In a single semester of a graduate level class, one learns a lot of information- some completely new information, some old information that you now think about differently, and some that you don’t understand right away. I found this to be true pretty quickly in my first semester as a public history masters student taking the “Introduction to Public History” class with Dr. Nieves last fall. Each week, my concept of the practice of public history, and even history itself changed and adapted the more we all learned and shared ideas together. Looking back on it now, it is interesting, when you are learning so much at a pace at which you have never learned before, what really sticks with you a year later. Of course, if Dr. Nieves asks, I remember much more than just this one thing, but truthfully, there is one lesson I learned throughout the course of last year that looms larger than the rest.
That one lesson is simply this: history is messy. Public history is (or at least should be) even messier. The messier the better, because as a public historian we deal with memory- how the past is remembered and how it is forgotten. This is complicated, but that is okay. Even more than being okay, it is the very reason why public history matters. We have a responsibility to share the messiness with the public, carefully considering the way this is done and the effects it will have. It may make us and our audience uncomfortable, but it will also make us all think, reflect and maybe even grow. At least that’s the goal.
When I began working with Dr. Nieves and Cassie Tanks on the Apartheid Heritages project this summer, I fully expected to work with difficult history (not just because the work is with the illustrious advocate for messy history himself, but also because the history being recorded in the Apartheid Heritages project is without a question a messy one.) As my primary focus for the summer would be metadata completion, however, I assumed there would be a bit less messiness. How could inputting information about an object- the date, a brief description of the artifact, the geographic place, and its latitude and longitude- be all that messy? It seemed pretty straightforward to me.
I was wrong- it got messy.
MA. 003:Zulu-Lulu Swizzle Sticks
One of the earlier objects I collected information about was this package of 6 novelty drink stirrers from the 1960’s. Each stirrer depicts a racist caricature of an African woman at a different age. The offensive “Zulu-Lulu” drink sticks refer to the Zulu people, the single largest ethnic group in South Africa who made up a substantial portion of South Africa’s urban workforce throughout the 20th century. The object in itself clearly is reflective of the complicated (messy) history of apartheid era South Africa, the racist portrayal highlighting the toxic spread of racist ideology in and outside of South Africa. In my first attempt at this item’s description, I basically said exactly that.
After a conversation with Dr. Nieves about this object, though, I found that the historical context could be complicated further. Even more than that though, this complication could come through in the metadata. I was instructed to think of the non-obvious, and incorporate that into the object’s description. With this logic, the description became focused not just on the content of the stir sticks themselves, but on what they could allude to as well. Given that the stir sticks are tied to alcohol, I added to the description an explanation of the apartheid state’s use of alcohol as a form of social control. Beer Halls, built in townships by the municipality, were seen as a method used by the apartheid government to make black people apathetic. During the June 16, 1976 uprising in Soweto, people could be heard shouting “less liquor, better education,” referencing the government’s creation of the beerhalls but lack of attention to opportunitieslike education. In this way, the object and its metadata reflect the complexities of this history, and just how messy it was.
MA.002: SAP Shoulder Pins
Another moment of mind-opening metadata work that occurred for me this summer was in researching this pair of shoulder title insignias for the South African Police (SAP). We know that the SAP used violence, terror, and torture tactics to oppress the Black South African population during apartheid.
When fully worked through, this complicated relationship could be highlighted in the metadata description, as I learned with the swizzle sticks. When thinking about metadata fields, I find the description to be the most obvious place for metadata to get complicated, as it provides space for writing. Could the metadata get complicated anywhere else, though? Get even more messy?
Messiness of Coordinates
Both Cassie and Dr. Nieves showed me that even through something as simple as a latitude and longitude we could complicate the history and make sure its messiness was coming through. When tagging the geographic location for the set of SAP pins, a lot of places could factually make sense. South Africa would be an accurate tagging. Pretoria, where many SAP recruits were trained and the SAP headquarters is located today, could also be an accurate tagging. By tagging the pins at the latitude and longitude of John Vorster Square in Johannesburg, however, an important layer of complexity is added to the artifact. John Vorster Square was the largest and most notorious of the SAP stations, and was the primary location for SAP torture tactics. There, the SAP pins, and entire SAP uniform, is the most reminiscent of the brutality that allowed the National Party to maintain control over the black South African population in the name of “law and order.”
This history is messy and it needs to be told. Through metadata, I am finding, a public historian can do this work in ways that I did not expect. I feel privileged to work on the Apartheid Heritages project, a project that takes all of the information that I have learned about how to be a public historian, and puts it to practice. It shows me the potential of the field and the possibilities we have to complicate people’s understanding of the past and make a change with the work we do.
