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Creating and Supporting “Black Acts”

This is the third in a series of three posts on the digital exhibitions I worked on this spring. If you need to, you can jump back to part two or part one.

It’s been a good month and more since I wrote the second of three posts on my springtime of exhibits, and now I’ve managed to find time for the third. In between, among other things, I went to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2013 in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, about which I will add a post here later. More to the point for this, though, is that I’m pretty sure that the learning I did there will be fruitful as I move forward with the work started on Black Acts, an online digital exhibition for Professor Paige McGinley‘s African-American Studies / Theater Studies course from spring 2013.

Professor McGinley came to ITG in January of 2011 with an idea for incorporating building a digital exhibit into this spring’s instance of her course, titled, simply enough, “African American Theater”. As this is Yale’s survey course on the matter, she wanted to structure the term by having students focus on a single performer, deeply research that person in the Beinecke Library’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters, and compose a critical multimedia essay around the objects discovered in the collection and the story they told. In short, the idea was to put the students in the position of a professional scholarly researcher with all the labor and joy that can entail. I represented ITG on the project, whose instructional and support team also included several members of the Beinecke staff, most notably Lisa Conathan, Nancy Kuhl, Susan Brady, and Chris Edwards. (I apologize in advance for not remembering all those at the Beinecke who contributed, as this project would not have been successful without all contributions large and small.)

Fairly quickly, I decided that this was my moment to work with Omeka from CHNM, something I’d been wanting to do for a long time. Nothing had truly presented itself well before this, and I got some (not inappropriate) resistance when proposing it previously; we had and have concerns about the scalability of Omeka for our environment, about the specter of further redundancy in digital collections repositories, and about our infrastructural capability to support it. Fortunately, my spring schedule had room enough for me to take on this pilot instance.

As the Beinecke has posted about the exhibit as well, from Professor McGinley’s perspective, I’m free to simply point out the things I found salient. First, the students seem to have needed more time to get acquainted with what composing a critical essay in an online exhibition might allow. While the essays are high quality, they ended up being illustrated traditional essays rather than natively digital multimedia, with one exception, which incorporated YouTube clips from films discussed in the student’s essay. Perhaps only in that one did a student go beyond the assignment’s walls to consider the whole of the internet a field for research. This lack is something I place for the most part at my feet, as the students should have been provided with a better example of the kind of work they were being asked to do. To echo my previous statement, Yale students are on the whole very intelligent and very hard working, but they tend to be scholarly traditionalists. Professor McGinley phrased that work as the “well-behaved essay” in one of the class sessions, and I have told her I intend to use the phrase at every opportunity.

Second, as with the student exhibition I wrote about in May, a great deal of time went into making this exhibit happen. Between my time and Beinecke staff time, there may have been six people spending five percent of their time on it. That’s fine for a pilot, and it can be argued that some of that time is run-of-the-mill work time, but in general we’ve got to get that amount down if we hope, as I do, to make this kind of assignment more common. By the same token, a high-touch service is a good way to relieve the instructor of needing to know all aspects of the process. Digital humanities vaunts its collaborative ethos in part on an assumption of imperfectly distributed knowledge, but we are going to have to work out issues inherent in expanding opportunities to undergraduates with limitations from a support staff perspective. On the third hand, perhaps showing what kind of amount of work is needed to result in this kind of student work is important in justifying increased staffing levels for digital scholarship projects.

Third, this project was, despite my first point, successful for me as the first leg of a three-legged Omeka pilot. It worked well enough that I and the Manuscripts and Archives division (MSSA) of the Yale Library have embarked on a project to transition some old, static HTML web-based exhibitions to Omeka-resident exhibitions, inside one Omeka installation. For multiple reasons (pilot, single class, need for simplicity), the Black Acts use of Omeka made no distinction between the exhibit and the instance of Omeka. I even made some slight tweaks to Erin Bell’s Deco theme in order to elide the distinction where it wasn’t already gone. In this second leg of the pilot, MSSA is using Omeka rather more in the way it was intended, but therefore in a more complicated way. The third leg is a little shaky, but looks like it will be a fall with me supporting multiple installations for multiple courses. Necessarily, we are still without the logical fourth leg, which would be scaling up a single installation for use with multiple courses. I haven’t really entertained that idea, because I haven’t seen it done yet in Omeka. User roles in the software are predicated on an assumption that the deploying institution does not have multiple non-overlapping user groups, where a collection of courses is just that. We need to be able to have many users who can do the same things within an exhibit, say, or within a collection or some other container, but not outside that container. I’m currently trying to get a hold of anyone who has managed to make this work.

Finally, there’s work to be done in creating and maintaining fewer copies of collections’ digital assets. Many of the items the students encountered in the Beinecke collection had not been catalogued yet, and most had not been digitized. Consequently, most of the digital assets in the exhibition are less than Beinecke-level reproductions. That is adequate for an undergraduate exploration of a new way of performing scholarship, but it should be improved for the future. Even if this means that the students are all required to reproduce their items the same way, the resultant assets will be more nearly reusable. Yet working at the Beinecke is not easy; for the security of the indescribably rare objects in their collection, not every Manny, Moe, and Jack off the street is allowed to come in and photograph things. Further, if six people spent five percent of their time on this project, that’s both a non-trivial amount and an insufficient amount. Limiting interactions with an already limited environment may discourage students from taking courses that do this kind of work. (On the other hand, it may not. Several students said at the closing session that one of the best parts of the course was working with Beinecke material, and some said they did not know any other students who had used the Beinecke in a course. Scarcity may be enhancing the appeal.) How can we bring in assets from the Beinecke’s digitized collections? As a university rich in earmarked money but poor in developer resources, are we at the mercy of the Omeka marketplace to come up with a bridging solution? Is a solution really needed? That is, are students just as well off recapitulating — however amateurishly (and I use that word advisedly) — most of the process of handling research objects as a way of understanding just how much invisible labor is involved in delivering them the materials that they already take for granted? Does their work need to be the equivalent of library professionals who have spent many years developing their abilities, or can it be a little rough around the edges but sandboxed because of their limitations? To pick on that frequently used word, are we giving them a sandbox as part of their digital education, or are we scaffolding them in a non-sandboxed world? We can’t ignore these questions moving forward, and I hope our work with Omeka allows us to address them competently.

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