Information Flux in the 21st Century

Reflections on digital humanities projects

With an information technology career behind me, and a brand new degree in Library Science, I looked forward to a new career where I could be a tech-savvy information professional instead of an information technology professional. This was in 2009, amid the ongoing heyday of Digital Humanities. How could I not be drawn to the shiny applications emerging from the Scholars Lab at University of Virginia (located in UVA’s library!) and other academic institutions.  But, as shiny as these projects were, I wasn’t getting it. To really get them, I figured, I had to produce one.

While I didn’t get to produce my own project early on, I made my way into English classrooms as an embedded librarian supporting students working on digital projects.  After a couple of years doing that, I returned to school once again and decided that it was now my turn. In the first class I took at The Graduate Center, Introduction to Liberal Studies, my professor was kind enough to accept my digital projects in lieu of traditional research papers. Both projects were research based visual narratives. I developed my first one in Omeka using the Neatline plugin, and the final one in Scalar.  I was working with these technologies for the first time and I was eager to do a meta-analysis, assessing my work with unfamiliar technologies to represent digitally results from a research pursuit. The highlight of this journey would be the Digital Humanities classes I would later take.


DH Praxis I

In the first course in the Digital Humanities track students are immersed in theory. We were introduced to the myriad of scholarship on some form of digital humanities, and we spent more time than necessary rehashing the common question of how to define Digital Humanities. We read about and saw many compelling projects. Near the end of the semester it was time to create a data project of our own. I had a couple of ideas; one was less formed in my mind and it lacked the connection to a discipline, an important factor in my interest in digital humanities projects.

I knew about the Green Book Motorist Guide thanks to my colleague who introduced it in a class that we co-taught. The publisher, a postman from New York, compiled and published annually lists of accommodations and other establishments throughout the country that were known to be welcoming to Black people during the years 1936 to 1963. I knew that there was a wealth of data in those books. And, they were already digitized thanks to the New York Public Library and the University of South Carolina. Both organizations used the digitized data to develop maps representing where these establishments were. The NYPL’s application allows users to enter a starting location and a destination to see how far Black travelers had to drive to stay in a hotel near their destination, or how far they had to drive to get gas, or have a meal.

The aim of my research was to see the differences in the number of accommodations in locations throughout the country in the years 1947 and 1956. I started the effort of cleaning the data, enlisting the help of a digital fellow for scripts to automate that process. I planned to visualize the data in Tableau Public.  That is as far as I got before the semester was over. I would continue working on it when I had more time, I told myself.

Before spring semester started, I collected latitude and longitude data but once again, work and classes took over and I had little time to continue. And, once again I told myself I would get back to it when I had more time.

DH Praxis II

I did not write  a grant proposal for my data project in DH Praxis I because I didn’t get far enough with the Green Book data to think of a larger project. I didn’t comprehend that looking at the entire United States worth of locations for two years was overly ambitious. And I didn’t really get it until I had the chance to work on a reasonable size project with a team. When I get back to my Green Book project, I will be starting with one state.

Instead of polishing a grant proposal of an idea to pitch in DH Praxis II, I was assigned to peer review my classmates’ proposals. That exercise was productive.  I used the NEH Digital Humanities grant proposal guidelines to base comments I gave to my peers.. If I were to write a grant proposal, I now know what should be included, what should be left out, and the style that a proposal should take in writing and format.

Evaluated proposals were returned and it was voting day for the projects that would be developed during the semester. I already had in mind that I wanted to work on Monika’s project, particularly because I was interested in the content. There were only nine of us in DH Praxis II so there would be three groups of three. A group of three seemed small for the ambitious projects proposed, but from the start our professors in both classes advised us to be realistic and focus on what was manageable.

Once the groups were formed, we all established our roles within our groups. Monika came up with a name for the project, Excavating the Slave Experience (eSe). This title represents a larger project that she has in mind. For our group project, we focused on fugitive slave advertisements published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1863.  We discussed software options and I pushed for Omeka because 1) I was familiar with it, and 2) we could develop map applications in it.  We all agreed that it seemed like Omeka would support the goals of our project.

When roles were being established, I sat back and let others take over roles of project manager and developer, even though I had work experience as project manager, and I developed projects in Omeka.  I accepted what came my way: to do some front end customization in Omeka and social media coordination. I had an instruction sheet that a colleague developed for batch uploads to Omeka using the CSV Import plugin, so that was to be my contribution outside my role.

Before long, roles were blurring and I offered to  look at the data to find a meaningful way to pare down the dataset. I  reduced by filtering out the advertisements that had less metadata than others, ultimately settling on about 205 advertisements out of the full set of over 2000.

Weeks went by. Schedules were off due to snow days and holidays but the data was still not uploaded to our site. That was not my job and I was apprehensive about usurping responsibilities. My apprehension gave way to panic for the good of the project and I took over as project manager and I uploaded the data to the site myself.  With data uploaded, we could now get to work developing our site. I worked on the Omeka interface, mapped headings to Dublin Core metatadata elements, Tristen entered those mappings into the php file, and Monika set about her work on the maps. My task of social media and outreach came later, after we had something that represented what we wanted for our project.

We encountered a few hiccups along the way and reached out when we needed help. Before the maps were developed, I created a temporary exhibit but took it down because ultimately it did not serve the goals of our project.  Once the map exhibit was ready, I enlisted colleagues to test and evaluate the site. I knew the shortcomings, specifically the limitations of the technology to support the custom maps so I was careful to not say too much, instead hoping that the project spoke for itself. I was pleased with the feedback as far as the perception of the project’s pedagogical impact, but the technology glitches were apparent.

My meta-analysis continues and I am still assessing what I got out of the project and what my interest level in digital humanities is at this point. I see the challenges of working with a small team on an ambitious project. As graduate students, we all have different levels of outside commitments and that was often reflected in the attention we were able to give the project.  I can’t help but compare it to collaborations among employees in a work setting, where team members know they have an explicit understanding that the job must get done within a stated amount of time. That said, I’m pretty impressed with what we were able to accomplish. More thought will go into this, but that’s all I have for now.



May 26, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment