Mitigating Ghostly URLS: Or, What Community Organizing and Database Administration Can Teach Us about the Public and Digital Humanities

By Adrienne Adams

The rhetoric of “access” undergirds the logic of professor and college student-created projects on digital platforms like Scalar and Omeka. Higher education stakeholders often form collaborations with non-academic partners and secure financial support from internal and external funding agencies to pursue these digital projects. The specific logic of access is that the website makes the information available to a wider, non-academic audience. Moreover, centralizing minoritarian groups’ narratives, primary source materials, and histories uplifts the groups’ knowledge production in a public, digital forum.

I participated in two enriching classroom public, digital humanist initiatives at my alma mater Occidental College, one regarding queer cultural production in Los Angeles with Professor Heather N. Lukes and David J. Kim and the other concerning gentrification in LA with Professor Donna Maeda.

One pain point I have discussed with the aforementioned professors and other digital project creators is the question of impact. More specifically, is this project useful for and/or reaching the audience the stakeholders claim it is for? Put bluntly, will this labor and resource-intensive project become another ghostly URL after the website launch?

While scholars have already identified this issue and other pain points (see the special issues of American Quarterly and New American Notes Online), the purpose of my blog post is to share how community organizing and database administration possess valuable insights for minoritarian-focused and led digital projects in the academy as well as the fields of public and digital humanities more broadly.

My understanding of community organizing stems from mobilizing with community organizer-scholars like Dr. Maria Avila and Celestina Castillo in Imagining America’s Southern California Cluster. The Cluster utilizes power mapping to clarify the group’s vision and strategy (which the embedded link upon expands on). Power mapping is a tool that identifies the landscape of stakeholders, including accomplices and barriers, in implementing a vision and strategy. One key component of this tool is articulating the current relationships with stakeholders and a timeline for how long it will take to build trust.

This honest reckoning is useful for public and/or digital humanist initiatives. One way to pursue this reflection is questioning: Does your timeframe allot adequate time for your potential stakeholders (ie: community partners) to cultivate a vested interest in not only your project, but you as a collaborator? This reflection requires shifting from the framework of logistics (ie: can this partner do this interview for me) to a “Venn Diagram“ of timelines and missions (ie: how the partnership lends to our individual and collective objectives; where does the proposed project fit into that?).

Like community organizing, database administration concerns itself with the question of stakeholders (ie: users and software vendors) in the process of creating and maintaining a database (ie: image and video repository) for an institution. Working as a post-baccalaureate fellow in the Collection Information and Digital Assets (CIDA) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exposed me to business/data requirements analysis. The goal of this approach is to ensure that what is being created, whether a database or in our case a digital project, is relevant and feasible for both the end users and the project developers. One pivotal aspect of this analysis is outlining business use cases. Use Cases entails listing known user behaviors and issues, naming how the project seeks to address such approaches, and supplementing each with previous or hypothetical examples.

Creating business use cases in digital and/or public humanist contexts ensures that the project or partnership in progress bears in mind both the behaviors and outlooks of the stakeholders (ie: students) and audiences. This process also unearths what a project manager or team does not know about their stakeholders, purports to know about them, and how biases or assumptions structure their understanding.

Both power mapping and business use cases emphasize considerations of how human connection and attendant factors (ie: institutional position, identities, personal histories) structure public and digital humanist endeavors. The issue of access (not to be confused with accessibility) is a veil that obscures a complex web of relations with social and digital codes ever present in each step of a collaboration, project, and/or initiative. Though seemingly amorphous, the question of relation materializes in the countable views (or lack thereof) of a digital project, seemingly innocent silences in meetings with community partners, and ghostly URLS.

Featured Image: “404-error-page-” by npamedia is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

4 responses to “Mitigating Ghostly URLS: Or, What Community Organizing and Database Administration Can Teach Us about the Public and Digital Humanities”

  1. Caroline Cheung says:

    Thank you for writing this, Adrienne! I’ve always wanted to learn more about digital humanities, especially when thinking about its accessibility. However, I never thought about the issue of “ghostly URLs.” Your question about impact and reach is important. I’d be curious how digital humanists are addressing this.

  2. Hello Adrienne – thank you for sharing your insights, relaying actual tools on how we may account for impact and usefulness of public-digital humanities projects! I was able to work on a few digital humanities projects as a graduate research assistant last year funded by CFHR (The Classroom and the Future of the Historical Record, A Humanities Without Walls Initiative). The projects included SourceLab and History Harvest at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, whose mission was to make history scholarship (SourceLab) and historical objects (History Harvest) more accessible to the broader public. At that time, they were developing online platforms with Scalar and Omeka respectively. Both projects discussed concerns you introduced here on how to measure actual impact of these platforms with their target communities.

    I specifically interested in their conversations about gaining trust from their communities. For example, History Harvest worked towards gathering community objects/artifacts. Common questions involved: How do we gain and/or rebuild trust between communities and academia? How are matters of copyright and privacy handled with care and fairness? There was an expressed awareness of histories of denied and/or restricted access and offenses to public privacy and information that occurred once communities handed over their personal artifacts, information, and even expertise to academic studies/projects. Concerns of public access for many without internet/computers were also raised where print-based solutions were considered, such as small booklets or pamphlets to disperse to the community. These print options would also need to be weighed for impact and usefulness. Would printed objects be the best and/or desired option from their public’s perspective?

    Again, really enjoy hearing your research interest Adrienne and looking forward to learning more about this from you!

  3. Víctor Manuel Rubio Carrillo says:

    Power mapping is a key component of militant research. A practice that works from the bottom-up to encourage liberatory processes from a community. It is an important component when planning. That leads to the ghostly encounter that you mention, of a URL and perhaps nobody… It leads me to reflect on fame. When I was younger, I used to think of fame as a superficial concept filled with vanity. I have come to understand that fame, however, with purposeful planning can be a valuable asset to communicate our messages to larger audiences. The image of a community can have a more positive influence with more reach. However, we must remain cautious of the methods employed in such an objective, and remain vigilant to not become new victims or new oppressors.

  4. Ionah Scully says:

    I am so intrigued by your work and about digital humanities, something of which I am not as familiar. But I think of these ideas often–how will people come to know and find the work I am doing? What impact will it have if it becomes another ghost URL, to borrow your phrasing. Excited to learn more from you and work with you this year!

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