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We are RRCHNM

2012 March 8
by Sheila

What Does a DH Center Look Like from the Outside

My first encounters with RRCHNM were at the beginning of my doctoral studies at GMU, when I first met with Roy Rosenzweig who would become my adviser. He held meetings in the flea-infested Pohick Module (our favorite trailer) rather than his departmental office. I was drawn to the program and the school, because of Roy’s research as a social and labor historian, his contributions to the museum field, and his leading voice on using new media to democratize and open up the process of doing history. He started this new-to-me Center which had hired another historian whose work I also admired, Paula Petrik, who also did “new media.”

These early encounters with RRCHNM in 2002-03 were as an outsider, and I saw it as a very different work place than I had experienced. That difference was due in part to the number of smart women & men who were employed in all areas of the small, but growing, Center. Kelly Schrum and Dan Cohen developed the History Matters and ECHO projects, and worked closely with RRCHNM’s first webmaster, Elena Razlogova. Elena, a native Russian PhD student in Cultural Studies, maintained servers, programmed many of RRCHNM’s early sites, and also contributed historical content. She also developed the precursor to Zotero, Scribe. RRCHNM’s first GRA was a woman, Katja Hering who helped to build websites in HTML–like we all did back then–and learned little bits of programming from Elena and from Amanda Shuman who was hired as a programmer in 2003. I first learned about databases from Elena and Jim Safley who was a young digital archivist who still works at Center.

Inside the Center, everyone addressed one another by their first names, office doors were wide open, coffee brewed all day, and you were invited to sit and use your laptop at a table or to grab a free workstation. What was this place?

At the time, I worked full-time in at the US Navy’s flagship museum. RRCHNM felt like another world.

Over at the Washington Navy Yard, where the Museum was part of the Naval Historical Center, it felt like I waged gender and status battles almost every day. I was a young, female, civilian who didn’t understand military ranks in a place where rank and status meant everything. I treated everyone the same. I worked as museum educator in a professional culture that assumed I did not know history because I was an “educator” and not a “curator,” “librarian,” “archivist,” or “historian,” even though I had earned by MA in American Studies, with a focus in history. When I joined the staff I had co-authored an article published the JAH’s History Teacher, and had contributed three articles to the Encyclopedia of New England Culture. Because I knew my history, I encouraged the curator to employ a more social history approach to maritime and military history exhibition scripts which were generally rebuffed. So, I used public programming and curriculum units to fill in what was often missing in the permanent exhibits. As the Director of Education, I managed 20 volunteer docents, most of whom were retired military who regularly joked, and some rued, how the Navy had deteriorated ever since admitting women. Hilarious, right? I grew accustomed to dealing with a very male-dominated organization.

Like most professional women, I experienced sexual harassment and took action. I did my best to protect our young female interns and staff from the unwanted advances from young Sailors and elderly co-workers. I learned valuable lessons about how and where to stand my ground, and how I could make a retired admiral or an active duty Captain listen to me even when they looked to speak with my male Director.

Despite this seemingly hostile environment, I liked my job because I was working in a museum and my colleagues taught me new things and our visitors appreciated the work we did. We survived on a shoestring budget, worked together to launch exhibits and public programs, and got creative with our resources.

While at the Museum, I also taught myself HTML and designed an alternative website, outside of our “official” Navy homepage, so that I could create a digital place to share teaching materials and offer a modicum of access to the museum on the web (in the year 200)that hadn’t existed before. I didn’t ask for permission to do a lot of things. Sometimes I succeeded, others times not. I pushed.

Seven years of these battles tired me out, particularly after I started my PhD and was looking to leave that museum. I saw the possibilities of cross-institutional collaboration and content production and audience engagement that was happening through RRCHNM. I also saw how RRCHNM grew in the early and mid 00’s to include additional women and men working as web designers, research assistants, project managers, project directors, and post-docs. I learned that at RRCHNM, and indeed of most DH professionals that I would come to know, most of the staff taught themselves HTML, CSS, PHP, et al. Then they shared that knowledge with one another. As an observer, this was a very different model of working than I had known. People worked well together and were producing thoughtful public history work that was accessible to a broad range of users from elementary school students to historians and genealogists.

In 2004, I left the Museum ready to transition into another career and felt lucky to join the RRCHNM staff. Like most folks, I made choices that balanced my work, life, and family demands. I took a pay cut and a chance.

