What happens when you call for new works of art across disciplines, inspired by the same digital archive? Each Moment a Mountain is a recently launched digital humanities project, “a collection of art and thought inspired by freely available digital archives.” The projects on the Each Moment a Mountain website range from poetry to audio pieces, all inspired by The Day Book August 12-18, 1912.

The founders and editors of Each Moment a Mountain, Adrienne Phelps-Coco and Pete Coco, answered our questions in summer 2012. – Laura

Can you tell us what inspired this project? How did you decide on the title, “Each Moment a Mountain”?

Adrienne: While I’m an academic historian, I find works of art that draw on historical sources incredibly inspiring. I love how artist Zoe Beloff creates cryptic video installations using historical medical films, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve listened to the Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, itself inspired by historical documents (the diary of Anne Frank). I think these works resonate so strongly because they bring an emotional immediacy to the historical sources. What they don’t capture, for better or worse, is the complexities of historical context that good scholarship really exists to capture. Both kinds of truth matter, but generally speaking they operate in entirely different spaces. But why can’t we have them in the same space?

So I thought: what if you started with a single source and asked people from different disciplines and artforms to create content inspired by it? How would the interpretation of a poet differ from the interpretation of a historian? How would a visual artist view a text differently from a scientist?

By layering together all of these different perspectives, we wanted to create a rich understanding of the past that could bridge the emotional and intellectual aspects of history.

Pete suggested that we could take advantage of the wealth of freely available archival material online if we made the project a website, and Each Moment a Mountain was born.

Pete: Not long after Adrienne pitched the collaboration, I happened to be reading a James Wright poem called “Today I Was So Happy, So I Wrote This Poem.” It’s a great poem overall, but one line drew my eye from the start: “each moment of time is a mountain.” This immediately provided a visual metaphor for what we were dreaming up. Each moment of time is impossibly, sublimely full. The point is to meditate on that, to celebrate it the way that Wright does.

What is “The Day Book”? How did you decide that this would be the first resource to prompt the creative projects and essays?

Pete: The Day Book was a newspaper published in Chicago during the 1910s, now archived online by the Library of Congress Chronicling America project.

It struck us as remarkable source for a few reasons. This paper was an experiment in publishing news in a novel format–without advertisement– for a relatively new market of readers: literate laborers or, as the publisher so presciently named them, the “95%.” Two, before he was known for his poetry, Carl Sandburg was a staff writer there. The “broad-shouldered” Chicago made iconic in Sandburg’s poetry is very often the Chicago depicted in the Day Book.

This was in the early days of the conventions we now understand as “journalistic ethics,” and generally the intention seems more to provoke a reaction in the reader than to inform him. This is art, essentially, complete with its own set of formal constraints. You can’t tell from the scans at Chronicling America, but The Day Book was printed small enough to fit in the reader’s pocket while he worked all day and the pieces tend to be really short. It seems to us that the intention was for these pieces to be read in brief moments. If you’re a day laborer, able to sneak a minute here and there for reading, these are just the sort of epigrams that would give you something to chew on while you worked.

“Quick Breakfast” by Daniel Albanese.

Adrienne: When Pete found The Day Book, I knew immediately that it was the perfect source to launch the project. As he already mentioned, most of the articles are packed so tightly that they practically require interpretation. They also hugely vary in tone, and I think that’s reflected in the submissions we’re getting. Photographer Daniel Albanese, for example, created a deadpan depiction of what one article advised readers to do if they needed a speedy breakfast: drop an egg into a hot cup of coffee. Whereas Hannah Baker-Siroty began with a bare-bones account of a man who had been beaten and turned it into a haunting poem that grapples with homophobic violence. I love that both of these works spring from the same source.

How do your respective disciplines (American history and librarianship) and interests contribute to and influence the direction of the project?

