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September 12, 2012 – A digital dissertation prototype

September 12, 2012 | By | No Comments

What would it be like to build an online digital repository that could be updated with archival and ethnographic sources as you found them? Could be used as a platform to experiment with digital publishing and collaborative, international research? I have built a prototype digital dissertation chapter to help answer these questions as I enter my fieldwork in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I am traveling to Argentina to investigate Boca Júniors’s Ciudad Deportiva, a mix between a stadium complex and amusement park built over seven artificial islands on sixty hectares of land filled in the Rio de la Plata. Besides an enormous 140,000-seat stadium and various athletic facilities, the project was to include mini-golf, mechanical rides for children, an aquarium built as a giant fish, and a drive-in movie theatre for five hundred cars. This project combined public and private funds, embodying a new vision of middle-class consumption that fit into city planner’s designs for a modern city with ample leisure space. A combination of poor engineering, financial mismanagement, and political disputes ensured that the ambitious plans started in 1965 would be largely abandoned by the 1978 World Cup deadline.

I built my KORA project around the research I have conducted on the Ciudad Deportiva over two summer pre-dissertation trips to Buenos Aires. The finished project,, is a prototype for a digital dissertation on the Ciudad Deportiva. The functioning chapter features an essay on the Ciudad Deportiva and a ‘related content’ sidebar populated by sources ingested into KORA, an open-source, database-driven, online digital repository application for complex multimedia objects (text, images, audio, video) created by MATRIX.

A few details on what you are looking at in the Ciudad Deportiva chapter: the essay itself, the records listed under related content, and the preview images linked to those objects are all separately ingested files organized into three categories in my KORA database. The KORA records are being called via php into an open source HTML/CSS framework, or ‘front-end’, developed by folks at Twitter called Bootstrap. A javascript thumbnail vieiwer handles the image previews that allow you to browse the sources without entering the full record view.

The essay is a version of a conference paper that I selected for its conversational tone and level of detail. I wanted the ‘wall of text’ that users sometimes confront when long-form arguments are ported into webpages to be a bit more accessible. To that end, I included images within the text itself and have plans to include pull quotes in the future. I want to use this space to play with the stylistic and compositional elements of what Yoni Applebaum has called “practicing the art of the essay in the digital space.” Dan Cohen sparked a fascinating conversation with his ruminations on ‘the blessay’, and it’s a conversation I want to continue through practice in my project. While the above conversation centered on something best described as ‘intellectual journalism’, my own project aims at developing a set of traits best suited to presenting something like an anthrohistory field journal and source repository in a compelling, accessible way conducive to actually getting my investigation done.

The significance of my project in the long-term may rest squarely on these questions of methods, workflows, and access. What does this digital repository enable that otherwise would not be feasible in my dissertation? First, it establishes a workflow that calls for scholarly analysis of sources at the point of their digitization or observation. To be clear, Zotero is my primary form of data collection as it enables me to quickly organize and annotate sources as I digitize them in the archive. However, my digital repository will serve as a field journal into which I can ingest the objects and analysis that drive my narrative or relate to my theoretical framework on, say, a weekly basis.

Second, it makes my evolving digital dissertation accessible to my colleagues and research participants. This works against the image of the historian as the lone wolf in the archive, poring over their books and primary sources to emerge years later with the polished gem of the dissertation or monograph. I have worked to cultivate a scholarly audience beyond my committee by creating and by working with my Argentine colleagues at the Centro de Estudios del Deporte. These audiences will be a crucial in keeping the interdisciplinary and international at constant play in my research.

Finally, the publishing end of my repository will encourage me to produce accessible scholarly analysis in the form of digital essays that will need to be reconfigured as my research evolves. As I conduct oral histories and work with archivists, I will be able to direct them to a digital publication that explains what I am doing in detail.


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