including an updated riff on what a future historian might learn about the state of religion in turn-of-the-century America by data mining our September 11 Digital Archive.

The most memorable response from the audience was from an award-winning historian I know from my graduate school years, who said that during my talk she felt like “a crab being lowered into the warm water of the pot.” Behind the humor was the difficult fact that I was saying that her way of approaching an archive and understanding the past was about to be replaced by techniques that were new, unknown, and slightly scary.

This resistance to thinking in new ways about digital archives and research was reflected in the pre-workshop survey of historians. Extremely tellingly, the historians surveyed wanted the online version of the SHC to be simply a digital reproduction of the physical SHC:

With few exceptions, interviewees believed that the structure of the collection in the virtual space should replicate, not obscure, the arrangement of the physical collection. Thus, navigating a manuscript collection online would mimic the experience of navigating the physical collection, and the virtual document containers—e.g., folders—and digital facsimiles would map clearly back to the physical containers and documents they represent. [Laura Clark Brown and David Silkenat, "Extending the Reach of Southern Sources," p. 10]

In other words, in the age of Google and advanced search tools and techniques, most historians just want to do their research they way they’ve always done it, by taking one letter out of the box at a time. One historian told of a critical moment in her archival work, when she noticed a single word in a letter that touched off the thought that became her first book.

So in Chapel Hill I was the pirate with the strange garb and ways of behaving, and this is a good lesson for all boosters of digital methods within the humanities. We need to recognize that the digital humanities represent a scary, rule-breaking, swashbuckling movement for many historians and other scholars. We must remember that these scholars have had—for generations and still in today’s graduate schools—a very clear path for how they do their work, publish, and get rewarded. Visit archive; do careful reading; find examples in documents; conceptualize and analyze; write monograph; get tenure.

We threaten all of this. For every time we focus on text mining and pattern recognition, traditionalists can point to the successes of close reading—on the power of a single word. We propose new methods of research when the old ones don’t seem broken. The humanities have an order, and we, mateys, threaten to take that calm ship into unknown waters.

[Image credit: &y.]

17 thoughts on “The Pirate Problem

  1. John

    One of the first things I learned in a (long ago) systems analysis course was to not simply replicate the characteristics of the physical system when moving to a digital one. The rules of one ocean don’t always apply to the new one (to extend your analogy)

  2. Peter Murray

    The digital world is inherently different, though. In the words of David Weinberger’s Everything is miscellaneous, what you are describing is the first-order storage of information — akin to the physical photograph archive he describes. In the digital world, the information can be stored in a virtual representation of the file-folder-box-shelf method — if that is what a community of users wants — but it can also be stored in the sliced-and-faceted manner of more ‘modern’ tools. The difficulty may be whether one can afford the overhead of filing information in the file-folder-box-shelf method. The backlog of archival collections to be processed would suggest not…

  3. C. C. Pugh

    That’s not really what I took away from “Everything,” or particularly accurate. It’s more the case that digital tools allow us to access and use information in ways much closer to how we already understand it then previous models.

    It’s like Deleuze said, the book is a machine. You take it and you plug bits of it that you like in to other bits elsewhere and make new things from it, the problem with physical books is that what you take from them, the information, is so heavily tied to their physical form.

    Archival filing is even less about being able to link information in books, because it’s even less about moving through an information space and even more about maintaining the physical forms of the sources. That’s always a Good Thing, but it’s also never how people using those sources will think about them once they’ve gone away.

  4. Robert B. Townsend

    I was with you right up to the point where you insisted that this threatens “all this.” I don’t understand why it isn’t enough to say some computer savvy members of the profession will really benefit from these new resources and tools and can open up new areas of scholarship. In the meantime, Google books and other online databases are helping the average historian (the kind who purposely avoided statistics and computer programming courses in college) to open up their research to a wider range of material and dig into it in new ways. And hopefully in the long run, as new tools make those materials more accessible to those average historians, this should open new areas of work in the discipline. After all, the cliometric historians thought they would transform the entire discipline too, but now they all seem to be teaching in more lucrative social science departments.

  5. Tim Lacy

    My problem with Dan’s post, and apparently the attitude behind it, is the either/or thinking. Who says we can’t have the best of the old ~and~ new worlds. Even if, according to John’s post, we’re dealing with a “new” ocean, the old rules of sailing still apply. Close reading will ~never~ go out of style, but the ways in which we ~arrive at~ those documents which we read closely might.

    The older historian shouldn’t have seen herself as a metaphorical crab. She should’ve seen herself as traveler returning to a once-visited location, but who needs an updated chamber of commerce map to understand the new homes and businesses that had gone up on her familiar streets. – TL

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  8. Mattie T

    As someone who holds a master degree in History and an MLIS, I agree with Tim Lacy. It is not an either/or, nor should we as librarians/archivists insist that historians do it “our way.” I think both tech. will be useful in the future.

  9. Dan Cohen Post author

    Evidently this post came off as a little too polemical and either/or, to use Tim’s description. (Serves me right for going with the cute pirate theme.) Regular readers of this blog and of my book Digital History will know that I’ve long advocated a combination of close and distant reading, of digital and analog methods, and the careful application of technology (including understanding its disadvantages in addition to advantages).

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