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Introductory Post for HIST 689

This is my third class in the Digital Public Humanities certificate program at George Mason. I enjoyed the foundation in digital humanities that the previous two courses created. For me, my foundation was also helped by attending both Rebuilding the Portfolio: DH for Art Historians through the Center for History and New Media with funding from the Getty Foundation and the Digital Humanities Institute for Mid-Career Librarians through the University of Rochester and Council on Library and Information Resources and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

My interest in digital humanities began when I started the artists’ books collection at George Mason University almost seven years ago while working as the Art & Art History Librarian. A creative writing professor asked the library to subscribe to the Journal of Artists’ Books, but the English Librarian was not familiar with the publication and asked me about it. We realized that classes about artists’ books were being taught in both English and Art and decided that the library needed to create a teaching collection for faculty and students as well as the community. The books are held in Special Collections for preservation reasons, and all of the titles are listed in the library catalog. However, the books were still not easy to access so we started talking about digitizing the collection. This actually led to incorporating digital humanities tools. We had started by collecting local artists but expanded to a global focus, which inspired us to looking at mapping tools like Google Fusion, the Geolocation Plugin in Omeka, and StoryMap from the Knights Foundation. The original intention what to show the breadth of the collection, but it actually became a collection development tool by showing gaps that needed to be filled in. These books are often collaborative in nature so we also started looking at social networking tools, again using Google Fusion. We wanted to see the connections that developed in this particular community.

In my new position as the Arts & Architecture Librarian at UNC-Charlotte, I am starting an artists’ books collection focused on North Carolina. I intend to incorporate digital humanities tools into the presentation of this collection as well. In particular, this course will help me to integrate teaching and learning  methodologies into this project. In general, digital humanities has become a bigger component of my job as a subject/liaison librarian in the arts and humanities. This is on trend with the growing push for librarians to become more involved in areas like DH, Big Data, data visualization, etc.

My original academic background is in art history (specifically Victorian art and design history), and I have a master’s in art history from Florida State. I then earned a master’s in library science from UNC-Chapel Hill, and I have worked in libraries for over 12 years.

Final Class Post

The assignments and final project, especially, challenged both my understanding of  digital humanities and my technical skills. I enjoyed the more specific focus on digital public history because this narrower lens helped me to understand the benefits and difficulties of digital humanities. By examining the topic on a smaller scale, the focus seemed more manageable and clear.

However, I will admit that the focus on public history also took me out of my comfort zone. Even though my undergraduate degree includes history, I have focused more on art history and studio arts. This focus on public history forced me to think about institutions, such as museums, in a different way. I began to concentrate more and more on reaching out to the individual and seeing history museums and websites as part of a storytelling process.

The inclusion of readings about museums and galleries was especially helpful for me coming from the areas of art history and fine arts. This familiar territory helped me to connect to the discussion of public history museums and understand their goals and their “product.”

In the readings, it was interesting to see some of the same terms used to represent ideas and vice versa. As a librarian, I have worked with faculty on information literacy. Even though we all want the students to think more critically about the information they are consuming, I’ve learned that we often use different terms. In turn, the readings showed about the same term can have different meanings such as curation and curate.

Even though I worked with Omeka in the previous class and a little bit in my previous position at George Mason University Libraries, this project allowed me to dive into the tool and see how it can be used to reach an intended audience. On a practical level, this project let me use plugins and other back-end coding to make the website gather and represent the information in the way that I wanted. There was satisfaction when I finally got the Flickr and Zotero plugins to work.

However, it was not simply about the tool. It was also how the tool could be used to accomplish my goals. I had defined the audiences I wanted to reach, and I was able to use the Omeka in a way that could engage these groups. As the project progressed, my audiences became clearer. I knew I wanted to reach about to artists (visual artists and creative writers/poets) who would be interested in the intentions of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project. Part of this focus included artists/writers who are also educators. Omeka allowed me to reach out to this group, potentially engage them in collaboration, and provide historical context. As with similar project, creating the metadata also forced me to think about my audience and my goals for the project.

