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Me a Digital Humanist?: From Photocopies to Compiling Spanish Hemerographies

This is the story of the author's first introduction into technology for research in 1961 and then across the decades as she learns to compile data first in Pro-Cite (now defunct) and presently Endnote, with misadventures along the way.

Published onJan 10, 2024
Me a Digital Humanist?: From Photocopies to Compiling Spanish Hemerographies

My first encounter with modern technology happened in 1961 when I was 11 years old. I had a paper due for a junior high history class and I needed to look at a book that I thought might be found at the Tenafly Public Library in Tenafly, New Jersey, where I didn’t have a library card. One Saturday, I badgered my Dad into driving me there from our nearby home town. After leaving me at the library door, he drove off to do some shopping, saying he would return in two hours. I found the book, sat down to start taking notes frantically since I knew my Dad would be in no mood to extend my time, and soon noticed a librarian take a book, turn it upside down and walk away with the book and a sheet of paper. Intrigued, I approached her and asked her what she had done. I had just found two whole pages I needed for my paper, and my time was running out. She walked me over to the library’s first photocopy machine to demonstrate. First, she scanned a page and then put the result through again using a thin, shiny, pink sheet. A final copy shot out to the side. Then she copied the next page the same way. The copies stank of chemicals, but they were my copies nonetheless! Awestruck, I retrieved my book and paid a dime each for the photocopies, just as my Dad was pulling up to the curb. 

On the trip home, I excitedly told my Dad he needed to buy Xerox shares immediately because this was an incredible invention that was going to change the world. I knew Xerox shares were selling at $10 a share because in my social studies class we were learning about the Stock Market, and I had serendipitously picked Xerox Corporation to follow before my trip to the Tenafly Public Library. My Dad tut-tutted, shaking his head, and commented in his New York way, “It’ll never last. It will put all the secretaries out of work.” 

No, he never did buy any Xerox shares—just think if he had! Though I was still typing on my mother’s 1940s Remington typewriter that dropped the letter h below the line, I became the Xerox Queen through high school, college and grad school. I have seven-four-drawer filing cabinets jam-packed with photocopied data to prove it! 

The arrival of color TV was thrilling but, in 1968, we high school seniors were all agog because a computer company had us complete surveys that then generated punch cards to tell us who our perfect matches were at the school. Apparently, I was pickier than most girls since I only had two matches: the dishy Valedictorian and the Salutatorian, who unfortunately completely ignored me at the dance hosted by the computer company. It was still an intriguing idea, and nowadays we have dozens if not hundreds of matchmaking websites. I still have my punch-card from 1968 and nostalgically dream of what might have been. Nevertheless, I’m glad I skipped the step of compiling my data on punch-cards.

These were my first adventures into what has gradually morphed into digital humanities.

In 1972, I became my own computer by creating filing cards for a nineteenth century Spanish theater class at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities where I was studying for my MA in Spanish literature. What started as a semester project evolved first into my MA thesis and much later, at the University of California-Santa Barbara, my Ph.D. dissertation. I had discovered unindexed or poorly indexed nineteenth century and early twentieth century serials concerning Spanish theater at the University of Minnesota and later in the University of California system. They were often unpaginated as well as unindexed. Then again, surprised by the amount of material on women as I looked for theater citations, I began to create a separate women’s hemerography. As a result, I had dozens of file draws overflowing with filing cards, the majority handwritten or typed on a portable typewriter I had bought in Spain during my year abroad.

However, what was I to do if a reference could go under a dozen different categories or more? At first, I made carbon copies, but that only worked if 1-2 copies were needed. Then, I graduated to photocopying the multiples at the very first Kinko’s ever in downtown Santa Barbara, California! I was the computer and placed a citation copy under each heading after numbering the first (or most important) occurrence and repeating that same number under the other headings.

In 1985, everything changed dramatically. I bought my first Macintosh, small square floppy disks (that weren’t at all floppy), and the bibliographic program Pro-Cite soon thereafter. Fields! A Keyword field to list all the possible places a citation could go without having to make duplicates! Automatic alphabetization! And I could go back and make corrections and add information anywhere! Compiling a 500-page bibliography was a breeze. It really was the revolution. It had taken me years to write my doctoral dissertation but half the time to finish editing the text in Microsoft Word version 2, tables, illustrations, and indices, though each new paragraph had to be formatted from scratch. I finished my thesis and graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1987.

In 1991, during the move from San Diego State University to the University of Texas at San Antonio, the movers lost one of my file drawers of some 2500 filing cards of raw data that had not yet been input into Pro-Cite. While this was catastrophic, I determined to go back and check every title on the list of thirty Spanish serials I had already analyzed to recover the missing items. It took me a decade to do the majority, but I did it. I still have some periodical runs to re-check at present. Nuevo Mundo 1930-1933; Blanco y Negro 1919-1936; Mundo Gráfico 1913-1936. Printed originals, microfiches, microfilm rolls and now online access—I’ve used them all along the way.

Pro-Cite was a wonderful bibliographic compiler but it had one critical drawback. On export, it always deleted four citations, but never the same four citations! I wrote to the company, and their engineers promised a fix, but it was never to be. Endnote, then owned by Reuters, bought Pro-Cite circa 2000 and allowed it to die. It has not been upgraded since 2003, though it is still available on-line and people, especially in other countries, appear to be using it still for small library cataloguing.

