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Chassanoff, A. (2016). Constructing Evidence in the Photographic Archive: The Experience of Digital Humanists. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 450-452.
Constructing Evidence in the Photographic Archive: The Experience of Digital Humanists

Constructing Evidence in the Photographic Archive: The Experience of Digital Humanists

Widespread digitization of cultural heritage materials has presented scholars with unprecedented access to primary sources. For digital humanities scholars, who craft arguments from examination of primary sources, increased access to materials has been celebrated as the “democratization of historical research” (Bolick, 2006). Presumably, such changes in archival research environments have influenced how humanist scholars work. Indeed, recent research has confirmed that technological advancements have significantly impacted scholarly practices (Rutner and Schonfeld, 2012; Chassanoff, 2013). Yet how humanists evaluate and use digitalsource materials to construct narratives is less well-understood.

In this paper, I report on findings from a one year qualitative study examining digital humanists’ scholarly use of one kind of digital source material - digitized archival photographs. Using a case study approach, I examine the practices and processes at play in the construction of historical evidence. This research is guided by the following questions:

  • How and why are digital humanists using digitized archival photographs in their research and teaching activities?
  • What factors and qualities matter to them in their experiences in the photographic digital archive?

The goal of this study is to provide an in-depth, holistic understanding of a complex interaction space made up of, but not limited to: digital surrogates of archival objects, user perceptions and attitudes, environmental constraints, and historical training and orientation. Empirical research in digital environments tends to focus on single components of the interaction (e.g., user and interface; user and artifact) as they relate to specific aspects of information behavior, or to conceptualize information use as the successful fulfillment of stated information needs. Yet such perspectives do not attend to the impact that ecological factors may have on user interactions with materials. Adopting a phenomenological stance enables a focus on understanding “how persons construct meaning” through examinations of their particular experiences with certain phenomenon (Wilson, 2002). In this study, exploring how and why scholars use digital photographs helps to reveal the emergent qualities and attributes that make this experience meaningful for participants.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with sixteen participants (9 men and 7 women) throughout the spring and summer of 2015. Recruited participants came from a variety of academic departments, including History, English, African-American Studies, American Studies, Classical Studies, and Musicology. Each participant pre-selected two examples of digitized archival photographs they had used in research and teaching. Two customized web pages, which I termed Photograph Scenarios, were created in an attempt to replicate where possible their original experience viewing and encountering the digital photograph. I also collected supplementary materials related to each participant’s image use, including conference presentations, class presentations, course syllabus, dissertation chapters, and journal articles. Data were analyzed using open coding and thematic analysis in order to surface salient aspects of the experience related to interpretation and use. To strengthen and verify the analysis, triangulation across data sources was employed.

Figure 1: Photograph Scenario used in interview from Library of Congress collection (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002707085/)

The findings presented in this paper shed light on both practical concerns and intellectual challenges that surface throughout the experience of constructing historical evidence. Descriptive quotations from interview transcripts alongside examples of image use illustrate the functional ways humanists are using digitized archival photographs in their scholarly activities (e.g., to make historical assertions, to corroborate existing information, etc.). A typology illustrating how scholars use digital photographs is presented below.

Corroborate existing information"A lot of times we need to look at these historic photos to actually know what it actually looked like and not just our idea of what it looked like"
Make historical assertions"And I was having trouble finding certain types of ferries that I know existed because of other records. You know, like you would find references to their being a rope ferry, but then you could never find a photo to see exactly what they meant by that."
Reference historical documentation"Because we were working on just one of the bridges, and as you can see from where they had, it's on the well, the left and the right side, it shows the different bridges that were there."
Elicit reactions from viewer"But I'd always try to find good touristy photos to show some good 60s and 70s touristy photos or whatever, just to make it livelier"
Present community perceptions at time of creation“…it’s sort of like what did the community, or the boosters of the community, think was important? Because, hey, it's what they were trying to put out for the public…”
Juxtapose against other sources"Yeah, and that's exactly what I did, is I put it in conversation with other images like it."

Table 1: Typologies of Use

The cases presented demonstrate the extent to which material conditions of experience (rather than the tools through which users discovered or accessed resources) can impact interpretive practices and further use.

One salient theme is the factors that motivate participants to use photographs. In one case study, a participant discovered a “vernacular body of images” that led them to collect similar types of visual sources. In another case, a participant selected their project topic after encountering multiple published images depicting what they term “radical masculinity” in the Communist party. They describe their discovery experience: “But then I started noticing there was a lot of- not this image in particular- but there were several other ones that were repeatedly published, of Communists bandaged and showing black eyes and stuff, after confrontations with the police or vigilantes, so that was the first thing I noted.”

Other cases illustrate the discrepancies between viewing digital photographs online and encountering them in person. In one case, a participant describes the advantages of obtaining a high quality scan from an archivist rather than accessing and using the “tiny tiny little print” displayed in the online collection. In another case, a participant attributes the discovery of a number of details that became central to their historical argument only after viewing a physical version of the photograph in person:

So, there are a whole number of things that I never would have seen [if I hadn’t also viewed the photograph in person], I think. And a whole range of- you know, the physical image has a whole affect to it that you don't get from a glowing screen.… I can look at the digital image from the [library], and zoom and zoom in to see it, but I never would have seen [this important detail] if I was just looking at a 2 inch by 3 inch digital version.

Both of these examples demonstrate the importance of individual scholars’ interpretive experiences as a means for understanding the conditions that enable further use of these primary sources.

Digital humanities scholars undoubtedly face a number of practical and hermeneutic challenges in using source materials from digital archival research environments. As spaces of knowledge production, online archives must support numerous heterogeneous practices in order to remain useful and relevant. At the same time, navigating online archives to find and use sources requires digital humanists to be competent at varying levels, including: interfaces, digitization quality, overall orientation to the archive, and domain-specific heuristics (Yakel and Torres, 2003).

While there has been unquestionable growth in access to digital archival materials, there have been few empirical attempts to understand the factors and qualities that matter to scholars as they interact with digital sources. The case studies presented in this paper will inform design and development efforts in the digital humanities community by focusing on the end-users of these systems and their needs. A holistic, methodological approach which emphasizes scholars’ experiences evaluating, interpreting and using materials in scholarly activities allows for an exploration of the mediating factors underlying these practices. Such an orientation enables us to extend our attention beyond simply exploring the material constraints of resource discovery and access, which are often modeled on analog approaches to communication. Instead, this study broadens the emphasis to, in the words of Gregory Bateson, “the difference that makes a difference.”

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