Home > Interviews


INTERVIEWS about the project

Librarians and the Digital Age (Michaela Ullmann)

How has digitization impacted Academic Libraries?

Digitization has a great impact on Academic Libraries. Many of them have actually established their own Digital Libraries. They are a great tool that allow our patrons to access our materials online now. Although people can look at materials on their own computers, wherever and whenever, the exposure and access to materials that before were sometimes difficult to discover actually draws more patrons into the libraries. Digital Libraries are a great compliment to physical sources and materials. Online finding aids for our physical collections, the USC Digital Library, and other USC digital sources don't only draw in USC students but also researchers from all over the world.
Depending on the research focus and extent, it may be enough for some patrons to view the digital surrogate online, but in many cases, researchers want the explore the physical materials they discovered online to examine them closer, or to take into consideration things that cannot represented well in an electronic copy.
Digitization furthermore plays an important role in preservation, and increansingly in teaching. Projects like this one allow faculty and their students to collaborate using rare materials in Special Collections, and to create new, digital content around our collections.

What do librarians think of digitization?

I think people often have an antiquated image of librarians as popular culture likes to represent us as having a stiff upper lip, being stuck in the past, and being resistant to change. But that’s really not true. Librarians are Information Specialists. We specialize in providing access to information to our users. Digitization is a great way of allowing a huge number of users to access our collections. My colleagues in our Digital Library are highly trained specialists and use the newest technology and standards for digitization. Don't let that often portrayed and antiquated image of librarians fool you..

Why do the physical copies of documents, books, and other items still matter in the digital age?

Well, for one, digitization and digital humanities is a process and a costly one at that. Digitization does not simply mean scanning an image. There is also metadata involved, storage, and making sure the digital files are supported in the future to prevent loss of data. In addition, it takes a lot of time and effort to digitize a whole collection with often thousands of pages of correspondence.
Furthermore, not everything can be digitized easily. We are still working on ways to truly digitally represent three dimensional artifacts. 
I personally feel that we don't (yet) have the tools to replace the experience of seeing and exploring rare materials in person like during a class visit to Special Collections.
During the summer for example, we hold a freshmen orientation workshop that we call a “Petting Zoo” or a “Treasure Hunt,” where we allow students up close access to materials. During the semester, many classes visit Special Collections with their professors and those visits often feature an in-class activity during which the students get to work with rare books or archival collections. You just don't see the same excitement in a student looking at a digital represenation of an item than when the student gets to explore and often touch "the real thing".

Why do you think mapping is useful in the humanities?

Mapping is a visual tool, very interactive, and it allows for a great deal of collaboration. Because of these approaches, it will draw in a broader and wider audience, not just in the realm of the humanities. Mapping also allows to combine a variety of collections in one project. In the Nuremberg Chronicle project for example, we worked with the woodcuts from the Nuremberg Chronicle as well as with maps from our Digital Library.

What do you think makes something like The Nuremberg Chronicle a good test case for mapping and digital humanities?

The Liber Chronicarum, or The Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the great examples from the early Print Revolution and the era of incunabula books. What especially made it a natural selection is that it is a chronicle of the world. I think of it like the encyclopedia and the Internet of its time period. All of a sudden, a bunch of information and ideas about the world became more widely accessible.
The book has beautiful woodcuts representing some of the major European cities at the time and those were easy to map to these cities' locations. What was also nice is that we just recently acquired an English translation of the text in the Nuremberg Chronicle that could be transcribed and added next to the scanned woodcuts. Last but not least, it was an easy enough project for us to experiment with and become more familiar with the different plattforms in existence and how to use them best for a collaborative project.

What other mapping projects are in the works for Special Collections?

