This project, by design and because of time constraints, is a prototype – an informed prototype that begins to explore concepts related to digital history and narrative theory, but one that has room to grow and develop in the future. While this sounds like the project is unfinished, the process of prototype building is an important research effort itself. In their article, “How a prototype argues,” Alan Galey and Stan Ruecker contend that a prototype is a valid form of argument and outline five conditions that a prototype must meet to be considered rigorous scholarship:

  1. The argument being made must be refined, defendable, and substantial
  2. The prototype must take a position
  3. The prototype must be part of a series of protoypes in a moving trajectory
  4. The prototype must address possible objections
  5. The prototype must be an original contribution[1]

If it meets these five requirements, then the digital prototype is at a stage where it can be peer reviewed, and, by extension, realized as a piece of scholarship.

Galey and Ruecker frame their argument using Langdon Winner’s idea that “artifacts have politics.”[2] This concept suggests that no object is without biases and assumptions that help to determine who interacts with it and how. As an example, Galey and Ruecker share Winner’s observations of city planners who created plans for highway overpasses that were too short for buses. This limited transportation options in the suburbs and, consequentially, ensured that only people who could afford cars lived there.[3] Similar to the plans for the overpass, a digital prototype as an artifact is designed with a set of conscious decisions that inform how the prototype functions, privileging certain aspects over others. This set of decisions by designers creates an argument, and Galey and Ruecker’s framework shows how to evaluate that argument.

Using their rubric, I evaluated my website to see if it meets all five points, and if not, what are the implications?

The argument being made must be refined, defendable, and substantial

Yes, there is an argument articulated in my project, both implicitly and explicitly. Implicit in my project is an information architecture substantially different from the historical narrative that encourages visitors to follow associative connections through the material rather than chronological ones. I have also described the theoretical underpinnings explicitly in a series of short essays on the shape of history, narrative theory and the origin stories of the web. While the key focus of my writing is analyzing Best’s letters, this secondary argument is articulated in my writing and the form the website takes.

The prototype must take a position

Galey and Ruecker do not fully outline what taking a position means, but that my prototype makes an argument is the first step. My intentions are to see what can happen when historians move away from publishing their articles on the web to utilizing internet features to create ‘born digital’ narratives.

Though I have done several informal environmental scans of digital history projects, I have not undertaken a formal review to show how my website is substantially different from what already exists. In some regards, this would be nearly impossible because of the multitude of projects out there, but I have used guides such as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web to see what standards digital history projects typically use and notable examples.[4]

The prototype must be part of a series of prototypes in a moving trajectory

This point does not easily apply to my project as an honours thesis and may make more sense for a prototype that is part of a larger grant or long-term research project where there is time to make several iterations of a prototype. This prototype certainly builds on my earlier digital history papers and projects, but not as a conscious development of an on-going theme.

However, the prototype is connected to the Landscapes of Injustice project, which will be looking at this example as they build their own digital narratives of dispossession. Furthermore, this project has gone through several iterations during the building process, from a simple information structure, to a working draft, and finally into the final project here.

The prototype must address possible objections

In the limited space I have, the prototype has addressed possible objections by reflecting on the history of historical writing. Some may argue that a website is no longer a ‘history’ in the conventional sense, but research into historical representations shows that the form of history has been evolving since the first historians and continues to change today as new stories are being told in new ways. Understanding the evolution of narrative form allows new approaches to be understood as part of a continuing process, rather than an unprecedented rejection of convention.

The prototype must be an original contribution

The number of historians experimenting with digital history has grown, including several historians at UVic. However, it is uncommon at the undergraduate level and at first glance, many projects seem to be historical narratives that do not explore how the web is changing the form of history.

Conclusion

While my project tenuously meets some of Galey and Ruecker’s points, I argue that it can be scholarly reviewed and may benefit from not rigidly adhering to peer review standards. As an undergraduate student, this is my first attempt at building something new, rather than relying on pre-existing conventions or formats. Working at the undergraduate level allows me freedom to be creative and experimental without having to meet traditional publication expectations. Evaluation metrics are still necessary, and Galey and Ruecker’s five points have acted as guiding principles as I wrote and built, but this project is an experiment and any future iterations will further the scholarship of this initial prototype.

References

[1] Alan Galey and Stan Ruecker, “How a Prototype Argues,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 25, no. 4 (2010): 405–24, https://llc-oxfordjournals-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/content/25/4/405.full, 405.

[2] Galey and Ruecker, “How a Prototype Argues,” 406.

[3] Galey and Ruecker, “How a Prototype Argues,” 406.

[4] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, n.d., http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/index.php.

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