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Archives, Encoding, and Students, Oh My!

Teacher-scholars unite! I’ve been testing some possible applications of Omeka archives and Zotero as collaborative tools organizing the development of literary research methodologies classes, and I’d like to take the wonderful opportunity of THATcamp to begin developing the structure and content of project I see as The Next Step. I’d like your help to discuss, plan, and/or block out a template for a full-class, full-term student project that works toward researching, annotating, and encoding a small number (perhaps just one per term?) of thematically-selected texts in our shamefully neglected special collections room. Ideally, this project would therefore include study of the texts themselves, research about their material and digital existences (using the ESTC, Google Books, and something like Eighteenth-Century Book Tracker)  a basic practical/theoretical framework for DH, collaboratively writing a useful and accessible overview and producing an XML version of the text. Each term or year, students and faculty would work together to select, create, and grow the entries according to a broader thematic logic that can expand over time, based on the strengths of the collections. I’d like to use this template as a basis for a grant application that would allow the project to grow and, ultimately, link faculty, students, and resources at area institutions.

I think this would be a viable model for an advanced undergraduate seminar, and it has the benefit of drawing together a variety of practical and theoretical facets of the digital humanities. Some questions to consider include how we can best design the arc of the class? What specific parts of the project would have as their goal which practical or conceptual outcomes? What are the technological hurdles to be 1.) aware of, 2.) avoided, or 3.) embraced? What should the Omeka site look like/allow, in order to help the project grow over time? How might faculty help students approach the text encoding portion of the project? What are the most useful introductory text-based sources providing a theoretical framework for such a practical project? And what might steps after The Next Step look like?


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  1. Profile photo of Patrick Murray-John
    Patrick Murray-John

    Sounds very fun, especially (to me) the part about what an Omeka site could look like. Omeka-in-the-classroom might call for different designs and themes than Omeka in general? This convo might thereby help us Omekans see it through a new lens.

  2. Profile photo of Cathy Saunders
    Cathy Saunders

    I’m very much interested in this, especially since I’m working on a project with some parallels for a somewhat-less-advanced research and writing class (about which I will post more anon).

  3. Profile photo of thowe

    I’m looking forward to some great discussions on this topic… Cathy, I’m really eager to hear about your project, what kind of class you’re integrating an archive into, and what kinds of purposes you see it fulfilling; I’ve mostly used my archive for thinking about how to teach students how do research and contribute to discussion in the full-text and web-searchable environments we now have, given the somewhat limited skills many of my students come in with. I think that card catalogs and print indices were particularly good at helping researchers think clearly about what they were looking for, while being open enough to follow trails and find unexpected connections (is there a way in an Omeka archive to relationships visible?); now, sometimes there’s just a search term and a result, nevermind the rest. Getting students to generate mini-networks for specialized research projects can be a great way of teaching research methodologies themselves, though I admit, I need to think about it more systematically.

    Patrick, I you have a definite advantage here! I know the theme offerings and features already available can be tweaked, but it does require a better knowledge of PHP–most instructors interested in Omeka don’t really have that knowledge (like me!). Developing a couple of themes for classroom use would be fabulous, or even a plugin to enable some customization without going into the PHP. For instance, I found it very tough to customize the “add a resource” widget. As you suggest, and as my limited experience confirms, some of the things that students found difficult were more about how to select resources. Perhaps we could think about ways to focus attention in the Dublin Core data or in the contributors’ options on provenance and annotation? Or ways easily to alter the headings/titles/language used throughout the site to accord with pedagogical ends–instead of “collectors,” for instance, “researchers”; altering the help text associated with contributing; building connections; and so on. I haven’t returned to the project since I last taught the class I’d used it with (and now, some things in the class site I’d developed are defunct because I haven’t updated), so I would welcome a brainstorming session about what facets of the record are most useful for students and for what purposes. Of course, this means considering instructional design, too. Exciting!

    There’s also a conversation waiting to be had about copyright, fair use, and so on–I’ve uploaded things, for instance, from ECCO, which I’m sure the folks at Gale would be less than happy about…. Sorry for the chaos of/lack of revision in this response–I just wanted to get some thoughts down. Two weeks!

  4. Amanda French

    I’m super-interested in this too, since I’ve been messing around with the notion of using Omeka basically to create a database of texts for a particular project related to poetic form. In my experience, Omeka isn’t all that powerful for handling texts when compared to TEI, but there’s a fairly recent TEI Display plugin for Omeka available at omeka.org/codex/Plugins/TeiDisplay that I’m eager to play with.

    The problem I’ve run into so far is that my experience with TEI encoding was limited to working on a project that others set up, so I’d need to figure out how to create a DTD with Roma and so forth before beginning. And my TEI experience is years old, anyway. But any general talk about texts and Omeka, and I’m in.

  5. Profile photo of thowe

    Amanda, how awful is this? I completely missed that plugin–but I certainly will check it out now. My experience with TEI is also limited to projects that others had set up–the EEBO and ECCO encoding projects use exiting DTDs, as far as I can tell. I guess one could use an existing DTD, providing it gives you what you want? At any rate, I’m going to play around with the plugin, and hopefully that will give me some additional ways to articulate what a class archive/encoding project using Omeka would/could look like.

  6. Profile photo of Sarah Werner
    Sarah Werner

    I’m not at all familiar with Omeka, but I’m very interested in the perspective of someone who teaches early modern book history in a rare book library. I’m really lucky in that the fabulous Folger catalogers have created very rich records and that many areas of our collections are known and regularly used. But I’m very interested in ways that students can do primary research and then make that accessible and useful to other scholars. And I do believe that many special collections are underutilized and that the sort of thing you’re describing could not only draw attention to those collections. Count me in!

  7. Profile photo of Brian Croxall
    Brian Croxall

    I love the idea of this class project: getting people to be researchers, builders, and curators all at once. I’d be interested to know what specific hurdles you encountered in the version of the assignment that you already ran…

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