Adrienne: One of the best parts of being a historian is that you get to spend your life surrounded by amazing documents. Historians spend years piecing together arguments from fragments of evidence in primary sources, but by the time we are finished writing up our projects, the documents themselves become practically invisible. Textbooks are the most egregious example of this, of course, and one of the real challenges of being a history teacher is getting students to think beyond the narrative that their textbook is feeding them and learn to analyze history for themselves.

I love to teach students to unpack documents both for their historical significance and for the human stories that lie beneath them–who were the people who wrote these documents? what were their lives like? why should we care about them?  Answering these questions requires a great deal of interpretation–and imagination. I see Each Moment a Mountain as a similar project. We’re giving both readers and content creators a chance to get into the archive and grapple with the sources themselves. And people seem to enjoy it. This level of transparency would be impossible without open access to digital archives. If these materials were stuck behind a paywall that only users affiliated with universities could read, this project would be impossible.

Pete: Your question brings to mind an early experience I had as a librarian, when I visited the digitization lab at Illinois. This was at the height of their massive digitization efforts and seeing the scale of labor that involved firsthand was affecting. The space was full with intent workers, operating massive machinery in the fluid, repetitive motion that turns paper into bits. For all the new technology involved, these labs evoked a singular image for me: textile mills. Lowell; Lawrence; there was no mistaking that I was visiting a very modern sort of factory. Something was being made. But what?

You spend some time with the embarrassment of digital riches that these efforts have produced and you start to wonder if we’re not, culturally speaking, really reckoning with this gift. Certainly digital humanities scholars are reveling in it, building new methodologies and discourses out of this mountain (sorry) of digital material. And that’s so exciting.

But what about the rest of us?  You start to wonder how we might go about doing that.  Perhaps that is a librarian’s question.

Can you talk a little bit about your view of the future of research, art making, critical thinking, etc. – especially in the context of this project?

Adrienne: One of the ideas you can tease out from the digital humanities is the risk scholars take when we avoid engaging with the general public. And it’s not just individual careers in the humanities that we risk–though, obviously, it is very much that–but something bigger. The humanities humanize us, so what does a decline of the humanities do? There are real stakes here.

Pete: To elaborate on Adrienne’s idea, I think we’re seeing two divergent trends with research. On the one hand, the rather sudden access we have to material like what we use for Each Moment a Mountain is astounding, and something to reckon with. Unfortunately, from where I’m standing it seems like a lot more knowledge is actually getting more expensive and less accessible, and very often you have this bigger, darker trend dressing itself in the liberationist rhetoric of the smaller, hopeful trend.

So where critical thinking comes in is, increasingly, a matter of understanding the provenance and context of information. Librarians might call this “information literacy” but I mean it more broadly. What constitutes truth? What constitutes enough truth to premise action? It’s interesting how these core questions seem to have only gotten harder to answer as the tools we answer them with become more complex. In that context, it seems worthwhile to reinforce the idea that digital tools can be used for humanistic and artistic inquiry, too, because those methodologies offer their own answers.

What has the response from artists/writers been? Have you heard about their creative process, as they dig in to the source material?

Adrienne: Hugely positive! We’re really just getting started, but we’re thrilled by the range of what we’re getting. The poets are winning on raw submission count, but we’ve just gotten our first comic strip and we can’t wait to post it.

Hopes/plans for the future of the project?

Pete: Soon we’ll be featuring our first interview with Thomas Derr, a writer whose first collection of stories deals with nostalgia and memory and also happens to be one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. We think there’s an interesting conversation to be had there in the interplay between personal and public memory.

In an ideal world we could pay contributors to write for us and classroom partners to develop lesson plans and materials that use the site in their teaching. We plan to pursue grants that would allow us to do that.

Explore Each Moment a Mountain and The Day Book.

Adrienne Phelps-Coco (Editor) is a doctoral candidate in American history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pete Coco (Managing Editor) is the librarian for the humanities at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Get in touch at eachmomentamountain@gmail.com

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