Critical Data Studies in Kesh

Ursula Le Guin writes in Always Coming Home (1985):

PAN: You destroy valuable books?

ARC: Oh, yes. Who wants to be buried under them?

PAN: But you could keep important documents and valuable literary works in electronic storage, at the Exchange, where they don’t take up any room–

ARC: The City of Mind does that. They want a copy of everything. We give them some. What is “room”—is it only a piece of space?

PAN: But intangibles—information–

ARC: Tangible or intangible, either you keep a thing or you give it. We find it safer to give it.

PAN: But that’s the point of information storage and retrieval systems! The material is kept for anyone who wants or needs it. Information is passed on—the central act of human culture.

ARC: “Keeping grows; giving flows.” Giving involves a good deal of discrimination; as a business it requires a more disciplined intelligence than keeping, perhaps. Disciplined people come here, Oak Lodge people, historians, learned people, scribes and reciters and writers, they’re always here, like those four, you see, going through the books, copying out what they want, annotating. Books no one reads go; books people read go after a while. But they all go. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.

Pan then complains that Arc is starting to talk like a utopian, with a long, elegant, persuasive answer for everything. Fine, says Arc. How about ask a few questions.

ARC: Who controls the storage and the retrieval? To what extent is the material there for anyone who wants and needs it, and to what extent is it “there” only for those who have the information that it is there, the education to obtain that information, and the power to get that education? How many people in your society are literate? How many are computer-competent? How many of them have the competence to use libraries and electronic information storage systems? How much real information is available to ordinary, non-government, nonmilitary, nonspecialist, nonrich people? What does “classified” mean? What do shredders shred? What does money buy? In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?

Publishing Your Research Data

Everyone is talking about the season finale. Tomorrow at 3pm in the lab, Sharon Webb and Anna Maria Sichani will be giving the last in this run of Digital Methods Open Workshops, on the topic data modelling. All are welcome, and there are still places available.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s worth a quick catch-up? So here are few no-nonsense notes from Sharon Webb and Adam Harwood’s absolutely brimming SHL Open Workshop in April, on the topic of creating and publishing research data.

What is research data?

Sharon started us off. Who should think about publishing research data? Everybody! Yes, you humanities researcher. Data is not just numbers. Of course, what counts as research data varies considerably across different subjects, methodologies, topics, backgrounds, and habits. Some classic examples of research data-sets might be a set of measurements, or interview recordings and transcripts … but it’s also worth thinking more imaginatively and speculatively about what constitutes your research data.

One working definition of data might be all the relatively raw information you generate as a researcher in your processes of abstraction and categorization. Formally, that might include text documents (PDF, Word, RTF), spreadsheets, databases, posters, slide decks, sound recordings of field interviews, online lectures, recordings of engagement and knowledge exchange events, podcasts. That might include software, art, music. That might include metadata — data about data.

It got me thinking … do I have research data I don’t even know about?

Why publish it?

What do you encounter, and what processes do you follow, that might be useful to preserve and document for future research? Where might there be opportunities for citation, for citizen research, for collaboration, for audit and validation? What new research might it make possible? What new research might it inspire? Even, perhaps, what creative and artistic interventions? There is a slightly subversive and democratic aspect to all this: making the data public benefits independent researchers. This was one of the real revelations of the workshop for me: just how much fascinating information is already publicly available.

There is of course a slightly more straightforward and pragmatic aspect to all this: the UKRI funding bodies now ask for a data management plan. For example, an AHRC standard route grant will require a data management plan “for grants planning to generate data (3 A4 pages maximum).” The AHRC have recently done away with their technical plan requirement. Other funders (e.g. Marie Curie) ask for a technical plan, and there may be an assumption that any data management considerations will be included there. 

Funders don’t generally accept the sentence, “My data is available on request.” Of course, there may be legitimate reasons for not making data available. Researchers should be aware of GDPR and the Data Protection Act. “Personal data” means any information relating to an identified or identifiable living individual. DMP Online structures the process of writing a data management plan, drawing on the specific guidance of the chosen funding bodies.

And, fwiw, Sussex also has a policy — “research data should be made freely and openly available with as few restrictions as possible in a timely and responsible manner […] regardless of whether or not the research is externally funded.” That said, there isn’t an actual Research Data Management Police Force roaming campus, as far as we’re aware.

