Building Up – Built Upon Series Update

Since announcing Built Upon, we’ve had a number of enthusiastic responses and some equally engaging questions about the initiative.

Commenting on the current tool-building emphasis in much digital humanities work, Paul Fyfe called Built Upon a “welcome venue,” remarking that the series “formalizes a get-to-work ethos using existing tools.”

This captures nicely what Built Upon is responding to: the sense that the digital humanities community has reached something of a pivot point. Having created a critical mass of necessary tools and databases to begin reading texts, contexts, and artefacts anew, we’re now moving into a space of increasing (self-) reflection and renewed attention to method. (This is obviously not to say that we’re fresh out of need for new tools, just that tools aren’t—never were—an end in and of themselves.)

So: What do we do with the tools we’ve made? How do we approach texts, images, maps, and other data from the macro vantage point that these tools afford? What narrative, argument, or (re)energized methodology do digital information and modes of accessing this information open up? These are questions Anvil’s Built Upon series seeks to answer, primarily by showcasing the best and brightest models of new digital scholarly insight.

We’ve also been receiving a number of questions about the scope, scale, and overall intent of the series. I wanted to take some time to answer those questions a little more fully (for bite-sized answers, please have a look at our FAQ).

One question that has come up concerns whether authors would be restricted to listed archives. The answer: As far as limitations on working with the named collections go, we’re trying hard not to place restrictions on participants. Built Upon authors would be encouraged to work with any collection that meets their needs. The difference is that participating archives and collections have explicitly committed to helping with the review process, advising (and offering some limited support) on technical development, and generally opening up their resources to scholars.

Another question asks what exactly it means to “build upon” an archive or collection. As Miriam Posner phrased it in a recent message: “Does this entail, say, making use of an API, or gaining access to an archive’s database, or just working with the publicly accessible interface?”

Really, the answer to this question depends on the kinds of submissions we receive and the form that author-archive collaborations take. Whether listed collections provide full access to databases, APIs, software libraries, etc. is certainly one horizon we’re aiming for. But much of this will likely depend on security protocol and technical support levels at each archive’s host institution. Regardless, Anvil is motivated to help authors achieve maximum access with minimum hassle.

That said, we’re also looking for work that effectively uses (and innovates uses of) these collections from the front end, too. Really, more than anything else, good argument is the watchword for Built Upon.

Finally, we’re excited to report the addition of Civil War Washington (from the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and the University of Iowa’s Civil War Diaries and Letters Collection to our list of partner collections. We’ll keep you updated as we hear from other projects and have answers to other questions!