Skip to main content

Keystone DH Reflection: Historic Houses and Literature as a Physical Space

3 min read

Funnily enough, both conferences that I went to wound up discussing historic house museums. In the morning, I attend the Digital Studies panel, where Chelsea Gunn gave a presentation about archiving born digital materials and the technology on which they were created, discussing the challenges involved in archiving something like Susan Sontag’s personal computer. On the one hand, archivists want to preserve as much of the original experience as possible for users when they interact with the machine via a model or interface, but on the other, modern users have different wants and needs. Gunn noted that often, the models will have authentically slow processing speeds, which both adds to the experience and makes doing whatever research you are trying to do much harder and more time consuming. But part of what researchers or just casual and curious patrons might be interested in involves the machine on which the documents are stored. It is not just about accessing Susan Sontag’s emails, it is about using her computer to do so. That computer is not valuable because it is the only one left in that make and model-- it isn’t. It is valuable because she lived in it and used it.

My afternoon session was about temporality, but of course, when discussing temporality, we also wound up discussing space. Jim McGrath discussed using augmented reality to create a house tour of a historic house that is part of the University of Brown’s campus, explaining the ways that visitors and tourists can interact with objects in the house virtually while also interacting with them physically. The very existence of that house struck a chord with me in relation to my marginalia project, as it is both museum-like, with self-guided tours available on this Neatline program, and also a working office space. It is observed and appreciated but also used. McGrath made a throw away comment at the beginning about how when he first started working in his office in that building, he was afraid to touch anything, with the implication being that now he has gotten used to it and treats it like any other office. Thinking about that in the context of the rare books in Kislak is strange and interesting, for on the one hand, these books can also be used, functioning as both literary history artifacts and pieces of literature (outside of time). But on the other hand, they can’t REALLY be used. They can only be looked at. Presumably, McGrath does at his desk what he would do at any desk. If a pen explodes, it gets ink on it. If he spills a cup of coffee, it might get wet. He uses his desk. He doesn’t just look at it.

But what really struck me about McGrath’s presentation was a series of photos he included at the end, collages made by a student which melded twenty first century photos with black and white photos of the building’s past inhabitants. One in particular depicted a family standing in the parlor taking a wedding photo. It seemed almost ghostly, having them in the middle of the full color photograph, like they have left traces of themselves behind. But it reminded me of the way that I view marginalia. Marginalia, too, is almost ghostly: a physical trace of a person’s existence. When the body is gone, what is left? Some might say ghosts. Others, marginalia.