Thursday, April 5, 2012

What I Learned About Digital Humanities Yesterday in York, PA

I spent the day yesterday at the York County (PA) Heritage Trust attending a workshop on digitization sponsored by "Save Pennsylvania's Past."  I was part of a team from the Messiah College History Department that is trying to: 1) begin a digital humanities project of our own and 2) incorporate digital humanities training and opportunities into our current public history concentration.

The workshop was attended by representatives from a variety of public institutions that are involved in digitization projects.  Some of the organizations represented included the Pennsylvania State Archives, Johns Hopkins University Libraries, Gettysburg College Archives, The Hershey Story Museum, the National Watch and Clock Museum, Ye Olde Sulphur Spa Historical Society, and the Joseph P. Simpson Library.  We met some potential partners for our project and made some good connections for student internships.

We learned very quickly that we were not the only ones thinking about digitizing the records of the south-central Pennsylvania region. In fact, we were one of the few groups present who had not already begun the process in a systematic fashion.

The instructor was Thomas F. Clareson, a Senior Consultant for Digital & Preservation Services at an organization called LYRASIS.  Not only was his presentation outstanding, but he was very gracious with his time during breaks and following the seminar.  Clareson walked us through some digitization basics. We discussed the institutional contexts in which our digitization projects would function.  He got us thinking about the kinds of materials that we may want to digitize.  He introduced us to the world of scanners, web design, software, storage, and metadata. He concluded with a discussion of collaboration, budgeting, staffing, sustainability, marketing, and funding sources.

All of us learned a great deal from Tom and we would like to explore the possibility of bringing him to Messiah College to do a similar workshop and meet with some of our administrators.

The main thing that I took away from the workshop was the financial commitment necessary to conduct a decent digital humanities project.  So far our digital humanities working group at Messiah College has been focused on trying to pick a project for which we can all get on board.  But getting a project off the ground--even a small and manageable project--requires more than just good ideas.  It requires a serious commitment from the sponsoring institution. There is expensive equipment to buy.  (A bunch of Office Max scanners won't do).  There is a project manager to appoint who will have the time to lead such efforts.  There are staffing issues (who will do the scanning, interpreting, writing?). There is storage space to consider.  Style guides must be created for the purpose of implementing metadata in a consistent fashion.  An attractive web page must be created (the best source materials, scanned at the best quality, and with superb metadata will get overlooked if the user can't navigate your site).  Grants need to be written.  Partners need to be found.  Some sort of governance structure needs to be put in place.  I got a good sense today about what our group is getting into.

Tom concluded his workshop with the following tips:
  • Do your project at the highest quality possible and adhere to as many of the best practices as possible.
  • Change management is vital to digitization projects.  Those involved should be flexible, be willing to change, and be prepared to document decisions.
  • Do Something!  Decisions for digital projects must be made in context.  There is no one-size fits all digitization project guide.
I left the workshop excited and enthusiastic about starting a digital humanities project and at the same time a bit discouraged by the kind of commitment necessary to pull off a project that is not half-baked. Stay tuned.