Building a Website for Medieval Artefacts — What did I Learn?

This year we decided as a class to undergo the exciting task of putting on our very own manuscript exhibition in the display cases of the History Department. During out discussions, I was struck by the fact that our hard work would only be on display for a short time. If we could make this exhibition permanent, we could show off our work for years to come. But the university space is limited and could not accommodate such an exhibition. However, building a website to house this exhibition promised longevity. Therefore, myself and the other members of the website team came together and began work on Medieval Ottawa, a companion to the exhibition.

Our first task was to chose a platform. After experimenting with Omeka, WordPress, and we decided that WordPress, with the various plugins it offers through our student hosting package, would give us the desired layout and usability. Our main concern was whether the platform we chose could host the high quality images necessary for our audience, who would need to see the fine details of the objects.  Omeka had this ability, but ultimately lacked the functionality we wanted for future students and researchers. lacked open-source options, and was therefore less student-friendly. WordPress was the Goldilocks of the bunch, perfect for students with its open-source usability and it is capable of hosting high resolution images.

Once this was decided our team member Callum began researching how to incorporate IIIF framework or Mirador viewer into WordPress. As we have written in a previous blog post, this proved difficult to accomplish without direct access to the university’s server and this task was ultimately abandoned. Nevertheless we were still able to host our high resolution images and implement a zoom function despite the drawback.

Matt was tasked with filming interviews for the website and these were uploaded to the Medieval Book Youtube account to be embedded into the WordPress website. You can watch the videos here. We also made use of the University’s Media Commons recording rooms to record Shamus McCoy reading the Latin transcriptions of the objects in our exhibition. We felt this would be beneficial for the seeing impaired and would offer an auditory way to engage with these medieval works, which we so often understand as solely visual objects. You can hear these recording under the “transcription” tab for nearly all of the folia in our exhibition.

We wanted to ensure that the research on our manuscripts were preserved long after the exhibition was taken down, so we set up a Metadata tab on each of the folia pages on the website. This is an organised collection of the information each student in the course gathered for their respective folia in the Fall term. This process was the longest: the information was first gathered, reviewed, reviewed again, organised, standardised, and finally reviewed again before it was imputed into the website. This was to ensure that researchers and students could easily access the data for these objects. Having correct (to the best of our knowledge) information on display was extremely important to our team, and we encourage researchers to comment and correct the data if possible.

The time and effort that went into creating this website was immense. The website team at times found ourselves working for 8+ hours in the History Department’s Digital Humanities room. I cannot thank my team enough for their hard work and patience in seeing our vision to the end. Throughout this process I learned many valuable lessons, I will name a few here. I learned how to lead a team by setting attainable tasks, providing assistance and encouragement, and ultimately doing whatever I could to ensure we all reached our end goal. I also learned the art of delegation. So often in my undergrad I found myself carrying the load of a group project because I was afraid to let go of tasks I deemed to important to not handle myself. This year I learnt to trust in the strengths of my teammates by allowing them to take on the tasks that I would normally attempt to do myself. This was an invaluable lesson that I will surely carry with me. When we set out to build a website, I did not realised that on top of gaining experience in website building and digital humanities I would also learn some of the most important skills for a student to take away from university: how to not only work but thrive within a team.