UCHRI’s Residential Research Groups (RRGs) are in essence teams of researchers assembled to work on a commonly-defined research agenda. The organizing premise of the RRG program is that when the challenges of communicating across disciplines are surmounted, breakthroughs in knowledge are possible. Often, these breakthroughs result in interesting and innovative research projects in the humanities.
Such was the case with our spring 2013 Digital Princess RRG, whose stated goal was to “create an open-access, online resource for study of the voluminous correspondence of Renaissance Italy’s most consummate female social networker, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), marchesa of Mantua.” The resulting archive—a collaboration among several postsecondary institutions and researchers—uses a variety of digital technologies to bring d’Este’s works to life.
We asked Deanna Shemek, Professor and Chair of UC Santa Cruz’s Department of Literature, about the RRG’s role in the final archive. Below are her responses.
1. How did your time at UCHRI contribute to the success of the Isabella d’Este project?
The inaugural project of IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive was our interactive platform to house image files of 28,000 letters from Isabella d’Este’s correspondence, which is a customized version of the Medici Archive Project’s BIA: Building Interactive Archives tool. These letters relate in different ways to all of the projects in IDEA: to some projects the letters are central; to others they supply crucial documentation. Without the ability—thanks to a UCHRI Residential Research Group grant in 2013—to meet daily over several weeks in a small working group, we could not have thought through all of this platform’s features. The RRG provided a context in which to meet for one week with an expanded IDEA team at the end, to critique the work, generate ideas for problem-solving, and envision ways of moving IDEA forward. Plain and simple: without the RRG, we quite simply could not have begun the IDEA project.
2. What challenges did you encounter in creating this multi-media, interdisciplinary archive, and how did you work to overcome them?
The perennial challenge of funding looms large, as digital projects proliferate and compete for resources. IDEA is a multi-project environment, and so far our grants have funded individual projects (or parts of projects) rather than the environment as a whole. The challenge of bringing our group together regularly is also significant. We do much of our work in separate and distant settings, across multiple time zones and in different disciplines with non-coincident work rhythms. Getting together provides crucial and always highly productive, breakthrough time. In one case, thanks to the Medieval and Early Modern Studies program at UNC Chapel Hill, IDEA co-director Anne MacNeil was able to host a generous group of our researchers for a week of intensive work at an event she called “Big Data for Intimate Spaces” https://popp.web.unc.edu. This meeting turned out to be incredibly useful, not least because a snowstorm obliged us all to the unexpectedly intimate confines of Anne’s (lovely and spacious) house for several days, as power outages prevented us from using campus meeting rooms. We’ve met in smaller configurations by taking advantage of opportunities wherever we see them: organize panels at a conference and have a working dinner afterward; invite an IDEA colleague to present work at our respective campuses and tack on project work time, etc.
A third challenge, not surprisingly, is always technology. Which technology is the best choice for a given IDEA project? We work hard to figure this out early, because decisions made at ground level limit choices at higher levels of digital projects. There can be bumps along the way. Tech support for our wonderful letters platform, which continues to draw praise from archival researchers, requires a Java programmer with more than middling skills, for example, and we don’t always have one “on salary.” On the other hand, many of our projects are powered by WordPress and its continuously developing suite of plug-ins, including the Prospect toolkit developed at the University of North Carolina. Finally, I would say that another challenge is to stay engaged with critical questions. We don’t want to get lost in the fascination of novelty with our new technologies. We always ask, “How will this particular project advance research capacities, pedagogy, or understanding and engagement with the humanities and the arts?” Sometimes, the advance regards a relatively specialized community (like archival researchers who study the Italian sixteenth century). At other times, the advance has implications for university teaching or even the general public that enjoys visiting historic Italian sites. We honor all of these endeavors.