Digital Derg

A 2018-20 IRC-funded Project by James L. Smith

Flattened Objects: Hybrid Environmental History in an Omeka Collection

Animation of Lough Derg Omeka Map display with clustered Geolocation markers, OpenStreetMap base map (open data), Omeka-hosted ‘Digital Derg’ Project. Image: James L. Smith

Dear Readers,

I hope that this finds you well. I’m back after a summer of attending conferences and summer schools, including the recent European Society for Environmental History 10th biennial conference in Tallinn, Estonia. As part of this conference, I organised a session on the boundaries of ecocriticism (literature and the environment) and environmental history. Thanks to Finn Arne Jørgensen for chairing our session, and to my excellent colleagues Anna Barcz and Torsten Wollina for presenting really interesting papers!

I presented my ideas as a very fun Twitter conference paper as part of an event put on by NEXTGATe, the next generation action team, as well as a formal paper.

Today I’d like to share what I spoke about in a more persistent format, and discuss the process of managing digital objects with a variety of disciplinary purposes in Omeka, the collections management tool used to create the Digital Derg deep map.

Read on!

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Hybrid Environmental History in an Omeka Collection

The mapping process for Digital Derg – the Lough Derg mapping project detailed in this blog – involves a great deal of curation and translation. The material it contains includes histories, literature, poetry, oral history, folklore, ordnance surveys, geography, geology, archaeology, place names, biodiversity databases, forestry records and so on. The process of putting all of these objects together and describing them with a consistent set of attributes – known as the metadata of an object – involves constant translation from one kind of material and digital life to another.

The items created in Omeka adhere to a principle known as ontological flatness, described here in depth by Selina Springett:

Deep maps go beyond description or simple communication, rather they are an enaction of place. They offer a certain type of storytelling that seeks to democratise knowledge, through the use of the map. While this may not necessarily involve mapping in a traditional cartographic sense (although in some cases it does) deep mapping embodies the act of placing information on a plane of representation where the various components are connected metaphorically, and sometimes materially, by inhabiting the space on the same “map”. As such, this mapping process attempts to give different knowledge equal audition or representation; be they botanical, historical, indigenous, folkloric or otherwise. Fundamentally, this seeks to be inclusive across fields and exemplifies an inherent interdisciplinarity.

Selina Springett, ‘Going Deeper or Flatter: Connecting Deep Mapping, Flat Ontologies and the Democratizing of Knowledge’, Humanities, 4 (2015), 623–36 https://doi.org/10.3390/h4040623, here pp. 624–25

The resulting objects have classes – image, text, oral history, physical object and so on – but each occupies the same space. There are no hierarchies of objects, although I do gather them into sub-collections in order to demonstrate a particular point. They exist in an indeterminate cloud of objects, working on each other and coming together to tell different stories. I “map” these objects in the sense that they are a relational chart of concepts, connections and potential arrangements, but also by using the Omeka geolocation plugin to assign each item a georeference which can be displayed as a map (as above).

The purpose of this practice is to allow the map of Lough Derg to develop new stories and properties not initially imagined by the curator, to be endlessly extensible and flexible (a deep map is never “finished”) and to continue to offer and suggest new uses to new researchers and users in the future. They become what has famously been termed a “boundary object” operating across practices, modes of use and disciplines:

The words “boundary” and “object” may need some explaining… Often, boundary implies something like edge or periphery, as in the boundary of a state or a tumor. Here, however, it is used to mean a shared space, where exactly that sense of here and there are confounded. These common objects form the boundaries between groups through flexibility and shared structure—they are the stuff of action.

Susan Leigh Star, ‘This Is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept.’ Science, Technology, & Human Values, 35(5) (2010), 601–617 https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243910377624, here pp. 602-3

Managing these objects and the manner in which they act upon each other requires a greater understanding of objects: digital, material, and a hybrid of the two. This methodology is known as activity theory, and seeks to explore the manner in which objects – some material, some hybrid, some digital – act upon each other and combine to create the process of academic research and the path of discovery that it entails. Agiatis Bernardou and her colleagues have spent a great deal of time studying activity theory in order to model the methods by which archaeologists do their work, and this research has resulted in a rich and nuanced three-part structure for these boundary objects:

A research activity involves a range of objects of different kinds: physical objects (natural or artificial), conceptual objects and information objects. Physical objects are those found, examined, stored, etc., or those used as tools in the course of the research process. Conceptual objects include concepts created, represented and illustrated, and logical propositions formulated, supported, countered, proved, disproved or refuted. The information objects, finally, are a special class of conceptual objects with corresponding physical information carriers, which refer to and represent physical and conceptual objects, and which are created, searched, shared, or even curated as part of research processes.

Agiatis Benardou, Panos Constantopoulos, Costis Dallas, and Dimitris Gavrilis, ‘A Conceptual Model for Scholarly Research Activity’ paper (2010).

Studying the connections between objects – be they physical (for me the material on Lough Derg that I capture and describe), conceptual (the scholarly methodologies and techniques used to make sense of the material and the arguments made in published form) or information (the mediating digital constructs, metadata, tags, digital environments and structures that I use to do my work) is crucial to understand what one is curating, how the process of curation is itself a methodology worthy of further study within spatial humanities and deep mapping, the possibilities for unorthodox deployments of digital boundary objects and opportunities to work and write across disciplines and practices, as I am currently engaged in.

If we take time to think through the process, it becomes important to see the software, tools and standards that we use to gather research objects together as a form of digital habitat, with its own rules, practices and communities. To enhance these ideas to best effect, it is necessary to work together and communicate what we have learnt, share tools, and learn from each other.

This has all been somewhat technical, but I hope that you take away a sense of the manner in which digital items, like physical items in, say, a museum or gallery, need care, curation and methodological attention. If you would like to read about this topic in a different mode, then I suggest the twitter paper.

Many thanks for reading!

[Header image: Station Island Omeka Map display with clustered Geolocation markers, OpenStreetMap base map (open data), Omeka-hosted ‘Digital Derg’ Project. Image: James L. Smith.]

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2 Comments

  1. La Flynn September 2, 2019

    Hi James. I am fascinated by this latest on your project – and keen to explore more about what its implications may be for us here at Lough Derg as a living place of pilgrimage. Some weeks ago Louise Nugent delivered to us her report on The Archeologial Potential of Saints and Station Islands, Lough Derg, Co Donegal that I commissioned early last year. Would this material be relevant to your work? La Flynn

    • James L. Smith September 2, 2019 — Post Author

      Hi La. That sounds very exciting, and I’d love to see the report. I think that it would be very relevant to my collection, and I think that I am now ready to start having that conversation as well!

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