How should I publish it?

One thing to consider is when you will deposit your data. Around grant writing proposal stage, it’s good to build in some time to actually prepare and deposit it. It can be a big chunk of work to get research data ready to be ingested by repositories. It’s not all mindless/mindful gruntwork either: there can be thorny questions around how to curate your data to make it useful for others and for long-term preservation. I can imagine there might be some interesting cross-disciplinary issues arising, and questions about how the framing of data blurs into its analysis and interpretation.

And where to deposit data? “Figshare Sussex probably,” seems to be the short answer. More broadly, it depends who you are affiliated with, and what their policies are. The Research Data Management service (a work-in-progress) may also answer some questions. There are institutional repositories, big generalist repositories, and domain-specific repositories, and there are different governance and funding models (i.e. public vs. commercial). Here are some handy links:

  • UKDataArchive, funded by the ESRC, is “the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.”
  • re3data.org is a database of repositories (incomplete, but filled with good starting points).
  • FAIRsharing is another database of repositories, with more of a sciences and medicine emphasis.
  • The Journal of Open Humanities Data features peer-reviewed articles describing data and methodologies with high re-usability.
  • Zenodo is an open-access repository from CERN and the OpenAIRE program, with some similarities to Figshare. It runs on open source software (also called Zenodo).
  • Then there’s Figshare, of which Figshare Sussex is a part.

All Figshare content will be assigned a DOI; CC BY 4.0 is the default license. Figshare also allows you to create and share ‘Collections,’ bringing together relevant datasets (whether or not they’re yours). What you upload to Figshare Sussex will get sucked up to Figshare mothership, which is indexed by Google. 

You can also put on an embargo, a fact that for some reason gave me a lovely frisson of melodrama, “My data shall not be available … for ONE HUNDRED YEARS,” etc., and you can generate private links to share VIP access to embargoed data.

Your data will be backed up to Arkivum, which meets another common funding requirement, that the data will be preserved beyond the lifetime of the project. Arkivum keeps your data in three separate geographical locations. It doesn’t do file format shifts yet, but as part of The Perpetua Project (ominous energy), it eventually will do file format shifts as well.

Further background

The RCUK Concordat on Open Research Data explains precisely what open research data is, and what researchers can do to make their data open and freely accessible. It’s a long document, and Adam picked out a few key bits. The Concordat asserts the right of the creators of research data to reasonable first use. Support for development of appropriate data skills is recognised as a responsibility of all stakeholders — the university has a responsibility to provide useful services (which in our case is Figshare Sussex, as well as the emerging Research Data Management service).

Adam also touched on the FAIR Data Principles, originally intended for the sciences, but now with much wider adoption. Data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable. These are criteria you can measure your data against toward the end of a research project.

We ended with a whirlwind tour of metadata from Sharon. ‘Metadata is a (love) letter to the future — it makes explicit how “things” can be used.’ Anne Gilliland: ‘In general, all information objects, regardless of physical or intellectual form they take, have three features — content, context, and structure — all of which should be reflected through metadata.’ We had a little look at the Dublin Core standard, on which Figshare is based (if you’re going to add fields of your own, it would be best practice to align them to Dublin Core) and a case study, the Re-animating Data Project (70+ interviews carried out in 1989).


I left with a grateful heart and and a brimming brain, forgetting to sign in again. And also a vague unease. I got to thinking about all the data exhaust I leave behind, in the course of my research and my “research,” all the behavioural surplus I scarcely control and could never deposit, and yet which is deposited somewhere in the marketplace of personal data.

And I was thinking about how data at scale tends to disclose more than ever intended. Data analytics discover patterns that can be used as knowledge, and whose status as knowledge is often undecidable in the contexts in which they are used. I was thinking of those robots and researchers who can gaze hungrily at the “About Me” section of your social media profile, seeing not your attempt at self-expression, but only trait correlation with lemma term-frequency–inverse document-frequency (or whatever). Tech giants have learned the art of growing tall and fat on data crumbs; what will they do with data feasts?

 

 

What are the digital humanities?