I have always been invested in the archives because of all the embedded narratives and pieces of history they have the potential to reveal/expose/uncover. Yet, I am also cognizant of the continued harm, erasure, and violence the archive perpetuates. I seek to do what literary scholar Saidiya Hartman writes,
“I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive. I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives in the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration. It is a Story predicated upon impossibility—listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse”
Growing up as a first generation Indo-Trinidadian American, my life was engulfed in narratives of the pasts – stories that allowed me to piece together parts of my identity, ancestry, self making meaning of my life and the past live(s) of generations before me – inevitably brought me here. As a first year PhD student I find myself drawn to studying archives, colonization, decolonization, Caribbean, marginalized narratives, resistance, and rebellion embedded within texts.
This is one of the reasons I am drawn to the Apartheid Heritage(s) Project because it seeks to reckon with the narratives of the past in addition to engaging with the “intersections between architecture, social justice, and human rights on the Internet, and critically engages with issues of race and the built environment in cities across the Global South.” This project in itself attempts to create an environment where we can study “Soweto’s past, present, and future redevelopment as a means of remembrance, reconciliation, and empowerment.”
Part of my role within this project is working in conjunction with Cassie Tanks, who’s currently digitizing archival artifacts from the apartheid era like postcards, clothing, pins, trucks, apartheid oriented protest pins/such. I am then looking at the digitized artifacts and creating metadata for them. Metadata is collected data containing the date, title, language, creator, and publisher. Most of this information is gathered by examining the document itself and then doing a bit of research to situate the object. I find myself being continuously shocked by the range of objects and the ways in which they engage with the history we are investing and toiling with.
A screenshot of the metadata and cataloging spreadsheet.
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to see the full process in action. We were able to watch the process of Cassie, our very own archivist, take photos of the objects in a light box and try it out ourselves! I must say this process is incredibly cool as well as meticulous. I think I fulfilled my goal of being a novice photographer for the way. I found it interesting how closely we have to pay attention to the object itself – ensuring that we took photos of every angle. Then Cassie has corresponded each object to a particular number that then relates to the online metadata(ing) I have been doing. My mind was blown. Through this exercise, I saw the work come full circle and recognized the ways in which we connect digital cataloging with metadata.
Reading History Through Objects
In engaging with metadata, I am parsing through aspects of history and trying to finagle how to materialize the history we read about through objects – which is both fascinating and mildly terrifying because of the weight they carry. I am always deeply conscious of the ways in which their narratives aren’t told and how we as a collective have to do these people justice as we work through the archives. In my own research, I also find myself invested in the stories the archives fail to tell because the perspective we get is often fraught with violence. The archive can be a site of embedded narratives if we interrogate them and challenge the view being given. My own work engages with the Caribbean as well as Boston both in the pre-twentieth century and contemporary moment – here I seek to challenge the harm the archive and English discipline often perpetuates through projects like Aparthied Heritage(s) which deeply engages with cultural practices of remembrance, reconciliation, and empowerment.
I hesitate to call myself an archivist. When asked for my “professional” opinion about archives or libraries, I gawk. I sputter. I make an awkward deflecting joke. But perhaps I am hesitant to label myself as such and prefer to see myself as a forever student of the art because of my archival training at UNC Chapel Hill. During the course of earning an MSLS, I had the opportunity to work with digital, digitized, and analog collections each of which challenged me to approach them with nuanced methods.
However, one evening I caught myself with Ticonderoga #2s pencils stuck into my hair, lovingly admiring the neat manila folders with identifiers written in tidy pencil lettering. And, even I had to laughingly admit to myself, that I was being awfully archivist-y.
But despite my archivist-y excitement over flatbed scanners, cataloging systems, and spreadsheets of metadata, I still take pause at labeling myself a capital-a “Archivist”.
Instead, I would call myself an optimist.
Why? Because, to lay the foundation of an archival collection – as I have had the great fortune to do for the Apartheid Heriteage(s) Project – requires optimism.
Optimism that the archival bags, folders, and boxes will preserve the items, the slivers of critically important history, for a little longer.
Optimism that the organization and cataloging systems I have concocted will make items not just “findable” but “usable” for researchers within and without academia.
Optimism that the metadata and digitized images of the items will help connect people with the information they seek (and perhaps information they did not even know they were seeking until they found it).
Optimism that maybe, just maybe, the hours of work bent over a table digitizing and organizing these items will help someone out there in this vast world have an amazing “A HA!” moment.
And it is from this very optimism that the choices in processing, cataloging, and digitizing the Apartheid Heritage(s) Project archive are built.
