Where are the odd pages?: The implications of competion and non-hierarchal authority on public history governement databases

Lisa Spiro, “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, argues that one of the key values of digital history is its embrace of non-hierarchical notions of power. [1] I’ve read my Marx and Foucault; hierarchies are not a good thing, especially if you are at the bottom.  Digital Histories[2]  work to share content openly and build networks of scholarships. There is something exciting and elevating about the ability to instantly follow the work of luminaries in the field on blogs or twitter, or even have your questions answered in live time.  Public Historians have talked for years about the idea of shared authority, namely the relational construction of meaning and authorship between historians and their audiences.  So in this brave new world, audiences, practitioners and academics are all engaged in consuming and creating content. Far from the sometimes rigid hierarchies of the old museum or classroom this seems to offer numerous advantage, too numerous to cite, detailed in the literature of both fields.

In theory, digital history’s embrace of non-hierarchical theory seems to be a good thing. Competition breeds innovation and drives advances in their field. In some cases, however, non-hierarchicalauthority seems to lead to confusion, duplication of effort and waste of resources. [3]

I am working on a researching the Bethel AME Church so I went onto the National Register of Historic Places website, operated by the National Park Service to access the National Register Nomination for the building. When I went online the application information was not available online.[4]

The National Park Service is using Google earth layer to provide the National Register data access. This is an open source option, which allows for user to not only access the National Register contact, but other public content such as photos and 3-D Buildings.  The State of Indiana developed its own program called SHAARD GIS, using a software program called Silverlight that you will need to download.  Interestingly, SHAARD was made possible with financial support from the Federal Highway Administration, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and the Historic Preservation Fund of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, who is using a different system. In addition, not every paper document is in the SHAARD database. (Of course the one I needed was not, so I was instructed to “check back in the future or contact the DHPA Records Check Coordinator.”) Bethel AME Church Record at DHPA

It seems strange that the Park Service would fund a database that would duplicate efforts and was not compatible with their own system.[5] While many public history projects are only educational, the National Register, Archeology and Cemetery databases have legal implications from federal and state funded projects and these differences can have important consequences.

Still on the hunt for the elusive document, I tried the Indiana Historical Bureau. I went online and found that the church had a state marker, but there was little information online.  At the Indiana Historical Bureau, I looked through the state marker file, which had detailed bibliographies about the church that had been prepared for the internet, but never uploaded. The file only had the even pages of the National Register Nomination, however.  I then went by the church, to see if they had a copy (which they did not) only to fund that there was not a marker at the site, and that it had been taken down.[6]

One day of “non-hierarchical authority” later, I still only had the even pages of the document that I was looking for. While it wonderful to have these resources available online, the Indiana GIS project only coming online in the last month, the lack of continuity in platforms and content makes the usability limited. I am sure over time there will be a coalescence of methods and one will gain hegemonic advantage but in the interim the completion and inconsistencies are difficult to navigate.

Neither the model of the National Park Service nor DHPA is ideal. I am very familiar with the intricacies of the National Register system but an average member of the public, who perhaps wanted to know if they lived in a historic district, would probably be unwilling to downloaded and read the 30 page manual on using SHAARD, or even to recognize the difference between the legally defined National Register status on the GOOGLE Earth and someone’s vacation photos. In addition, Public Institutions, such as the Historical Bureau, need to have concrete plan on how to maintain the information in their online databases. Speaking with staffers, there is a long backlog (of up to years) in updating the material online, and there is a large body of information that is ready to be added to the website.

Cuilenburg and Slaa, in their journal article “Competition and Innovation in Telecommunications” argue that while it is true that completion breeds innovation, the level of investment is also key determine factor. If there is not sufficient investment, the merits of completion are reduced.  Not only do the digital humanities not have significant economic investment, especially compared to larger telecommunication projects, Indiana and the National Park Service are not truly competitors.[7]

There are real hierarchies in the world of public history, and real immediate needs. The National Park Service is the keeper of the National Register and the administrator of the Register. In addition, they administer the grants of the historic preservation fund.  While the Indiana DHPA is subordinate to the NPS, they are the keeper of the Indiana State Register and responsible for administering the program in Indiana. The IHB, is the sole keeper of the state marker program and also a part of the government of the state of Indiana. Darwinian “survival of the fittest” models where the best system wins, or they co-evolve together are not good enough.  These organizations have an obligation to take the lead and work together to find the best digital solutions for users. This is not necessarily a critique of the agencies themselves, as the State of Indiana is a leader in digitizing their records, but a call for a consideration of the implications of these choices for users and the maximization of resources. If this power is diffused or shared, then all of these agencies, the discipline and public at large have a say and a stake in the allocation of the resources.

Back in the “non-theoretical world,” I am still on the hunt for the odd pages of the National Register Nomination, but I found the missing Historical Marker in the Church Basement.


[1] Lisa Spiro, “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 16-35

[2] I am compelled to put an “s” on history because, as I have been reminded so many times this week, there is more than one notion of history.

[5] Maybe under the hood somewhere they may be compatible, but they use such differ interfaces and contain different information that any compatibility is not apparent.


One thought on “Where are the odd pages?: The implications of competion and non-hierarchal authority on public history governement databases

  1. You bring up good points about the positives and pitfalls of hierarchical structure in both public and digital history. So often, we “ground floor” researchers can forget that, for the average citizen, not every database is immediately accessible or navigable. It is also worth remembering that digitization does not answer for every problem, nor is it a perfect system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s