What’s a Subject Librarian Doing with Minimal Computing?

[The following paper was delivered at the DLF 2016 Forum in Milwaukee on the “Minimal Computing in Libraries: Case Studies and the Case” panel]

Link to the slides.

Slide 1

No, really. What am I doing with minimal computing? I’m not a technologist and my job doesn’t require me to engage on a very deep level with the digital humanities. I’m a subject librarian and although I’ve worked on digital projects before there isn’t really an everyday need for minimal computing in my world. However, I have had a DH project on my mind that I have long wanted to do and minimal computing seemed like the perfect way to get me started in the very, very, very limited time that I have to pursue independent research.

Slide 2

Many of you here have heard all about our mhdh project which, in a nutshell, was an attempt to familiarize a bunch of humanities subject librarians with the tools and methodologies of digital humanities, so that we could be better partners and advisors on projects being developed by students and faculty. The end result, the homepage of which you see here, is an Omeka exhibition on various buildings and landmarks in Columbia’s NYC neighborhood, Morningside Heights.

We each chose our own building or site to research but we worked together in small teams on various elements of the project. The development team was responsible for the coding and back end of the site. We spent a lot of time learning how to use GitHub, how to code with PHP, how to edit CSS files, and how to break stuff on a daily basis. We were lucky that Alex was a floater on all the teams and was basically an honorary member of the Development team because he always fixed all our errors and explained what we were doing wrong.

We also learned, though it goes against our instincts as research librarians, that 95% of problems/questions related to coding can we solved by Googling “how to….”

Slide 3

This is the last page of my exhibition on The Riverside Church. From a technical standpoint it’s nothing to write home about but our whole focus was always process not product and I have to acknowledge that I learned a lot. But, even though I know Omeka pretty well it can be clunky and inflexible, and requires a fair amount of attention which made it a poor choice for my DH project (which I’ll finally tell you about) since I can never devote a lot of time to it.

Slide 4

So…Dr. William Wilberforce Baldwin, whom I discovered when researching my undergraduate senior thesis, was a colorful character with an interesting life. I ended up not writing about him for my thesis but I never forgot about the extensive collection of unpublished letters to him held at the Morgan (7 boxes) and I always dreamed of doing a social network analysis to understand where/when all his famous correspondents crossed paths and interacted in the course of their world travels.

In 2015, I finally decided I would start working on the project, even if I could only move at a glacial pace, which I am. I’ve begun by transcribing all the letters in the collection and I’m building a database of names, places, and dates which will help me in later phases of the project when I plan to map the letters in Carto and create some Gephi visualizations for the social network. That picture by Herkomer is at the Uffizi in Florence, donated by Baldwin’s children in the 1970s. I’ve been working for about a year, taking one research day a month at the Morgan (although none this semester) and I’m about halfway through transcribing the collection. As I learned more about minimal computing principles, it became clear to me that I could turn all of my painstakingly transcribed letters into a digital edition.

Slide 5

Using Ed/Jekyll enables me to create a quick, user-friendly, gorgeously clean digital edition of the fascinating letters in Baldwin’s archive.

Definition of Ed: “Ed is a Jekyll theme designed for textual editors based on minimal computing principles, and focused on legibility, durability, ease and flexibility. Our underlying technology is easy to learn and teach, and can produce beautifully rendered scholarly or reading editions of texts meant to last.”

Definition of Jekyll: “Jekyll is a simple, blog-aware, static site generator. … Jekyll also happens to be the engine behind GitHub Pages, which means you can use Jekyll to host your project’s page, blog, or website from GitHub’s servers for free.”

Here you can see the homepage with a brief description and the index of letters below. I’ve chosen to order the letters by author’s last name although I’ve also considered ordering them chronologically. Once I have a map done in Carto, even if it’s just a partial map, I’m hoping to embed it on the homepage above the site description.

** Slide 6 and 7 **

I customized the metadata for location and date because it’s important to contextualize these letters.

I haven’t figured out how I want to indicate unclear spelling so I’m using (?) for now. I’ve also considered using footnotes for unclear spelling but am on th efence.

As I add more letters and documents in other formats, I may need to tweak the metadata fields again.

The current biographical note is just her birth and death years and a link to a very brief biography of her from a Spanish archive (she was married to a Spanish nobleman and diplomat). I plan to fill it out more and make it a bit more engaging.

Slide 7—another short letter so you can see how clean and easy to read it is. I may increase the font size slightly but otherwise it’s really easy on the eyes.

I’ve also included physical description of the letter because often letters were written on hotel stationery or envelopes came from villas or private estates where these people would stay- tells us a lot about how they traveled, who they knew, how extensive the social network could be.

Slide 8

Minimal computing works so well for so many people because it doesn’t have a steep learning curve

Basic commands in terminal and the most basic knowledge of github are all you need…

On the left are instructions Alex created for me so I could start building and editing the site. On the right you can see me actually following those commands in terminal. It’s almost too easy.

Slide 9

Use a basic text editing interface like TextWrangler and the handy templates that come with Ed to get er’ done.

I’m using the narrative template to format and transcribe the letters. It accommodates most prose genres I think and has been pretty flexible for me.

You can also see my filename system on the left- makes it easy to track things and keep them in order, especially when there are multiple letters from the same author.

Exhibit A on the left is my trusty colleague cleaning up the metadata so that my 19th century letters don’t display with the year 2016 in them!

Slide 10

I just wanted to show this lovely complimentary railroad ticket that was given to Baldwin and his wife by his friend, the railroad manager, Thomas E. Clarke, but which was seemingly never used. I hope that I have the time and energy to keep working on the project so that my digital edition of the letters doesn’t become as obsolete as the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which went out of business in the early 20th century. If I don’t end up finishing, it’s going to be in spite of how easy and accessible Ed and minimal computing are…

**Slide 11 **