Likenesses Within the Reach of All: A Lesson in Digital Preservation

IMG_2926In the planning phase of every digital humanities project, the individual or team has to grapple with the issue of digital sustainability and preservation. When the project is finished, who is going to maintain it? How long will it be updated? Will it be hosted by a library, university, or publisher? Will the project be hosted in perpetuity or is there a plan to transition it to a digital repository?

For one of my own projects, I recently discovered that the answers to “who is going to maintain it?” and “how long will it be updated?” are “no one” and “under four years,” respectively. Likenesses Within the Reach of All, a project I completed as part of my CLIR Postdoc at The University of Alabama, has effectively ceased to function. Users can still access the 3,356 cartes de visite that formed the basis of the site, but the database, map, and visualizations that highlighted the significant aspects of the collection have broken.

As far as I can tell, Likenesses started to break as a result of a WordPress upgrade. As a result, the banner that sat beneath the title on the homepage had moved to the bottom of the page and was stretched much too wide. More distressingly, I recently discovered that the underlying database and the embedded maps and visualizations were no longer connected. As a result, there are essays explaining nonexistent visulaizations and a map showing the spread of southern photography without points.

To say that I am disappointed with the current state of Likenesses would be an understatement. After I accepted my current position at Emory University in the spring of 2017, I suspect¬†Likenesses fell between the cracks of two different departments. Ultimately, the project now testifies to the importance of digital sustainability. When designing a project, it’s crucial for all parties to understand when a project is “complete” and what that means in the long-term. Otherwise, your project might end up as a digital ruin.


Likenesses Within the Reach of All

I’m happy to announce that the project I’ve been working on for the last three months has finally launched!¬†Likenesses Within the Reach of All is a digital project that maps the expansion of southern photography through the cartes-de-visite of The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at The University of Alabama. Building on the work Christa Vogelius completed during her time as the CLIR Fellow at UA, I’ve worked to map the data and provide access to the photographs for researchers and archivists. Many others provided assistance and feedback on the project and you can find them on our About page.

Likenesses Within the Reach of All

On Stereogranimator

In the last two weeks, I’ve been working with two digital projects that I think are incredibly useful for both teachers and historians. The first, from NYPL Labs, is the Stereogranimator. Developed in response to the large body of stereoscopic photographs at the New York Public Library, the Stereogranimator allows you to create either anaglyphs or animated gifs of the 3D images originally captured by stereographs. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, stereography soared in international popularity and allowed viewers to feel as though they stood in front of landmarks, battlefields, local and national celebrations, and the wreckage of natural disasters.

Ruins of Great Fire in Boston, 1872

While many of these stereographs have been preserved at archives and libraries around the world, the images require a stereoscope to be viewed properly. These devices function in a similar manner to the View-Masters many of us grew up with, but most individuals, archives, or libraries do not have access to turn of the century stereoscopes.

With the Stereogranimator, this is no longer an obstacle. NYPL Labs has created a tool that allows users to establish the overlapping focal point of the two images and produce a single, three dimensional anaglyph or animated gif. Here are two that I made earlier this week:

Where General McPherson was Killed, Atlanta, GA 1864
Confederate Memorial Obelisk, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA

I am excited by the Stereogranimator because it allows for users to experience and understand two very important aspects of the late nineteenth century. First, it allows individuals to gain a better understanding of what the late nineteenth century looks like. For those who don’t study this era, the idea of nineteenth century photography will likely conjure up either Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War, or black and white portraits of awkwardly posed subjects. Stereographs allow for a better sense of the nineteenth century akin to the returning popularity of colorized photographs. By adding depth or color, the nineteenth century suddenly feels more alive and accessible to the modern viewer.

Secondly, the Stereogranimator provides insight into the culture of the late nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War, most Americans had not been more than twenty miles from the place of their birth. Not only did stereographs depict distant places, but the sense of depth and scale allowed for viewers to feel as though they were standing at the site. For consumers in New York City, for instance, traveling to the site where General McPherson died during the Battle of Atlanta was possible but impractical. Stereographs allowed for these scenes to be captured and shown to individuals throughout the country. With the Stereogranimator, users have a straightforward way to view stereographs and in the process, experience a slice of nineteenth century popular culture. In my next post, I’ll talk about a recently released project that creates a historical soundscape of the early twentieth century.