Commodity Histories Workshop, 6-7 September

I recently presented a paper about the Liberalism in the Americas project at a workshop at the Open University entitled, ‘AHRC Commodity Histories Project: Networking Workshop 1. Designing a Collaborative Research Web Space: Aims, Plans and Challenges of the Commodity Histories Project’. This workshop was part of a larger AHRC-funded project, Commodity Histories: An Online Space for Collaborative Research, which itself grew out of a collaborative network, Commodities of Empire, led by Dr Sandip Hazareesingh of the Open University and Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado and Professor Jean Stubbs, both Associate Fellows at the Institute for the Study of the Americas.

The workshop brought together digital humanities experts, people leading various kinds of digitisation projects, and those with experience of creating and participating in virtual collaborative research spaces. The aim was to share experiences and discuss challenges in the establishment, maintenance, and success of these digital enterprises to support the development of the Commodity Histories project.

My paper, ‘Liberalism in the Americas: Building an International Network, Digital Library, and Virtual Research Community‘, focused on how to engage the wider academic community in digital projects, and how the Liberalism project, and several other digital projects underway at ISA, have sought to incorporate feedback from projected users of the resources into their design. This helped to stimulate some broader discussion about the merits of different methods of obtaining this feedback. In the early stages of the Liberalism project, we sought advice from our Steering Committee and Advisory Groups - all experts in the field – about which thematic topics, types of documents, and regions of the Americas should be prioritised in the construction of our digital library. So this was very much an expert-led consultation process. Our workshop and lecture series helped to provide additional ongoing feedback from scholars on the content of the digital resources during the academic year 2012-13, and these events also went some way towards incorporating the views of a broader spectrum of potential users of the library, including graduate students.

However, Dr Matthew Alan Hill, who leads the digital project Atlantic Archive: US-UK Relations in an Age of Global War, 1939-1945 at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, took a more open and democratic approach in garnering feedback on the development of his resources. Through an online survey, which is currently open on the Atlantic Archive research hub, anyone can give their views on what themes and document types should be prioritised for the next phase of digitisation. This method has the advantage of casting the net wider in terms of the range of users that would potentially provide feedback for shaping the content of digital resources.

The Commodity Histories workshop participants agreed that considerations of audience were paramount in making the decision as to appropriate methods of feedback and engagement. The Atlantic Archive project, for instance, aims to serve the needs of history school teachers and pupils, as well as undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars working in the field. Due to the vast majority of the documents in the Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive being available only in the Spanish language, UK secondary schools were not considered a realistic audience for these resources. Consequently, seeking feedback from a more limited audience of graduate students and more advanced scholars seemed quite appropriate in the case of the Liberalism resources. But clearly both approaches could have strengths and weaknesses.

Please do share your thoughts below in the comments section!