By David M. Berry

Digital humanities are at the leading edge of applying computer-based technology in the humanities. Initially called ‘humanities computing’, the field has grown tremendously over the past 40 or so years. It originally focused on developing digital tools and the creation of archives and databases for texts, artworks, and other materials. From these initial uses, and as computation developed, computers offered increasingly sophisticated ways of handling and searching digitised culture. For example, with recent advances in digital imaging, it is now possible to produce very high-quality reproductions of books and artworks that can transform our ability to study them.

Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app for ensembles
Pianist Shin Suzuma uses a digital score app Syncphonia for ensembles powered by Sussex University research funded by AHRC

The key to understanding the digital humanities is to reject the idea that digital technology is invading the academy. Computers were used for humanist ends from very early on in their history, and not only, as one might expect, as mere storage for large libraries of text. Computer networks, particularly the internet, have also enabled digital files to be used from almost anywhere on the globe. This access to information has had a tremendous effect on the ability to undertake research in the arts and humanities.

Digital humanities incorporate key insights from languages and literature, history, music, media and communications, computer science and information studies and combine these different approaches into new frameworks. More recently, the disciplinary focus has widened to include critical digital studies, as well as fields more commonly associated with engineering such as machine-learning, data science and artificial intelligence. Indeed, as early adopters of technology, digital humanists were prescient in seeing that computation would have an increasing centrality to research in the humanities.

As part of their work, digital humanists have developed new methods, such as computer-based statistical analysis, search and retrieval, topic modelling, and data visualisation. They apply these techniques to archives and collections that are vastly larger than any human researcher or research group can comfortably handle. These methods enable ambitious projects to be created with large interdisciplinary teams that are brought together to work on difficult or complex projects. Digital humanists are transforming the idea of what a humanities research project can be, giving us new ways of seeing past and present cultures.

These new collections of historical or literary artefacts are often publicly available on the web or in digital databases, and the material they contain is more openly available than previously possible with print. They increase the ability for humanists to combine data sets, social media, sound, web and image archives and also to move between them with greater ease. Equally crucial has been the creation of software for analysing, understanding and transforming these digital materials. Digital tools can also be freely accessed over the internet so they can be easily incorporated into other projects, enabling the rapid diffusion of new methods, tools and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. These digital technologies open up exciting opportunities for connecting the humanities to a wider public culture.

The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the 'New York Times'. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The social network Facebook has authorised giants like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and Microsoft to access the personal data of its 2.2 billion users, according to the ‘New York Times’. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.

However, with the greater diffusion of digital technologies into our lives, new concerns have arisen about the capacity these technologies have to spy on their users, about digital bias and discrimination, and the emergence of ‘fake news’. Companies such as Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google use our data in very intrusive ways, making collection of both public and private data a public matter of concern. Here too digital humanities, with its expertise across many knowledge areas, can help us understand these problems and provide critical interventions and policy insights.

The academy is now much more comfortable with the use of computation across disciplines. It has brought new powers of analysis, comparison and understanding to a range of research areas. The digital humanities have been exemplary in transferring digital techniques and methods into the humanities and by doing so have laid the ground for a golden age of humanities research in the 21st century. In a digital age, the humanities need to communicate humanistic values and their own contribution to public culture more than ever. The humanities continue to ask the important question: what is a life worth living? The digital humanities are part of this tradition, helping us to reflect on this question and expanding our understanding of human culture in a digital world.


David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex. He writes widely on the theory and philosophy of computation and algorithms. His most recent book is Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age (with Anders Fagerjord). His forthcoming British Academy-supported research is concerned with the idea of a university in a digital age.


This post originally appeared on the British Academy blog.

An Ivory Tower of One’s Own

Seat number 1 is by far the best in the room. Close to the high window, it is well lit, there is no neighbor to the left and the aisle leaves plenty of space for ones elbow to roam freely. From this seat there is a nice view of the room and the narrow gallery with wooden railings that overlooks it. Each morning at ten o’clock there are at least two people who have decided that this seat will be theirs.

— Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989)

Image result for the allure of the archives

Last week Sean Takats visited the Lab to deliver a workshop – about Tropy, a free image management system oriented to the needs of archival researchers – and give a lecture, “Subjectivity and Digital Research.”

Sean’s talk was elegant and stimulating, and the first take-home was this: research is embodied, and the material conditions of the researcher in the archive shape the kind of research they can and do perform. And this really is a take-home all about taking home. Institutional archives are increasingly the sites of photographic data capture. Exploratory and interpretive decisions increasingly take place at home.

