Improvising Digital History in the Deep South Digital Desert



Michael Mizell-Nelson is Associate Professor of history at the University of New Orleans. He also coordinates the graduate public history program and produces video documentaries. He will be presenting a paper entitled "Curating New Orleans: Historical Storytelling in a Mobile Age" at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, upon which this article is based.

New Orleans in 1991. Credit: Wiki Commons.

My first glimpse of the new media revolution came in 1995, as I watched analog documentary video edits that had required months of scripting and work being digitized and transferred into an online editing system in a few minutes. The collaborative experience I had enjoyed working alongside filmmakers and videographers provided a wonderful counterpoint to the solitary labors required in graduate history programs. I had absorbed many lessons in narrative, but these as well as documentary video itself counted for nothing in a traditional academic setting; nevertheless, those experiences moved me toward a number of new media projects in a region that has seldom been kind to the digital humanities.

The same year, I was fortunate to discover the Who Built America? Voyager CD-ROM. The American Social History Project’s move from documentary video to the digital realm inspired me to create a CD-ROM to teach the basics of historical research and oral history to my community college students. (The 1995 World Wide Web offered little about oral history beyond catalogs of interviews.)

In 1996, I established an online setting for a city museum project, but it relied upon one member of the Greater New Orleans Free Net; our collaboration crashed when my partner and her technical skills suddenly exited New Orleans. I learned that I had to acquire my own web skills, which is why I relished the opportunity to apply for an NEH-funded “Advancing the Humanities through Technology at Community Colleges” program in the late 1990s. Housed in the still small-scale Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, the experience afforded sixteen community college faculty teams from around the nation access to the Center. (I wish I had asked Roy Rosenzweig to autograph my Who Built America? disc.)

Following an inspiring overview of what well-funded digital collaborations could produce, we returned to our campuses equipped with sweat equity and no funds. Tulane University Archivist Leon Miller, one of the earliest adopters of the web at Tulane, graciously advised me as we designed the web pages in HTML. This was my first experience collaborating with an archivist as well as a web education specialist. Brief consultations with Roy Rosenzweig while planning how best to present student-generated oral history transcriptions and audio and video files were a delight. Our project featured both oral history transcriptions and “New Orleans A to Z,” which was meant to present less formal, multi-media interpretations of New Orleans history created by students. Collaboration with students from throughout New Orleans would allow for a digital “city museum” build from the grassroots. The opportunity to present our work with Roy at the OAH in 2001 was a wonderful experience, but I returned to the digital desert.

A well-designed mentoring program was meant to prepare our community college to apply for a $100,000 NEH grant that would enable the development of a small multimedia lab and fund course releases for history and English faculty to learn new software. A mentor visited campus to explain the value of our work to higher administration. Many of our students’ oral histories centered upon work and workplaces, so my dean supported the idea; unfortunately, the college president ridiculed the concept and the paltry sum when the grants office had multi-million dollar grant awards to administer. Granting institutions in our region did not yet fund digital history projects, so what better signal does one need to hasten completion of the dissertation and seek out another oasis?

After completing the PhD, I was fortunate to relocate to the University of New Orleans and thus continue to work alongside New Orleans students. The levee failures following Katrina led to another collaboration with the CHNM, one that produced the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Funded by the Sloan Foundation, the project both preserved precious data and led to the creation of useful, open-source software, the prototype for Omeka. I remain connected to the larger world of digital history thanks to the New Orleans Research Collaborative and New Orleans Historical, but little collaboration happens locally.

Between Houston and Atlanta, one still finds scant interest in funding or supporting digital history projects. Beyond the exceptional turn towards new media made by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the more recent emphasis on digital projects undertaken by the National World War II Museum, only the work of research librarians and archivists keeps pace with international trends. The interdisciplinary digital projects that do develop here are incubated in supportive institutions, centers, and history departments hundreds of miles away. The groundbreaking digital work of Gwen Midlo Hall to be celebrated during the 2013 AHA makes use of Louisiana data, but then as now, her essential collaborators, too, are found outside of this region. (Tulane University’s Library and Department of Communication are increasingly expanding their commitments to digital projects, and the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg is also progressing.)

I was fortunate that my department members came to value new media enough to support my pursuits in theory, but far too many history departments continue to lack any programmatic approach for digital history in practice. Departmental hiring of one person to teach a digital history course is not a solution. Some are blessed to work among institutions offering financial and moral support for digital history projects, but many of us in the hinterlands are typically described as the “one in our department who does digital history.” How that takes place is not typically a concern of others in the department.

For digital history to flourish beyond the East and West Coasts -- and for our students to benefit from the advanced practices of digital history available for students outside of digital deserts -- collaborative work must be more fully supported.

Seminar papers are expected to migrate and mature into thesis or dissertation chapters, but digital projects are often depicted as lagniappe, at best. More students will undertake and complete digital projects once their thesis or dissertation advisors and entire departments value – and not merely approve of or tolerate – such work.

Faculty must not always be required to secure external funds and/or pay out-of-pocket for server space and other needs critical to digital history. Only once in my career have I received funding for digital work that did not derive from a grant award. As with mass exploitation of contingent labor in academia, too many accept the larger workplace philosophy that digital work must be cheap.

I regret if this sounds bitter because I am fatigued -- not angry. The sweat equity requirements became increasingly sweatier as digital projects boom in the recession. And it is not just my sweat, but my students’, too. My most recent unfunded grant proposals seek to provide small stipends to pay students to complete or refine digital work. If we were running a commercial enterprise in Louisiana, we would benefit from valuable tax incentives showered on film and digital industries.

One must hope that the collaborative spirit and the well-funded, programmatic aspect that marks the best of public and digital history work will eventually develop even in our nation’s digital deserts.

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