Blog Post

From Straw to Bricks: The Benefits of Thinking Locally for Building Digital Projects

Map of Boston in 1648, by Samuel Chester Clough (1919). Historic map from the Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Above: 1648 Map of Boston created by Samuel Chester Clough from the Collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society.



We must think locally, and create versions of DH that make sense not at some ideal, universal level, but at specific schools, in specific curricula, and with specific institutional partners.

- Ryan Cordell, "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities


'We must think locally' resonates strongly with my own feelings about "The Birth of Boston", a digital humanities project that I have been a part of for the past two years. Ryan Cordell's article, "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities" outlines the point of locality as one of four ways to integrate DH into the classroom, and I believe it holds equal importance for work being done outside of the classroom, too. In this blog post, I will discuss how using the local was a cornerstone to "The Birth of Boston" and how the project has influenced the way I think about interacting with the digital humanities as an early scholar in the field. I hope my reflections on my own experience of thinking locally can be pedagogically and methodologically useful for those conceptualizing or just beginning their work on a DH project. 


From straw to bricks

To a certain extent, the success of a digital humanities project lies in the ability to find and nurture an interested audience in the work that you are doing. By turning inward to the communities that surround you in the early stages of project-making, you can cater to an audience that is right at your doorstep, instead of constructing something that benefits a far-flung group of individuals you may never get to meet. In the case of "The Birth of Boston", the questions that instigated the project involved the historians of the greater Boston area, the digital humanists that congregate at Northeastern University (NU), and the participants in the Boston Research Center (BRC). By incorporating the local, and thinking about the modes in which a digital project can benefit those around us, the project grew from something hypothetically made of straw, to one of brick. [1] 


In another sense, by working on a local level, a digital humanities project can tap into sources that are available at your doorstop. As Cordell mentions in the same piece, "By thinking locally you can link your courses to libraries, museums, research centers, or other campus-level initiatives." For our project, that was using the resources offered at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and finding support from the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks and the BRC that encouraged the first part of the project, the interactive webmap of Boston in 1648, to be completed. Thinking about the project at a local level helped us to find resources nearby and it constantly influenced our thinking around the platform of the webmap, the data we wanted to present, and the future iterations of the narrative we are trying to create so we could talk to this audience we found for the project, people we were able to see in-person regularly. We worked closely with members of the MHS and NU community to receive critical feedback at every stage of the project, something that can be difficult to accomplish if the audience, community and resources are not local. As a prototype for the BRC, "The Birth of Boston" is just one example of how research is being done locally, and with our collaboration with them, the project's initiative is not only to create something new, but to engage with the public to uncover histories that were once considered lost. This way, local, digital projects can be used as a mode of public history, which is part of the mission for the BRC and "The Birth of Boston". 


Working with the BRC also helped us find a community of scholars who were trying to work locally. It was not only humbling to be exposed to the other awesome work being done at Northeastern, but it was more than useful having people to turn to and ask questions about logistical and practical kinds of upkeep, like standardizing data sets. While social media has alleviated the problem of communicating nationally or internationally, it is satisfying and often times more efficient being able to pick the brains of others who are in the same building, institution or neighborhood as you. By working locally at some level of the DH project, you can find aspects of your project you could change in ways you might not be able to consider without the aid of community members.


What are you trying to do?

"What are you trying to do?" is a question I have confronted on multiple levels when considering what I want out of "The Birth of Boston" and what it means to have the project incorporate the local. It is a question that cuts right to the core of what a person or group is trying to get out of creating their HD project, but another aspect of the question led me to consider whether the outcome of the project I was envisioning was a product that is missing from the local, albeit mostly academic, community I was interacting with. What were people talking about, or not talking about? Could we instigate interest from others with the project, or do we need to reshape an aspect of it to make it useful for others? By conceptualizing what others are looking for (or what they might want later) and considering what my team and I want to get out of this project, the the "Birth of Boston" became a happy medium - an undertaking that would give us time to sharpen our digital skills and answer our research questions, and an open and interactive data source for others interested in Boston's early social history to use. Of course, there are some digital humanities projects that have a very specific and non-local answer to "What are you trying to do", but even making the space to conceptualize how a DH venture could possibly fit into your local community is a great exercise for showing how important perspective is in a project at its varying stages of development. 


Where do we learn?

Lastly, if we learn about things at a local level, why shouldn't we focus on producing something that interacts with that community? We learn about the cities we live in by walking their streets, and our own experiences and person-hood (and quite often our accents!) are shaped by the places, peoples and events we interact with on a local level. If locality is a scale that is very impressionable on people, why not try to create something that can participate at the local level, as well, so your work might influential to others, as well?


Obviously the idea to think locally may not be in the cards for every digital humanities project, but I believe it is an aspect that deserves more attention at various research-based institutions. Either way, I think investing the time into seeing how your project might benefit a local community or audience, either by soliciting advice or by determining if there is a similar idea circulating at nearby institutions, is a useful application for any digital humanities project being done inside or outside of the classroom. 



[1] The straw and bricks analogy is being drawn from the children's classic, "The Three Little Pigs". I believe thinking locally to find an audience and resources to support the project definitely strengthens many digital humanities projects.To me, incorporating the local could be the way to transition a DH project from being a wobbly set of ideas, like the unstable structure of the house made of straw, to a much more robust, sustainable, and useful product, like the house of bricks that withstood the wolf's attempts at blowing it down.


Click here if you want to explore "The Birth of Boston" webmap or to read more about the background and methodology of the project. 



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