Or in the office, or on the train, or another library, or the deepest corner of the More Than Just … Coffee! Lounge on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, or the pay-per-hour workspace into which it will gentrify overnight in the summer of 2023. Research takes place, perhaps, with headphones in. At a different set of temperatures, in different clothes, in fewer clothes, with different levels of caffeine and hydration. With a different set of objects, people, and landscapes in the visual field, in difference ambiences, and with different activity in-between bouts of research.

Consider, for example, Londa Schiebinger in her acknowledgements to Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World:

Writing history has changed […] Although one loses the tactile pleasure of eighteenth-century papers and leather bindings, one does not miss the mold, dust, jet lag, and hours waiting for things to be delivered to the reading-room table. Now one can read Jean-Jacques Barthélemy while taking breaks to do laundry (the benefits – physical and intellectual – of interspersing heavy-duty research and writing with mundane chores should not be underestimated).

Such materialities must surely show up in research outputs. But how exactly? We might start by saying that research occurs in a different set of moods, although tracing the affective shift feels quite daunting to me. Another starting point is that non-archive research spaces are all variously wannabe Woolf’s rooms-of-one’s-own. So perhaps we can consider how researchers in those spaces encounter different affordances, stimuli, textures, and impediments according to factors such as gender, class, race, and ability.

Back to the archive: well, it’s full of researchers taking photos. Sean cited empirical as well as anecdotal evidence to demonstrate how practices have shifted. There was a twinkle in Sean’s eye – like a little camera flashing – whenever he spoke about this transformation, and his Tropy project promises to further normalise, elaborate, and refine it. Nevertheless, I don’t think the lecture adopted a fully normative stance. That is, Sean wasn’t here to endorse the transformation, exactly.

His interest was rather – and maybe this is the second big take-home – given that this shift is actually happening, shouldn’t we be alert to the implications? And in particular, alert to the stories we tell about research?

David M. Berry‘s handwritten notes from Sean’s talk

How have researchers’ subjective experiences of conducting research changed? Do we need a new language of archival research in the digital age? Do the explicit and implicit stories we tell about how knowledge is generated reflect and/or support actual practices?

Sean identified a residual discourse of the romanticized archive. Arlette Farge was cited as one example. In fact, Sean suggested, there is even a kind of travel literature of the archive. What happens when you descend into the archive? The archive is a strange and distant land: we journey there, and we bring things back. Along the way we encounter wonders, obstacles, even perils. But mostly we don’t …

The day was very hot; we walked up the hills, and along all the rough road, which made our walking half the day’s journey.  Travelled under the foot of Carrock, a mountain covered with stones on the lower part; above, it is very rocky, but sheep pasture there; we saw several where there seemed to be no grass to tempt them.  Passed the foot of Grisdale and Mosedale, both pastoral valleys, narrow, and soon terminating in the mountains—green, with scattered trees and houses, and each a beautiful stream.  At Grisdale our horse backed upon a steep bank where the road was not fenced, just above a pretty mill at the foot of the valley; and we had a second threatening of a disaster in crossing a narrow bridge between the two dales; but this was not the fault of either man or horse.  Slept at Mr. Younghusband’s public-house, Hesket Newmarket.  In the evening walked to Caldbeck Falls, a delicious spot in which to breathe out a summer’s day—limestone rocks, hanging trees, pools, and waterbreaks—caves and caldrons which have been honoured with fairy names, and no doubt continue in the fancy of the neighbourhood to resound with fairy revels.

— Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803

… mostly we just patiently make some progress. Sometimes it’s swift and steady, sometimes erratic and embarrassed, filled with stumbles and setbacks. We have good days and bad.

And on some level, we want others to understand all this, and to know that it is what makes our knowledge authentic.

We want them to admire the rituals we recited to gain our safe passage, the amulets we brandished to complete our homecoming.

We want them to know that we’ve been there, man.

To agree that the figure in front of them contains a few molecules from far-flung climes.

To acknowledge our body as a body of work.

To suspect that the faraway glint in our eye, as we wait our turn to speak, is actually a speck — immured in eye-lime by ancient Lucretian optics — of moulted surface-veil of the specimen itself.

