Infrastructure Matters: Why DH Needs a Reality Check, Part Two

April 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

At the end of my previous infrastructures post, I was struggling with finding a sustainable hosting space for the RCAH Center for Poetry’s digital archive.

When I discovered that the RCAH itself could not support an archive for the Center, I decided, at the suggestion of my advisor (one of the most prominent DH scholars at MSU), to talk to the digital humanities librarian at the MSU Main Library. When I finally got a chance to speak with him, he told me that, if the library were to house the collection, everything–all the resources and media files–would technically belong to the library, and the library would build the archive without mine or the Center’s input. It would be as though the Center had no connection to its own archive. No idea how long this would take, either. This was obviously not ideal and would not work at all for what the Center wanted for itself, and what I wanted for the Center.

My next stop was Matrix (the organization who is sponsoring this Day of DH). Matrix houses a number of prominent archives, including the Quilt Index ( and H-Net ( Since the Center for Poetry could not house its own archive, I felt that Matrix would be an appropriate choice for alternative hosting. I spoke with Dean Rehberger, one of my advisors and co-director of Matrix, to see if this was possible. Dean explained that it would be possible, but since there was no funding to host a separate site, the Center for Poetry would have to be accessed through Matrix’s domain ( I should note that the directors Center for Poetry were willing to pursue grants for this archive, but, as I will note later, grants take time. A lot of time. And I did not have a lot of time. I decided to use Omeka (  for the Center’s archive. Omeka is a CMS which is geared toward archivists and museum administrators. It is designed to build collections and exhibits, mainly those that use the Dublin Core metadata set. Dean also warned me that Omeka “did not play well” with Matrix’s servers, but I was at a loss for what else to use. Like I said, I’m not a coder. I couldn’t scratch-build an archive that would work for the Center’s needs and be easy for them to use and maintain after I was gone.

By this time, it was well into March and I was becoming very worried about getting the archive done. Unfortunately, it takes time to secure hosting and set up a database. I had to wait for a few weeks before receiving a sheet of paper (!) with the database codes and passwords on it. This past weekend, me and a colleague spent about four hours trying to install Omeka into the server and database provided by Matrix. After trying just about everything we could think of, we realized that it was useless. Nothing worked. I also discovered that the CD that the Center for Poetry gave me–and which was supposed to contain all of the audio and video for the archive–was actually just a handful of images with no metadata. Frantic emails were sent.

So this is where I am right now: No archive. No content for that archive. About ten days left to get something done enough to present at the Spring Fellows Symposium. The acronym “FUBAR” comes to mind. I’m going to see if there’s any way I can install WordPress on the Matrix server and at least build a kind of skeleton for the Center for Poetry’s archive. If that doesn’t work, I’m really out of luck.

What to make of all of this? Certainly I have made some mistakes here. I have been a victim of bad luck, and I shouldn’t be complaining. However, I think all of this highlights a couple of important, insidious problems with digital humanities projects. Simply put, digital humanities projects are extremely complicated, and require extensive negotiation of infrastructures. This negotiation is time-consuming; it is frustrating and difficult. Things simply do not get done, or they get done in ways that aren’t ideal. I think that people who are less educated about DH assume that digital humanists–even if they are extremely educated researchers and fantastically talented coders–can “work magic” and create fully-realized projects in tiny amounts of time with zero resources. Infrastructures matter, especially when the infrastructures are more like obstacles. As DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill note:

When the tasks of composing–including the tasks of thinking, of imagining, of creating–are not consistent with existing standards, practices, and values, infrastructure breaks down, revealing the need to meet the demands of new meaning-making practices (DeVoss et al 33-34).

This was the case with my project, and it’s true that even I succumbed to these assumptions. So, I guess I learned quite a bit, which was one of the goals of the RCAH Fellows program in the first place. Unfortunately, I have nothing to show for my learning but a pile of false starts and failings.

I hope I can do something worthwhile for the RCAH Center for Poetry. I’m frustrated, sad, and angry. I haven’t given up, but I really do hope that my experience can serve as a testament to those who think that DH projects are straight shots at a goal. Infrastructures exist, and they break down. Projects break down. People break down. This is the reality of doing DH. Those who don’t know, or don’t want to know, need a reality check.

Starting the Day of DH

April 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

564087_499664533430468_1792250853_nI woke up late (insomnia), started the coffee and fed the dog, and opened up my email to discover the news that I have a dissertation defense date. May 30, 10am to noon. It’s all becoming real now. Now I need to coordinate a way for my outside reader, who is at another institution, to attend my defense virtually.

I then did some retweeting and re-Facebooking (I have a GradHacker post out today about things to remember before you graduate), read some album reviews on Pitchfork, and started tracking everyone else’s Day of DH.

