On January 25, I sat down with director of MATRIX: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences and Associate Professor in History, Dr. Dean Rehberger to discuss the impact of digitally preserving cultural heritage, the power of interdisciplinary work, and the importance of being able to fail. Some of his specializations include oral history online, digital libraries, museums, and archives, and developing technologies for research and teaching. Since joining MATRIX in the 1990s, Rehberger has overseen a number of open access projects, one of the more recent being “Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade” which became the recipient of a 1.5M grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Read below for the full interview.
There's somewhat of an established tradition with HASTAC interviews that we start with the origin story. What brought you to digital humanities?
Well actually, my career started in the writing center. Back in the old days, we did the technology for the writing center. We set up their original homepage, and we also set up a service because the students didn’t have their own accounts and couldn’t set up their own webpages, so I set up a server on my desk and then students could get their own webpages. We started from there and one of the interesting things is once MSU did let students have websites and have space on the server, they had difficult instructions. So the writing center became a place where we would explain how to use these kinds of tools, how to use FTP, HTML, how to build webpages, and those sorts of things.
Otherwise, I’ve always been into computers from the start. I did my dissertation on a Commodore 64, which is an old game console. I always had an interest in working with computers, and when I came here, I started working at the writing center. My origins for digital humanities and being part of MATRIX here started in the mid to late 90s with a project working with women from NGOs in Africa who wanted to develop an online presence for their group. These were women working in social justice for women, for children, and other types of agencies who wanted to get their work online. I came over to MATRIX to facilitate the project at the last minute, and I’ve been with MATRIX since.
I’m glad you brought up MATRIX. As the director of MATRIX, could you describe its mission and give us a taste of some of the exciting projects or plans we can expect to see in the coming year?
MATRIX digital humanities center here at Michigan State University is the second oldest in the country. Many of the large digital humanities centers are in the Big 10. You have CDRH at Nebraska which is probably one of the largest and best centers, you have MITH at the University of Maryland, iCHASS at University of Illinois, and then you have the Center for New Media and History at George Mason which is the oldest Digital Humanities center – we’re the second oldest.
Our mission? We are different from a lot of digital humanities centers in the country. We tend to focus more on cultural heritage and cultural heritage preservation, dissemination, and access. We also have a global focus. A lot of work is actually done in South and West Africa.
And one big project you’re involved with is the project “Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade,” a site which gathers datasets about African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.
Yes, “Enslaved” is a really interesting project. It dates back to a project we had from NEH called Slave Biographies in about 2010. It’s based on three things: one is there are a lot of projects around the country that have slave data. One of the good things and bad things about slavery is that for a long time we thought we couldn’t know much about the individual slaves. But because of the horrors of slavery that you were owned, there were actually a lot of records. Probate records, baptismal records, any kind of sales record. Runaway slave ads were very detailed because they had to be able to find the person described in the ad, and so our hope is by bringing all these silo’ed projects together, we can actually learn more about people by bringing more data together in one place. So that’s one hope. The second hope is also preservation. As you know, digital projects can go offline, so if they’re linked to the hub, then we’ll know when they’re going offline and we can save the data. We can also be a place for your average professor who is not doing an online project to deposit data. Normally, a lot of times in the sciences people deposit their data in essential places. That doesn’t happen in the humanities; we tend to lock it in our drawers and then we’re done. So it’s going to be a repository for data.
Then finally, it’s an educational resource. We’re going to have a lot of stories about individual slaves. Even though lives were tough and very difficult, there’s often very heroic and complex lives of slaves, such as slaves who went back and forth across the oceans, who had many different roles and positions, or who ended up fighting in the civil war. We want to be able to tell those stories.
What struck me the most about Matrix is how interdisciplinary it is. The center churns out digital projects with experts from departments in African Studies, History, Writing and Rhetoric, Art, and Archeology, just to name a few. That's incredibly difficult considering you're working with different disciplinary needs and a wide range of topics. Why do you think Matrix has been so successful as an interdisciplinary center?
I think it’s because we are interdisciplinary. One of the things I truly believe in is we need the content experts. One of our really good projects we just finished up is the Archive of Malian Photography. Mali was a place for black and white photography. Several from the colonial French influence, a number of African artists emerged throughout the 30s to the 80s. A lot of their work was disappearing so this was kind of a way to capture it, and most importantly repatriate it to them so they have the rights to it, but also make it available online. We had an art historian from art and art history over at the college of arts and letters who was on that.