To admire us for our professional clarity of thought, sure …

… but more profoundly, to vent visceral awe for our throats as they professorially clear, inviting the infinitesimal yet non-zero possibility that what dislodge and dance in our alveolar folds are secreted atoms of air of that very zone, and that the syllable forming at our lips is a lost-and-found zephyr of the archive itself. Like Swift’s academicians of Lagado, who have to wave around whatever whereof they aver, we suspect that our judgments can only be validated by relations that are physical, even somatic.

Um, okay, Sean put it way more sensibly than that, but I still wasn’t totally sold on any link between archival research and travel literature. Until, that is, he read out an email — from a former supervisor, I think — offering guidance to Young Sean for his first visit to the archive. “It is pretty simple I think. You fill out a form, and have a little interview and a card.” It was pretty simple, and yet the email was remarkably detailed. And although Sean didn’t quite put it this way, there’s no way that it was purely generosity or loquacity or attention-to-detail. There was a real love of storytelling there, and the story was Recollections of a Tour Made in the Reading Room.

So here’s another take-home. If researchers feel that they are laying hands on history through its tangible artefacts, perhaps this goes together with a tendency to conceal the use of digital sources: Google Books, Artful, Gallica, and many others. With a little detective work you can figure out that folk are doing this — Sean mentioned, for example, lacunae: research which claims to be citing physical sources, but consistently cites only the editions of a work that have been digitised in some particular repository. So how do we interpret this silence? Is it professional malpractice if you don’t cite Google Books … when you typed it into your article from Google Books?

Sean’s talk was also about posing a question, or set of questions. If we’re still overly entranced by the old travel narratives, what stories are we neglecting? What stories could we, should we be telling about our research?

One obvious answer is: more accurate stories, rooted in the best available evidence about our real collective experiences. Would such stories still be travel literature, I wonder, or some other genre? Perhaps a descendant of travel literature — science fiction? Perhaps utopian fiction? I’m certainly persuaded that using a database, constructing keyword searches, reading a patchwork of text, needs to become part of the account of doing research. We should give serious consideration, as researchers, to the way that IT conditions our research practices: the practices we proudly theorise and teach as methodology, the practices we feel a bit shady about, and even the practices we don’t notice, but which are nevertheless technologically traceable. How do we leave tracks, trails and traces of our subjectivity? Each researcher is potentially gathering a mass of data about how they gather data.

Sean finished with an open question, which was a callback to Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive (1989). “What, in 2019 — in a dematerialized and iterative archive — is seat number 1?”


There was a lively Q&A. I hardly took any notes and I won’t try to summarise. I think I can just about remember three sort of interrelated questions from Tim Hitchcock, Caroline Bassett, and Rachel Thomson.

Tim asked about how we were imagining archives before this particular wave of romanticization, which he suggested was rooted in the 80s and 90s, just as the archive is starting to transform. He brought up an earlier Foucauldian analysis of the archive as an antagonistic mechanism of order and control: a way of understanding the inescapable web of technology and language in which we are caught and from which we are construed.

Caroline asked about the ways in which the argument was grounded in history specifically, and spoke specifically to the historians’ archive. What is the prior structure that that makes the thing that you set out to collect “history”?

And I think Rachel asked about democratization and authority, and suggested that this argument might be interestingly reframed in terms of loss of historians’ traditional prestige. Could this be a moment of re-territorialization? Might it turn out that people can do history without historians? Might they do it in totally different ways, or do totally different things altogether?

There were plenty of other questions and plenty of answers.

I asked one about zooming out from archival research and thinking about all kinds of academic practice in the same way — especially teaching.

Having mulled it over a bit more, I guess I was really thinking about that gripe you sometimes get about students who don’t do the set reading … or who somehow game the reading. It’s grounded in a recognition that a patchwork of Google Books text fragments isn’t intellectually transformative in the same way substantial linear readings of chapters and books are … and perhaps also a faint recognition that we currently aren’t that good at conveying this fact via formative, summative, and informal assessment.

Speaking anecdotally, reading a whole damn book is a big deal, takes absolutely forever, and it fundamentally changes who I am. I am a pretty bad reader, and perhaps the worse a reader you are, the more it changes you. I can advise a student to be wary of shortcuts, but I know I wouldn’t persuade me.

