Building a public humanities website:
An experiment in digital humanities with public impact

By Phoebe Zerwick

Phoebe Zerwick

I came to the digital humanities through the back door, or rather the side door, having spent most of my working life as a daily news reporter and editor. In journalism, digital technology has shut some doors and opened others. The Internet robbed newspapers of their advertising base, but also provided journalists with powerful ways of mining data and telling stories in video, sound, images and interactive graphics. I learned how to marshal these tools in the newsroom and came to understand their power. In 2008, I left daily journalism and struck out on my own as a freelancer. A photographer friend, also a freelancer, and I decide to produce a documentary project on the Yadkin River. She had just built a house on a bluff overlooking the river at a place called the East Bend and I wanted to keep my hand in local storytelling. We started looking for grants and someone suggested the N.C. Humanities Council.  I thought of our project as journalism, but Dr. Harlan Gradin, then the Council’s Associate Director of Programs and Director of Community Development, showed me how an exploration of the communities in the Yadkin Valley was just as much a public humanities project as journalism. The council ended up supporting the project with a $10,000 grant because, as Harlan explained, it uncovered the human and natural story of one corner of North Carolina, and used the humanities — images combined with written and spoken words — to bring that story both to the people it described and to a larger audience. And it did that with digital tools:

This past fall, I met with other  faculty in the humanities at WFU in a seminar that explored the meaning of the digital humanities. As we talked about the questions in this emerging field, I thought about my experience with the Yadkin River Story.  Do the digital humanities require computation? Does it create new knowledge or meaning? Or is the digital world simply a new means of sharing knowledge? I’m not sure I care that much about the definition. But I can tell you what our project accomplished and why I argue it meets at least some of the criteria used to define the digital humanities. We put a human face on a forgotten river. We found cultures that had been long forgotten or ignored. For example, many people I spoke with for my research assumed that river baptisms were a thing of the past. Not so: And few people knew of the significance the river played in the lives of recent immigrants: Finally, the combination of images with spoken and written words gave our audience an intimate experience that could not be duplicated by words or images alone. Reading is one way of knowing.  So are seeing and listening. Turning pages in a book is one way to explore; navigating a website another. We also paid attention to design, and brought in professional designers at a local agency called M. Creative to create an elegant, easy to use and yes, beautiful, site. And because of that, users enjoyed their digital experience.

Before we ever built the website, or were even done with our research, we started a simple WordPress blog: We publicized it through an email to people we knew in the region and on Facebook. And we discovered that people all over the rural Yadkin Valley, even those without their own computer, were plugged into the digital world. The best example was a story we posted on the 35th anniversary of the collapse of the Siloam Bridge: We interviewed Mike Mathews, one of the survivors, at East Bend Builders Supply, the hardware store he runs in Yadkin County. Like many stores in rural areas, East Bend Builders serves as a community gathering place, where people stand around over a pack of “Nabs” and a soda and talk over the news of the day.  Mike has a computer and started following the blog and showing customers the story of the Siloam Bridge.  A few months later, we posted a story about his uncle, Junior Matthews: Junior Matthews is well known and beloved in the region. I know his friends and family followed his digital story, because they posted comments on the blog. There was nothing remarkable about the six comments, except that the untold story of a man was told and read in the digital world and people responded.

Given my experience with the power and reach of a digital humanities project, I was surprised that the anthology our seminar studied, Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, pays scant attention to the digital humanities as a tool for pubic humanities. The anthology deals at length with the debate over the definition of digital humanities, its role in research and teaching, its place in a liberal arts college and the professional hurdles faced by its practitioners. The anthology also raised valuable questions about the difference between computing and archiving and whether the digital humanities counts as a new discipline or simply a tool for existing disciplines. I understand why these questions are important, but at the same time they felt far removed from my experience with the story of the Yadkin Valley. At the end of the anthology, in his essay “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities,” Alan Liu touches on the potential for digital humanities as a tool for keeping the humanities relevant. I am new to academia, but understand the anxiety humanists feel, and have felt for at least a generation, about the sense of growing irrelevancy in a technological age. Liu argues that digital tools can rescue the humanities from that irrelevance – if only humanities would use them. “In short, just when the humanities need more than ever to communicate their vision of humanities (and so their own value) to the public, they find themselves increasingly cut off from the modes of communication that produce some of today’s most robust discourses of public knowledge,” he writes.Liu goes on to argue that it’s time for institutions to support digital humanities in a way that give humanities scholars a platform for reaching larger audiences. In other words, digital humanities and public humanities are linked to the future of all the humanities.

The case Liu makes me think back to my newsroom days. The digital world is a treacherous place. Craig’s List replaced the classified section of the daily newspaper and dozens of my colleagues lost their jobs. Those of us committed to teaching young people worry that the Internet has killed their attention spans. They write, but only in the short bursts it takes to compose 140 characters for a twitter post. But my newsroom experience, and now my brief experience with the public humanities, tells me too that the digital world provides humanists with tools that can keep our work relevant with the larger public. It’s hard to imagine that Junior Matthews’ neighbors would consider coming to campus for a symposium on the meaning of place in rural America. But they will log into a WordPress blog that tells a story that resonates with them, proving in one small corner of North Carolina the power of digital and public humanities.


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