Projects Director: Kelly Schrum
The Division of Teaching and Learning, the ‘education wing,’ is responsible for organizing projects which further the experience of teachers and students through digital media. These projects range from websites which provide resources for teachers to integrate into their lessons to continuing education courses for teachers and area-specific educational sites.
During our rotation in Teaching and Learning, we spent most of our time working on the Sea of Liberty, an educational resource exploring the letters of Thomas Jefferson, in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The project site allows students to view both original documents and transcriptions of letters to, from, or relating to, Thomas Jefferson. The site features an interactive ‘create’ section which allows students to build a web project.
When we entered this rotation, Sea of Liberty was in full swing: the database was in its final stages of construction and content was being gathered. Over our five weeks on the project we were able to witness a transformation of the project, as an agglomeration of images, transcripts, and metadata was transferred from many-hundred-item spreadsheets into a fully functioning relational database.
DH Fellows on Education
Although we were assigned to the Sea of Liberty project in order to help quickly populate the site with content, our individual tasks were sometimes shaped to suit our strengths. Because Amanda and Ben were heavily involved in the initial content-building process, I found myself batting clean-up, working with problem items that required more dedicated time than the others could afford. Some items lacked images, or had complicated permission restrictions; others included only the first page of a longer document. Finding those images or documents took time, and often led down narrow rabbit holes. The extra time afforded by having the DH Fellows on the project meant that we could track down the problem items and ensure that the content was quickly built up.
The Sea of Liberty project was a challenge because the content was partially drawn from an existing collection at Monticello, and partially built out by the researchers in Education. The resulting resource list was a strange mash-up of preexisting formats and metadata with new information that we tried to normalize. With numerous people working on the same list, however, the process was difficult to direct and sometimes duplicated efforts. Even when working with experienced staff, new projects are always unique and come with peculiar problems to solve and lessons to learn. One of the benefits of moving between projects is that we are able to see a broad range of characteristics and problem-solving methods across different divisions.
Amanda Morton (2012)
Working on the Sea of Liberty project was an interesting introduction to the process of creating collaborative projects. I came in near the beginning of the active work on the project, and was able to see it develop from a spreadsheet full of links and quotes into a working site that serves as both an archive and educational activity center, a development process that wasn’t always easy.
Many of the challenges faced in getting the site from concept to completion, at least for the parts of the project in which I actively participated, involved dealing with the Foundation sponsoring the project and narrowing down what exactly they wanted based on the content they provided. We had to translate a list of quotes developed for an exhibit at their museum into a working content list for a much larger and broader resource site, which required expanding the coverage area and removing those pieces of the exhibit list that didn’t fit the broader questions addressed by the final educational site. Watching the project leaders navigate communications issues, differences of opinion on source material, and questions of intellectual property was fascinating and slightly terrifying. I have a great deal of admiration for the members of the staff who direct these projects and organize the interests of the people involved.
On another level, we faced challenges in finding useable content and then getting that content onto the site. Working from the initial spreadsheet of orphan quotes forced me to stretch my online research skills to the limit. Additionally, while the three of us had some experience working together, we hadn’t worked with such a large group of people using the same set of resources. Collaborative documents are incredibly useful tools, but when six or seven people are editing and entering items from the same set of documents, they can be confusing. I found working in the Education department to be an important exercise in collaboration and communication, skills that most historians should practice as often as possible.
Ben Hurwitz (2012)
I began working on the Sea of Liberty project while the team was still aggregating and organizing content, most of which had been supplied by our partners at Monticello. Most of my work involved tracking down original page images and transcriptions of Jefferson’s letters, as well as finding metadata for historical images in the collection.
While Amanda and I were busy with content, others in the division were busy building the database which would house the content. Our developers, James and Sameera, provided us with a Drupal platform to accommodate our needs and then constructed a site with some really neat functionality. For example, the finished site places original document images beside transcriptions and allows students to easily find passages in the original document by selecting text in the transcription. This tool will help students greatly when creating their projects, and it also provides them with support as they encounter the process of transcription.
Working on this project exposed me to a range of tasks that can be necessary at CHNM, especially when a project has entered the ‘all hands on deck’ stage. Content is at the fore of Sea of Liberty and by transcribing and researching documents I felt that I was ‘doing’ history. Yet the most exciting part of this project was learning about the back-end of the site. I had no experience working with Drupal or similar content management systems, and I was impressed by what they can offer to the exhibitor. The customized platform provided by our developers made uploading our content simple, even for someone like me with little experience. Through this project, I became familiar with tools which are useful to a number of professions in the field of history.