Tag Archives: Library and Information Services

Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Scholarly Communication

For me, the lines between digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication are so faint as to be insignificant.  And my perception of the equivalences among these entities that often seem siloed to my colleagues presents a real challenge as I try to help people–both at my own institution and at other campuses–think about possible futures for higher education in our digital culture.

The source of my perception lies in my having begun to learn about how digital innovations are changing libraries and publishing as a result of my first forays into digital humanities.  In 2004, I participated in a series of workshops at Wheaton College that were sponsored by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Those workshops focused on two sets of encoding standards that use extensible markup language (XML): the Encoded Archival Description Document Type Definition (EAD DTD) and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).  The hands-on workshop sessions focused on TEI, and I attended the workshops out of interest in testing the use of TEI in teaching my undergraduate history students.  But the EAD component of the initial workshops meant that librarians attended too, so perhaps I have found one source of my elision of digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication.

Perhaps I have identified also a significant point about how these three often siloed entities are in fact connected.  I don’t mean to claim originality here.  Folks involved in digital humanities have been working on these questions for quite some time, as is clear from the discussion of the development of EAD at the Library of Congress website.  EAD and TEI were both developed in the 1990s.  Both began using Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), and both shifted to use of XML.  And both are used by libraries.

In fact according to the TEI website cited above, “Since 1994, the TEI Guidelines have been widely used by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation.” A search of the TEI consortium’s website led me to slides from a talk by Susan Hockey of University College London, “Markup, TEI, Digital Libraries.” The talk was presented at the TEI Members Meeting in 2002, and it offers a good overview of issues about the relationships between changes digital innovations were bringing to libraries and digital scholarship at that time.  The TEI has a Libraries special interest group (SIG), and they recently released an update to their recommendations for best practices for use of TEI by libraries.

So TEI–the flavor of digital humanities that I practice–does have clear connections to libraries that can be traced back for at least two decades.  I’m not making that up.  What a relief!

Scholarly communication, the third of my equivalences, belongs in the set as a result of the ways that digital innovations have affected communication in general, that is in the ongoing shift from print to digital formats.  The most obvious example–the one that has received the most public outcry in the past couple of years–is the case of newspapers.  Like many people, I no longer subscribe to print newspapers; I read them online.  And I resented the introduction of a pay wall by my newspaper of choice, the New York Times, as the publisher sought a new way to make the newspaper profitable as a business.  But eventually I gave in, and I pay my fifteen dollars every month.

Like newspaper publishers, university presses have been changing their production practices for at least the past twenty years, as various word processing programs have become the tools of choice for scholars writing articles and books.  I began to hear about changes in scholarly publication when I attended a NITLE meeting on scholarly communication that was held at Pomona College in January 2008.  (I think that’s the right date.)  Like all NITLE meetings, this one gave me plenty to think about, especially the idea of open peer review.  And in the intervening years, I’ve had opportunities to sit in on discussions in which I’ve heard editors talk about workflows and publishing software.  Now, I have an essay in a volume that is undergoing open peer review and that is under contract (the volume, not necessarily my essay) with the Digital Culture series at the University of Michigan Press.

All of this seems perfectly transparent and logical to me, and I understand digital scholarship–which is the term I use to encompass my three equivalences–to be the future of scholarship and higher education.  My greatest challenge lies in parsing out how that is the case for folks who haven’t had the advantages I have had over the past seven years as I’ve learned from my digital humanities colleagues.

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Exceptional Students

College professors do a lot of writing that often goes uncounted in the various bookkeeping systems we use to tally performance in the profession. Letters of recommendation constitute one category of such hidden writing, and they can be a source of real pleasure. Recently, I wrote three sets of such letters for former students, and all three brought smiles to my face, each for very different reasons.

One student had majored in History and is applying to Ph.D. programs. Writing in support of her applications gave me an opportunity to recall not only the pleasures of working with her in courses that ranged from introductory level surveys of various periods in U.S. History and U.S. Women’s History to Senior Seminar but also a wonderful experience presenting with her at a conference focused on changing libraries. We talked about an assignment in which I had asked students to read some diaries that College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zeph Stickney has collected and to contextualize them using class readings and books that had been digitized as part of the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program’s Women Working, 1800-1930, Collection. I described the assignment, and the student described her experiences working on it. She was the star of the conference. Other professors and librarians and academic technologists and administrators who attended were impressed with her ability to pinpoint key concerns about the online collection of sources, concerns that the librarians shared. The conference was a wonderful experience for me; I so enjoyed seeing this student shine.

