Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October 26, 2011 [Scholarly Review 7]: How Great Is This Valley?

[As a part of my own thoughts toward next steps and extended versions of this blog, but also as a way to highlight some of the amazing models for digital scholarship that are already out there, I’m going to focus this week on impressive scholarly sites. That would be in addition to the two sites of Stephen Railton’s and the site of Kevin Levin’s that I’ve already featured in this space. This is the second in that series.]

Yesterday’s focal point website, “Voice of the Shuttle,” is great at least in part because it utilizes, amplifies, and makes more productive and meaningful work that, realistically speaking, only the web could and can do—database and archive construction that would have taken decades and more moving trucks than spring training if it were to happen in the real world, made accessible to and searchable by scholars and researchers from around the world, able to be individualized and continually updated and to evolve as the web and the sources and the scholarship and conversations likewise evolve. To my mind, there’s obviously a great deal to be said for using new technologies in those new ways, and the plans to parallel “Voice” to new online concepts such as playlists and social networking are perfect examples of how such evolving technologies and ideas can be wedded to genuine, practical, and beneficial scholarly purposes and work.
But as I wrote in that above-linked post about my Dad’s websites, there’s at least as much value in finding ways for the web’s resources and strengths to help us do the things that scholars and teachers have always tried to do; and today’s focal web site, “The Valley of the Shadow,” exemplifies that approach. “Valley” actually predates even “Voice,” and coincidentally originated just down the hall (or maybe up a flight of stairs) from the room where that young AmericanStudier about whom I wrote yesterday was doing his first web-browsing; it was the brainchild of then-University of Virginia historian (now President of the University of Richmond) Ed Ayers, who developed it over the next decade and a half with a team of colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students, and tech wizards (one reason why both Ayers’ site and my Dad’s ones are so strong is the presence at Virginia of institutions like the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the  Virginia Center for Digital History). “Valley” represents, as the intro page at the link below illustrates, an attempt to capture one of the most crucial and yet complex and often vexed subjects for any American historian: the voices and experiences of Americans from particular communities and time periods, in this case two Shenandoah Valley towns (one in Pennsylvania, one in Virginia) before, during, and after the Civil War.

I could spend many more paragraphs than this one and fail to capture the incredible breadth, depth, and compelling interest and power of what Ayers and the “Valley” scholars and historians were able to find and include on the site; the truth is that the site’s work and its unique and engaging structure speak for themselves, and I encourage you to check it out. In terms of that structure, I would highlight one more way in which the site takes some of what historians are most interested in doing and uses the web to amplify these questions: the different categories of primary sources framed on the site’s main page are both treated as distinct and complicated individual texts, ones with which any reader and historian must grapple on their own terms; while the overarching structure puts those different categories in multiple relationships to each other, both within each time period (the ways church records and census and tax records can reveal different sides to these communities during the pre-war years, for example) and across the three periods (the identities captured and created in letters and diaries from each period, for another). If American historians are consistently working to find and analyze voices and experiences, they’re also consistently thinking about the kinds of sources they have, what contexts are necessary to approach each source, and how they can read them on their own and in conversation with other sources. The site doesn’t answer those questions for any individual user; quite the opposite, it allows every researcher to begin asking and answering his or her own version of them.
Take a look, I guarantee (or your money back!) you’ll learn something. More tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:

1)      “Valley”:

2)      BackStory, a Virginia radio program on American history for which Ayers is one of main the contributors:

3)      OPEN: To repeat yesterday’s, any nominations for sites I should include and/or that we should all know about?

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