Over the last decade, Hemispheric American Studies
has been an emerging interdisciplinary field,
spawning new conferences, graduate programs, professional
seminars, journals, essay collections, and even a
scholarly association. As Caroline Levander (co-PI of
the Our Americas Partnership) and Robert Levine explain,
Hemispheric American Studies aims “to chart new
literary and cultural geographies by decentering the U.S.
nation and excavating the intricate and complex politics,
histories, and discourses of spatial encounter that occur
throughout the hemisphere but tend to be obscured in
U.S. nation-based inquiries” (Levander & Levine 2008,
p.5). Such an approach means being attentive to shifting
borders, migrations, cultural interactions—movement
rather than fixity.
Scholars practicing a hemispheric approach to American
Studies face challenges that include research materials
being scattered in many repositories, lack of institutional
support and intellectual community at their home institutions,
and linguistic barriers. The Our America Archive
Partnership (OAAP, http://oaap.rice.edu/) is beginning
to address these limitations by building a distributed
online collection of research materials as well as technologies
for federating multiple repositories, creating
geographical and temporal visualizations, and enabling
researchers to tag and collect digital objects. Funded by
a $1 million grant from the Institute for Museum and
Library Services (IMLS), OAAP brings together Rice
University’s Fondren Library, Rice’s Humanities Research
Center, the University of Maryland’s Institute for
Technology and the Humanities (MITH), and Mexico’s
Instituto Mora, with more partners expected. Included
in the OAAP project are evaluation of scholarly needs;
digitization of texts; development of an open federated
archive; and design and implementation of technologies
that support inquiry, discovery and collaboration.
With its transnational scope, Hemispheric American
Studies requires access to research materials distributed
around the world, with collections that transcend nation
state boundaries and facilitate comparativist studies
of the Americas. The web-based OAAP provides such access, with tools that enable scholars to search for resources,
collect and organize them, visualize them using
temporal and geospatial interfaces, and collaborate with
peers. OAAP brings together an existing collection of
TEI-encoded texts, the University of Maryland’s Early
Americas Digital Archive (EADA, which covers literature
of the Americas from 1492-1820), with two new collections
being digitized, Rice’s America’s Collection and
Instituto Mora’s collection (North and Latin American
government documents, manuscripts, books, and other
material from 1811-1920). The combined collections
span the five hundred year period that witnessed the
making of colonial and modern cultures in the Americas.
Because of its range, the federated archive promises to
reinvigorate the study of American literary and cultural
history by suggesting unexpected juxtapositions, different
models of periodization, and new avenues of crosscultural
User Studies and Needs Analysis.
The OAAP team is working actively with the Hemispheric
American Studies scholarly community in assessing
needs, building the collection and tools, and
developing an infrastructure for collaboration. Caroline
Levander, a leading researcher in Hemispheric American
Studies, is a co-PI, and Rice’s Humanities Research
Center, which Levander directs, contributes most of the
scholarly activities for the project. The advisory board
includes well-respected scholars, librarians, and digital
humanists. Levander has taught an NEH Summer Seminar
on the topic of hemispheric American literature and
a National Humanities Center Dupont seminar on the
globalization of American literary studies. Participants
were surveyed about their existing use of digital resources
as well as about the OAAP and will be consulted as
OAAP continues to evolve. We also collaborated with
the Council on Library and Information Resources to
convene a meeting of five scholars and one academic
technologist to envision OAAP’s future.
From these surveys and discussions several principles
• Access is paramount.
Seminar survey respondents ranked better search
tools and better access to research materials as top
priorities. Researchers emphasized the importance
of having access to a variety of materials from
around the world, from government documents to
manuscript materials to audio recordings. These resources
must be easy to discover through full-text
search as well as rich metadata.
• OAAP should tackle barriers of language and discipline
How can scholars get beyond the limitations of their
own conceptual schemas and their own languages?
One scholar envisioned a search tool that would
work like a friendly archivist, identifying materials
you didn’t know existed. Scholars emphasized the
need for a multilingual search interface, so that a
researcher could enter keywords in Spanish and pull
up relevant results in English.
