One interesting part of this IMLS-grant project is delving into the world of the Digital Humanities. I will not attempt to define or classify Digital Humanities except to say that I think this project fits squarely within the field. So as part of my efforts to learn more about the Digital Humanities, I attended a THATCamp this weekend. THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) as a concept began at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in 2008. The THATCamp Virginia 2012 was hosted by the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia this past Friday and Saturday.
I was initially nervous and unsure about participating in THATCampVA (as it soon became known on Twitter) because I was not sure if this project and my background really fit within the digital humanities world. I could not have been more mistaken. The THATCamp community was a wonderful mix of scholars, teachers, graduate students, programmers, librarians, writers, and many more. It was an extremely welcoming and warm group, and the camp covered a vast amount of information in just one day.
One of the sessions that I attended was on the theory of visualizations. The discussion focused around whether visualizations of information (such as plotting geographic locations on a map based on written letters) can generate new knowledge by itself. Many felt that this was too high a bar for visualizations. I won’t pretend that there was a firm consensus from the group but my take-away was that visualizations along with a narrative work together to tell a story or make a point more clearly than either one by itself.
The other point that was made in this session was that visualizations of information often need curation in order to be meaningful to an audience. That simply providing all the information as a visualization can be overwhelming and not clear to many users. Visualizations benefit from a guided tour of what is relevant or what piece of the story or argument a scholar is focusing on. It is useful to make all the information available so that others can use it to tell a different story but it is often necessary to begin with an exhibit of select information to make it more accessible.
I thought this point had real relevance for Connecting Presidential Collections. In phase 1, we are working hard to figure out how to organize information and make it more accessible. But later phases might really benefit from some intellectual framework that helps users “walk-thru” an exhibit of some small section of presidential materials. The goal for this project is a mass of data that will simply be too large to be taken meaningfully as a whole. But if the data is organized or parsed to create stories that might overlap with each other or follow themes over time, then the project provides more than just materials, it provides context and meaningful interpretation.
Of course, right now we are just at the very beginnings of phase 1 of this project. There are many challenges ahead but it is exciting to imagine subsequent phases and the work that visualizations and exhibits might do to help make this material even more accessible.
So thanks again to THATCampVA for making a newbie feel welcome and inspired by all!
One of the many parts of this project that I am working on is trying to find a developer to help us get the beta product up and running. Although the Miller Center has an awesome web team with a great web designer and an incredible web developer, we need to find someone outside the Miller Center to create the beta product for this project. Our web developer is working on another project that is taking most of his time, and our web designer is kept very busy with all the internal work here. So I am looking for a developer.
Since we are considering using Blacklight and Solr, we are looking for a developer who knows those two products or is proficient with Ruby on Rails. I have talked to a few good possibilities but it seems that life in the world of developers is busy, and they haven’t had time in their schedules for our project. Luckily, the situation is looking up as we have a meeting with a good possible developer tomorrow.
I am cautiously optimistic and will write more as decisions are made.
In May, we will be hosting the Summit Meeting for our IMLS-grant project. The Summit Meeting is one of the main parts of our grant, and it brings together a collection of people in the world of libraries, museums, government agencies, and digital humanities to think about our project, talk about a variety of issues, and help guide us down what we hope will be a successful path.
The Summit Meeting participants include archivists, documentary editors, professors in information sciences, and digital humanities gurus. I am still working on the final meeting agenda for our Summit Meeting but I envision this talent group of individuals helping us think through policies for our partners, digitization/preservation standards, technological recommendations, user interface suggestions, presidential collections knowledge, scholarly considerations, and much more.
One of the big parts of this project is working with our partners. Right now our partners consist of five presidential sites (centers, libraries, museums, etc.) that have agreed to share information about their collections with us for the beta product. The concept behind this project is to create a website where people can come and search and find presidential materials. But we are not housing or hosting most of said materials. We are referring users to the organization that actually has the digital item. So the goal is to drive traffic to these partners’ websites so that more users are able to find and enjoy their collections.
I feel so strongly about the focus on collaboration and partnership for this project. This is not a project that the Miller Center can do alone. And it is not a project in which we alone benefit. In the long term, I believe that this project can benefit many presidential sites and libraries as well as many different types of users–the scholar, the student, the teacher, the presidential history buff, and more. The more organizations that participate in this project, the more useful it will be to users!
I am thrilled to have our five partners at this early stage in the project. And I very much look forward to reaching out to other partners as the project progresses. We are only starting with five partners at this point in order to keep the scale manageable. But once we feel like we have a clear plan, we can’t wait to expand the project to interested participants. And we hope that we will find many interested presidential sites and libraries who want to be part of this project.