Stephen Robertson publishes "Harlem in Disorder"

Stephen Robertson publishes "Harlem in Disorder"

Stephen Robertson, a specialist in 20th-century U.S. history and a leading scholar in the digital humanities, recently published his book, Harlem in Disorder: A Spatial History of How Racial Violence Changed in 1935Harlem in Disorder is a digital monograph published by Stanford University.

Robertson’s book focuses on the violence that took place in Harlem on the night of March 19, 1935. It was the first large-scale racial disorder in the United States in over a decade, and the fact that it took place in the nation’s leading Black neighborhood made it all the more noteworthy. Historians have, unsurprisingly, devoted a good deal of attention to it in the past, and have sought to narrate it and identify its underlying causes. Yet, as Robertson explains, it was a multifaceted event that avoids easy narration and frustrates efforts to attribute causation. With all the attention that has been paid to the causes and significance of the riots, there have been no studies that have focused on the riots themselves and attempted to unveil their full complexity.

This is the effort that Robertson has undertaken. He has done so by taking a granular approach to the riots, scrutinizing the details of every event that was linked to the riots and then using the tools of the digital humanities to analyze the data and present them to the reader. To take one example, previous studies have largely ignored the specific details about where the incidents of the riots actually occurred; even when historians have included maps, they have been static maps that have leave only the vaguest of impressions of when and where the violence occurred. By using digital tools and presenting his findings in the form of a digital (rather than print) monograph, Robertson has constructed interactive, hyperlinked maps that enable him to recapture the ebb and flow of the violence and how it changed over the course of March 19 and 20th.  

In adopting the form of a digital monograph, Robertson’s work makes full use of the digital medium in order to move beyond what would have been possible in a print medium, and in the process offers new perspectives on an important historical event that has been frequently studied but not well understood. It is appropriate that Robertson’s book was published by Stanford University Press as part of its “digital scholarship” initiative.  This initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation, has enabled the press to publish innovative, interactive works in the digital medium while conferring on them the same academic credibility that print books receive.

Reviewers of the book call it an “unprecedented accomplishment” and “a model for anyone planning to do a digital project.” Ed Ayers, one of the founding scholars in the field of digital humanities, calls Harlem in Disorder “a landmark in digital scholarship.” Ayers writes that the book, “integrat[es] remarkable research, innovative strategies, and compelling narrative,” and “portrays individuals and their complex humanity in a way never before possible.” The book is in the best tradition of scholarship produced by faculty and staff at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which Robertson directed from 2013 to 2019.