Is It Out There?: Undergraduate Research as Digitization at Analog Pace

In the poster session at the NITLE Summit, I presented the portion of the Wheaton College Digital History Project on which my students are currently working.  This is the second time that students in my iteration of the methods course for history majors have transcribed and encoded transactions from a daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept in Norton, Massaschusetts, between 1828 and 1859.

Viewers of the poster saw images of Wheaton and his wife, Eliza Baylies Wheaton, as well as sample images of the daybook, XML files, and a visualization based on student interest in commodities traded on days of the week from spring 2009.  I explained that asking students to transcribe and encode financial records gives them an opportunity to learn a host of principles and skills meant to prepare them for doing their own research in primary sources for their senior seminar projects.

More than once, viewers asked me whether the data was “out there” for other students and faculty members to use, and I had to reply that we have not yet reached that stage.  Our college is participating in a planning grant for a presentation tool, but the tool is very much still in the planning stages.  Which leads me to reflect that producing data through undergraduate pedagogy might appear at a pace closer to that of analog publication than we are accustomed to in a digital world.

As a comparative novice in TEI, I have only recently come to realize some of the complexities that result from our collaboration among students, the College Archivist, an academic technologist, and a faculty member.  Among these is the fact that we are creating digital versions of documents for at least three related but distinct purposes:  pedagogical, archival, and scholarly.  And for all three of these, results and publication are far from instant.

As students transcribe and encode the daybook, the pace can seem positively glacial, not least because learning to decipher nineteenth-century handwriting takes time.  We assign each student a single page spread, so at the end of this semester, we will have completed transcription and encoding of about forty pages.  And the daybook is only one of numerous account books in the collection.  From a certain pedagogical perspective, pace does not matter, and we will have plenty of material for the students to work on the next many times I hope to teach this assignment.  Aggregation of the data means only that future students will have more material to query.

Similarly, for archival purposes, pace is less important than having someone do the work.  And from the archival perspective, accuracy of transcription is often more important than speed.  In fact, the need for multiple instances of proofreading has become one of the most significant obstacles in online publication of the letters, travel journal, and pocket diaries that student workers finished transcribing, encoding, and proofing at least two summers ago.

And, as having adequate time available to proof behind the students stalls archival publication, lack of time slows my own ability to reflect and produce scholarly versions of this material.  Scholarly use of the financial records awaits digitization of adequate amounts of data to aggregate and query meaningfully.

So, no.  The data we are producing is not out there yet.  Digital methods offer important learning opportunities for our students.  They do little to speed the pace of careful archiving and scholarship as yet.  I do remain convinced that eventually there will be significant research value in the data that we will produce.  Especially if we can manage to tolerate the incremental (analog) within the digital.



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Filed under digital humanities, education, Laban Morey Wheaton Financial Records, Wheaton College Digital History Project

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