So perhaps we do need a new language, or a new set of stories, around learning in an era of widely available digital shortcuts. How much do we need to nudge such a discourse along, and how much is it emerging spontaneously? My hunch is that it’s largely emerging spontaneously, and the questions are more around how to steer its growth.

One area might be citation. Citation has connotation, and perhaps the connotation is systematically false. What if we were to experiment with a citation system which elegantly communicates not provenance, but some sense of how the author came across it, and how deeply and widely they have explored the context in which it occurred?

Then again — and this was my follow-up question, a thing I always trot out these days in various guises (I think because of Simmel) — does increasing the truthfulness of the stories we tell about our research, learning, and teaching necessarily always produce more truth per se … or whether it might in some cases be destructive of truth? Might silence, misdirection, equivocation, euphemism, tact, white lies, opacity, deferral validated by uncertainty, and all manner of ruses also be built into the enabling infrastructure of truth?

Creative practice is perhaps where this is most obviously seen: the fidelity between a poetics and a poetry is seldom a descriptive fidelity — why on earth would a poet settle for that? — but is rather a provocative and generative fidelity. The poet represents their practice in ways that enable and modify their practice. Such representations both coheres with and contradict representations capable of communicating their practice.

All this pertains to the tacit validity claims of scholarship. Perhaps to cite a work is to impersonate something, and a linear reading of whatever is in the codex may not be the best way to identify and to inhabit the ‘something’ you are impersonating. For starters, if you haven’t read through the source text in that way, you won’t be alone. Has there been a big DH project to model where citations cluster? Because I have a suspicion that the history of philosophy is the history of conversations between first chapters.

So what kind of poetics ought we aspire to for research? I think my instincts are pragmatic: it would be great if we could recognise and duly weigh the transformative power of longform textual encounter, or could rediscover similar transformative power in more distributed, patchwork formats. So a poetics, or a new travel narrative, that might allow you to take your bearings in that more fragmented reading, without insisting on linearity, to find ways to make that experience more cumulative.


The Tropy workshop was excellent, an opportunity to learn its current capabilities, but also a nice glimpse into its ongoing evolution, and into how the interplay of “nice to have” and “easier said than done” influences development priorities. Speaking personally it was the incidental side quest which really did it for me: arriving late to the Zotero party. Zotero is a free research and citation management system — a bit like Endnotes, if you’re familiar with that — that is oriented toward collaborative research (it integrates easily with Google Docs, for example, although I’m not sure about CryptPad and others). It very zestily searches the web to identify whatever you click and drag into it, and gives you nice titles and abstracts and hooks to hang your own metadata too. Sean even gave me a Zotero sticker, and you know what, I stuck it on my laptop. And then he was gone. Mood:

JLW

And we’re off!

Sussex’s Dr Nicola Stylianou reflects on the launch of Making African Connections.

Suchi Chatterjee (researcher, Brighton and Hove Black History) and Scobie Lekhuthile (curator, Khama III Memorial Museum) discussing the project.
Suchi Chatterjee (researcher, Brighton and Hove Black History) and Scobie Lekhuthile (curator, Khama III Memorial Museum) discussing the project.

Last week was the first time that everybody working on the Making African Connections project was in the same room together. This was a very exciting moment for us and was no small feat: people travelled from Namibia, Botswana, Sudan and all across the UK to attend our first project workshop. We began by discussing the project together and then broke into three groups to discuss the three museum collections of African objects that are now in Kent and Sussex.

The first working group was discussing a collection of Batswana artefacts donated to Brighton museum by Revd Willoughby, a missionary. Staff at the museum will be working with researcher Winani Thebele (Botswana National Museums) and curator Scobie Lekhuthile (Khama III Memorial Museum) as well Tshepo Skwambane (DCES) and Suchi Chatterjee and Bert Williams (Brighton and Hove Black History). The second case study focuses on a large collection of objects from South West Angola that are held at the Powell-Cotton Museum and were acquired in the 1930s. The objects are mainly Kwanyama and this part of the project has, as its advisor, an expert in Kwanyama history, Napandulwe Shiweda (University of Namibia). Finally, the project will consider Sudanese objects held at the Royal Engineers Museum. Research for this part of the project is being conducted by Fergus Nicoll, Reem al Hilou (Shams AlAseel Charitable Initiative) and Osman Nusairi (intellectual).

