CHNM’s Histories: Collaboration in Digital History
This is the first in a series of posts about aspects of RRCHNM’s history written to mark the Center’s 20th anniversary. (The second post is here)
Collaboration has been by far the most popular of the five topics that we suggested participants might want to explore as part of the day devoted to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM)’s past at our 20th anniversary conference, chosen by 93 of the 115 people who had registered by October 3. And so it should be, as the initial projects that launched CHNM were all collaborations with the American Social History Project (ASHP), led by Steve Brier and Josh Brown, and all of the Center’s subsequent work has been infused with contributions from collaborators. Among the papers of Roy Rosenzweig, the founder of CHNM, in Special Collections here at George Mason University (GMU), is a copy of a talk on collaboration he gave at the WebWise conference in 2007. As part of that presentation he showed two slides, which I vividly remember seeing in another context, that listed more than 350 individuals, and 55 institutions, who had worked with the Center in the thirteen years that it had existed at that point. I haven’t tried to create an update of those slides: it would require capturing not only those directly involved in projects and the ever-growing number transcribing documents for the Papers of the War Department, but the many more who collaborate with the Center as part of the open source communities supporting Zotero and Omeka.
CHNM’s work does not entirely fit the commonly held picture of digital humanities practice. Most often, collaboration in digital humanities is understood as a disruption of humanities practice tied to technology, as referring to a necessary partnership between humanities scholars and developers and designers capable of doing the technical heavy lifting. However, looking closely at CHNM’s early projects, and talking with Steve and Josh about them, it’s clear that technology did not introduce collaboration to Roy and ASHP. Rather, it represented a continuation of their earlier work in public history, an often overlooked thread in the genealogy of digital humanities.
Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Josh Brown first met in the late 1970s, when they were all part of the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization (MARHO), the collective best known for publishing Radical History Review. When Steve joined with Herb Gutman, the enormously influential labor historian, to establish the American Social History Project (ASHP) in 1981, Roy served as an adviser, a member of board of the non-profit that ASHP set up, and a consultant on practically every project they did, including on Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, a two-volume textbook that placed the experience of ordinary Americans at the heart of the narrative (a reminder that textbook writing has long been a collaborative enterprise). Highlighting the continuity between those practices and their later collaborations in digital history, the roots of CHNM lie in an agreement between ASHP and GMU in 1990 that provided time for Roy to work on the CD-ROM edition of Who Built America? that ASHP was developing with funding from Voyager. After the first disk was finished, in August 1993, Roy proposed establishing a Center for History and New Media at GMU, an idea Steve Brier helped advance by attending a meeting with the Dean of the College of Humanities at GMU in 1994. A draft timeline in Roy’s Papers records that the Department of History approved a proposal for the Center on November 10, 1994, and GMU’s President added his approval on February 2, 1995.
CHNM’s first formal collaborations with ASHP came thanks to a grant form the Rockefeller Corporation to support work on the second Who Built America? disk, and a grant from the Gould Foundation, to launch a second CD-ROM project, led by Jack Censer, the chair of History at GMU, and Lynn Hunt, on the French Revolution. Both collaborative projects later secured funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and as the technology changed, moved from disks to the internet: HistoryMatters, born of material from Who Built America? reconceptualized for the web, launched in 1998; and the Liberty, Equality, Fraternity website launched in June 2001.
The final major collaboration between the two Centers grew from the first major grant secured by CHNM that did not involve ASHP. In October 2000, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded a project called Exploring and Collecting History Online (ECHO), which used a series of small projects in the history of science and technology to experiment with new ways of collecting material online. By September 11, 2001, CHNM had developed web tools and methods to extend and enrich the historical record. When the Sloan Foundation raised the possibility of using that approach to capture the digital response to the attacks, ASHP, based in New York City, were obvious partners in this enterprise. Staff from both CHNM and ASHP attended the meeting at the Foundation at which the September 11 Digital Archive was conceived.
Examining the proposals and credits for the CHNM/ASHP projects as starting point for understanding these collaborations, I was immediately struck by the language they used to describe roles: the leaders of the teams are “producers” and “executive producers.” Film production was part of ASHP’s work, but both Steve and Josh told me recently that the choice of those terms also reflected the fact that they couldn’t find language that entirely captured the nature of their collaboration For Josh, the language of production provided a way of sharing credit and pointing to the team that contributed to a project. At the same time, he saw the collaborations, which until the September 11 Digital Archive, generally only involved half a dozen people, as a form of co-authorship.
Anyone interested in exploring this collaboration further should attend RRCHNM’s 20th Anniversary conference, on November 14 & 15. Participants in the first day of the conference will be shaping the topics of the day’s workshops on the Center’s history: asking how CHNM and ASHP collaborated would be a great workshop topic. Proposals and reports for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, HistoryMatters and the September 11 Digital Archive are included in the material we’re making public for that event, and many former staff involved in those projects, including Steve Brier, Josh Brown, Elena Razlogova, Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, will be among the participants. You can still register for this free event here.