The first semester course of the George Mason University’s Digital Public Humanities Certificate was an introduction into the field of Digital Humanities. The course highlighted several aspects of the field – visualizations (network analysis, text mining, and mapping), copyright and image permissions, digital platforms (Omeka and WordPress), and the use of databases and metadata to capture information, describe items, and allow users to find the items. As the course progressed, each student was tasked to create their own DH project. The focus of my project (The Afro Caribbean Annals) was to use various metadata fields to both describe a number of digital items, as well as allow users to find the items through browsing and searching the site.
The goal of my project was to consolidate pre-20th century materials related to the Caribbean. By doing this, it is the hope that these items will be able to supplement known aspects of West Indian history and potentially bring to light others. In order to accomplish this goal a number of collections, or parts of collections, were identified from two institutions: the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Lowcountry Digital Library. The items in these collections primarily include images (prints, paintings, engravings, etc.), in addition to textual based documents (financial accounts, plantation records, and correspondence). These items highlight a number of topics and illustrate cultural aspects of the people, architecture, and the landscape of the land itself.
Items were added one at a time from the identified collections and assigned relevant metadata in order to increase the accessibility, identification, and the general information about the items. These metadata fields include date or date range, item type, genre, keywords, location, and creator. While much of this information was previously provided by the NYPL, a very brief description has been added to the items highlighting what is taking place in the image or document, providing a name and lifespan of central figures, or a transcription of any docketing information.
At the beginning of this project, a number of terms were identified for use within these fields. However, as more items were added, so to were additional terms so as to help provide better classification of the materials. Furthermore, supplementary information has been created as work on this digital project progressed. Those individuals identified as contributors (painter, engraver, printer, publisher, etc.) have been given brief biographical descriptions. As this is an initial attempt to give the users added information, only brief research was done about these individuals. Most information comes from Wikipedia.
Currently the items included are from the following NYPL collections:
- A History of the West Indies
- A Voyage in the West Indies
- Compendious Descriptions of the West-Indies
- Four Years’ Residence in the West Indies.
- Grenada Plantation Records – Accounts & Surveys
- Miscellaneous American Letters and Papers
- Print Collection – Caribbean Area
- The History of Jamaica
- The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British West Indies
It is the hope of the researcher to continue this project by including those items identified from the Lowcountry Digital Library, and eventually provide searchable transcriptions for textual documents.
A couple of digital platforms were discussed, reviewed, and used during the course of this class. Two of the more prominently used were Omeka and WordPress. Each of these platforms are content management systems with built in functionalities to capture metadata and create a digital exhibit or DH project. Nonetheless, this project was built using Drupal, a more robust and highly configurable content management system. Drupal is known to have a steep learning curve however; it is something that I have become extremely familiar with. The infrastructure of Drupal has allowed content to be related quickly to each other and to create a robust search interface. Additionally, the content was able to be repurposed to show the items individually, but also in a timeline format without having to capture more metadata. The purpose of this was simply to allow users another way to access the items, presenting them in a way that one could potentially look to see how the images and portrayal of figures or clothing changed over time.
As work progressed on all of the student projects, we were each given the opportunity to provide and receive feedback about our projects. This feedback helped to identify aspects of the project that needed some alterations. For instance, it was suggested to possibly add metadata for artists and engravers when listed in order to help researchers interested in this, such as art historians. This information had in fact been captured under the field titled “Creator/Publisher” but obviously was not clear and helpful in its previous format. To fix this, I changed the field label to “Contributor(s)” as it was being used to capture data regarding all individuals who contributed to the creation of the item when know. Furthermore, I also altered the display of the contributor(s) names so that the person’s occupation/role was included in parenthesis. For example, William Day became William Day (lithographer).
Additional feedback suggested the capture of an items image number in separate field from the description which has now been done for nearly all items. There was also a suggested change to the rights statement to provide an actual email address instead of saying “contact me”. I am currently trying to implement this change with a global find and replace, as well as including a contact page for people to use.
While I was able to make a few changes based on the peer feedback, there were some suggestions that I chose not to include. This includes the structure of the Splash Page (home page) and the menu icon. The reason for choosing such a layout was to quickly grab the user’s attention and allow them a very simple way to navigate into the site. By using limited text on the page and providing both an icon and text saying “menu”, the user is not forced to have to know immediately what the icon alone would represent.
This project was not a research project and the goal was to provide a consolidated group of resources to help others doing research of this time and period. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things worth noting. First, portraits of individual figures of Caribbean descent were often of those who contributed to European culture/society or had proved to be a successful military person. French literature writer Alexander Dumas, violinists and composer Chevalier de St. Georges, and Haitian Revolution leader François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, are all examples of this.
Second, nearly all contributors (painters, engravers, lithographers, publishers, and printers) were of European descent. These individuals portrayed the native people from their point of view. One has to consider and even question the accuracy of their representations of the culture and people that they sought to portray. Were any of these illustrations affected by a need to capture the islands and natives in a particular way (as primitive, dressed in European clothing, etc.) While it is impossible to answer such questions at this time, it is something to consider as more work is done.