Tying it all together

As a member of the Digital Scholars Institute, I’m articulating my digital activities in the hopes of improving what I do, and maybe finding a miraculous panacea to bring it all together. Honestly, I’d settle for the first. In other words, this blog post is gonna discuss Big Picture type stuff. If you prefer the usual minutiae, don’t worry, I’ll go back to the usual programming next time.

Preservationists are often thought of as Luddites. We tend to work for the government and/or nonprofits, which have little money and do lag behind in technology. When I first started in the profession, back in 2001, preservation documentation hadn’t made the jump to digital AT ALL. National Register nominations had to be made with B&W 8×10 prints and typing on cotton rag paper. This has changed, of course, but slowly. Preservationists still – thankfully – spend lots of time in musty archives.

While peservationists can and should make use of technology for data collection, analysis, and dissemination, this is much easier said than done. My own work has tackled all three, but I’m still short of any kind of finished product. Complicating matters, I try to use either industry standard software or freeware/shareware. The former is more likely to be already in use in any given agency or organization, and the latter would at least be affordable to add. Teaching software my students would have no way of accessing would be a waste of time.

Data collection/analysis

Preservationists collect all sorts of data: quantitative (stories, setback distance, use) qualitative (style, condition, significance) photographic (window placement, additions), graphical (column detail, structural members), geographic (topography, street layout). All of this in context (neighboring properties, changes in past century) and in the field (bad neighborhood, attic filled with spiders).

The old-school way was to collect the info with clipboards and cameras. Going new-school, with smartphones, is a huge timesaver and reduces error. Martha Burtis helped me make this a reality for HISP 405 this past fall. Using wordpress, students can complete most data collection/entry for a cultural resource survey while out in the field. This even includes photography. Once archival research is complete, they can add dates, sketches, and other details to entries. Martha’s contributions were invaluable especially because I needed some of the collected data to export to SPSS for quantitative analysis. She designed a plugin that makes that completely painless. Overall, this process makes data collection, management, and cleaning much easier, faster, and more collaborative. It’s a win-win and will hopefully integrate mapping in the future.

The web interface on an iPhone
Screenshots of the cultural resource survey web interface on an iPhone
An entry in the searchable database.
An entry in the searchable database. Notice the map, sketch, and photo attached to the entry.

Over the years, I’ve also used other software and services for data collection. (For example, surveymonkey is great for simple browser based surveys, and easily exports data to pdf, csv, and excel. I use it A LOT.) I prefer systems where I have more fine-tune control, but there’s something to be said for the quick and easy solutions. Picking between the two is case-by-case. Perhaps one day I’ll have the technical acumen to make this a non-issue, but I’m definitely not there yet.


Using technology for data collection and analysis is a challenge in terms of learning curves and data input/storage/export options but it isn’t hard to convince people it’s worthwhile. Using technology for dissemination is another matter. The old paper report that sits on a shelf is still the status quo. Preservation planning being such a community-centric profession, this approach yields very limited dividends. You don’t reach a wide audience this way, and you’re not likely to convince them even if you do. This explains in part why so many people still don’t understand what planners or preservationists do. Or what eminent domain actually is. Or how historic districts impact property rights. Etcetera.

There’s no compelling reason for this to remain the status quo. There are many creative ways to propagate data in this day and age. There’s twitter and tumblr and Instagram. There are memes and infographics and cartoons. There are games. And there are old fashioned printed matter, which can be made much more effective with good design. My classes have tackled all of these in the past, and this semester I’m focusing on infographics in particular. This has been a neat project in part because it’s both technical and creative and because it uses all sorts of different tech tools. Plus, students and I are all outside our comfort zones. There’s nothing more inspiring, for me, than a class that makes me learn too.

The preservation planning game Plunked! designed by a previous lab cohort.
The preservation planning game Plunked! designed by a previous lab cohort.

Still, I think some students aren’t completely convinced they are doing “preservation planning” in the course. Nothing short of a successful job interview highlighting their work will convince them otherwise, so I just have to be patient and let them doubt. In the wider profession, people are mostly convinced, but that doesn’t mean they have the skills to make it happen. I choose to think of this as a positive: UMW HISP alums will have a leg up on their peers. Plus, since we constantly debate the relevance of these techniques, the liberal arts goals are well-served too.

All this to say that the approach I’m taking is one with which I’m comfortable. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve got a finished product. Far from it.

Where to?

Since I’m already a true-believer, my challenges go beyond accepting that digital skills matter. I think there are three areas to focus my efforts on:

  1. Stay on top of technology. I know, this hardly deserves its own goal but it’s tough to surf the wave and not get slammed against the metaphorical rocks. I’ve tried to commit to technologies that have lasting power, like wordpress, adobe, and google, but even those aren’t guaranteed to stay on top. So I spend probably too much time exploring other options. If nothing else so I can recommend gimp for a student who can’t afford photoshop, for example. It’s not a waste of effort, but it is a mighty time suck.
  2. Tie everything together. If only it were as easy as a rug, but no. Right now, my efforts still feel fragmented. Yes, using umwdomains gives me a great home-base, but the various steps in class and research projects still are fragmented on lots of different systems that don’t really speak to each other.
  3. Make everything more polished. My approach to digital research, teaching, and identity has been homegrown from the get-go. While trial-and-error and an iterative development is all well and good, I’d love for it to have a more finished feel. Gravitas can’t be bought, sadly. So I may have to settle for Patton Oswalt when I’d prefer James Earl Jones.
Tech-savvy, tie-together, gravitas-having. Oh, and not too expensive. That’s what I want. It exists, right?

Last week, Steve Gallik presented his very impressive and inspiring work in biology. He’s been at this for a long time, so maybe all it will take for me to get to these goals is just sustained effort for another decade or two. But if there are any shortcuts, I’m game.

One thought on “Tying it all together

  1. I struggle with some of the same issues, really all of the “where to” areas you address–staying current, tying it together, and keeping it polished are all big challenges for me. Look forward to talking in person about this! Betsy

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