Currently we are also working with Professor Britta Bothe, who teaches in the German department. Bothe and her students put together a map of German speaking exiles in Los Angeles. Students were and will be asked to write a biographical piece about a German-speaking exile and they will map where they lived in LA and where they worked, among other places German exiles associated with. Even though they fled Nazi persecution, settlement in LA was not an easy process and this map will show how they picked up their lives in not only a new place but a new world far away from their culture and home. 
Some of the more “well-known” German exiles include novelist Heinrich Mann who was the older brother of Thomas Mann and whose work includes Professor Unrat (Later adapted into the Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel), and Lion Feuchtwanger, who was not only an author but an anti-Nazi activist. Feuchtwanger plays an important role at the USC Libraries as he donated his collection to USC.
Students will also map lesser known exiles like Irmgard Lenel. While Lenel, was not as high profile as Mann and Feuchtwanger, Lenel was very much so involved in anti-Nazi political activity. 

What item from the USC archives would you like to see mapped? Is there also some personal research you’ve worked on in the past that you would like to see mapped?

At USC we have a strong focus on regional history. Every year the USC Libraries host the L.A. as Subject Archives Bazaar. I think a project mapping all of the LA focused collections would be great for the event!
Personal research-wise, in grad school I studied Mayan and Aztec cultures. I could envision a project on the Popol Vuh, better known as the Mayan "Book of the Dead.” It’s regional use and variations in the story could be mapped. My thesis in Anthropology/Archaeology was on burial patterns of the Maya of the Classic Period in Tikal. This, too, would be a project that can add visual clues to the data collected in the field.


A Historian in the Digital Age (Lindsay O'Neill)

In the digital age, why do the physical copies and places like Special Collections and archives still matter? What can you learn from the physical copy versus the “digitized copy?”

Well, Special Collections is as interactive as you can imagine. When you go to a museum you want to touch everything, but you are usually barred from doing so. Special Collections on the other hand, allows you to touch the past. Whenever I have students go on their own or on a class trip, they say that they felt more connected to the past, in a way that they don’t feel by just looking at something. There is an emotional draw to really touching the past.

Also, looking at the physical object can tell us things that a digital copy, really can’t do no matter how well scanned it is. You can look and see the size of an object. I remember calling up a letter writing manual, when I was doing research and it turned out it was a small little book that fit in the palm of your hand. You got a sense of how it was really used, you could put it in your pocket, you could run around with it. It was probably not something you trotted out to show guests.

Sometimes, especially for students, the source available to them online is a transcribed copy of the original. Looking at the original physical copy you get a better sense of how the book was set up, how the book was worded. Early type until the end of the eighteenth century for instance, still had weirdly shaped S’s in them and this always strikes my students as something crazy, but it is a good illustration of how the book was used and what people were actually looking at.

Also you can see how books were kept. Usually in the early modern period, books were not given to you bound. You didn’t go to Barnes and Noble or order them on Amazon, they didn’t come with their own hardbound cover or paperback cover, you bought the pages and had them bound yourself. But this meant you could organize the papers in many different ways. You could possibly bind three different short books or tracts together to create one conversation. In Special Collections, there is a copy of Thomas Clarkson’s works on slavery but it’s bound with a bunch of other works on anti-slavery, which widens the discussion on the topic.

Essentially, the physical copy presents both an emotional connection to history and leads to further insights for further research as well. 

In his article on Wikipedia as a source, historian Roy Rosenzweig asked, “Can history be an open source?” With sites like Wikipedia, what are the ramifications of history as an open source in the digital age?

Well, Wikipedia’s objective is mainly to bring together old knowledge and historians mainly reacted against it because of this. Historians wanted to publish new ideas on the site, but Wikipedia’s rules don’t allow that and there seemed to be a general disregard for professional academics. The piece also addressed a “crisis in publishing.” If you have something like Wikipedia, a free and open source, why then do you need something like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography database, a service that perhaps isn’t accessible to people who are not affiliated with a college or university in some capacity. This “crisis” also forced the following questions about how books work: some books may be published as open sources or be published online rather than through an academic press. These open sources are also further making encyclopedias defunct. I remember, after watching Braveheart, looking up William Wallace in my parents set of encyclopedias. Now, I can just go on Wikipedia and Google and find the information instantly. Essentially, the main tensions boil down to access and the place of the professional.

With forums of access such as the Internet and devices like a Kindle or a laptop, what is the future of the publishing of books?