Projects & Teams, not Individuals

RRCHNM is the sum of its people and its projects, which you can see featured on our website that showcases over 100 digital projects. To get a better picture of who has worked at RRCHNM and shaped the intellectual design, programming, and history work we have done, look at project About pages. Projects were designed to be collaborative that did not hide the work of a large project team behind one individual, but instead revealed and highlighted the names of everyone who had ever worked on this project before the Collaborator Bill of Rights existed. I asked on Twitter, how many of you look at the About page of a digital humanities project? Few people responded. The long list of participants from the World History Sources About page made at least one person shudder.
(Please note that the web designers and programmers on this project were all women.)

Below are a few other examples from early RRCHNM projects:
History Matters
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution
Historical Thinking Matters
ECHO, Exploring and Collecting History Online
Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives

This practice is not exclusive to RRCHNM, but this is where I first encountered this system of crediting in an academic setting. I was used to no one receiving named credit because an exhibit, lesson plans, web content, belonged to the Museum even as it was openly shared.

Through RRCHNM’s 18-year history, we have seen many great staffers come and go. Our work is project-based and grant-funded, and sometimes that creates a revolving door. Projects end and sometimes we cannot keep staff who want to stay. This also means that RRCHNM has grown from and served as a training ground for many historians, developers, and designers who now work in many places. This also means if you are looking in at the RRCHNM staff page today, it is different from 5 years ago and will look differently in another 5.

For instance, Elena Razlogova, finished her PhD and in 2005 was hired by Concordia University where she is now an Associate Professor and Director of their Digital History Lab. Programmer Amanda Shuman, left CHNM in 2006 to get her PhD in Chinese History and UC-Santa Cruz and has been a HASTAC scholar and technical coordinator on an NEH, Office of Digital Humanities Start-Up grant. There are other alums working across the country, while some have remained.

When I finished my PhD in 2010, I considered other job offers, but decided to stay at RRCHNM. I wanted to stay because it was a place where my work was challenging, while also my contributions were highly-valued and always credited. I could take time to present my own research at conferences, as well as represent RRCHNM at conferences and meetings. If I wanted to start my own project, I could. And in fact, Sharon Leon and I did that in October 2011 by pulling together RRCHNM volunteers to launch the Occupy Archive documenting the OWS movement. THATCamp was an idea born by staff members at RRCHNM. Dan Cohen took the unenviable job as Roy’s successor, and he has continued Roy’s approach to team work, inclusiveness, and looking outward to serve audiences far beyond academia with our projects. That vision includes a strong commitment to providing resources that allow others to do their own digital things and to take control of their own work through new media.

I also get to work with a brilliant and entertaining crew of men and women who bring a variety of experiences and perspectives to our projects and to the workplace. Some are on their first career, while others are on their second or third. Best of all, we learn from and teach one another. RRCHNM is one of the most generous and comfortable places I have ever worked.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle or disagree. It is difficult to replicate the conversations we have during project planning meetings and at various points of implementation when we step back to address moments when we think we have made assumptions that are based on our privilege as builders working at a university. The Omeka team, for instance, regularly debates the meaning of the Dublin Core “date” field and we theorize about “the item.” Most project staff agonize over web design and information architecture, because we understand that colors, fonts, placement, and terminology have different meanings to different groups, and that architecture can reflect argument. There are also moments when we feel that we are in danger of replicating or supporting traditional hierarchies even as we are trying to change them. We are vigilant and always working towards creating a better thing–whatever that thing is.

We are by no means alone in these struggles. Many other DH men and women are also stepping back and reflecting, and making different models of scholarly work and collaboration, and rethinking the type of work we engage in and who we involve.

What Do You See? I recognize that others will view the Center with different lenses.

Looking Out

When I look at other DH work, I see: women directing centers and leading multi-institutional initiatives; directing major software and encoding projects; directing digital initiatives at libraries, archives, and museums; programming and designing sites and content management systems; women and men teaching one another how to build things and sharing that work with communities bigger than their own.

My perspective may seem too positive, but I am not blind. I recognize that there are many challenges and real barriers to entry into this digital work, but there are also some real barriers to getting into most professional careers, never mind doctoral programs.

My position, which may appear permanent and stable, is not funded by the university, making me and 90% of my RRCHNM colleagues potentially vulnerable. We all work on grant-funded projects, and we are thriving, but grant writing is an integral part of our work on the senior staff. And as a member of the senior staff I am responsible for helping to keep all of those balls in the air. It’s a challenge, but a worthy one.

I told my story with RRCHNM because I wanted my experiences as a woman working in the digital humanities community to be heard on International Women’s Day. I want others to know who are looking in from the outside that RRCHNM is a great place to work as a woman. And from my other life experiences I can testify that DH, generally, is one of the most open, friendly, and accessible communities for women. Thank you to my colleagues, at RRCHNM and elsewhere across the US and internationally who foster inclusion, collaboration, and support. Let’s keep working together, we’re on a good path, and there is plenty of room.

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