Student-Curated Web Archives and the Public Humanities

Just got my ASECS proposal in for the next conference! I feel as though I just returned from San Antonio…. Here it is:

In “Making Connections: The Humanities, Culture and Community,” part of the findings of the ACLS’s National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities, James Quay and James Veninga explore the relationship between the humanities, institutions of higher education in the liberal arts tradition, and civic engagement. Considering the radical cultural changes shaping our world today, Quay and Veninga note that the greatest “test of…democracy” is located in “enriching public conversation and extending participation in this conversation to all Americans.” The most central challenge facing higher education today, they find, is overcoming the sense and practice of a divide between academic scholarship in the humanities and public engagement. And yet, this divide is not insurmountable; it is more accurate, and indeed more useful, “to consider scholarship and the public humanities not as two distinct spheres but as parts of a single process, the process of taking private insight, testing it, and turning it into public knowledge.”

Since 2010, I have been experimenting with Omeka as a platform from which to build a collaboratively-generated and student-curated web archive based on selected eighteenth-century holdings in our university’s small special collection. I am developing a course built entirely around the project by using some of the collection’s strengths—like travel narratives, sermon collections, and texts dealing with health and illness—to help students understand their roles not only as participants in an ongoing conversation of ideas, but also as creators of public knowledge in a digital age that works with tactile, pre-digital materials. In the central project, students select one of a range of texts that have been tapped for inclusion in the Omeka archive, study it for content as well as context and form, discover the particularities of our edition, situate the text within the range of open-access indexes (like the ESTC and 18th Century Book Tracker), conduct research on the item’s significance, and create a full record for the item in the archive. Each record contains a brief researched overview geared toward a general audience, hyperlinked further-reading bibliography, page images of a selected portion of the item, and an edited and searchable PDF version of the selection, in addition to tags and basic metadata drawn from the Library of Congress catalog listings. The project has several variations—for instance, the class may work with a single item as a whole, considering and developing standardized methods for representing the data associated with the record—and I am also experimenting with ways to include a collaborative scholarly XML edition of the item.

The project seeks to concretize the significance of the public sphere in the eighteenth century—particularly the role of print in its formation, as well as the progressive values of open conversation and rational civic debate it fosters—while drawing on the goals and methods of the public humanities. Because I teach at a Catholic-identified private university, such a project has additional civic implications. In “The Humanities and the Public Soul,” Julie Ellison puts it this way: “The specific importance of public scholarship in the arts and humanities is to provide purposeful social learning, spaces where individuals and groups with ‘trustworthy knowledge’ convene to pursue joint inquiry and invention that produces a concrete result.” Ultimately, the site will grow into a self-consciously produced resource that provides a context from which students can explore the material ramifications of participation in a kind of academic learning that is social, concrete, and public.

Because of the scale of this project, I am still in the process of developing it—currently, a small number of our MA students are creating records according to a working model, testing the parameters of the assignment, and providing feedback on the experience while learning about the practical and theoretical contexts of digital representation of print media. This panel would provide a unique opportunity to collaborate at the structural level to embody joint inquiry and invention.

Works Referenced:

Ellison, Julie. “The Humanities and the Public Soul.” Imagining America: Reports and Resources. 27 July 2011. 

McAfee, Noëlle. “Ways of Knowing: The Humanities and the Public Sphere.” Standing with the Public: The Humanities and Democratic Practice. Kettering Foundation Press, 1997.

Quay, James, and James Veninga. “Making Connections: The Humanities, Culture and Community.” American Council of Learned Societies. 27 July 2011. 1990.

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