I have noticed that a majority of my students do read books on a Kindle or access them online. Likely for reasons such as price and convenience, but, like I was mentioning with Special Collections, people are still drawn to the physical copy. There is still that emotional draw you get when you are able to touch and interact with a book. It really all depends upon the reader and what they like best. I think there will still be both forms of books readily available.

Having been both a student and a professional historian in the digital age, how have digital tools impacted the classroom and research?

There are changes both for the good and the bad. I do allow students to use laptops and that alters their experience, by creating a more efficient and interactive environment. I can for instance, tell students to do Google searches in class and that allows for a faster flow of information. But also, in the digital age, because of the various capabilities of the devises at our disposal, we’ve all become so used to multitasking that complete concentration can be lost.

The digital age has really changed the way we’ve done research. For instance, the other day I asked my students if they’d seen microfilm and about 1 out of 15 people raised their hand. In addition, its changed the way we can access materials. It dramatically cuts the time we need to travel to look at a certain source. But again the bad news is that, people perhaps don’t look at the primary sources as much. This is especially true in British history because lots of the books are scanned and readily available via databases. Often the good out weighs the bad though. For example, the Old Bailey online database (London’s Criminal Court from 1674-1913) is open to the public. Often within these databases you can word search primary sources making it easier to get the information that you need, rather than reading through them all.

These digital sources allow students a more interactive experience. Two sources I’ve used for classes illustrate this: the British Pathe is a site with a plethora of film clips set mainly in the twentieth century. This allows students to see actually see the primary sources. In my history seminar on media in the early modern period, I utilized various sources that visualized the environment at St. Paul’s Cross, during a sermon in the seventeenth century. With these new digital sources, students can even see into the more distant past.

To use this sources see:

The Proceeding of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org

Virtual St. Paul’s Cross Project: http://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu

Do you think the majority of historians have embraced “digital” humanities? Do you find that there is maybe a generation gap between historians who were trained during the Digital Age versus those in graduate school before it?

On the one hand, all professors generally do feel behind their students in technological knowledge, which may, of course, be an exaggeration. But, because of this, there is more of an emphasis in using technology. Incoming younger faculty, have generally been trained in grad school, since programs are increasingly pushing digital history. As history is looking to redefine itself as a field that can be a mover and shaker in the 21st century, digital tools will become a bigger part of the conversation and more ingrained into research and teaching. At USC there are various initiatives such as the Digital Humanities Program and the Spatial Studies Institute that provide a lens into digital learning and research for both students and professors.

Your book The Opened Letter utilizes maps to paint a picture of the epistolary networks of the early modern British elite. First off, how did you come across mapping? Also, why did mapping prove to be so beneficial to the book? 

For my dissertation, I did use sharpies to create my own maps, but for The Opened Letter the USC Spatial Studies Institute converted my marker maps into better digital versions. The maps were used for a geographic purpose to map both where the letters were coming from and to provide a scope of the world at that time. The most important thing about the maps was to create a visual image for the reader to clarify the argument and in one eyeful allow the reader to grasp the argument and the purpose of the book. It was essentially the argument laid out in a miniature form.

What makes The Nuremberg Chronicle a good showcase for mapping?

It’s a critical text in the invention of print. It was popular then and even now people know it and will find it useful. I also think it’s a great way to heighten a sense of the differences between the past and present. At the time of its publication, 1493, there were different cartographical ways of thinking about space and representation, at the core of this friction were different religious maps and ideologies. The book really made readers rethink cartography and mapping. 

What would you liked to see mapped in your field of British history?

There are endless possibilities. We have a lot of great databases that could be used for mapping. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database for instance, has used its data to map out the concentrations of the slave trade and how it changed over time. Generally mapping most things can really make it interesting. If you looked at early American or British newspapers and looked for fugitive slave ad’s and mapped where those surfaced, it could heighten our knowledge slavery. If you turn to Special Collections, mapping where each of the early printed books came from would be a nice way for students to get a grasp of the spread of print, people have done this at other venues and it’s a nice way to introduce the topic. The best thing about mapping is if you have a dense source base mapping will help you make sense of it.

Link to The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database Maps: http://slavevoyages.org/tast/assessment/intro-maps.faces