The aim of the workshop was to decide together what the priorities for the project were. We will begin digitising objects for our online archive in April so we need to know which objects we want to work on first as some of the collections are very large. It will only be possible to create online records for a selection of objects.

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Viewing the objects in the store room
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Viewing galleries at the Royal Engineers Museum

Before the workshop on Wednesday we had arranged for all the participants to visit the relevant galleries and see objects in storage. This had lead to some interesting and difficult conversations that we were able to build on during the workshop. Perhaps the clearest thing to come out of the meeting was the sheer amount of work to be done to fully research these collections and to understand their potential to connect to audiences and each other.

This post originally appeared on the Making African Connections project blog on 25 February 2019. Making African Connections is an AHRC-funded project.

Mending Dame Durrants’ Shoes

This week Louise Falcini gave us an update on the AHRC-funded project The Poor Law: Small Bills and Petty Finance 1700-1834.

The Old Poor Law in England and Wales, administered by the local parish, dispensed benefits to paupers providing a uniquely comprehensive, pre-modern system of relief. The law remained in force until 1834, and provided goods and services to keep the poor alive. Each parish provided food, clothes, housing and medical care. This project will investigate the experiences of people across the social spectrum whose lives were touched by the Old Poor Law, whether as paupers or as poor-law employees or suppliers.

The project seeks to enrich our understanding of the many lives touched by the Old Poor Law. This means paupers, but it also means workhouse mistresses and other administrators, midwives, tailors, cobblers, butchers, bakers, and many others. Intricate everyday social and economic networks sprung up around the Poor Law, about which we still know very little.

To fill these gaps to bursting, the project draws on a previously neglected class of sources: thousands upon thousands of slips of paper archived in Cumbria, Staffordshire and East Sussex, often tightly folded or rolled, of varying degrees of legibility, and all in the perplexing loops and waves of an eighteenth century hand …

Overseer note

These Overseers’ vouchers – similar to receipts – record the supply of food, clothes, healthcare, and other goods and services. Glimpse by glimpse, cross-reference by cross-reference, these fine-grained fragments glom together, revealing ever larger and more refined images of forgotten lives. Who was working at which dates? How did procurement and price fluctuate? What scale of income was possible for the suppliers the parish employed? What goods were stocked? Who knew whom, and when? Who had what? What broke or wore out when? As well as the digital database itself, the project will generate a dictionary of partial biographies, collaboratively authored by professional academics and volunteer researchers.

Louise took us through the data capture tool used by volunteer researchers. A potentially intimidating fifty-nine fields subtend the user-friendly front-end. The tool is equipped with several useful features. For example, it is possible to work remotely. The researcher has the option to “pin” the content of a field from one record to the next. The database automatically saves every iteration of each record. The controlled vocabulary is hopefully flexible enough to helpfully accommodate any anomalies. It’s also relatively easy to flag up records for conservation assessment or transcription assistance, or to go back and edit records. Right now they’re working on implementing automated catalogue entry creation, drawing on the Calm archive management system.


Personally, one of the things I find exciting about the project is how it engages both with the history of work and with the future of work. Part of its core mission is to illuminate institutions of disciplinarity, entrepreneurship, and precarity in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. At the same time the project also involves, at its heart, questions about how we work in the twenty-first century.

Just take that pinning function, which means that researchers can avoid re-transcribing the same text if it’s repeated over a series of records. It almost feels inadequate to frame this as a “useful feature,” with all those overtones of efficiency and productivity! I’m not one of those people who can really geek out over user experience design. But most of us can relate to the experience of sustained labour in slightly the wrong conditions or using slightly the wrong tools. Most of us intuit that the moments of waste woven into such labour can’t really be expressed just in economic terms. And I’m pretty sure the moments of frustration woven into such labour can’t be expressed in purely psychological terms either. Those moments might perhaps be articulated in the language of metaethics and aesthetics? – or perhaps they need their very own (as it were) controlled vocabulary. But whatever they are, I think they manifest more clearly in voluntary labour, where it is less easy to let out that resigned sigh and think, “Whatever, work sucks. Come on Friday.”