Every journey has a beginning, and this one began with digging through the Bankers Box treasure troves of Dr. Nieves’ Aparetheid Heritage(s) collection. This collection has been intentionally and critically curated, with each item contributing a critical thread to the spatial-histories of Apartheid Heritage(s). After just one box yielded a vinyl record, military uniforms, press photos, a protest button, and late 19th century lantern slides, it became very clear that I would need to put Jefferson Bailey’s theory into practice and “Disrespect des Fonds” (Bailey 2013). Because this archive would primarily be discovered, engaged with, and analyzed digitally (as well as have item level metadata – more on that in a moment), I made the choice to reorganize the items into groupings that enabled discovery by researchers at all levels.
The initial boxes of items were organized into multiple macro groups which I later used to guide the cataloging process. Some of these groups (or sub-series) are material artifacts (MA), press photos (NP), postcards (PC), and publications-and-pamphlets (PP). After this initial organization, items were removed from mailing envelopes, residual packing tape carefully peeled off, and any errant staples or paperclips disposed of.
Making the decision of creating an identifier schema, assigning identifiers to items, and cataloging the items carefully into folders and boxes nearly stopped me in my tracks. There were too many approaches and considerations. The tyranny of choice struck again! But I returned to the foundation of this entire archival project: optimism that what we were creating now would be meaningful to someone later.
Despite the problematic nickname, I adopted the “Amazon” model of cataloging the items. Essentially, this means that every single item receives a unique identifier and metadata so that no matter what folder or box it may be in or what other items “live” with it in that place, it can be easily found.
For an example, let’s look at the late 19th century copper mine-workers canteen, which I can be seen taking a photo of to the right.
This item is grouped into the “Material Artifact” subseries. As a result of the convention I have gone with in assigning unique identifiers, the canteen cataloged as “MA.001”. The identifier alone indicates what subseries it belongs to, Material Artifact, and what number in that series it was processed, number one.
This canteen will “live” in an archival box with the (wildly racist and sexist) 1960s era “Zulu Lulu” swizzle sticks, a 1965 toy South African Police vehicle reminiscent of a Matchbox Car, and a 1990s era card game where the players roleplay as cops to quash “tsotsis” (a South African slang term for a “criminal” or “hoodlum” from a Black township that carries the pejorative connotations of when white Americans use the word “thug” as a shorthand for how Black boys and men are viewed).
Despite what more traditional archivists may think of the methods I have employed, I am optimistic that this system will enable not only consistent discovery of desired items thanks to the item level cataloging, but also the discovery of curious juxtapositions across like items. How does the 19th century mine workers canteen inform the historic contexts of the “Zulu Lulu” swizzle sticks or the “Tsotsi” card game? I have some thoughts that fall outside the scope of this post (and outside of my small areas of so-called “expertise”), but I am hopeful that future researchers will find similar inspiration in these boxes of items and create meaningful scholarship.
Perhaps equally, if not more important, than the item-level metadata and cataloging system is the digitization of each item in the Apartheid Heritage(s) Project collection. The obvious importance of this is the role these digitized items will have in Apartheid Heritage(s) beyond the project’s digital Omeka S archive exhibit. These items will digitally exist in the interactive 3D recreations of Soweto that are foundational to Dr. Nieves’ incredible spatial-historical scholarship.
Returning to the example of the canteen, the digitized image will be contextualized within a 3D recreation of Soweto that challenges the narratives of Black mineworkers and the “mineral revolution” as well as positions it as a part of a continuum of apartheid that cannot be neatly divided into “pre-apartheid”, “apartheid”, and “post-apartheid” periodizations.
And, again returning to the optimism that is driving this archival work, digitizing each item increases the chances that somebody– a student, a member of the public, a researcher- will engage with these items and have an “AHA!” moment.
The methods I am employing in order to digitize each item for the sake of the project and for the public are challenging me to learn new technologies.
For documents, images, and items that are safe to be scanned, I am using a PlusTek OpticSlim1180 flatbed scanner. This scanner is large enough to accommodate most newspapers, has OCR capabilities, and can scan a high-quality uncompressed tif file that is up to 1200 dpi (dots per inch). Currently tif files at 400 dpi are being retained for in-house use and preservation and the smaller sized, more accessible jpg versions of the images will be used for the actual project and archival exhibit.
For material artifacts and clothing, I am using a Panasonic Lumix FZ80 digital camera to capture a RAW image file that I later use to create both an uncompressed tif file for in-house use and a more accessible jpg version of the photo. For those that have read any of my previous blog posts, you will be unsurprised that I, once again, am a “noob” learning things on the fly. But with the help of a table-top lightbox for smaller items and a standing lightbox for clothing displayed on a mannequin (photos of this delightfully funny but effective setup are incoming) coupled with some research, the process has been successful.
Although the initial effort to process, catalog, and digitizing the Apartheid Heritage(s) Project archive collection has been modestly successful, much more work remains. I will spend many hours peering into a light box, watching the light of the scanner pass left to right below the lid, and jamming to Lion Babe while I carefully write identifiers in pencil then update the metadata spreadsheet. But I will remain optimistic in the work because although I am “archiving” items of the past, this undertaking is really about the future and creating yet another modest link that connects the two.
Apartheid Heritage(s) Project archive: processing, cataloging, and digitizing update
The Apartheid Heritage(s) Project archive items are currently being processed, cataloged, and digitized. The collection features a wide variety of resources such as vinyl records, clothing, mine worker artifacts, photos, and much more.
Information about the process, progress, and lessons learned will be shared soon.
When I began my MA coursework in 2018, I experienced one of those moments where something just clicked. To paraphrase a Jedi with whom I share a nickname (I had it first!): something inside me had always been there, but now, it was awake. And I was afraid. This awakening came during my historical methods class, when my professor described, as he saw it, the “three versions of history.” The first of these, he told us, is what actually happened. The second: what people reported as having happened. And the third, is what “we” believe as having happened. The notion that while historians aim to faithfully capture the actuality of an event, yet can never truly approach 100% certainty, shook me to my core about the nature of objectivity. Is history really just about, as Stephen Colbert would say, “truthiness”? There is a lot to unpack, but stay with me here: this is where the fun begins!
Once my initial shock wore off, the realization that what actually happened can only be arrived at with degrees of certainty through what people reported (we might think of this as evidence in the historical record), has had a profound impact on my understanding of what exactly historians do. It is that final category, what we believe, that really struck me as incredibly important, for it is what we as a society (scalable through the levels of community, nation, and global) tell ourselves about our past. This belief about our past – which may be helpful to think of as collective memory – is intricately bound with what was reported or preserved in the historical record, because it is often shaped by conflicting or contradictory evidence. And it is further complicated by relations of power: who is meant by we and our in these contexts?
How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words?
Now I find myself at Northeastern University, a first year PhD student privileged to work as a research assistant under the direction of Professor Angel Nieves, where I am trying my best to contribute to the invaluable work on Apartheid Heritages. In writing annotations for this project, the work is deceptively straightforward: compile a descriptive and argumentative entry for a digital database – a simple essay, really. Ideally, this should encapsulate the person, organization, or key concept that forms an integral part of the project. I say “deceptively” because the heavy lifting comes into play through the subtext of the assignment. How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words? Or conversely, how do you flush out significance in cases where little has been recorded in the primary sources or secondary literature? What about a concept as broad and politically charged as “student” in the context of apartheid South Africa? Perhaps most importantly: who the heck am I to decide what is significant, to attribute worth to this bit of information from the archive or secondary literature? These questions may seem either profound or mundane, depending on your point of view. They are central to what historians – aspiring and veteran practitioners alike – do. They are in essence, about the truths we cling to and how those shape collective memory and memorialization.
During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to take an excellent survey of South African history that has proven quite valuable in terms of grounding my analysis in an approach that is attentive to the patterns of the longue durée. However, a project such as Apartheid Heritages is in many ways the antithesis of a survey, with its attention to role of space and place in shaping how people both interact with their environment and find avenues of liberation in unlikely ways. This is not to say that my research and the overall project are not informed by long-term, systemic patterns, but simply that my previous experience with the “bird’s eye view” of South African history is not mutually intelligible with the project at hand. What I’m trying to say is that even with significant relevant experience, there has been a lot of on-the-job learning.
If I can impart a few wisdom nuggets on the reader, I do so humbly with the hopes that these suggestions have value in and outside of the academy, and their utility can be applied to a variety of projects that require research and critical thinking:
Develop an organization system early in your process – and stick to it! Adopting a cohesive and navigable system earlier in my own process would have saved countless hours doubling back to find a specific reference to something I found important in my notes. I have not always been a fan of taking notes electronically: for digital sources it is perfectly fine and quite seamless using a split screen window. This can be incredibly effective for making use of the “search” function to quickly find what you are looking for. However, for printed material I find having my laptop open to be rather distracting and thus tend to use a combination of sticky notes and a notebook.
Mine footnotes in any book in your possession (or eBook). This is useful not just for finding valuable primary sources – many of which have been digitized, and who knows, you just may find something that another researcher passed over, or simply weighed against its inclusion in their narrative. But this is also to see which authors in the secondary literature are in conversation with one another. While many scholars will clearly flag this in their literature review/historiography section of their introductions, others engage and reference more subtly.
Embrace the “doodads”
Some of my other responsibilities have also been to perform departmental service in order to ensure that a program that prides itself on the embrace of digital humanities is in fact putting its best foot forward when it comes to having a navigable and engaging digital presence with its department website. As someone with a personal history of calling pieces of tech “doodads” or berating them when they do not cooperate – and other behaviors stereotypical of someone twice her age – a good deal, if not all of this work has taken me out of my comfort zone. That is a good thing.
Clear your mind
Finally, indulge in a healthy bit of escapism. Focus. Clear your mind. Go to a galaxy, far, far away (that’s quite literal for me but whatever it is for you that allows you to switch off your brain and wind down at night). History is not for the faint of heart. It is filled with people who wield power in unjust ways, who use their privilege in an exploitative fashion. It can be “triggering” to study, and so much of the archive is filled with the voices of oppression while accounts of marginalized peoples are few and far between. Be careful not to amplify the oppressors’ voices, these difficult histories still warrant study in order to dismantle white supremacy and to elevate voices of liberation in order to contextualize and understand the struggles that gave people’s lives meaning and shaped the modern world.
History is needed now
We live in an era where it is becoming clear increasingly clear that silence is complacency – a tacit endorsement of the status quo, which was not working for so many before we spent the last year (or has it been one really long month?) in a pandemic-induced pocket universe. With the catastrophic toll from four years of reactionary political leadership, the unprecedented loss brought on by the pandemic, and the January 6 Insurrection – informed by their (misguided) belief in what had happened – shows that it is okay to not be okay right now! Find a constructive avenue to channel that discontent, one that aims to build through coalitions (even and especially if you don’t agree on everything) rather than tear down those who would be your allies and fellow travelers. It also goes to show that researching, writing, and teaching good history, activist history, is necessary now more than ever, and I am fortunate to be able to contribute to that in some small way. For without good history, democracy dies – with thunderous applause.
My fingers grope the back of the brand-new computer tower beneath the desk in my family’s computer “room,” a corner of the communal living room awkwardly stuffed with a desk and a chair that emerged somehow from the depths of the garage. Finally, I find the port I’m looking for and insert the phone cable. I take a seat, brush the dust bunnies off myself, and, after AOL finishes its squealing and whining, I immediately begin editing the HTML and CSS code of my MySpace profile. The song is changed (Yeah! By Usher ft. Lil Jon and Ludacris), the music player is hidden, the background of my page is now purple with glittery stars (I know, very cool), an angsty-teenage quote now scrolls across the page, and, of course, I’ve changed my top eight.
The year is 2004 and this marks the beginning, and end, of my experience with coding. That I am now, and have been, a research assistant for Apartheid Heritage(s) is surprising, to say the least. I am constantly looking up definitions of tech terms and watching videos to understand the technological underpinnings of the work that I do. My YouTube search history is heavily peppered with phrases that use the terms “[this tech] for beginners”, “[that tech] for noobs”, or something similar.
Finding a place in DH
But Apartheid Heritage(s) and my work for the project push against this exclusionary tendency by resolutely and unwaveringly centering humanity at every step of the process. From the text that I write, to resource metadata, to conversations about how to effectively incorporate annotations in a 3D digital environment on Scalar, the humanity of the subject and the user are central. Because of my (extremely) modestly growing skill-set – and my comfort with this type of research – I feel better able to share with you some things that I have learned to date (I occasionally need to remind myself the same, too).
One, librarians love to help and teach people, especially beginners. Shameless professional plugging aside (I’m currently in the process of earning my MSLS ), I have learned so much by just reaching out to librarians and information professionals at institutions across the country – including institutions with which I have no affiliation – and they will step forward and help with a program simply because they happen to possess knowledge of it. I also worked in San Diego State University Library’s Digital Humanities Center for a while and the digital humanities librarian would practically skip over to tell me about how much she enjoyed seeing someone with no former experience learn a new DH skill. Bottom line, never ever underestimate the joy that helping people brings to a librarian.
Two, crowd-source the answer to your question. I have lurked on, and posted to, many a subreddit and message board threads where I have received guidance that helped me along my digital journey. Are there sarcastic answers? Yes – the internet is a wild place. But helpful folks can be found between the haters. You will notice the glaring absence of harnessing the knowledge of the Twitter-verse. This works well for some, but I have made the personal choice to avoid Twitter at all costs.
Embrace your experiences and curiosity
Three, lean into the fact that you are learning and developing along with your digital project. This is perhaps the most important because, aside from giving yourself the space to make mistakes and fully engage with the learning process, it is a reminder that you bring an outside perspective to the project. Ask why something is done the way it is. Point out when things do not make sense for the user. Question if things are “too much” or “too flashy.
DH needs you
Not only is there space for you and for me in DH, there needs to be space for perspectives that shine a different light on a project. It may seem trite to say that there is no digital humanities without, you know, humanity but I think it is critically important to remember. I boldly go forth and embrace my MySpace coding roots (but not the roots of my attempt at chunky highlights – those can stay in 2004) and I sincerely hope that others do too.
I now realize that I held an almost comically idealized vision of the people who created the metadata in the digital archives that were vital tools in my history education. As I combed through archives in search of photos, diaries, government documents, and newspaper clippings to help me make sense of my research for my senior thesis, my mind would occasionally drift to the erudite angel that made these assets available to students like me. This mythical archivist sat at a heavy wooden desk, wore a black turtleneck sweater, and gently pressed their gold-rimmed glasses up their nose as they dutifully typed archival metadata while jazz floated in the air around them – all for the benefit of over-caffeinated budding academics stooped over their laptops in the dark and who hissed like opossums when, invariably, vital files you swore to Beyoncé you downloaded are nowhere to be found.
When I leapt at the opportunity to be a part of Apartheid Heritage(s) and to work under Dr. Angel David Nieves, my initial confidence wobbled slightly when I dug into assignments to create and research metadata for such important and critical subject matters. I was a far-cry from the cerebral archivist of my imagination; rather than sitting in a richly appointed office, I sat cross-legged at my dining room table on Saturday evenings, listened to Amerigo Gazaway, and took breaks to wrestle with my dog. Although Nieves clearly articulated that he wanted new perspectives and vouched for my abilities from the beginning, my doubts still lingered.
Quickly, I began to see that all the misgivings I had about myself were assets, and the idealized image of an archivist that I held in my mind began to crumble. As my work with Apartheid Heritage(s) progressed, I ran into ethical dilemmas that required collaborative solutions and new approaches to metadata that showed me that the future of the field did not lie with my imagined bespectacled graying archivist, but, dare I say, with people like me. Attempting to answer the moral dilemmas of metadata and digital archival work meant making decisions to intentionally challenge institutional thought when it is necessary and ethical to do so. Before I address some of the thornier issues I encountered, let me give a brief insight into the initial framework I worked within.
What is metadata?
Metadata is, on the surface, data about data. Its purpose is to describe data, such as a photo or postcard, in such a way that it is searchable and people can understand what it is, where it came from, and how or why it was created. On Instagram, for example, hashtags are a form of metadata. Imagine trying to find photos of adorable pitbulls without having the ability to search or follow #pibble. Without metadata, which in this example are in the form of hashtags, trying to find specific data becomes a daunting task. Unfortunately, metadata for digital archival purposes is much more complicated than the ‘gram’s hashtag system.
There are specific rules and controlled language that partially dictate how and which words are used to describe the data in an archive. For Apartheid Heritage(s), Dublin Core (DC) provided the standards and prescribed language I would use to create metadata. The DC standards were chosen because, frankly, they were less complicated than other standards: they were straightforward, worked well with the Omeka platform that undergirds Apartheid Heritage(s), and they allowed a degree of flexibility that Nieves and I would use in attempts to deal with the moral dilemmas of metadata.
Again, Instagram proves to be a handy example because it uses certain standards and prescribed language in its application of metadata. Accounts are preceded by the at sign, @, and there can be no spaces in the name of the account: these are a form of metadata standardization and prescribed language. For example, dog behaviorist Cesar Milan’s account is @cesarsway, without any spaces or additional special characters, so it adheres to the standards and prescribed language of Instagram. By using standard language, Instagram’s “metadata” is consistent and searchable.
Addressing ethical challenges
You may be thinking, “this is all well and good but where’s the problem? How can data about data pose moral or ethical challenges?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Metadata, in practice, can be very impersonal and dispassionate. This became evident when I looked back at the digital archives I haunted in school for some examples of how I, a brand new and somewhat self-taught metadatist, would approach this slice of academia. Generally the basic information for the item is listed, such as date, creator, location, etc, followed by a brief description without additional context to the item or the history surrounding it.
For Apartheid Heritage(s), we decided that it was not only inadequate to use metadata in such a sterile manner, but also unethical. How can item descriptions written absent of critical race theory or subject labels, which are prescribed and controlled language under DC standards, be chosen without addressing the white power structures that exist in archival language? We decided that, whenever possible, additional subjects and descriptive context would need to be provided in order to ethically archive the materials and begin the difficult business of decolonizing the archives.
Take, for example, a photo of a mine dump near Johannesburg. Rather than simply identifying the subject of the photo at its surface (Gold mines and mining-South Africa; Hardrock mines and mining- South Africa; Twentieth century; etc) additional labels were added in an attempt to highlight the power structures that led to and were codified during apartheid – in addition to the community erasure that continues to happen. By including the subjects Industrial wastes and Hazardous waste sites, as well as a statement in the description as to the location of these dumps (always near Black townships), and the ongoing hazards caused by mine waste sites for Black communities, we have worked within the controlled language to speak to the complicated legacies of these assets.
