Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Data Management for #VastEarlyAmerica

· June 6th, 2019 · No Comments

Join Jessica M. Parr for the 2019 THis Camp, “Digital Management for Historians: a system for keeping track of data including syllabi, projects, and research” on Thursday, June 13, 2:00 pm, at the 25th annual OI conference at the University of Pittsburgh. 

by Jessica M. Parr, Simmons University

Like so many things these days, the Data Management for Historians plan was born of a #twitterstorians conversation. In the summer months, I am on Twitter more frequently to connect with virtual writing partners. We offer each other support and accountability. I also engage with my more junior, doctoral student colleagues, answering queries, and occasionally offering advice. It is in this context that the Data Management plan came about.

A graduate student had mentioned the need to figure out how to manage all the digital files he had been collecting in the course of his dissertation research. There is nothing like a summer of fellowships and research travel to make a historian simultaneously invigorated by the fruits of their archival research, and intimidated by tracking everything they have managed to collect. The evolution of new tools, like GeniusScan that turn your phone into a portable scanner and allow you to get through more research than you ever thought possible. (It’s now a bit dated, but you can find my Junto blog post about making the most of your time in the archives here.) But improved research productivity creates a two-part problem: both ensuring that you are not collecting meaningless “stuff” just because you can, and maintaining intellectual control over what you have. And after spotting this exchange on Twitter, OI Director Karin Wulf reached out to offer me a chance to work with the Omohundro Institute to develop a guide for helping #twitterstorians of #VastEarlyAmerica manage their research data.

Few, if any of us are trained to view what we collect as data, and that can be an obstacle to figuring out what to do with all the PDFs, .jpgs, and sundry digital files on our hard drives, thumb drives, and various cloud services. But thinking about the things we create and collect in a digital environment is a critical piece in maintaining intellectual control over our research collections and other documentation. Over the course of a career, most of us will reference at least some of the same sources in more than one article or book. As I worked on the data management plan, I specifically focused on explaining common terminology to help historians understand their work as “data,” and then offered a framework for pushing users to be deliberative about what they collect and why.

One of the other essential pieces of developing this guide was to use resources that have a reasonable learning curve, and that are financially accessible to graduate students and the precariously employed. Although my examples do reflect historians who teach (whether full time or not), I also attempted to make this data management plan flexible enough to accommodate historians who are employed primarily outside of faculty positions. I am a historian who has held faculty positions but I also am trained as an archivist and I have worked in museum settings. Time will tell at how successful I have been at meeting the needs of historians employed in diverse settings.

The THis Camp workshop that I will offer at #OIannual2019, with the generous support of the OI will help attendees begin to consider their own data needs and give them a gentle push towards getting their data under control. Attendees are encouraged to bring their laptops, and whatever files they’d like to get a handle on. (As time allows, I will also discuss some strategies for digital annotation of your research files, using tools like Hypothe.sis and Doc Drop.)

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