Doing Digital Humanities: Reflections on Creating a Scalar Project

When I first enrolled in a course on Digital Humanities, I thought I might learn how about a few tools that I could use in my research or could teach to my students. I also hoped to get a better handle of presenting my own material using Omeka, the exhibit tool that I was most familiar with. As the course nears its end, I find that I’ve become deeply excited about the potential for digital humanities tools to change the ways that I research and write history. As my final project for this class has developed, I’ve come to understand digital humanities as not just offering new tools to present my research, but as transforming both my work process and the final product.

I’ve used scalar for my project, “Whitewashing Blackface and Whistling Dixie: The Commemoration of Dan Emmett.” I began working on this topic several years ago, when I became fascinated with the many forms of commemoration of Dan Emmett—a blackface minstrel performer and the composer of the song, “Dixie,”—in his hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio. I had been collecting sources for over a year before I took this class and I had begun to think about what shape the project might take, but had not yet started writing. In truth, I’d been grappling with the scope and format of the project for a while. Did I want to turn this into a book? Condense it into one article? Write several articles about different key chapters in the story? And I knew I wanted to work in some autobiographical elements, but I did not want the work to be a memoir.

Scalar proved an ideal tool for me to take my first deep dive into this material. Scalar is a tool designed for long-form web publishing. It allows you to incorporate in all kinds of media, as well as to create a guided path for the user through the material. Using scalar allowed me to use the many, many images I had collected to tell a story about the commemoration of Dan Emmett. In other words, I found Scalar let me make an argument and develop a narrative. I did not simply want to present materials in a database form; with Scalar, I can both present and interpret my sources.

Creating this as a born-digital project rather than as a traditional written work led me to adopt a different work process than I normally would. Typically, I write material in order—I’ll start with the introduction, and go from there. While I still found I needed a sense of my overarching argument before I could begin writing in this digital project, I often found myself working in a less linear fashion. I also found that the digital made it easy to continually play with the structure of the work. While I brainstormed a kind of structure at the start, I was initially imagining that the whole project would be about seven pages. As I worked, it became clear that certain topics should be grouped together in sections. The project currently contains an introductory page, four sections of three pages each (three of which are completed), a conclusion, and a Neatline map. Doing each major topic as its own separate page has created both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, it has made it easier to develop smaller framing narratives about specific topics and to offer in-depth contextual information. On the other hand, I have had to work to connect the pages with meaningful transitions and to ensure that each page can stand on its own but also works as part of the larger whole. Entering in metadata and mapping events has forced me to be more attentive to detail than I might usually be. Finally, I have found myself being more attentive to my audience right from the start. I want this project to be accessible to people in my local community, not just to academics, and writing in this form has helped me keep that in mind.

I found challenges working in this format as well. I’ve spent many hours down a rabbit hole playing with design choices. It’s important to me that readers be able to trace my work back to the original source but traditional citations don’t work well in the digital format. I’ve had to explore other ways to try to document my sources. But perhaps the biggest challenge for me is that I know that because this work is digital, it may never truly be finished. With articles or books, you eventually have to declare something finished and send it in to the publisher. With the digital format, there are endless opportunities for revision. On the one hand, that’s exciting—you can easily update the work with new information, correct errors, or rewrite confusing prose. On the other hand, I could see myself being sucked into something of a black hole with the project, one from which I fear it might be hard to emerge.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the potential of Scalar and of digital humanities scholarship. I’m excited to keep working on this project even after the class comes to an end. Besides finishing the content sections, I want to experiment with Scalar’s Timeline and mapping features. I want to do more with the tagging capability and would love to find a way to allow users to add their own Dan Emmett stories. I’m sure that this project will continue to develop for quite some time to come.

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