User Research Findings

Technology

Both personas (college student and art teacher) considered themselves to be tech savvy. Technology is a large component for their professional and social activities. However, the college student is more attached to her electronic devices throughout the day. She even joked about taking her iPhone to the bathroom. In terms of what platforms they are  using, it was interesting to see that they both use Instagram and Facebook to varying degrees. The teacher is more active on Facebook since she uses it to connect with friends, other teachers and artists, and to promote her work (e.g. exhibits, workshops). The college student uses Facebook, but it is not her primary social media platform. Both are frequent users of the more visually-focused platform Instagram. This makes sense looking at data that shows its popularity among college-age users and considering its applications for sharing art images. One strong deviation was the college student’s use of Snapchat which the teacher did not use at all. This led to to thinking about how to present the online material for my project. One, I want to make sure that the content is viewable on a variety of electronics (smartphones, tablets, websites) and on different makes (Mac vs Pc, iPhone vs Android). It also made me think that I need to promoted the project using a variety of outlets, such as Facebook and Instagram, to reach a wider audience. It was also interesting that neither one mentioned the text-based Twitter. However, there are other personas/groups who would be interested in the project and frequently use Twitter.

Goals/Daily Narratives

The two interviewees are clearly at different places in their lives. The college student has not declared a major yet and is still trying to decide what she wants to do post-graduation. Her main professional goals are getting good grades and graduating. However, she seems to be slowly learning that the entire end goal is not the grade. It is also about learning and how that can affect how you see the world.

In contrast, the teacher is more established with a career beyond graduation. She is married, works as a teacher, and is a practicing artist. She has more established and farther reaching social networks. I was surmise she also has a stronger sense of self and clearer vision for where she see herself in the future. One of her mottos is “non-toxic living.”

Both women consider themselves as liberal-leaning. They share political viewpoints and activities in their social media platforms. These views were, in part, shaped by their upbringings, but they are sometimes in contrast with their friends/peer groups. Despite potential conflict, they adhere to their viewpoints and maintain these relationships. Their viewpoints lead me to believe they would be open to the subject matter of the project which focuses on terrorism in the Middle East and Muslims as the victims.

Reflections on Course

I was familiar with some of the concepts and tools of digital humanities prior to the class because of attending the programs Rebuilding the Portfolio: DH for Art Historians and the Digital Humanities Institute for Mid-Career Librarians. However, this class offered the opportunity to delve into the subject on a much deeper level. I was able to go beyond a superficial definition of DH with the assigned readings. The list provided a variety of viewpoints about what it means to work in digital humanities and how it can effect/enhance humanities scholarship.

I appreciated that the modules were set up in a way that prevents bouncing between readings and assignments. Not only did the assignments build on the readings, but each activity built on the previous one. Originally, I found myself wanting to jump around more but understanding the intentions for this order helped me to appreciate it.

Two of the modules that presented the greatest challenges were the modules dealing with metadata and copyright. As a librarian, I greatly appreciate the value of metadata with its clear organization and standardized vocabulary. However, as a liaison librarian it is not something I have had to due in my position until recently. In starting to digitize the artists’ books collection at my previous institution (George Mason University Libraries) and now building a collection at my current one (UNC-Charlotte University Library), the organization of metadata is increasingly relevant. It can be an overwhelming task, but the course readings and activities served to reinforce the need for it. It also reinforced the need to clear and consistent tags, which is something I haven’t paid as much attention to in the past.

I have studies copyright in terms of printed materials, especially as a graduate student working with a rare book collection. However, dealing with digital materials presents much more complicated issues (for something that was already complicated). The readings and activities definitely helped, but introductory/simplified videos would also be extremely beneficial when viewed in conjunction with these.

In general, the integration of videos into the course (e.g. from practitioners, scholars) is incredibly valuable. I found it reinforced the readings and added a personal level to the projects. An introductory video to each module would also be useful. I remember in a previous EDIT course, I would continually review the professor’s video when using tools like GIMP for image editing since they were new to me.

I appreciated being able to try a variety of DH tools in a “safe space” to get a feel for what is out there and what is feasible or viable for our research. I especially enjoyed the introduction to Carto since I have been focusing on mapping tools while working with artists’ books. It was beneficial to use tools outside of Omeka since I won’t necessarily be working with this platform with every project.

One of the modules that stood out to me was the one on crowdsourcing (or community sourcing). This is an area I was previously skeptical of because I had heard about various unsuccessful attempts. However, it was encouraging to see how researchers and librarians could create well thought out projects, build on an existing audience base or create a new one, and succeed in enhancing scholarship. The Trove project is especially fascinating since it builds on national pride and taps into niche hobbies like railroad history.

Overall, I think the course created a solid foundation for moving into  deeper theoretical discussions of DH and for delving into more hands-on experiences.