Understanding Tools: Working in the Research Division

In my research, I tend to focus on structures and institutions and their real-life implications for everyday people. In my everyday digital life, I have just come to a place where I am more comfortable with examining the structure of digital tools. This was my starting point for my rotation in the Research Division. At RRCHNM, the Research Division creates open-source tools to promote both individual historical research and the development of collaborative digital communities.

We began the rotation with an overview of PressForward, a software plug-in which allows users to aggregate and share digital content using WordPress. Once installing the plug-in, content can be collected via both a feed reader and bookmarklet. Users can discuss, nominate and share items (including an attribution link and metadata) within WordPress. When I learned that you can also keep track of notes and discussions, I wished I had known about PressForward when I was teaching; it would have been great to have this tool to allow students to review and discuss media related to our curriculum. However, PressForward is more than a cool plug-in; it is a tool by which scholarship outside of the typical journal article or dissertation can be widely distributed. Digital Humanities Now (DH Now) is an example of how PressForward is put into practice.

DH Now is an experimental, edited publication that highlights scholarship in the digital humanities that drives the field forward. Additional items of interest, such as jobs, CFPs, conferences, funding announcements, reports and other resources are also posted–again, the point here is encourage scholars to share via the open web, and to amplify work and resources that might not get the attention they deserve. Potential content for DH Now is aggregated in multiple ways, whether its via RSS from a list of subscribed feeds, Twitter threads, or other sources. The content is reviewed, nominated, and discussed  in WordPress using PressForward by volunteer Editors-at-Large. Rotating Editors-in-Chief (faculty and graduate students here at the Center) select content for publication. Acting as Editor-in-Chief gives graduate students the opportunity to examine both content and practice in the digital humanities; it also provides us with experience in crowd-sourcing a DH project.

As a DH Fellow, I’ve been a volunteer Editor-at-Large all semester; that practice combined with a new and deeper understanding of PressForward prepared us for our first task: serving as Co-Editors-in-Chief. Together, we reviewed all of the nominated content (which came by way of the feeds as well as from Bookmarklet), discussed the pros and cons of each piece, and decided on what we’d publish on DH Now. Our Editor’s Choice piece was the white paper “Digital History and Argument,” a product of the Arguing with Digital History Workshop  held here at Mason in September. We also published announcements for conferences and Zotero workshops, two job postings, and new grant guidelines for the DH Advancement Grant from the NEH.

I also spent some time working with Tropy, a newly released tool for organizing research photographs. Users can organize and annotate their photos, as well as export them to share and collaborate with others. I downloaded Tropy to my laptop and used a folder of images from my M.A. research (which may become part of my dissertation) to experiment with it. I was able to combine images (photographs of multiple-page documents) to create consolidated items that were easier to view. Tropy also allowed me to easily add metadata to my photos, such as archive and collection information. Once we had some experience with the software, we were tasked with creating metadata templates. I designed several templates using the following questions as guides:

With the photos I already have, how might have wanted to organize them differently when I was in the archive last year? For the photos I had, I created a template for that archive, with fields for Collection, Box, Folder, and Subject. Box and Subject were the most important fields for that template, as I was examining multiple events, each with extensive incoming and outgoing correspondence.

What other repositories could I access as I develop my dissertation topic? This question led me to some quick research on a nagging question I’ve had for a few weeks…and behold, I got an unexpected answer that will help me expand my focus for my dissertation! I located three additional repositories that could be helpful in the near future.

If I have access to, say, a collection finding aid, could I develop specific templates for these different repositories? One of the repositories I located had a finding aid (albeit not as detailed as that of the other archive I visited last fall), and I was able to use that to help me develop a template; for the other two repositories, I created a template that was a combination of the first two. In general, creating the templates were easy (and in the instance of furthering my dissertation topic, extremely helpful!)

I appreciated having the opportunity to work in the Research Division, to experiment with tools that I might have previously overlooked, and to examine ways in which these tools might be refined to serve the needs to even broader audiences.

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