Making the decisions to publish Open Access and to use Manifold were, in hindsight, the easiest ones to make in relation to this project. They were definitely, however, not the last. Writing for a digital project is a bit like one of those decision tree diagrams: Do you want to publish a digital monograph? Yes/No. If Yes, are you prepared to make a thousand other decisions between now and publication day? The Yes option comes with a Proceed With Caution warning, maybe one of those signs that has a stick figure falling off a cliff. There’s not a lot of guidance about how to do this, or what to expect, and at times I feel like I am in free fall, just waiting for that crash at the end.
But so far, there has not been any crashing, just the invigorating sensation of ideas in full flight. That's the joy of doing something that's still new—you get to make it up as you go along. But I think that's easier because of the people I have around me who help me to articulate my big ideas and make them into something doable. At my age, I no longer feel the need to pretend to know everything. If academic work has taught me anything, it's that the final product is immeasurably enhanced by collaboration. Historians are not used to that, but I think if we want to really speak to the public and have our work be relevant to the world we live in today, then we need to come down out of that tower.
When I first imagined the project as digital and Open Access it was because I knew the project was "big" and needed more than the pages of a printed book. I knew I had complicated data that would need to be more than Figure 1 on page 5. I knew I wanted to reproduce some of the stunning archival images and material I was finding in their original form, and I wanted to give voice to the numerous people who've talked to me. So I started by talking to the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and putting all my big ideas on the table. I had no hesitation in saying that I didn't know how to do data visualizations, or how to use GIS mapping, or how to make an image gallery. The ECDS staff were immediately supportive and enthusiastic, and that has helped me to continue thinking big and exploring possibilities for funding. One outcome has been a collaboration with the Emory Oral History Program at the Rose Library to begin recording the life stories and personal narratives of people who have lived and worked in the systems I'm trying to understand. Not all of those histories will be relevant to this one project, so they are an investment in my future research plans, as well as the seeds for a standalone digital archive for other people to use. That's one of the things I want to achieve with digital Open Access publishing.
But at some point all the creative ideas and big plans have to give way to something far more mundane and important: what is the argument I am trying to make? When I first started talking about the project, a lot of it was about the sources. I would talk for hours about all the things I had that I wanted people to see and hear. At one point I talked to Yang Li in the ECDS about maybe wanting the Manifold site to work along themes rather than chapters, and he said, "Well, when you know what the themes are, let me know." His comment reminded me that I might be putting the cart before the horse. In many ways this is just how the historical research process works. You go to the archives with an idea, and you find lots of stuff and you get excited, and then you get overwhelmed, and then you realize you need to focus. It was time for me to focus. After all, the backbone of this project is a scholarly book, and scholarly books have arguments.
Last year I was awarded the National Institute of Health's National Library of Medicine G13 Grant for Scholarly Works. The grant enabled me to take this spring semester off from teaching and travel to archives across Alabama and Mississippi to gather as much material as I could. My trip was cut short by the COVID19 situation, but I collected a lot of new and exciting information. Forced into isolation, I had the time and the space to really think through what I had found and to ask myself repeated questions about what it all means. The isolation also allowed me to finish revisions on a related article I have been working on for over a year. One of the questions that reviewers of that article have asked me repeatedly is “what is your argument?” When you have exciting sources, sometimes you think that just putting them together into a coherent narrative is enough. Can't you SEE what the argument is?, I hissed at Reviewer 2. Of course I knew the answer was no, because I didn’t know myself what it was. But now I do. At least, I do for now. I have more archival work to do, and I'm sure it will change again, or grow more nuanced and more complex, but right now I have a structure, and I know what material I need for each "section" (I’m not calling them chapters yet) and what I still need to collect.
Soon I hope to get back out on the road to fill in some gaps, and I still have a lot of "sourcing" to do, but for now at least I have pulled myself back from the cliff, and my road forward is clear. It's taken nearly two years to get to this point, two years of thinking and planning and searching and dreaming, two years of figuring out what’s in the cart. Now though, it's time to write. What happens after that remains to be seen.