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Response to Review of Digital Harlem: Everyday Life 1915-1930

I would like to thank Nicholas Grant for his engaged and generous review. I need first to give credit to the technical team who built Digital Harlem: Damien Evans, Ian Johnson and Andrew Wilson of the soon to be disbanded Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney. It is particularly pleasing that the review is framed in terms of using website to pursue Grant’s own interests, which captures and foregrounds the interactive and dynamic nature of Digital Harlem as well as the new perspectives that it offers on Harlem as a place. It is also pleasing that Grant included the blog and our published scholarship in his review, as they constitute part of the project and provide context and concrete examples of what can be learnt by pursuing answers to the questions raised by the website. Anyone interested in additional insight into the impact of the website on my own perspective on Harlem should read my article ‘Putting Harlem on the map’, in the online edition of Writing History in a Digital Age (2012).

The one weakness that Grant points to in Digital Harlem is that it lacks a crowd-sourcing programme that would open it up to contributions from a community of researchers. It has always been our intention to do just that, but crowdsourcing is a project in its own right, and one that requires an audience beyond that we have attracted to date, notwithstanding the awards and other publicity that the website has won. I would hope that Digital Harlem has the impact that Grant thinks is inevitable, but there is little evidence that it has done so to date. Analytics suggest very few users spend enough time on the website to explore it in the way that the reviewer did, and few of the greater number who visit the blog go on to the website (anyone interested in details can consult the slides from my presentation at the Data – Method – Asset workshop at the University of Nottingham in January 2012). And those who do use the website and blog do not let us know that they have done so – which is why I was thrilled to read Grant’s anecdote about local children using the website in the Schomberg branch of the NYPL for a school project. There is clearly more we can do to frame the website in ways that make it more accessible to students and other audiences, and draw a crowd that we could involve as contributors. I appreciate the review for bringing the website to the attention of another one of the crowds that  exist online. That the review likely had its origins in my visit to the IHR in January 2013 is a reminder that even in the digital age, physically appearing in front of people remains crucial to directing their attention to a digital project.