Another example can be found in a press photo of a riot (seen above) that broke out in downtown Johannesburg in 1941, seven years before the rise of the National Party and the formal beginning of apartheid. The caption on the back of the photo says that “thousands of police, soldiers and civilians participated in a serious riot” – but why did that riot break out? With a little research I learned that this riot was a result of the Ossewabrandwag, an Afrikaner pro-Nazi and anti-British paramilitary organization, harassing and beating white South Africans who supported or participated in warfare against Germany during World War II. By including this valuable context in the subject headings (Fascism-South Africa; Right-wing extremists) and in the description, an attempt is being made to challenge the white-washing and sanitization of archives and archival language. Further, I attempted to lead the user to understand that apartheid, like so many other modes of oppression, have a long and sinister buildup before they are formally recognized. The “pre-apartheid” period, to which this photo belongs, is not a discrete “from the apartheid era of history” but, rather, is essential in understanding the power structure under which apartheid would be built.
Hurray! Archives are being decolonized! The white-washing of history is being undone.
Eh…it’s complicated. There are many challenges that I continue to grapple with as I work on metadata for Apartheid Heritage(s). While providing contextual descriptions and thought provoking subject headings is an attempt to decolonize archives, I am still bound to their very controlled language. This is an issue for two reasons- one, I can only use subject headings approved by the Library of Congress and two, the lists are massive.
Navigating and applying the lists of approved subject headings require a degree of creativity because they continue to reflect white power structures and colonization. There are many examples that I have discovered and I am sure that as my understanding deepens and my research continues, many more will be revealed. For example, the only references to Nelson Mandela in 8,273 pages of small print are about a namesake park in England. Latin lovers is an approved Library of Congress subject heading but there is nuh-thing on Mandela beyond a park in England, a country that colonized South Africa and Black South Africans.
This illustrates the colonizing viewpoint of subject headings that complicates how I use the controlled language to appropriately describe assets in Apartheid Heritage(s). I struggled to describe, for example, the type of oppressive labor system that was established prior to formal apartheid, and certainly a hallmark of it during that period. Black South Africans mine workers were paid in company scrip, a type of coin currency that could only be used in company controlled stores. This promoted continued capitalist oppression and allowed white South Africans to remain largely in control of the markets that Black South Africans used.
Describing this type of labor in DC and Library of Congress subject heading language became difficult because it is a complicated system. Black South African mine workers were not slaves, so that particular subject heading did not apply, but they were oppressed and manipulated for the enrichment of white business interests, which certainly smacks of slavery. And they were paid – “kind of.” So how do I use controlled vocabulary to describe a “not slavery but kind of slavery where workers were paid but not really” labor situation?
Another issue I continue to deal with is navigating the lines between providing context and editorializing and ensuring that a certain level of historical emotional neutrality does not tip towards either accidentally normalizing egregious legacies or becoming biased itself. An example of this is the life and legacy of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela, and a seemingly canonized woman nicknamed “The Mother of the Nation.” While the challenges she has presented me warrant a lengthy post of its own, I will touch on why she presents an example of the ethical questions I am still attempting to answer.
Beneath “Mama Winnie’s” acclaim as an ardent anti-apartheid warrior, exaltation for being one of the first Black social workers in South Africa, and celebrity as a fashion icon who used traditional Xhosa clothing as protest – beneath these lie a legacy of vindictiveness, atrocious human rights violations, torture, and murder. My challenge with creating metadata about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is in knowing how far to push my descriptions so that I both ethically address the crimes she committed and resist pushing a bias, agenda, or viewpoint. This is a struggle and, at times, I have had to “take a break” from Winnie metadata for a while in order to let myself reset and step back, so to speak, from the emotions reading about her crimes cause to bubble up in me.
This difficulty balancing necessary critical evaluation from an unbiased distance is not limited to my work on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – it is something I grapple with for nearly every asset in Apartheid Heritage(s). When I meet with the Apartheid Heritage(s) team these questions frequently arise (and so, so many more):
What is the context?
How can I challenge colonization?
Am I being biased?
Am I editorializing?
Am I accidentally normalizing?
How can I make this as searchable as possible?
The many moral and ethical dilemmas and questions that remain in not just my work, but in the field as a whole, have entire academic journals dedicated to discussing and addressing critical librarianship and information studies. Continued conversation, discussion, and growth have allowed me to grow in my understanding of this field and subject matter and, as a result, the metadata is evolving and growing with me.
Occasionally my mind returns to the esoteric archivist and metadatist of my imagination. Like my attempt to do my part to decolonize the archives, it is time for me to challenge the gatekeepers of knowledge. At the conclusion of a riveting lecture about finding Aztlán in meso-American codices, Dr. Davíd Carrasco paused to address the students in the hall. After addressing the many “firsts” that were occuring at highly esteemed universities across the United States – first Latina president, first Black chair, and so on – he told students that, instead of being in awe or feeling intimidated by these higher institutions, they needed to say “what took them so long? Why didn’t this happen ages ago? They have been missing out!”.
