Where Our Responsibilities Lie: People, Method, and Digital Cultural History

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Michelle Schwartz

    Ryerson University

  2. 2. Constance Crompton

    Université d'Ottawa (University of Ottawa)

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As cultural historians, should our responsibility be to the people in our historical data set or to our methodology? Is it possible to, as they say, have it both ways, and if so, what do Digital Humanities methods offer us as we seek to responsibly represent political history? In digitizing and digitally remixing a primary source data, should we value data collection consistency or value recovering information that the original methodology could not capture? We plan to report on the data collecting practices of Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada, a Canadian history project.
As Stan Ruecker and Stéfan Sinclair have argued, the work of the humanities consists of adding value to cultural artifacts through interpretation and analysis (Sinclair et al.), but what is the most sound way to gather together the materials that will permit the creation of this added value? The best practices may lie in our collective past. It has been 10 years since Tom Scheinfeldt posted his pivotal blog post “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?,” reminding us that that “late 19th and early 20th century scholarship was dominated...by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation...Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in an ideological construct” (Scheinfeldt). Digital humanities scholars have answered Scheinfeldt’s call: the field has revived the great 19th century work in bibliography, prosopography, chronology, philology and lexicography. We want to move further and respond to Elijah Meeks’ call to expand our explicit discussion of the methods and methodologies we use to collect and organize the data we augment through interpretation and analysis (Meeks).
The Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada (LGLC) project is comprised of 34,000 records about the people, places, events, and organizations of the gay liberation movement from the formation of the first homophile group at the country’s largest university in 1964 to the start of the AIDS crisis in 1981. The project builds on Donald McLeod’s monographs
, Lesbian and Gay Liberation In Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology (1964-1975 and 1976-1981). The base text consists of event records organized by date and then by location, with each summarizing a moment in liberation history. We have augmented the text both through digitization and the addition of data from archival sources and oral history The chronology text was encoded in TEI, to identify (and occasionally disambiguate) events, people, places, and dates. The TEI was then converted via XSLT into Cypher, the language that underpins Neo4j, a popular graph database. In addition to facilitating our own analysis of the data, the database underpins our node-based public history web app at lglc.ca. We are starting the second of the project: direct data augmentation.

The base text that underpins our project is a chronology that was amassed primarily through archival research conducted in the periodical studies tradition. This method left gaps in the data, since periodicals tend to favour those groups newsworthy enough to be covered in the periodical press; wealthy enough to advertise in the periodical press; and situated close enough to the press to benefit from print advertisements. Sensing that there were voices on the margins, racially, socio-economically, and geographically, missing from the periodicals-only collection method, we have devised an experiment to decide on which method will best help us fill these gaps. We know that oral history has fruitfully been used in the field (Nyhan et al.; Chenier), so we have assigned one of three potential methods to three research assistants:
The first assistant is using library authorities paired with secondary sources to create a prosopography, or collective biography, of the over 3,500 people mentioned in our chronology in order to find statistical norms within the political movement and to map activist relationships. This will help us ascertain where the likely gaps are in our periodicals-only based representation of the political movement.
The second assistant is continuing with the periodicals and archives-only method, but turning to periodicals that were dedicated to documenting the concerns and activities of groups currently marginalized in our base text;
The third assistant is conducting oral testimony interviews to capture events not covered in our chronology (and for the moment is verifying them via secondary print sources).
In this short-presentation, we report back on the findings of this research into methodological best practice and will demonstrate the affordances of the alpha version of our public history site.  As we are entering the augmentation phase of the project, we are keen to get feedback and best practice recommendations from the ADHO membership.


Chenier, Elise. (2010). Hidden from Historians: Preserving Lesbian Oral History in Canada.
Archivaria, 68.

Meeks, Elijah. (2011). Digital Humanities as Thunderdome.
Journal of Digital Humanities, 1(1).

Nyhan, Julianne, et al. (2015). Oral History and the Hidden Histories Project: Towards Histories of Computing in the Humanities.
Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 30(1): 71–85,
dsh.oxfordjournals.org, doi:10.1093/llc/fqt044.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. (2008). Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?
Found History, 13, https://foundhistory.org/2008/03/sunset-for-ideology-sunrise-for-methodology/

Sinclair, Stéfan, et al. (2013). Information Visualization for Humanities Scholars.
Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, Modern Language Association, https://dlsanthology.mla.hcommons.org/information-visualization-for-humanities-scholars/

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO