Back to being a student

This week Kate and I are attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at UVic. I feel like I’m going back to being a first-year undergrad (with all the awkwardness and confusion that implies) while also attending a wonderfully nerdy and welcoming summer camp. The experience (and being confronted by the realms of my ignorance) have made me reflect a bit about why I have wanted to get involved in the digital humanities. I think I need to figure out what I was thinking when I signed up to learn about IIIF Image servers or presentation API’s…

Most of my early connection to computers was for entertainment – my parents got my brother and me a colecovision console in the early 80s and then sent us to mini-university computer camp to teach us how to program on a  Commodore 64 (which we then used exclusively to play games). Since both of my parents were teachers, we had a steady stream of early Apple computers intended to be educational. These were the first machines I did something other than play games on – learning (maybe?) from vaguely educational software (e.g. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego) or writing up school assignments. And this is in essence how I have also used computers – for entertainment and for composing papers. Throughout grad school and to this day for my research, I have rarely used my computer as anything more than a word processor and, these days, increasingly a means to read pdf article and books. So, as my history shows, I really don’t have any background nor any reason why I should be trying to teach about Digital Archives.

In teaching, however, I have often sought to have students use digital environments to see historical practice from a new perspective. Almost a decade ago, I had my students in classes on medieval intellectual life edit wikipedia articles to get them used to the idea that others would see what they write or that their writing could impact how the Middle Ages is perceived (and also to improve the quality of scholarship of Wikipedia in those early days). More recently I’ve tried to incorporate smaller digital assignments to help student re-imagine their research process such as using Knightlab’s Timeline which was meant to provide a new structure for constructing historical chronologies. I’ve found that using these tools (which are really just new versions of tools long used by historians), students were able to better understand how and why scholars work the way they do.

It is with this in mind that I want to create a new course devoted to the process of digital archiving – even though I takes me far outside my comfort zone (reading and thinking about Medieval Latin texts), and into the terrifying world of Unix and command line editing. Thank goodness I have a graduate student to act as an Ariadne in this DH labyrinth.

 

What are we doing?

This blog is meant to provide a running commentary for what is a bit of an experiment for myself and Kate. But who knows how it will turn out.

With the generous support of Carleton University, Kate, an incoming MA student in History, and I, a professor of medieval History,  are working over the summer to create a new course to teach upper year students about how to read, describe and digitize medieval manuscripts (and archival material more generally). Our hope is that we use this blog to document our creative/ analytical process, as well as to leave a record (e.g. syllabus, course readings) to help others who might be in the process of developing similar courses. 

The Journey Begins…

It is your first day on the job at a small heritage site. You discover incredible artefacts in the basement of the site. Untouched for years, two medieval folios sit in a dark corner gathering dust. You are fortunate to find them in decent condition and know something must be done with these unique pieces. But you also understand the limitations of this small heritage site. To ensure these objects reach a wide audience you resolve to create a digital collection. But where to begin?

This kind of scenario was the basis for our brainstorming session today. We attempted to create a list of things one ought to know before jumping into a digital humanities project. We considered the sorts of digital tools that would lend themselves to the various components of manuscript studies: writing supports, codicology, genre, paleography, transcription, and cataloguing. We discussed many online tools and databases that would be helpful in the creation of a digital collection by a scholar at any technical skill level. We assessed sites such as:

  • The Cantus Database, for the study and cross-referencing of medieval chants.
  • T-PEN, a web-based transcription tool.
  • Mirador, an open-source image viewing and annotation platform.

These tools, that are used for the research, transcription, and description of medieval materials, seemed a logical place to begin linking the digital world and the physical. More challenging, however, was trying to understand which of the multitude of digital humanities tools out there can lend themselves best to the task of creating an online archive. We had to ask ourselves some unfamiliar questions on topics such as: copyright, collaboration, the value of open-source tools, the importance of transparency and longevity, and other potential roadblocks for researchers who do not necessarily know how to code.

  • Twitter, as a collaborative space for academics. (See Medieval Twitter)
  • Omeka, an open-source tool for creating a digital collection or online exhibition.
  • Humanity Commons, (You are Here) as a space to keep a manifest of our project.

These sorts of tools can be used across a variety of digital humanities projects and provide benefits to any discipline such as creating collaborative spaces and being easy to use at all experience levels.

In the end these tools are all about balancing the Digital Humanities aspect of creating an digital manuscript collection with Medieval Studies. There are still more exciting tools out there with tremendous pedagogical potential to explore and that may better answer our question, “But where to begin?”