It is this spirit that carries me forward in my personal growth and that is evident in many academic fields. Rather than being intimidated that I did not match the same image as my pre-conditioned notion of what an archivist should be, it should be taken into consideration and appreciated for what it is. For history, archives, and other fields to advance there is a critical need for people who do not resemble the stalwarts of the past.
My growth as a historian, metadatist, archivist, librarian…whatever label is most appropriateis contingent upon continued growth, collaboration, and conversation. If you have any comments, suggestions, or perspectives that you want to share with me that will help me be a better and more informed human, please reach out to me at email@example.com.
My work on the Soweto Project originally started with the reading of the book Truth, Lies, and Alibis by Fred Bridgland. My focus was to gather testimonies that had anything to do with Stompie Moeketsi and his death at Winnie Mandela’s residence on 585 Eagle Street in the township of Soweto, South Africa on the night of December 31, 1988. These testimonies were to later be added to the already large number of JPEG files (mostly court case documents and newspaper clippings) taken by Dr. Nieves while in South Africa. Something that is important to understand is that with a project with this sort of content and magnitude, a sense of direction is a necessity to the progression of work. We have all this information, but without the big picture in mind, the work we had gathered so far was just words and pictures on paper. Our ideal image of what the project was to achieve relied heavily on the mysterious idea of spatial history, an idea that has no clear definition. Keeping all this in mind, the reading and marking of testimonies proved straightforward as pages could be marked as you went along, and were easy to return to later.
After much debate on the subject, it finally clicked for me that what brings a space alive to most readers is the people within it, so what better way to capture spatial history than with the life stories of those most impacted by it. What this meant for my own work on the project was that we wanted to lock our focus on the life of Stompie Moeketsi. His death is important to that life, but it has only been told through the lens of how it affected Winnie Mandela and the African National Congress. It was a fact that Stompie had been killed that night in the courtyard of Mrs. Mandela’s residence, but that one moment did not define his entire life. Gathering this story will require more than just words from extant texts because those who knew him have to date said little about his life. The discussion of gathering new and original testimonies from those closest to him is exciting, but could also potentially cause problems for those involved. The lack of information about the Mandela property itself is also an issue for our spatial project and gaining access to it is going to be difficult. There are also several technological challenges that are quite daunting, but that is a beast better tackled on its own. One thing is certain to me, I want to tell this story, and I am willing to do whatever it takes as a historian to make sure that it is told.
San Diego State University Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities, Angel David Nieves, and his Co-PI, Elaine Sullivan (UC-Santa Cruz) were awarded a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission towards the creation of a publishing cooperative for 3D scholarship and digital scholarly editions. The project, “Scholarship in 3D: A Proposal for a Digital Edition Publishing Cooperative,” intends to develop the necessary shared knowledge base and infrastructure for the successful publication of scholarly 3D digital editions, and to create new pathways to publication for scholars working with 3D content.
The planned cooperative will create prototypes to digitally publish and access historical collections for four projects currently in development by participating faculty. Institutional partners on the grant include USC, UCLA, UMass-Amherst, UT-Austin, UVA, Claremont Colleges, Hamilton College, Maynooth University (Ireland), the Alliance for
Networking Visual Culture, and the American Historical Association. Publishers on the grant include Stanford University Press, the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press at UCLA, and the University of Georgia Press.
The project is significant as it joins together two areas of scholarly inquiry in digital humanities that seek to identify and address the long term challenges of digital preservation of historical resources and to provide access to a range of content types, especially in the modeling of 3D reconstructions. The proposed Cooperative first meets at UCLA, Feb. 22-24, to begin their work. Lisa Snyder (UCLA) will host the meeting and act as our Project Director and site coordinator.
Prof. Nieves’s project, Apartheid Heritages: A Spatial History of South Africa’s Townships, brings together 3D modeling, immersive technologies, and digital ethnography in the pursuit of documenting human rights violations in apartheid-era South Africa. Nieves, who has been on leave at Yale University this past year as a Presidential Visiting Associate Professor, returns to the SDSU campus this fall as an active member of the Area of Excellence (AoE) in Digital Humanities and Global Diversity. The work on this year-long planning phase, if successful, anticipates extending other grant opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students working in digital humanities in the Department of History.
Here is a first look at Apartheid Heritages‘ new bookmark design, featuring the site information, a project summary, our institutional partners, and a preview 3D model of one of the archived locations. (Graphic design by Greg Lord, @gplord // Featured model by Jack Hay, Hamilton College Class of 2019.)