Non-Textual Sources

As a public historian and an American Studies PhD (and BA for that matter), I have long worked with non-textual sources:  material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, folkways, etc.

Nonetheless, today’s conversation in Doing Digital History pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone by pressing me to think about what it means to approach all sources as “data.” Our lively and fascinating guest instructor, Mike O’Malley, asked us to consider landscapes of sound and to examine the ways in which they have been re-configured over time. Sound Studies, as O’Malley explained them, have raised some interesting questions:  when does sound become noise? how has the experience of listening to music changed over time? Yet, much of the work seems overly focused on technical evidence. Digital environments allow scholars to graph and map sound as form and to focus on its mechanical production. Yet, it seems that sometimes the function, creation, use, context, and reception –all elements of the human experience– are irretrevable. While it is clear that technical data charting changes in sound have interpretive value, the approach felt –for me– too detached from questions of human value and meaning-making.

During discussion, O’Malley offered a critique of historical reenactors as an analogy. He argued that their effort to understand the meaning of the past is misleading because it is attached to microscopic detail; reenactors focus is so much on the trees, that they miss out on a approaching a deeper understanding of the forest. Yet, some sound scholars’ focus on sound charts, combined with a reluctance to think about sound as only a small part of a much larger and more dynamic cultural environment seems potentially to have the same shortcoming. Can we really understand a sound landscape without considering all of its elements:  human as well as mechanical?

My focus was a bit skewed during class. I was so interested in learning about Sound Studies as a body of scholarship, that I wasn’t terribly successful in thinking about how this might relate to to my foray into digital history. Nonetheless, I was interested in the examples that O’Malley provided about how non-text based productions can be used in a digital environment for teaching, learning, and research. I can imagine value in producing short digital stories or podcasts for students or other learning communities.  I’m not yet sure how –or if– my current projects are appropriate for experimenting with sound or video, but I am certain that digitization will provide me with a venue for associating various kinds of data:  textual, visual, audio, and material. I’m also starting to wonder how reducing evidence to “data” will impact my interest in remaining focused on the inconsistent, stubborn, difficult-to-categorize human dimension of social and cultural life.

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