I don’t have any first-hand experience of working with this particular data capture tool. But from the outside, the design certainly appears broadly worker-centric. I think digital work interfaces, especially those inviting various kinds of voluntary labour, can be useful sites for thinking more widely about how to challenge a productivity-centric division of labour with a worker-centric design of labour. At the same time, I guess there are also distinctive dangers to doing that kind of thinking in that kind of context. I wouldn’t be surprised if the digital humanities’ love of innovation, however reflexive and critical it is, tempts us to downplay the importance of the minute particularity of every worker’s experience, and the ways in which working practices can be made more hospitable and responsive to that particularity. (Demos before demos, that’s my demand).

I asked Louise what she thought motivated the volunteer researchers. Not that I was surprised – if something is worth doing there are people willing to do it, given the opportunity! – but I wondered what drew these particular people to this particular work? In the case of these parishes, it helps that there are good existing sources into which the voucher data can be integrated, meaning that individual stories are coming to life especially rapidly and richly-resolved. Beyond this? Obviously, the motives were various. And obviously, once a research community was established, it has the potential to become a motivating energy in itself. But Louise also reckoned that curiosity about these histories – about themes of class, poor relief and the prehistory of welfare, social and economic justice, and of course about work – played a huge role in establishing it in the first place.

Blake wrote in Milton about “a moment in each Day that Satan cannot find / Nor can his Watch Fiends find it.” I bet there is a moment within every rote task that those Watch Fields have definitely stuck there on purpose. It’s that ungainly, draining, inimitable moment that can swell with every iteration till it somehow comes to dominate the task’s entire temporality. It is politically commendable to insist that these moments persist in any task designed fait accompli from a distance, by people who will never have to complete that task more than once or twice … no matter how noble or comradely their intentions. But even if we should be careful about any dogmatic redesign of labour, I think we should at least be exploring how to redesign the redesign of labour. Karl Marx wrote in his magnum opus The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Marx that, unlike some of his utopian contemporaries, he was not interested in writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future. In some translations, not recipes but receipts. It actually is definitely the future now. And some of us are hungry.

JLW


The Poor Law: Small Bills and Petty Finance 1700-1834 is an AHRC-funded project.

  • PI: Alannah Tomkins (Keele)
  • Co-I: Tim Hitchcock (Sussex)
  • Research Fellow: Louise Falcini (Sussex)
  • Research Associate: Peter Collinge (Keele)

The Clock

By Rachel Thomson

Her name was Wren, and as I sat beside her in the dark cinema, letting her gum my fingers with her soft wet exploratory mouth, I experienced a synchronisation between the human body and an extended ‘electric’ consciousness.

The film we were watching was Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a tapestry of film fragments synchronised to real time, anchoring audience, documents and narrative within a 24-hour cycle. While the fragments are drawn from the history of the cinema, The Clock is a deeply digital project, with editing underpinned by automated searches of the database that is the history of cinema.

We enjoy clusters of meaningful transition: built around gesture; shots; cineaste jokes; and perhaps also accident. Each transition is ‘cute’ (we see what you did there) but ephemeral, as time’s arrow drives us forward and reminds us that yes, it is that time, inside and outside the screen. But this is a circular time. I can come again on the weekend for the 24-hour showing and witness the rarely-seen material documenting the wee-small hours. I wonder how much movie time is given over to 3.30 am. Maybe night-time goes more quickly? Or are the sequences just longer? I predict a flurry of phone calls waking people with bad news.

I feel anxious about how much time I can afford to spend here, but also hating to miss anything. If I manage to see it all, would I have consumed time or film history? Or should I just chill out and treat this as an extended metaphor, telling stories from the materiality of culture, facilitated by automated search and retrieval?

The cinema is packed, the audience is compelled. As conceptual art this works, as entertainment this works. Interestingly people seem to come and go on the hour, using the clock to structure their voyeurism. But I am connected to Wren and her indigenous temporality. As we sit at adjacent sofas we play pat-a-cake until she gets bored. She explores my rings, enjoys eye contact as it comes and goes in the flickering light. She is on Wren-time: her cycles and circles are both faster and slower than clock time and they are never the same twice. Wren has been born for nine months so far, and I take my cue to slip away when she forgets me and moves onto the next thing.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is showing at the Tate Modern until January 20th 2019.