March 21, 2011

Civil War Papers Project puts digital scholarship into practice

The Civil War Papers, taught by Alice Hickcox, electronic text specialist at Emory's Beck Center.
Alice Hickcox, electronic text specialist, teaches workshop participants about encoding texts.

By Margie Fishman

As part of a University-wide effort to prepare the next generation of scholars, a group of graduate students are learning to digitize Civil War-era letters, diary entries and other documents to make them more accessible to the Emory community and beyond.

The three-session Civil War Papers Project teaches students how to encode text to make it searchable online, use Google Earth to link artifacts with their referenced locations and create an interactive website to tie it all together.

The workshop series is part of a year-long introduction to digital scholarship, sponsored by Emory Libraries and the Laney Graduate School.

Emory Libraries will officially open the "Digital Scholarship Commons" (DiSC) this fall to encourage innovative digital scholarship projects across disciplines. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program will provide dedicated space in Woodruff Library, along with technical expertise and project support.

"Through the process of organizing narratives, graduate students learn to think differently about their research," says Miriam Posner, Mellon postdoctoral research associate for DiSC. "They're also exposed to potential collaborators."

Previous digital scholarship workshops, enrolling from 30 to 50 students, have focused on how to gain an edge in the competitive job climate. Students learned to harness social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to cultivate professional identities online and improve their Google rankings. They also created fully operational websites in under an hour, says Posner, who credits her own blog with helping her land her current position.

Digital Scholarship Coordinator Stewart Varner chose the Civil War papers theme to give students a practical way to apply classroom concepts. This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Emory's Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, boasting a significant collection related to the Civil War, supplied the transcribed documents. 

"The only criteria were that they be brief, legible and interesting," explains Posner.

Digital Scholarship Workshop

A Civil War Papers Project participant.

"Encoding Texts" was the topic of the first session on March 17. The 18 graduate students and librarians learned how to create and store text as an xml document, working with a letter written by a Union infantryman.

In the letter to his parents dated Feb. 19, 1862, Henry Crydenwise appeared to be in good spirits as he described his rigorous exercise regimen and a side business selling tobacco at his camp in Key West. But his message was obscured by slanted penmanship and misspelled words.

The workshop participants inserted clarifications in the text with a series of brackets and symbols. 

The Beck Center, an Emory Libraries initiative to promote digital collections, will eventually publish Crydenwise's letter and others on its website.

"The goal is to expose the students to how scholars use computers in their research and their teaching," says Alice Hickcox, an electronic text specialist for Emory Libraries who taught the first session of the Civil War Papers Project. "The most important thing is not that they know exactly how to do this, but to understand why it's useful."

Many scholars shy away from marketing their work to a larger audience, preferring the "hallowed traditions of writing manuscripts," notes Posner. 

Digital scholarship skills require minimal financial investment, offer students a new tool in their arsenal and help build community among diverse disciplines, says Brian Croxall, emerging technologies librarian and Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellow.

The Civil War Papers Project got a successful test run earlier this month at THATCamp Southeast, a digital humanities conference for librarians, scholars and other professionals held at Emory. Recently, the Mellon Foundation awarded the University a $695,000, two-year grant to expand the Digital Scholarship Commons program.

"Digital humanities is the future," says Elizabeth Stice, a workshop participant and fourth-year graduate student in history. "The more you learn about it now, the better off you'll be."

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