Then, in 2003, the unthinkable happened to me—again. While I was contemplating the possible conversion to Endnote, given that Pro-Cite would no longer be supported, my Macintosh 7500’s internal hard drive containing my multiple databases crashed and died. I desperately tried to remember when I had last backed them up. It had been at least a week, maybe longer. With a new hard drive in place, I reconstructed my databases from the only back-up copy I could find. I lost all of my new journal items for Nuevo Mundo 1929, but luckily still had the filing cards tucked away to reconstruct them. Yet I still don’t know if other data was lost.

However, this event proved so deeply shocking to me personally that I walked away for eight years and worked on unrelated projects, especially digital video, a filmmaking program I founded at the University of Texas at San Antonio that year with my department’s blessing. I founded my own production company, Point at the Moon Productions, Inc, in 2005 and I premiered my first feature film, Portrait in Sepia Tone, in 2008 that won Best Picture and Best Soundtrack at a film festival in England. But that’s another story.

In 2011, I contacted Endnote, now owned by Clarivate, to help me convert some of my databases, though possibly damaged, from Pro-Cite to Endnote. Then, as my book projects became paramount in the 2010 decade, I had no time to see what could be done to salvage the rest of my databases.

During my year-long medical leave in 2021, I re-kindled my interest in finishing my databases in Endnote for which I have been gathering information for the last 50 years. I thought the Women’s Hemerography 1837-1938 (16K items, with a third annotated) was getting close to being done when I discovered last June that when Clarivate converted my databases in 2011 (8 years after the catastrophic hard drive crash) and in again in 2021, all italics had been removed within citations and worse, abstracts had been randomly deleted. It has taken me months to check thousands of citations against the last printed version of the database from 2003 and restore the missing abstracts and the italics where appropriate. I have one more print-out (for Blanco y Negro) to verify with the database as of this writing. 

My second most important database is a Spanish Theater Hemerography 1837-1938 (10K with several thousand items yet to be harvested from the Women’s database) that needs to have the keywords completed, the position of the date changed in each record, and the new items added. A smaller database, Hemerography of Cinema 1895-1938, is also in progress with the same needs. I also maintain a Women in the Hemerography (5700 names) and a separate database of Spanish Theater Actors and Impresarios, and a database of Film actors, Directors et al. All my databases require intense manual labor and maintenance as well as additional research. I am grateful to the Clarivate engineers who created a modified Modern Language Association style for me that includes the Abstract field, which MLA style normally does not. I do not use other styles such as Chicago or APA because all the lower-case letters in the title field are automatically converted to capitals by these styles, a glaring English-language bias, and/or the author names are truncated to initials, which is very undesirable when writing female authors, artists, artisans, and musicians back into history.

Lately, I’ve been working with Clarivate engineers to improve how foreign languages, especially Spanish, the language I work in, are handled by Endnote. Alphabetization is a nightmare. Presently, any accented vowel or Spanish ñ or French ç in a keyword will send the item to the end of the alphabet, instead of ignoring it. Endnote 21, the newest version, still demonstrates this flaw. 

I have had to invent workarounds because Endnote places single Spanish surnames after double surnames instead of before. I solved this by adding a pound sign (#) as a second surname to the singles. I have had to put a “z” between the Spanish double RR and use triple “n” to represent the Spanish ñ to make sure the Author field and the Keyword field alphabetize better. I’ve had to remove all the accents in the Author and Keyword fields or the words won’t alphabetize correctly in Spanish on output. 

And yes, when the databases are laid off, I’ll have to restore ALL those accents, delete the pound signs, and reduce “rzr” to double RR. I’ll be able to do most of the latter with a Global Find and Replace, but not all. I have a list of a hundred pages of words to remind me which accents to restore. Clarivate has corroborated the glitches I’ve identified and has promised to fix them in the next product release. 

Anonymous citations are a problem because the Endnote program sends them to the head of the alphabet instead of integrating them alphabetically by title. My workaround is to repeat the first few words of the title in the Author field. Originally, I had planned to remove these after export, but there are just too many of them.

The greatest drawback to Endnote, besides its throttling, English-language bias, is its inability to renumber database records. This means that on export, an item with multiple keywords will repeat the entire citation after every keyword instead of referring to the record number of first occurrence. I hope there is a solution because I don’t relish a 50,000-page layoff of the Women’s Hemerography when the base is only 7,000 pages. And consider, if you would, that Endnote is the best bibliographic compiler out there! Unfortunately, Clarivate is more interested in helping students write research papers than aiding bibliographers of primary sources like me.

In sum, even with all the setbacks I’ve experienced over the years, the incredible thing is that the citations I’ve compiled digitally still exist after 40 years and are editable in Endnote and exportable to Word. In time, I hope Clarivate will address my concerns. Moreover, during my academic career I’ve written numerous papers by drawing on information compiled in my databases. In addition, I’m translating my Ph.D. dissertation into Spanish and updating it for publication in Spain by using the text I meticulously formatted paragraph by paragraph in Microsoft Word 2 in 1986. 

What a surprise it was to discover that I’ve been a digital humanist avant la lettre for the last 60 years and didn’t even know it! I am pleased to have been invited to this ADSA conference.

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