Roundtable From Archive to Interdisciplinary Tool: Transforming Our Image of the FSA-OWI Photograph Collection

AHA Session 46
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Laura Wexler, Yale University
The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History
Revisualizing the Archive
Lauren C. Tilton, Yale University
Analyzing the Archive
Taylor B. Arnold, Yale University
Implementing the Digital Humanities
Ken Panko, Yale University

Session Abstract

From 1935 to 1945 the federal government, under the Farm Securities Administration and Office of War Information, commissioned over 160,000 photographs of the nation during the Great Depression and World War II. Due to the large number of photographs, research into the collection has had to rely primarily on the photographers' correspondence letters and anecdotal evidence from a handful of images. Other sciences and social sciences, however, frequently manage to make qualitative and quantitative inferences from large data sets.  How can we use similar methods and technology to study large media collections in the humanities? Additionally, how can such a large collection be made available and accessible to the general public? In this roundtable we show how visual data (here, the photographs) can be revisualized and reimagined by putting into a single conversation current issues in the digital humanities, visual culture studies, empirical social sciences, and statistical computing. Specifically, we will display the prototype of a website, titled photogrammar, dedicated to reimagining the current FSA-OWI photograph collection, which currently exists as a simple repository on the Library of Congress' website. By seeing the photographs as points on interactive geospatial maps, users are able to transform current paradigms of the collection as a simple archive of images. Instead, the collection becomes a dynamic tool, viewable in an array of spatial, temporal, and topical dimensions. For instance, one will be able to see the intersecting  journeys of particular photographers, allowing for more nuanced understanding of the ``place-identity" of individual photographs, as well as a more holistic understanding of how entire regions were represented. Furthermore, by building on open standards in the empirical social sciences, the site is able to seamlessly incorporate census data with the aggregated photographic metadata. This allows for a more complete use of the photographs in understanding the historical moment which they capture.

In the roundtable, we will introduce the tools and methodological innovations central to the website. Core questions guiding the roundtable include: How can photogrammar in its current state be used to advance scholarship into the FSA-OWI collection and how could the website be adapted to advance scholarship in other ways? What needs to be done for the website to be optimized for K-16 classrooms and scholars? How does revisualizing visual data change how we archive and imagine visual data functioning?  In what ways could this methodology be implemented to other archives across the humanities?  Particular attention at the roundtable will also be directed towards evaluating the multidisciplinary context of the work and how it can be  improved for future collaborative projects prior to it going live later in the year. Opportunities for extensions of the tools developed on the website to other visual and non-visual archives in the humanities will be also discussed. To contribute to the interdisciplinary nature of the photogrammar project, the roundtable will be led by specialists from a wide range of disciplines. It will include academics from visual studies, cultural studies, and statistics.

See more of: AHA Sessions