Another student had majored in Women’s Studies and is applying to a Social Work program. She, too, had taken a range of courses with me, from introductory level U.S. Women’s History courses to an advanced course on Sex and Culture in the 19th-century United States. I didn’t have a conference experience to recall for this student, but I was delighted to have a moment to remember that course and her work in it. We read a lot of books in that course, and every week pairs of students led discussions. One of my favorite memories of that course was when this student and her co-leader asked their classmates to cast the movie version of a book called The Murder of Helen Jewett, a wonderfully researched and well-written narrative about a young woman from Maine who moved from a post as a domestic servant in her home state to remake herself in New York City, where she worked as a prostitute and–after she was brutally murdered–became the focus of a sensational trial in the 1830s. These were students who had been deeply affected by such movies as “Titanic” and “Gangs of New York,” so imagining this woman’s story as a film proved enormously effective for them as a learning exercise. And it was all their idea. Students are often more astute than their professors when it comes to finding ways to bring the past to life.

The final student had majored in American Studies and had worked as my research assistant on the Wheaton College Digital History Project. She is applying to Library School because it will prepare her for a profession in which she will be able to practice Digital Humanities. This student became a real colleague for me on the project. When the college awarded us funds from the Mars Foundation to take an introductory course on text encoding at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she outshone me as a student. My brain remains pretty analog in this digital world, no matter how much I might prefer otherwise. But this student had already taught herself XML. And after the course, she studied the TEI Guide to figure out the details of the “measure” element. I am over the moon knowing that this student is ready to embark on her professional career and that I can look forward to encountering her as a colleague for a long time to come.

Teaching definitely has its rewards.

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Creating Reference Files for an Expanding Project

I spent much of Labor Day 2010 in the land of XML/TEI, adding to a personography file I began to work on after a TEI seminar in April. This rather intensive set of tasks arose because we at the Wheaton College Digital History Project are proceeding apace with imaging financial records created by Laban Morey Wheaton and his agents between 1828 and 1859. (Thanks, Chris!) This is exciting news in a project that began with transcription of Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s diaries in spring 2005.

The need for a consolidated personography is related in part to our extending this work in P5, the current version of the TEI. I can’t remember whether we were using P3 or P4 when we began the project. I took a rather distant approach to the project at the time, relying on my colleagues in Archives and Special Collections and in Research and Instruction to manage much of the daily work of transcription and coding undertaken by our undergraduate research assistants. In the past couple of years, I have been learning more and more TEI and taking more responsibility for being able to communicate the needs of the program to a changing (growing) group of technical and library colleagues as the project has expanded from diaries to financial records.

When we were working on the diaries, my colleagues created a reference file that included name identifiers for people whose names appeared in them. As we began to transcribe the financial records, we kept another list of names that appeared in them. Now that we have established a workflow for transcribing and coding the financial records, we are ready for a consolidated personography that allows us to assign unique identifiers for every name in the Wheaton Family Papers.

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

Brown Groupies?

At the Women in the Archives conference this weekend, a friend commented that we seemed to be turning into Brown groupies.  We both attended an intensive three-day Advanced Encoding Seminar a few weeks ago, and there we were again on Saturday.  I had an even more groupie-like week since I heard computer scientist Jeannette Wing give a talk about computational thinking last Monday and then heard Neil Fraistat, who leads the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) discuss digital humanities centers on Wednesday.  This immersion in the digital will continue this Wednesday, when Angel David Nieves from Hamilton College will be on campus at Wheaton College to talk about his research and the regional digital humanities center they are organizing at Hamilton. I will be interested to see how my colleagues at Wheaton respond and to find out how all of these talks fit together in my own thinking about digital humanities and next steps at Wheaton, especially around collaborations with other institutions.

For the moment, I’m mostly just grateful for Brown.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear Wing.  Her three page piece on computational thinking from 2006 has had impressive effects.  She claims that the concept has taken hold in undergraduate curricula, and she is now focused on considering where we might best teach significant concepts in computational thinking at the K-12 levels.  This is all very exciting to me, and I look forward to seeing how it develops.  I wonder how my colleagues who specialize in teaching math educators for those levels are thinking about this issue.

Fraistat’s talk gave me still more to consider, as he presented a tour of MITH and the work they do there along with a summary of where we are in the development of digital humanities centers.  So much of what he had to say seemed to speak directly to where we find ourselves at Wheaton.  We’re not, of course, a big research university like Maryland, but we do see more and more collaborations among faculty members, students, and staff in Library and Information Services.  And those collaborations seem to me to echo on a smaller scale the kinds of collaborations Fraistat figured as significant for the next steps in the development of digital humanities centers.  Especially if we can promote the kind of broad and inclusive definitions of digital humanities that he suggested.

My brain was a bit on overload as I settled into a full day of papers and discussion at the Women in the Archive conference on Saturday.  I took plenty of notes, and the papers generated more ideas about the various projects I am working on than I could possibly summarize here.  I will note that during the conference I got an email asking for a title and blurb for the digital humanities workshop we will hold on campus at the end of May.

This has been a fruitful month for learning more about what others are doing in digital humanities, and I am looking forward to learning more and thinking with colleagues about where the work we do at Wheaton fits in this universe.


Jeannette Wing, “Computational Thinking,” <www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/usr/wing/www/publications/Wing06.pdf>.

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, <http://mith.umd.edu/>.

Women in the Archives Conference, <http://www.wwp.brown.edu/about/activities/wia/wia2010/schedule.html>.

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