Things to do today (writing this list in my pajamas, with the dog at my side, listening to Shaking the Habitual by The Knife)

  1. Try to find a way to work on my RCAH project, which, as my previous blog post pointed out, is the creation of an archive for the RCAH Center for Poetry. Document this.
  2. Write a follow-up blog post about navigating infrastructures in DH.
  3. Outline the introduction to my dissertation.
  4. Go to work at my CAITLAH GAship, which today will include helping facilitate a meeting of master teachers in the College of Arts and Letters. Also, there will be sandwiches.
  5. Do various and sundry chores, including going to the bank, picking up a prescription, attending to laundry, etc. All days, even if they are Days of DH, require the negotiation of mundane life.

Let us begin.

Infrastructure Matters: Why DH Needs a Reality Check, Part One

April 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

Whenever I begin work on any writing project, I think about a very important article written by Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeff Grabill. This article, “Infrastructure and Composing: The When of New-Media Writing,” focuses on defining infrastructures–the material conditions of writing and how to work within those materials conditions–and explicating the ways that infrastructural pressures impact writing, especially writing in networked spaces. As an example, the authors describe the obstacles and complexities encountered by Cushman and her students as they tried to create new media compositions. Among other conclusions, the authors assert that “the MSU computing policy—an assemblage of classifications, preferences, long-ago-established practices, and standards—hindered not only student access to this composing interface, but the writing they could do within it” (DeVoss et. al. 28). The authors conclude that “an infrastructural approach reveals the layers and patterns behind the products of new-media composing-patterns that directly affect contemporary writing, writing pedagogy, and writing classrooms” (DeVoss et. al. 37) and that this infrastructural approach is necessary to avoid limitations as new and more complex composing practices emerge.

As part of my fellowship with MSU’s Residential College in Arts and Humanities (RCAH), I was tasked with designing a project that would engage my own research interests as well as connect with the resources available through RCAH. This led me to want to work with the RCAH Center for Poetry, a well-established research and resource center that sponsored such things as readings, workshops, community events, and contests. When I met with the directors of the Center for Poetry, the communicated to me their desire for a new website, focused primarily on housing, archiving, and presenting the audio and video resources that the Center for Poetry had been holding onto for many years. The Center for Poetry’s ultimate desire was to create a site similar to the University of Arizona Poetry Center or PennSound. I wanted very much to do this project, as I was sure that I would learn a great deal, and that I would help make something that was useful and sustainable for the Center for Poetry. However, I was very apprehensive about how this project would go, and my concerns were all related to infrastructure.

There were two immediate and related problems with the project. The first problem was the timeline. The RCAH fellows program is a one-year program which requires its fellows to plan, implement, and ideally, complete, a research project within a timeline of one year; however, since half the year is devoted to scholarship and planning, the fellows generally only have one semester to actually work on their projects. The good news is that if fellows are accepted into the program for a second year, they may continue their research project into that second year. The bad news for me is that I was accepted into the fellows program during my final year at MSU. There would be no opportunity for a second year of project time for me. I would have to begin and end my project in less than one semester, as I am required to present my project at an April 19th symposium. The second problem was related to how much work I was able to take on. While I had the support of the Center for Poetry and the RCAH fellows program, all of the project work was solely mine to do. While I have some technical proficiencies–HTML and CSS, WordPress, Photoshop–I am not a coder or a programmer. I knew that I would not be able to code a site from the ground up and thus would need to rely on some kind of content management system that was simple enough that 1) I could install and customize and 2) the staff of the Center for Poetry could use it strategically and easily after I was gone.

One of the first things I needed to do was find out what kind of server space was available for building this website, and this turned out to be one of the biggest issues. After contacting several people in MSU’s RCAH, I discovered that the server space available for the RCAH Center for Poetry was equivalent only to the amount of server space given to every MSU student–about 1 gigabyte. Another problem was the kinds of software that could be installed on this server space. MSU prohibits the installation of sites like WordPress on AFS space, and I would only be able to get permission to do this by petitioning academic computing, waiting for approval, and having them install a WordPress shell. Even if I had done that, I would need individual permission from academic computing to install every single theme, widget, plugin and add-on that I or the Center for Poetry would ever need (I discovered this while trying to do similar work at my other job at the Center for Applied Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities). Besides the obvious space limitations, a WordPress install on the Center for Poetry’s allotted server space would be downright unsustainable–not just for me, but for anyone who would want to do anything with the future space. I was at this time forced to look elsewhere for hosting…

To be continued tomorrow.

Building the RCAH Center for Poetry Archive

March 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

The RCAH Center for Poetry at Michigan State University is a thriving space for poetry in mid-Michigan. The Center organizes poetry readings, provides a home for writers-in-residence, and sponsors contests, workshops, and symposia. While the Center maintains its own website, it has until now not had a sophisticated and sustainable digital archive where its multimedia resources may be housed. My current digital humanities project will detail the process of creating the archive, from start to finish.