Digital Archives That Count

Our project explores new archival forms, new data streams, and new disciplinary models, as well as in developing a level of technological literacy sufficient to progress in evolving research and pedagogical practices.

Reflection: Arden Kirkland (Vassar College)

My participation in Digital Archives that Count has been beneficial not only to my own research and teaching, but also to the public digital archive that provides research materials to my students and colleagues. Over ten years, my work to create digital access to Vassar’s teaching collection of historic clothing has happened in fits and starts, around my other work as a faculty member of Vassar’s Drama Department, where I primarily work hands-on with students to construct costumes for plays, or support students’ independent projects, with little time left over for data entry or image processing. Meanwhile, our growing collection of historic clothing has been an invaluable resource to influence the design and construction process for shows. It has also become a very useful resource to faculty and students in other departments, who view objects from the collection as primary source materials: historical evidence of women’s lives from the mid-nineteenth century to today. As use of the collection has grown, the importance of digital access to the collection has become even more clear.

The support from Digital Archives that Count came just in time. Before the period of the workshop began, we were struggling to complete the process of migrating to a public Omeka website from a local Filemaker database. In addition, we had a huge backlog of images from the last two years that had never even made it into Filemaker, but were still waiting to be processed. Once the workshop began, we were final able to start catching up.

While I could not make the trip to CA for the opening workshop, I was able to attend virtually, successfully using Skype and Elluminate for video exchange and screensharing. The important themes from that weekend have remained important throughout the year: sustainability (backup strategy, platform choice, schema, and processes that allow for interoperability and future migration), the balance between having a robust back end and attractive, user-friendly interpretation on the front end (and the irony that funding and other support generally comes because of the latter, but that can’t exist until you’ve built the former), and of course the connection to pedagogy.

The artifacts in this archive “count” not because their aggregate collection allows users to see big-data-type quantifiable patterns, but rather just the opposite: it allows for the analysis and comparison of a multitude of unique objects, and it is only in the close reading of many unique objects that meaningful patterns can be seen. For many scholars, much less undergraduate liberal arts students, access to artifacts is severely limited. The Vassar community is lucky indeed to have such a collection of historic clothing on campus, but even for them, access is limited by time, space, the fragility of the objects, and my labor for supervision. By creating high quality digital surrogates to the objects in the collection, we can simulate many aspects of that close reading even after the original object has been put away. By providing objectVRs (showing each garment mounted on a mannequin, which the viewer can rotate and zoom in upon), detail views of the interior of a garment, and videos that show details in context, along with archival photographs, illustrations, and documents from the same period, we provide a way for the viewer to visualize how the garment appeared on a body when worn, how it was constructed, what the process was to put it on or take it off, and how the garment related to other aspects of life in that period. The ability to zoom in and out mimics the kind of looking that is a part of the analytical process for designers, mediating between intricate details and the more distant “big picture.”

Thanks to this grant, I was able to hire two student research assistants, who accomplished a great deal to get us caught up by processing hundreds of images, editing them as needed (cropping, rotating, etc.) and adding thorough metadata for each image. They also processed two sets of hundreds of images into 27 of the objectVRs described above (with help from Vassar’s Visual Resources Library).  However, their labor for data entry and image editing was only a part of their value, as it has been important to consider how the archive “counts” for students in the process of building it, not just as consumers of the archive when it is “done.” Each student worked on independent research that involved consulting the existing archive, adding materials to it (cataloging them thoroughly), and adding interpretive presentations. Through this work the students provided important feedback about the functionality of the archive, from the perspective of viewer and of contributor, which has influenced both the workflow and the design of the site.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to share this work at the NITLE symposium in April. Laryngitis didn’t stop me from squeakily discussing my poster presentation with professors, librarians, and technologists from all over the country, making some great connections. It was also wonderful to finally meet my workshop-mates in person, sharing more exciting ideas that have fed right back into the archive.

I have found it extremely helpful to use the collection tools to organize and visualize my own research, about the changing size, cost, and quality of a woman’s wardrobe from the nineteenth century to today, as related to the wages of those making her clothing. Generally, the more imminent pedagogical needs of the entire collection have come first, but now that we’ve worked through our backlog of items, I look forward to returning to my own research.

In the coming year, our advanced students will consult the digital archive for a new class project, choosing objects to reproduce and using the images in the archive for their construction process. They will have opportunities to examine the actual objects hands-on, but as those opportunities must be limited (as mentioned above), the digital resources will be very important. The cycle will continue: their work will likely result in the collection of more primary source research which can be contributed back to the archive, as can the images of the resulting reproductions themselves.

The work to build this archive is also already having implications for a broader community. I am collaborating with a team of scholars at Smith College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and others of their 5 College Consortium, to create Using my Omeka site at Vassar as a model, I will help them to build a prototype that aims to be an inter-institutional Center for the Study of Clothing, Costume, Fashion and Culture, a digital archive with diverse media related to women’s Western clothing and accessories worn in America from 1770 to 1930.

*Highlights of all this work here.

About Digital Archives That Count

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2012 by in reflections and tagged .

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