Digital Humanities
@ Pratt

Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

Event review: Conference: Afterlives: Place, Memory, Story

CUNY Public history collective conference “Afterlives: place, memory, story” covered different presentations addressing restoring and re-purposing historical material and narratives. In general, it was discussed how to find new innovative ways to reach different audiences in the public history. Many of the presented projects utilized digital tools either in the analysis or for presenting the results of the research. The panel discussion “Reaching new audiences, repurposing old materials” addressed the digitizing project of NYPD Criminal prosecution photograph collection in the NYC Department of Records and Information Services. The presented project and collection demonstrated many questions that are crucial for DH projects using sensitive material: e.g. selection process, privacy and copyright questions, dissemination of the data and different uses of the material.

Inaugural conference titled ”Afterlives: Place, Memory, Story” took place in the CUNY Graduate Center on October 28. The one day conference was organized by the Public History Collective. The Collective is a working group aiming to bridge academic and public history in the contexts of archives, museums and other public history institutions. The first conference focused on two general questions: What does it mean for places, objects, people and stories to have afterlives? and how can we restore histories that have been lost? In the presentations researchers and public history professionals told their recent and current projects. Different modes of digital humanities had a significant role in many presentations.

In the opening remarks of the conference professor Andrew Robertson stated that to find innovative ways to engage public is fundamental challenge of the field of history. In their presentations speakers evaluated ways they have used to disseminate their research and results. In the dissemination, digital tools a promising but still physical outcomes, like printed monographs, are often favored in the field of history. However, increasingly projects have started to utilize both digital and physical formats together. The panel discussion titled “Reaching new audiences, re-purposing old materials” demonstrated different paths of historical material from archive to research and to audience.

Speakers of the panel were Quinn Berkman and Michael Lorenzini from NYC Department of Records and Information Services. They told about project addressing digitizing and disseminating 20th century criminal prosecution photographs from New York Police Department collection. The example project demonstrated multiple questions, challenges and possibilities digital humanities projects often face.

Firstly, choosing digitized material. The original archive was much bigger than institution was able to digitize in the project. Limited digitizing resources evoke a question of how to choose digitally preserved material and how to take into account different interests of scholars and the general public? To choose material digitized and provided to public the institutions need to consider multiple points of view: the material that looks today unimportant may have a huge value in the future. For example the criminal prosecution photographs were originally produced for official purpose to document the crime scene. When the case was closed the photographs did not have much value in the official perspective and they were discarded. However, after the two or three generations this material seems extremely interesting for many fields from juridical to cultural and public history. The limited resources of digitizing affects that the data shared to public is only a fragment of original collection. For the researcher that evokes a concern of representativeness of the data: how well the provided material represents the original collection? How the digitized material was selected? Were some image types overemphasized? In general, these questions are common for all digital humanities projects using digital collections [1]. On the one hand it is better to have some data than no data at all, on the other hand, the limitations should be taken into account in the research and policy of selecting digitized material concerned carefully in the institutions.

Secondly, how to handle material that presents brutal scenes, recognizable people and personal information (like full name of the victims) in the extremely sensitive context like homicide. Privacy policy, the rights of the people presented in the publicly shared material is typical question for the archives and museums managing visual data [2]. The question has both juridical and moral dimensions. It is usually thought that the temporal distance makes the presentation of this kind of material more acceptable. However, it is difficult to draw a boundary between old enough and too young material. In the perspective of research, focusing only on the “old” things is unsatisfactory solution. Limitations to use material or complicated application procedures to observe sensitive data in archives does not contribute the research. Furthermore, the possibility to develop totally new research ideas is limited, if the researchers never hear or see little-known collections. The digitized photograph collection of New York Police Department includes material from 1915 to 1941. Thus the “youngest” material is about 80 years old. Many archives are even over careful by providing access to sensitive data. NYPD Criminal Prosecution collection has took a more liberal and practical approach by showing photographs that are far more new than in many other collections. The person who believes that the material presented violates his or her rights is advised to contact the archive.


Thirdly, copyright questions of presenting digitized material are often crucial, also questions of moral copyrights [2]. Researchers in the digitizing project of NYPD criminal prosecution collection had found one retired police photographer and interviewed him, both contextualizing the material and also collecting impressions of how he feel the new ways the data once collected for crime investigation might be used in future. With the material under the copyright-laws archives are usually even more careful than in the questions of privacy questions. That is the main reason why the material freely available for digital humanities projects is mainly over 100 years old. In the perspective of research the situation is insufficient in many perspectives. Though libraries and archives have started to provide access to newer copyrighted material in their intranet, but still for example geographical distance set limitations to creative use of that kind of material. New solutions for the use of copyrighted material for the research purposes should definitely be developed.

Fourthly, the outcomes of digitization projects. It is notable that in many cases dissemination of research projects using digital material often happens with non-digital formats. For example the first outcomes of digitized and publicly shared criminal prosecution photographs were a physical exhibition in the Photoville pop up exhibition and books. However, these physical outcomes of research used different digital tools. In the exhibition in 2016 the presented photographs were supplemented with original crime news searched and picked up from digital newspaper databases [3]. Thus, in this case different and separate digital resources were combined to produce new outcomes and make the result more vivid. Secondly, the book using photography database “Wenn es Nacht wird: Verbrechen in New York 1910-1920” (2015) was made by German scholars who found the digitized material in the web and used digital interface to observe the data. In this case the simple digital database was prerequisite facilitator of the process. Furthermore, the project with the Criminal prosecution photographs is still in the progress and next they are aiming to build a digital mapping tool which would place the photographs in the map of Manhattan and provide new possibilities to exploit the material in the future.



[1] The North Carolina Digital Heritage Center:

[2] Rosati, Eleanora (2013):

[3] Photoville Pretty Girl Charged with Clever Swindle: Women and Crime in Early 20th-Century New York City:

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