Aural History on the Web: Reconstructing the Past through Sound

Welcome to Day 3 of the University Press Week Blog Tour! Today’s theme is Subject Area Spotlight. To get us started, here is our own editorial director, Gita Manaktala:

The possibilities of the web for scholarship are a major focus for MIT Press authors, who are finding newly mediated ways to teach, conduct research, present data, and engage with various publics. Such activity can provide a vital complement to the traditional publishing these scholars also find time to do. The final-form knowledge that university presses publish as books and journal articles turns out to be extensible across many dimensions.

My favorite recent example is a website called The Roaring ’Twenties, in which historian Emily Thompson and web designer Scott Mahoy present primary documents, sound recordings, and newsreel footage that Thompson gathered in the course of researching her groundbreaking 2002 book The Soundscape of Modernity. Following the book’s publication, Thompson was sometimes asked why she did not include a CD with examples of the sounds produced in the architectural spaces she described — places such as Symphony Hall in Boston and St. Thomas’s Church in New York City. The idea did not appeal to Thompson, who resisted the ahistorical nature of such a compilation. The chance to present this material in a properly historical way came along only a full decade later.

Published in the journal Vectors, The Roaring ’Twenties brings forward a huge amount of evidence to reconstitute the soundscape of New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. The site offers up complaints from New Yorkers objecting to traffic, dredging, construction, barking dogs, rattling loads, and late night dances. Alongside these complaints, Thompson and Mahoy provide responses from city officials, newspaper and magazine articles, astonishing sound recordings, and captivating newsreel clips. An ingenious structure organizes this material by sound type, location, and date. The result is a richly evocative experience that allows listeners to pick any neighborhood and hear how the soundscape evolved over time. It provides the who, what, where, and when of children playing in city pools and parks, the construction of the subway system, the clatter of dining halls, and the squealing of pigs being dropped down a slide at Coney Island. Remarkable in their own right are the scores of complaints from citizens describing how the city’s din batters their days and shatters their sleep.

The wealth of sounds now available on the web ranges from archival material to television and radio recordings to popular music, much of which is still released as album length CDs — even though it is largely acquired as tracks and experienced in shuffle. As Thompson points out, and as Damon Krukowski discusses in a thoughtful piece for Pitchfork, what is lost in all of this sonic abundance is any sense of context for what we are hearing. Digital delivery has given us a pick-and-mix economy that deracinates as it disaggregates.

The Roaring ’Twenties shows us how much there is to be gained by re-historicizing sound. Evoking the sonic culture of the past in a way that is both interactive and powerfully informative, it invites us to listen and learn.

I asked Thompson some questions about the project. Here are her answers.

How do you see this site in relation to your book, The Soundscape of Modernity? Clearly each project can stand alone, but they do seem complementary.

This website was an opportunity to return to material I had previously worked out and worked up in more traditional ways in my Soundscape book, and to think about how a new means of presentation could engender a different kind of intellectual product out of that material. I think each mode has its pros and cons, but I’ll leave it to the readers and users to decide which they prefer and how the lessons differ.

How did you come to develop this site? How long did it take? What was particularly enjoyable about the process, and what was challenging?

When working on my Soundscape book, I had always thought it would be interesting to map the hundreds of noise complaints I had encountered at New York City’s Municipal Archive. Shortly after my book was published I learned about the Fox Movietone Archive at the University of South Carolina, and I immediately thought it would be great fun to mine that collection to see what kinds of city noises I could document via these historical recordings. Many years later, when I was generously invited by Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson at Vectors to propose a web-based project about sound, these two ideas came together. They liked my proposal and matched me up with Scott Mahoy, who had the design and coding expertise to turn it into a reality (offering many improvements over my original ideas along the way). It took the two of us about three years to complete it.  As a former engineer with a bit of art school in my background, I really enjoyed building the structure and designing the visual aspects of the site with Scott. I also became enamored over time of writing lots of small isolated pieces of prose, although it hasn’t yet convinced me to open a Twitter account!  Browser compatibility and unstable font sizes were particular longstanding challenges I’m very glad are finally behind us.  Also, Scott and I worked with three thousand miles between us at all times. In spite of the so-called everywhere-ness of the digital realm, I think that human collaborations are probably best accomplished via physical proximity.

Who is the audience for the project? How do you envision its uses?

We really wanted to reach two audiences simultaneously with this project, and we hope these different kinds of users can each construct rewarding experiences out of what we have built. First is the scholarly audience; historians and others working in Sound Studies who think about sound and who are now taking advantage of the rich resources of historical sound recordings increasingly available on the web.  For these users, we wanted to challenge them to find a historically minded way to listen, to recontextualize the usually decontextualized audio content one typically encounters on the web. Second, we wanted the site to offer something to the history buff, the amateur, the interested person who perhaps grew up in New York City or who lives there now. For these people, we wanted the site to appeal in a more subjective mode, reaching out and drawing them in but still offering lessons from the past to inform the present, and not simply a high-tech package of old-time nostalgia.

What advice would you give to scholars (especially historians) undertaking digital projects of this type?

Let the technology serve you and not vice-versa. Think hard about who you want to reach and how best to reach them, and then deploy a design that will enable an experience that guides your user along the kinds of journeys you hope they will take. Think in layers, so that those who want to delve more deeply can, but those who don’t will not be put off. Understand that it will all take much longer than you think, and six months more than that.

How should such projects sit alongside more traditional narrative histories?

As you say, alongside each other is how they should sit. Traditional narrative has an important role in academic scholarship, teaching, and public outreach, and a well-crafted argument or story will always be something to cherish, as it has been for thousands of years. In some cases, however, presenting a framework of material through which people can configure their own relationships to your content will make sense, and here the web might be the medium of choice.