The project I was just working on is called “What America Ate” which focuses on recipes that were collected in the 20s and 30s for the WPA program, and we have a noted food historian on that. So by bringing in those different experts, we work with mathematicians, with computer science people, and they kind of bring the richness to the project.
In your classes and workshops, you've, unsurprisingly, included various technologies to enhance learning. Right now, what are your go-to technologies for teaching and/or research?
It just depends on what you want to do, and the project that you have. I tend to teach courses where I have a wide range of students doing a wide range of projects, so one student might need the text-mining, another might need visualization, but another might need mapping, so there are just a lot of different tools across those areas. My specialty tends to be oral history and so my go-to tool there is OHMS (oral history metadata synchronizer) which allows you to synchronize transcripts and index the oral history itself.
That’s right, a lot of your work involves oral history, cultural/historical datasets, and generally, just the trickiness of documenting cultural heritage. Your work has been especially helpful for others interested in doing this work, and I'm thinking particularly of your 2013 article "Getting Oral History Online" which accessibly outlines the major steps and potential tools of the process. In the last 5 years, have unique challenges or trends emerged around creating digital oral history projects?
That’s another hard question. It really depends. Two projects that are very interesting: One is the Oral History in the Digital Age project which we did about 2012 to 2014 was to look at best practices in oral history. And it has rapidly changed in the last 15 years where we kind of went from transcripts to actually using the media, and working with media went from audio to using video much more. So there has been a lot of changes and best practices for that. That was one of the really great projects in digital humanities where I think it’s really important to be able to fail. We utterly failed with this project. We brought together dozens of scholars from around the country-- Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, you name it. We had the top oral historians in the country, and we wanted to come up with whatever standards for the video, to do the video oral history, and frankly, we just couldn’t. The video standards were just too up in the air. But we ended up creating a site that has over 70 essays, a dozen videos, lots of information so that you can find out what’s the best practice for your particular project. So we don’t have these standards but given the fact that you only have 100 dollars, this might be the best recorder, or this might be the best practice for doing it. Depending on your institution, how do you preserve, how do you do that. And It’s been a tremendously successful website. It’s probably been one of our most successful websites. So we failed with what we set out to do but we actually created a great resource that has been used around the world.
How do you think digital work has redefined scholarship or what we think of as scholarship?
I think it’s utterly changed. I don’t think there’s a distinction between who’s digital and who’s not digital anymore. Everyone, even the most fossilized person uses their computer to do the work, and go to Google, and you know, there’s no library catalog anymore and you have to use the online tools. So to a certain extent, in one way, it can make your traditional work much more efficient, but two, and I don’t think we’ve done enough with this, it could change the way you can work. It used to be very very hard to find a few dozen resources, and now we get thousands if not hundreds of thousands of resources and how do we deal with those? So the real challenge is I think scholarship used to be based on scarcity, but now we’re based on plenitude. There’s too much. And I don’t think our methods for teaching and understanding research have changed enough to help our students deal with an overwhelming amount of information and make sense of it. The grand challenge of the 21st century is how can I say something qualitative about large quantities of data. That’s going to be important, and frankly a lot of what we deal with is rhetoric in terms of trying to make sense of it. What is the quality of this material? Who uses it, how is it used, what is it good for? Those kinds of questions.
What excites you most about the future of Digital Humanities? I think in a way, you kind of already answered that, but is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just enjoy doing the projects. To me, the best part of digital humanities is you get to work with other people, to get to work with groups, you get to work with people with varying experience. Humanists for the most part can be a lonely lot. You know, they go off, do their work, try to compete with each other, things like that. Whereas the Digital humanities is mostly a friendly crowd. They support each other, and there’s lots of centers across the country where all the directors are really good friends. Rarely do you overlap in what you do that you’re competing for the same resources. I don’t know if it’s what is the future or what I expect, I just enjoy doing the work.
Finally, what advice do you have for new HASTAC scholars?
I think it’s really important to network, to get to know people out there because if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to collaborate.
I think it’s important to be able to do. I don’t think you should worry about becoming a great programmer, but you should understand programming. You should be able to write a simple program, then you can understand how it works, and then you can work with people who do understand what’s going on. So I think kind of getting understandings of technologies. You don’t have to be an expert in every one of them, and as a matter of fact, you probably won’t be, but you know what’s out there. Things like that can be very advantageous.