• Scholars want an environment that facilitates collaboration,
acknowledges contributors, and enables
them to quickly evaluate the reliability of resources.
Fundamentally scholars saw OAAP as opening a
new approach to scholarship, one that is not constrained
to close readings of a few key texts but able
to encompass broad spatial, political, and social
contexts. For instance, a group of scholars could
team up on a study of the Spanish-American War,
some focusing on visual or literary culture, some on
demography. One survey respondent suggested that
OAAP “develop [a] place for scholars to ask one
another questions about materials with which they
are less familiar, i.e. provide space for collaborative
Text Encoding Approach
Texts from OAAP’s collections are marked up in TEI to
facilitate scholarly analysis and long-term preservation.
Since scholars seem to value access over all else, some
have suggested that it would be sufficient to offer PDFs
of the books. With TEI marked-up texts, however, scholars
can search within or across texts, use analytical tools
such as TAPOR, and easily copy out passages into their
notes. Moreover, TEI supports the creation of multiple
forms of output from a single TEI text, such as an original
and a regularized version of a manuscript or a version
optimized for mobile devices.
After consultation with scholars, OAAP decided to focus
on marking up basic structures in the body of the text,
just as EADA did with its TEI texts. Our aim is to support
access and analysis, not to create critical editions.
For manuscripts, we are also encoding features such as
deletions, additions, and corrections, as well as the structure
of letters such as openers and closers.
Given the significance of geography to OAAP, we considered
using automated or manual methods to add place
markup. While this could enable geospatial searching
or the generation of maps showing places described in a as the distinctions between places in which a narrator is
physically present vs. imagined spaces (like “home”).
We needed a streamlined approach that would minimize
labor costs in working with the 25,000 pages of digitized
text. Furthermore, to encourage other institutions to add
their collections to the federation, we want to keep the
requirements for participating in OAAP minimal. We
must, therefore, pursue a balanced approach that embraces
standards (to facilitate consistency and longevity)
and is flexible enough to accommodate a diversity of archives
with a range of goals and capabilities.
Federation Model and User Interface
In addition to providing access to key research materials,
OAAP hopes to facilitate collaboration among an international
community of scholars. Despite challenges,
including the humanities’ reluctance to reward collaborative
work, scholars in this vital community have expressed
excitement about working together on research
projects in the collaborative space provided by the OAAP.
The project is facilitating collaboration through a social
tagging interface and federation of distributed repositories,
as well as by working actively with scholars on the
OAAP’s development. To enable the federation of distributed
repositories, OAAP is implementing a harvester
that collects objects from repositories meeting minimal
standards and stores them for the purposes of searching
and display. OAAP is adopting a data exchange standard
based upon OAI’s Static Repository XML model (http://
htm). Through OAAP’s interface, researchers will
be able to search, browse, tag, and collect objects from
distributed collections. Researchers will tag objects to
create a set of keywords that others can use, thus expanding
the metadata beyond the Library of Congress Subject
Headings added by metadata librarians and OAAP keywords
provided by participating scholars. OAAP will
also implement faceted browsing, allowing researchers
to filter searches by, for instance, “political constitution”
and “1800-1850.” Since notions of time and space are
crucial to OAAP, it will provide both geospatial and temporal
interfaces, enabling researchers to view resources
on an interactive map or timeline.
By providing open access to core research materials,
federating archives, and developing tools for analysis
and collaboration, OAAP hopes to realize what Cathy
Davidson calls Humanities 2.0: “Hybridity, exchange,
flow, and cultural transaction are all explored
and adventurously when the resources of
many nations, in many languages, have been digitized,
and offered for research by scholars
around the world, each of whom brings a local store of
knowledge and experience to the theoretical, interpretive
enterprise” (Davidson 2008).
Davidson, C.N., 2008. Humanities 2.0: Promise,
Perils, Predictions. PMLA, 123(3), 707-717. Available
pmla.2008.123.3.707 [Accessed October 5, 2008].
Levander, C.F. & Levine, R.S., 2008. Introduction.
Hemispheric American studies, New Brunswick, N.J.:
Rutgers University Press, pp. 1-17.
1See Our Americas Archive Partnership Narrative,
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Series: ADHO (4)