October 2, 2013

alt-ac / career / work

Reading time:
7 min. | 1315 words

A few weeks ago my colleague Mike Widner wrote a post about his alt-ac life here at Stanford, and his post inspired me to do the same. I’ve been working as an alt-ac full time now for roughly a year, having started at Stanford in January. As we kick off the Fall Quarter, I already have a full plate of projects or planned projects that I contribute to regularly.

Geography of the Post

Started in March this year as a way to teach myself D3.js, Cameron Blevins and I are collaborating on a project to map 12,000 points of data into an interactive visualization. Cameron is studying the spread of post offices in to the American West as a way to understand the process of the government reaching into the region over the course of the century, how these changes reshaped conceptions of space and place, and the operation of a national system of information. One way to understand this process is to examine the operations of the post offices over time: where they were, when they opened, when they closed and/or re-opened, and so on. To that end, Geography of the Post is our first attempt to map these processes in an interactive way that allows Cameron to ask questions otherwise difficult to query without the aid of visualization.

The project is not yet live so I can’t point you the full project, but here’s a teaser:

Geography of the Post

We’ve been aided by a couple of amazing undergraduate research assistants, whose ideas and programming skills have added greatly to the project’s current shape. I’m generally enthralled by how D3 can be used in visualizations and I look forward to using it in further research projects.

Chinese Railroad Workers Digital Archive

Under the directorship of Prof. Gordon Chang (History) and Prof. Shelly Fisher Fishkin (English), the Chinese Railroad Workers project is seeking to digitize material related to Chinese laborers and the construction of railroads in the American West. Thousands of Chinese laborers worked on the railroads in North America, but to date very little of the historiography on railroads has dealt with their involvement. Part of this neglect stems from a lack of information, which is incredibly rare and hard to come by in the source material. The project seeks to rectify this by collecting the material in a single place that will be accessible to researchers.

The CRRW project has led to collaborate with others at Stanford University Libraries, primarily Mike Widner and Jacque Hettel, who have been instrumental in helping the project move forward. Especially useful was a custom implementation of Bibliopedia – under development by Mike – to help organize metadata for the archival material. As more and more material is digitize and catalogued, our conversation will soon be moving to building a digital interface to browse, query, and explore the archival material. In the meantime, the project team maintains a blog that provides a teaser for information about the projects, the sorts of digital material they’re collecting, and information about the project team.

African Archives

A few years ago, Prof. Richard Roberts and collaborators at the Center for African Studies at Stanford University, the Department of History and Geography in Faculté des Sciences et Technologies de l’Education et de la Formation (FASTEF), Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD), and other faculty members and researchers began digitizing indigenous personnel records of the colonial administration in Senegal. Working with Jacque Hettel, we are in the process of planning a new interface that will allow researchers to explore the material in more robust ways by querying by date, gender, occupation, and so on.

African Archives and CRRW have taken advantage of my own background in digital archives, and much of my work has been part consultant and part project manager. As the projects grow, I hope we can expand our conversations to other institutions and the DPLA so material can be made widely available. I’ve had the added benefit of working with Jacque, who had also served as a project manager before joining Stanford around the same time I did, and learning ideas from her about projects and library technology for creating digital archives.

Digital History at Stanford

As part of my general effort to build up and promote Digital History in the department, I am using websites, blogs, and Twitter to showcase digital projects within the department as well as offering courses and workshops in digital methods. Over the last six months, more and more of my work has led me towards geovisualizations (which has been a very satisfying development), but I maintain enough knowledge of other visualization tools to introduce researchers to a variety of methods. To that end, I’m starting a workshop series titled Doing Digital History that seeks to introduce historians to a variety of methods in digital humanities research. I am also planning to teach an introductory digital history course for undergraduate and graduate students in the upcoming year. Digital History at Stanford helps to support research agendas, conceptualize potential research projects, and publish and promote work. The site is still under development, but will be announced soon.

Part of a more general effort has been the promotion of digital humanities at Stanford, which a group of us are pushing to make more concrete. There’s been a realization that many people around Stanford do what we could consider DH, and we’re attempting to draw these disparate branches together so we can work together and learn from each other. Bay Area DH has emerged as another way for us to begin reaching out beyond our institution and take advantage of those in the area who are doing similar work. I also appreciate the re-establishment of our DH Reading Group that gives us all an excuse to read the latest work in the field, sit down over lunch, and chat about the work.

Chinese Philosophical Texts

Prof. Mark Lewis approached me before summer about putting his textbook on Chinese philosophical texts online for self-study. We worked together to set up a Commentpress installation that allowed him to make granular comments on individual paragraphs as well as present the book to readers online. The project recently went live and is being used in his course during the Fall Quarter.

My work on the project has been a systems administrator, database administrator, web designer, and instructional designer as we think about how the book can best serve students. Tasks have included setting up the web space for the project, installing WordPress and the appropriate plugins and themes, getting a vanity URL to make sharing the project easier, migrating the Word document content into WordPress, and training Prof. Lewis on how to use WordPress. The annotations that Prof. Lewis creates allows him to enrich particularities in the text. In this case, the work was technical but fairly straightforward and easy to get up and running quickly.


These projects don’t encompass all of my work at Stanford, but I think give a sense of the sort of things I work on. Like Mike, I find the variety of my work one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I can spend my time writing code (JavaScript and D3 often, these days), writing prose (blog posts, articles, chapters), planning workshops and classes, consulting with faculty and students, and conducting research. Although I wish I had more time to devote to the dissertation research (don’t we all?), I am doing the kind of things I had hoped to do after graduate school.1 I have the occasion to work with smart and energetic and creative scholars, and to collaborate on research projects that will help create new knowledge.

  1. My added benefit of working in the Bay Area is that my research material is here, and has made research trips much easier. Although I wish I had the time, I’m thankful to be in the place/space of my research. [return]
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Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.