Iterations, meaning and re-negotiation of meaning

I see oral history maps as a form of thick mapping. This includes my own particular practice, in collaboration with the Cork Folklore Project, of creating digital oral history maps of Cork. (If not yet quite “thick” enough to qualify as thick maps – the aim is that these can be added to so that they can eventually become “thick”.) These maps are online representations of Cork city, where audio stories (excerpts from oral history interviews) are pinned to points on the map. The audio stories include anecdotes about what happens in these places as well as narratives of personal, embodied experiences of place.

There are now three iterations of the Cork Memory Map (the middle one being a pilot project, and therefore concentrating on one small area of Cork, North and South Main Streets).

CFP maps
Screenshots displaying 3 different versions of digital oral history maps by Cork Folklore Project.

Multiple iterations of digital projects are now considered a feature of the digital humanities. This is partly born out of the pace of technological change – which can be seen as a negative (it is difficult to manage in funding environments that reward one-off projects, rather than fostering environments where projects can be managed and sustained in the long-term). Digital projects are often supported by one-off grants, rather than regular, ongoing funding. Unfortunately, however, rates of technological change mean that digital resources are often plagued by technical difficulties after a relatively short period of time (see Maron and Pickle 2014, 11).

But iterative practice can also have positive spin-offs. In terms of iterative projects in the digital humanities:

“…one of the strongest attributes of the field is that the iterative versioning of digital projects fosters experimentation, risk-taking, redefinition, and sometimes failure.” (Burdick et al. 2012, 21).

Apart from this positive view of iterative practice, it is also interesting to note that Burdick et al. see “failure” almost as a positive aspect of digital work and many people writing about digital humanities are now writing about changing concepts of “failure” within scholarship:

“The key is to create the contexts that allow failing to be seen as something other than defeat.” (Burdick et al. 2012, 22).

Echoing this, in terms of digital humanities and oral history:

“In the Humanities, the traditional model is that of the lone scholar toiling away in the archive or library only to emerge with a fully realized article or monograph. DH is about making things and not always successfully. Yet as in quilt making and sciences, failure is always acceptable and often instructive. One simply pulls out the threads and starts again.” (Rehberger 2015, 190)

In digital humanities, one of the ways of pulling out the threads and starting again, is through the creation of different versions of digital projects. Iteration also occurs as part of the creative process, i.e. during the creation of the digital resource in the first place. Part of my work as I have been creating digital projects has been to seek feedback on the digital work, through user responses and focus groups. So far most of this has been conducted with CFP staff – once most of the suggested changes have been made, I will be seeking stakeholders outside staff to look at the projects. One of the most interesting responses from staff has been that the process of looking at material that the individuals are already very familiar with, seeing this in a new (digital) context, gave people new insights and new perspectives on the material.

Some examples of the responses are:

 “Straight off though my general sense is that I really like it, it’s, like both of us have done a good number of the interviews that are here….and, seeing it this way I’m going, ‘God there’s loads of really good stuff there,’ so it’s obviously bringing out good stuff about the material cos it’s striking me even though I’m already familiar with it, so that seems like a strength.”

 “And it’s such a different way of accessing it, like, d’you know like when I was reading the excerpts this morning it was very much like in a book, which is nice as well but this just gives it a whole different perspective.”

The newest projects use Neatline, software that was built specifically for digital humanities projects, and with the intention of allowing researchers to create a

“carefully designed narrative or exhibit—a subjective story told through small-scale interpretive decision making…Neatline is conceived as a contribution—in the visual vernacular—to multidisciplinary place-based interpretive scholarship using primary humanities sources.” (Nowviskie et al. 2013, 692).

The creators also want the tool to be used to build arguments as it is used, arguing that “method is a path to argument, and that interpretive digital humanities scholarship may be best enacted in iterative, visual modes” (Nowviskie et al. 2013, 695).

Using platforms such as Neatline to create digital oral history maps allows the creators to continually add stories to the digital project, so that the digital oral history map becomes an interpretation of the mapped place, with the narrative of the space changing and developing as each story is added. This is a process of creating meaning in space, transforming it into a place with meaning. But that meaning is constantly changing as new layers are added – an appropriate reflection of space/place theory as interpreted by Massey, who sees meanings around place as being unstable, with temporary meaning and purpose, always being negotiated and re-negotiated (Massey 2005, 140–1).

Digital oral history maps are a way for users to ‘access the rich tapestry of memory and informal histories that overlay the city’ (O’Carroll 2011, 184). It allows people to explore a multi-layered city, as it is to them, to others, as it was in the past, and as it has the potential to be in the future.

References

Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T., & Schnapp, J. (2012). Digital_Humanities. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Maron, N. L., & Pickle, S. (2014). Sustaining the Digital Humanities Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase. Report. Retrieved from http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc463533/m2/1/high_res_d/SR_Supporting_Digital_Humanities_20140618f.pdf (accessed 9 January 2015).

Nowviskie, B., McClure, D., Graham, W., Soroka, A., Boggs, J., & Rochester, E. (2013). Geo-Temporal Interpretation of Archival Collections with Neatline. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 28(4), 692–699. http://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqt043

Rehberger, D. (2015). [o]ral [h]istory and the [d]igital [h]umanities, pp.187 – 197 in Boyd, D. and Larson, M.(eds). Oral History and Digital Humanities. Voice, access and engagement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.