Collaboration and Community: Three Digital Humanities Projects #saa13

6 minute read
Mimi Dionne avatar

The educational sessions of the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists concluded at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana on Saturday, August 17, 2013. This session focused on taking collaboration between practitioners and stakeholders to the next level.

The panel comprised of:

  • Lori A. Birrell, MA, Archivist, University of Rochester
  • Robin L. Chandler, Associate University Librarian, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Janet M. Carleton, Digital Initiatives Coordinator, Ohio University Libraries
  • Sheila A. McAlister, Associate Director, Digital Library of Georgia, University of Georgia

Taking Collaboration to the Next Level

"Collaboration" has become a central buzz word in archival studies and library science. The panelists offered three different models that surpass merely adding content to a website. This panel tackled issues for practitioners when collaborating with key stakeholders on digital projects. They discussed the challenges and successes in collaborations, assessment and evaluation undertaken to improve outcomes, lessons learned and future plans.

McAlister prefaced the session with two references:

“Archives, libraries, and museums are accustomed to working collaboratively to publish their digital collections. Often these collaborations are narrowly focused and geographically based,” she asserted. "Even larger institutional projects involve the same familiar partners and models. But now that we’ve mastered the basic processes of digitization and these familiar relationships, how do we take it to the next level?” asked McAlister. "According to Rubin, ‘there is a fork in the road. One way leads down a familiar street of discrete collections of material. The other road leads to a broadening of purpose, to new relationships which hold the promise of creating new value and experiences for the user.’”

Balancing Stakeholder Interests

Carleton commented on the managerial sensitivity required when digitizing projects with multiple stakeholders. George V. Voinovich, elected to more public offices than any other Ohioan, expressed an early interest in digitizing his collections. The project was designed to:

  • expose requested items from Voinovich collections in single interface for study and research, and
  • involve faculty in selection process to promote classroom use.

The project included three collections housed at Ohio University: George V. Voinovich Gubernatorial Collection 1991-1998; Senator George V. Voinovich Papers 1999-2011; and George V. Voinovich Campaigns Collection, and Records of the Mayor of the City of Cleveland, George V. Voinovich 1977-1989, housed at Western Reserve Historical Society. 

The core project team includes representatives from the Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs, the Center for Public History and the Digital Humanities as well as Ohio University’s University Libraries, the Voinovich Center and faculties. Current status? Four out of five collections are online. In fact, campaign materials are scheduled to be uploaded this week.

Bringing Collections to the Classroom

Birrell’s presentation focused on “connecting collections with curricula.” Dr. Tom Slaughter of the University of Rochester’s History Department began offering Hist 219: William Henry Seward and His Civil War in the fall of 2012. The course integrates the William Henry Seward Papers, creating a wonderful triangle of collaboration amongst the units at the University: the History Department, the Special Collections Department and the Digital Humanities Center.

Collaboration amongst the three parties was required while designing the course. Dr. Slaughter and staff wrestled with several questions: How do we balance access and security to this manuscript collection? How should library staff, space, money and equipment be allocated? The results have been a deeply enriching project for everyone:

  • Peer-to-peer learning. The students have matured into scholars. They opine on what sources future classes will consult and what letters should be transcribed. In other words, their vision affects future scholarship.
  • Student as researcher. Students are translating handwritten letters exchanged among members of the Seward family. They interact with tangible objects from a family of American historical importance. This six year project commitment will culminate in a website with family letters from the 1830s to the 1870s.
  • Creating a scholarly communications product. The students are growing comfortable with a valuable skill in the digital humanities discipline: how to code letters for web presentation according to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).
  • Building trust. A significant lesson in this project involves caring for the original record. The students are sharing authority, facilitating access, and authoring security methodologies.
  • Handling with care. The staff in Special Collections educate students on the care and handling of the materials, facilitating respect for the original record.

Birrell expressed how her role on the project evolved from co-teacher to project consultant, as more of the project’s administration shifts to Professor Slaughter and his graduate assistant. She has found this experience to be incredibly enriching.

Learning Opportunities

Respecting Grateful Dead Fans and IP Rights

Chandler and staff are collaborating with a huge fan base of the Grateful Dead. Staff have arranged and described some 600 linear feet, built “Dead Central” (a permanent exhibit space), and completed a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to scan 45,000 items for the Grateful Dead Archive Online (GDAO) using OMEKA. Staff focus has concentrated on intellectual property (IP) issues, especially building a project IP framework group to collaborate with multiple rights holders in the original donation. Its charge: to develop an IP strategy for the project

  • establishing workflows and evaluating risk -- including fair use assessment, rights tracking and Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down policies, and
  • creating documents and a database -- licenses, rights holders contact information and metadata statements.

For example, Grateful Dead fans were always allowed to tape shows -- no one show was ever the same -- and audience recordings were shared in digital format at the Internet Archive. The GDAO IP Framework Group is building a collaboration of trust and ownership with not only the rights holder, but also the contributors to the socially constructed archive. Some 45,000 items are available online: fan-decorated envelopes; photos; show tickets; etc. The GDAO website provides a mechanism for access that respects and supports the bond between band and fans.

Lessons Learned

To conclude the session, McAlister asked her panel, “the big takeaways from your projects?”

Carleton was honest. “Letting go. Sometimes, I’m not the one making final decisions. This is good for me and the project. Collaboration sometimes means nobody gets their way.”

Birrell responded, “Trust. This year stretched my understanding of how to work with faculty.”

Chandler focused on staff confidence to move forward and address IP issues. “Be bold, but be respectful. Assess fair use completely. Work with counsel to articulate risks and uncertainty -- and plan and build mechanisms to license works for educational use, and collaborate with the community to identify rights holders.”

Editor's Note: Read more of Mimi's coverage of the conference.

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