Telling New Digital Stories: Joanne Bernardi’s Re-Envisioning Japan Project

Telling New Digital Stories: Joanne Bernardi’s Re-Envisioning Japan Project

March 14, 2016

In the decades before and during the Second World War, the Japanese government worked to portray Japan as an appealing destination for Western tourists. The outcome was a plethora of brochures, postcards, guidebooks, and educational films whose purpose was to paint Japan as an exotic yet welcoming place for foreign visitors.

Joanne Bernardi, Associate Professor of Japanese, started collecting these objects in order to use them in her Japanese and film studies classes. As her collection kept growing, Bernardi sought new venues that would allow her to preserve it and make it more accessible to both her students and to scholars who might be interested in what it had to offer. Digitizing the collection and making the items that constitute it available online seemed like the best way of achieving that goal. The result is Re-Envisioning Japan, a digital collection of Japanese tourism promotional materials, of which Bernardi serves as Author and General Editor.

The digitization of the collection started in 2011 with the support of River Campus Libraries' staff. Nora Dimmock, Assistant Dean for Information Technology, Research & Digital Scholarship, provided Bernardi with digital project management support. Lisa Wright, Analyst/Programmer, Digital Humanities, Research, and Data Services, and her group of student workers managed the transformation of objects into digital assets. And Josh Romphf, Digital Humanities Programmer, Digital Humanities, Research, and Data Services, led the website development and design.

Apart from the convenience it offers in terms of management and accessibility, digitizing her collection also allowed Bernardi to view it in a new way, which, in turn, introduced new research questions. "Digital projects" she notes, "let us get granular about researching the past and understanding the past because it enables us to look more closely at individual experiences." "Most of the objects in my collection would have probably not made it into a museum," she admits, "but by making them digitally available, I present competing stories that depart from the notion of history as consisting of a unified monolithic narrative."

Re-Envisioning Japan not only brought up interesting research questions, but also made Bernardi think differently about teaching. "Digital humanities blur the line between teaching and research," she says. "You almost always use the project for both purposes because of the intense amount of work that goes into it." It often feels to her like her students participate in her research since any change she makes to the project inevitably finds its way into the classroom. "My students' reactions to the project," she says, "literally help shape it."

"But probably one of the most exciting things about digitization," she says, "is how it allowed me to put the objects in my collection in context." "In many respects," she adds, "this collection did not completely make sense to me until I saw it online." Examining objects in a digital environment, she asserts, "helps you think about things and see them in a different way." As she notes, "changing the context in which you situate objects allow them to tell a story you did not know they could tell. And since working digitally makes it quite easy to change an object's context, the number of stories they could potentially tell is endless."

You can visit Re-Envisioning Japan here.

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