Why I chose Open Access for this project
When people ask me how I came to this project, I usually reply that it came to me. I was working in archives in Atlanta on my previous book when the enormity of the untold southern psychiatry story walked across my desk. A huge advantage to working in a School of Nursing is access to past clinicians, and suddenly I was talking to all sorts of people who had been part of the very system I was researching. And being an outsider also helped. I got to ask all sorts of stupid questions simply because I didn’t know any better. But I specifically remember sitting with Mr. James Tucker, who runs the Alabama Disability Advocacy Project, in the back of a vegetarian restaurant in Tuscaloosa, and he was talking about some of the people he’s represented—and I realized that this project was far bigger than me, that those voices needed to be heard, and that it was going to be my job to make that happen.
From there, everything seemed to fall into place. Again, the advantage of being at Emory meant that I was aware of a new grant from the Mellon Foundation that sought to support digital publishing projects in the humanities. I didn’t really know what “digital humanities” meant (and I still think not many people really do!) but after my first conversation with Sarah McKee, who implements the Digital Publishing in the Humanities initiative at Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, I saw the potential not just for reaching a wide audience but for creating an interactive project that could act as both an enhancement to the text and a repository of sources and stories.
Then I was invited to take part in the NEH/Virginia Tech/National Library of Medicine Viral Networks workshop. This workshop was designed to explore the ways that the digital humanities, especially the idea of “network analysis” could be used by historians of medicine. I saw some really cool and funky projects being developed in that workshop, and many of them used machine technologies to mine data and to make visual representations of aspects of medical history. I learned that I would need to get much more serious about my data collection techniques if I wanted to do this kind of work, but I also realized that that wasn’t the kind of “digital humanities” I was looking for (you can read about my process through this workshop here).
The significant part of that work for me is the humanity part—the power to visually represent, store, and disseminate the human experience of the past. I thought about the ways I would want to represent the connections between people across time and space, the way that mental health systems worked like a network—a spider web—of confinement and control across the South. I imagined being able to translate complicated patient admission and diagnostic records into interactive tables that people in the future could ask multiple questions of. I thought about the way that textual information about the crowded spaces and horrific conditions could be recreated through 3D imaging where photos no longer existed. And I thought about the voices—the people who had lived and worked in this system whose stories need to be told. An Open Access platform that would let me write the words I wanted, supported by these new technologies, became my only real option.
In May of 2018 I gave a paper at the American Association for the History of Medicine conference at UCLA in California. I remember stepping up to the podium and seeing the room overflowing, standing room only. I tried not to think about what that meant, and just focused on my paper. The paper was about the information I’d uncovered about the process of desegregation in Alabama’s psychiatric hospitals (you can read about some of that in this Washington Post op-ed I wrote), I got lots of great questions and left the room feeling like I was maybe on the right track. As I walked away, a polite young man walked beside me and introduced himself as Lucas Church from the University of North Carolina Press. He handed me his card and asked if I’d had any interest in the book idea, and I said yes (I had two publishers who’d expressed some interest), and then I asked Lucas if UNC might be interested in pursuing a digital humanities approach. He didn’t blink, or stammer some apology. He said immediately yes, we’d be open to that. From there it really was a no-brainer, as they say. The other publishers were lukewarm about that part, and so they fell by the wayside. Lucas helped me clarify my vision, he wasn’t scared when I said I was thinking really big, like maybe there was a documentary or a film in here somewhere, like maybe there were two books, maybe even three. He Zoomed into meetings with Sarah and me at Emory, and he came to a workshop at Emory about developing monographs for digital publishing.
In January 2019 I attended a workshop run by Terence Smyre from the University of Minnesota Press, where the Manifold publishing platform was developed. When I saw how seamless and intuitive Manifold was, I knew that it was the perfect platform for this project. I particularly liked the “iterative” part, that I would be able to post works-in-progress, because I knew this was a long-term project. It was going to take a lot of time and effort to bring together what I was thinking, and it would require money, and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I wanted to be able to have something in place that I could refer people to, but also that I could think through things on. I knew I would have things to write about as I went along, my experience in some of these archives, how I felt about the material I was finding, my own emotional journey through this story. Lucas was open to that idea, and Manifold makes it possible to document my research process on the same platform in which the book will eventually be published.
So here we are. I am so excited about what this site will become, and I am so grateful for all the support so far, from Lucas and Sarah to Emory and the Mellon Foundation for the TOME subvention support that will allow the book to be published Open Access, to Lisa Macklin for help with the contract, to John Bence, Jennifer Gunter King, and Jonathan Coulis at Emory’s Rose Library for help with the oral history work, to Allan Tullos, Adam Newman, and Josh Jayasundara at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship for the ideas and support so far, and to Yang Li at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship for making the Manifold site happen.
There is a lot more to do here, and there will be a lot to read, hear, and see. I hope you will stick around for the journey.