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Media are themselves denizens of the past

Media are themselves denizens of the past

Hello everybody!

I’m glad to be joining you all. I’d like to share a curious story from a few weeks back that speaks to what the digital humanities mean to me.

This semester, for a seminar on archive studies, I spent some time researching the provenance of an especially rare collection of 19th century New York City newspapers. While leafing through a history of one college’s archives, I was surprised to find a brief mention of the Works Progress Administration. According to this book, a few women working for the WPA visited this library in 1938 as part of the American Imprints Inventory and Readex projects.

Today, Readex and (what’s now called) Early American Imprints are huge and hugely important digital databases. They contain millions of pages of searchable 18th and 19th century American newspapers, magazines, ephemera, and more.

What a cool find! These utterly 21st century digital collections have roots in the New Deal!

But I was working on something else, so I tossed it up on Twitter.

It was a throwaway, one of those times when I type something in and hit the Tweet button without any particular audience in mind.

Turns out, Readex is on Twitter too. @Readex. They saw my tweet and replied. Turns out, the WPA workers were more fellow travelers than contributors to the bibliographies that Readex uses.

Even so, the histories of the new media that constitute much of the digital humanities seem to be lost far too often. How far back do the roots of various new media go? How far back do we want to go? How far back should we go? What difference does it make?

I’m reminded of line from Lisa Gitelman's book, Always Already New in which she writes that “media are themselves denizens of the past.” All new media, even the most newfangled, have histories encoded in their material forms and in our protocols.

If Readex’s social history includes at least a few women working outside the home as roving bibliographers during the Depression, what else might be out there?


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