Crayons > Digital Humanities

The early afternoon of Day of DH saw me prepping for a guest visit to a graduate seminar. The faculty member teaching the seminar met with me at the end of the last semester and told me that she wanted to try something new this time around. The class is organized around our Library’s current exhibition of Seamus Heaney materials, and instead of having her students write a seminar paper, she hoped that they would create a digital surrogate for the exhibit (something that our library currently does not do). We met again last week to talk about the assignment and determined that I would talk to them about designing an exhibit in Omeka and some work on timelines.

The result was that I spent a portion of today re-familiarizing myself with Omeka’s interface and the various ropes within. Amazingly, I had never actually built an exhibit within the platform, so I got to play with that and figure out how it works. Fortunately, it’s really out-of-the-box simple, which is good when you’re trying to cram your preparation. (Thanks, Omeka.net!) For timelines, I showed them TimeMapper, which makes very pretty things, indeed.

But it turns out that the tools are much simpler than all the other things that need to be considered with a project. And so we spent far more time talking about issues such as copyright and trying to brainstorm what their take on the exhibit should perhaps be. What’s the rhetorical entry point for their work? What contribution will they be making to the exhibit that is already in place? Who is the audience that they are imagining for the exhibit? How do the materials and information relate to its different parts and then how will a viewer/user navigate these relationships? In other words, a story board for the project is what they need. A big piece of paper and lots of crayons is what was called for; this is what Bethany Nowviskie has called “graphesis” (see this article and this one). I left the seminar after about 105 minutes. But they stuck around for another 45, working on their imagined design.

It turns out that the most important (and hardest) work in digital humanities projects often depends on non-digital means. The tools are easy; the scholarship, however, abides.