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Remember the Hams

2012 March 28
by Sheila

I started writing a post on the DIY’ness of some aspects of Digital Humanities work, which sent me back to some of my research on enthusiast and collector cultures and professionalization.

Do-It-Yourself in the US has a history of its own, and the literature is often focused on home crafts, building, and creating. There was plenty of DIY’ing, of course, in rural and agricultural communities where most things were built and crafted. DIY’ing as a concept emerged from the introduction of leisure time in urban and suburban locations from a more stratified industrial and capital-driven workforce in the late nineteenth century and increased numbers of families owning homes into the twentieth century.1. Women and men of means participated in DIY pursuits that one can find documented in magazines and periodicals.

Steve Gelber argued in his study of hobbies that American leisure time activities — collecting and home crafts—developed into the twentieth century as a way for individuals to participate in leisure activities that were productive and resembled work—or that encompassed learning, emulating, and negotiating the ways of industrial capitalism (buying and selling stamps qualifies). Adults and their children learned that if you were not involved in productive leisure, you were doing something wrong. Many structures were built up to support this type of leisure, from playgrounds to clubs. There was plenty of negotiating within these activities which often differed for men and women, and gendered expectations changed over time. You know that. This type of hands-on work, whether crafting a new piece of furniture, collecting systematically, or repairing a broken fence offered “relief from one kind of work could be found in another kind work.”2.

Gelber paints with a broad brush, so if you are interested in reading about one enthusiast DIY culture, I recommend Kristen Haring’s, Ham Radio’s Technical Culture. Her monograph studies the cultural and gendered development of ham radio (amateur radio) hobbyists in the 20th Century. It is worth a look, because she attributes the spirit of open-source development as a “legacy of hobbyists and a reminder that there exist alternative ways of using and relating to technology.”3.

Amateur Radio Issue, 1964, National Philatelic Collection: http://arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=1&cmd=1&mode=2&tid=2034163

Ham radio culture developed like other hobby cultures in the US, such as philately, which established clubs and rules for participating that were enforced, reproduced, and naturalized by members and practices that were also disseminated through print publications and group meetings. I have argued that these efforts grew from the professionalization occurring in the work culture –experienced by collectors, for example, who brought that practice into a leisure club.4 As a result, hierarchies developed among collectors, and as Haring shows, in hams as well. Individuals with different levels of skills, financing, and commitment participated in different ways in those enthusiast cultures. Unlike hobbyist groups of collectors, amateur radio technicians needed to learn specific skills and knowledge to fully participate, because hams needed to pass a licensing exam before sending signals and DX’ing with others.

From her research on hams and others technical hobby communities, she found that those participants:

  • encouraged the hands-on activity and celebrated the virtues of learning by doing;
  • considered the extent of the members’ interactivity with apparatus to be a measure of personal commitment;
  • adopted a technology for leisurely use before its operation had been streamlined for mass consumption;
  • and avoided the constraints of ready-made equipment by building their own.

Hmm, so maybe there is something here that is similar to our technical community of practice in DH. (And please do not for one moment interpret this as me denigrating your professional work or training. I’m not, nor is this the direction I’m taking.)

Enthusiast communities participate in activities during their free time, or shall I say, non-work hours. Tweaking a radio, building a piece of furniture, exhibiting a collection may continue into the evening hours and extends through weekends as an individual immerses themselves in a project that they love.

Humanities computing has been alive at the edges of major disciplines for about 50 years and is getting more attention now. And the only way to get things done if you were a traditionally-trained academic was the DIY method—-in many cases. To learn how to program or to take the extra time required to create massive data sets or to encode documents requires more time that it takes to simply write from your research (not that it is simple, but you get my drift). Alternatively, there were folks trained in computer sciences who found enjoyment in their humanities studies, genealogical research, on the side. These individuals connected over time, as they worked on the edges of their professions seeking a community of support and assisting others with finding and building tools, sharing methods, and ultimately applying all of this to one’s own subject of choice.

Returning to Haring, she makes another pertinent observation about technical culture: “Whether serving as leaders, provocateurs, hobbyists demonstrated diverse options for technical culture. Hobbyists engaged with technology in a way that was fun, collaborative, educational, intense, and creative.”

Yes, I think there are some similarities.

Once outliers, these enthusiasts–if you’ll allow me to go there–have become leaders and are attracting attention from their “home” professional cultures, which can cause tension. Sean Takats’s recent post about professional historians addresses this tension after listening to apologies from individuals identifying themselves as “only a historian” at two digitally-minded humanities meetings in Europe last week as a way to apologize for lack of technical knowledge.

I would say that based on some of Haring’s conclusions about technical cultures, I can understand that reflex to back off of proclamation of skill competency. And yet, as Sean, points out, this distancing is really harming how we proceed as digital-whatever-we-want-to-call-ourselves: “Not every historian can or should become an expert programmer, but it’s time to put to rest the notion that being a historian categorically excludes these skills.” As I interpret his post, this means that academics (historians, specifically in his piece) must make room for what was once considered an extra to be included in the ways that we define our professional work and practice. And thus, also acknowledging this type of work in promotion and tenure reviews, allowing faculty and staff time to learn and practice new technical skills, and recognizing that these types of skills are just as important to learn as say statistics when history was categorized more as a social science than as a humanities discipline.

So, when we talk about DH as a DIY pursuit, I return to the historical developments of the term and of those communities. I think of the hams signalling one another in the middle of the night and of the craftspeople toiling away in the workshops past midnight on a project that they love, knowing that they will be rising early the next morning to go to their day job.

I think Sean’s point is right on that while we’re getting there, we have to think about the digital and technical skills as an integral part of our professional day jobs. This is not an issue for some of us, but it seems to be for many (and I can probably extend this into the museum world, too). Not only will this support our work, new work, but it may also turn “digital” humanities into plain old humanities. And perhaps, it can afford us a little bit of that leisure time to do something else.

  1. Carolyn M. Goldstein, Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in 20th-century America (Princeton Architectural Press, 1998) []
  2. Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies : Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) []
  3. Kristen Haring, Ham Radio’s Technical Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 18 []
  4. Sheila A. Brennan, “Little Colored Bits of Paper” Collected in the Progressive Era,” The Winton M. Blount Postal History Symposia: Select Papers, 2006-2009, Smithsonian Contributions to History and Technology no. 55. (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2010): 15-22. []
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