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How We Built It (Pt. 1)

With the patient help of the team at Omeka and the resourcefulness of our Roberson Project team.

By Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project

I am your typical historian trained in the last decades of the twentieth century. I mostly missed the first trains of the information technology revolution. I remember younger grad school friends who jumped to land the earliest Mac computers. I not only didn’t get one. I didn’t even get why I should. It was probably 15 years later before I learned what WYSIWYG stood for. Even today I do not know whether it is data (DAY-tuh) or data (DAT-tuh).

I know how to use information and deploy evidence, but my historian’s brain closely resembles the knotted highway interchange pictured above. Everything is there and it connects, but I’m not always sure how or where.

All of this is to say that I could see the potential of the Locating Slavery’s Legacies database – a virtual archive of information about Confederate and Lost Cause memorials on college campuses – when it appeared as an idea two years ago. But I needed models to emulate and a lot of help from a team of people a lot smarter about such things and more experienced than I was even to get it on the drawing board.

Building the architecture of the LSLdb sent me back to school and landed me at the bottom of the class.

In the preceding blog I explained how the idea came about, how it was stimulated by my introduction to what other people already were doing with machine-readable and linked open data.

In this blog I want to give a very abbreviated history of the LSLdb’s development, none of which would have been possible – it bears repeating – without the financial support of the Legacies of American Slavery grant from the Council of Independent Colleges.

But the most essential building blocks for the project were the dedicated and talented members of the Roberson Project team, and they deserve the greatest share of the credit for what it is today:

  • Dr. Tiffany Momon, RP Assistant Director and public historian, who had co-built the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive, one of the more impressive public history and digital humanities projects you’ll find on the web today;
  • Dr. Hannah Huber, who had just joined Sewanee’s Center for Southern Studies initiative and completed a digital humanities postdoc at the University of Illinois Chicago;
  • Dr. Andrew Maginn, who had begun a term as the RP’s chief research associate after getting his doctorate in history at Howard University and was eager to learn how to use digital tools on his own scholarship;
  • And Ms. October Kamara, studying for her master’s degree in public history at Middle Tennessee State University and working part-time with the RP, who, I discovered to my amazement, was a whiz with digital humanities technologies.  

Tiffany, Hannah, and I had our first substantive meeting with Omeka’s Sharon Leon and Ken Albers on March 5, 2021 (Andrew and October had yet to start working with the RP). We covered the nuts and bolts of the collaboration, terms of the contract, and from those discussions came a “Statement of Work” document. The plan called for five work meetings with us, starting in June and finishing in August. We signed on and work began in earnest on June 21st.

Early on in our summer meetings we worked with Sharon and Ken to complete a “Digital Scholar Site Planning Worksheet,” to which we added our goals for the website, model sites that we did and did not like (and why), a draft outline of a site map, and a profile of the audiences we hoped to attract. In between the work meetings with Omeka every other week, our own team – by then including October – met. Initially we addressed specific tasks and talked out the different questions on the worksheet.

But as the summer progressed, we also began testing and modifying the working model that Sharon and Ken had prepared for us. As the pilot contributors to the LSLdb already know, the digital machinery works with a specified set of drop-down menu selections and blanks to be filled with information. We added to and subtracted from the model we started with, developed our own “indexable” categories and definitions of memorial types. Kim Nguyen, Omeka’s Lead UI/UX Developer, joined us mid-summer to design the website and user interface that we envisioned. By the end of August 2021, we had a website (the front end) and an administrative site (the back end that only contributors can access). It resembled what we had started with, but had been customized and refined to fit the purposes and uses we had in mind for the database.

For us, some of the biggest lessons were in learning what Omeka S can and cannot do and adjusting our needs and expectations to its architecture. But as we came to learn the system through experience, we discovered system capacities and opportunities that we had not anticipated. Omeka S made our database even better.

Once the fall semester had begun at the end of August and the database was turned over to us, we began adding memorial items from our own campus. The RP had already done the research on most of Sewanee’s many memorials, so we gave each member of the team information on a cluster of memorials and the persons they memorialized to add to the database.

The point of this exercise was not just to build up Sewanee’s inventory. It was to test the site, to see if the database we had designed actually worked when we tried to use it. Over the course of two months of user-testing, we had to make a few big changes and a lot of small adjustments to the back-end of the site.

October and I took on an even bigger task: writing and revising the “Controlled Vocabulary and Data Dictionary,” which defines every element of the database’s back end and in ways that have to be uniform across the entire site. The dictionary also guides contributors to the database, step by step, through the whole process of entering a memorial item, categorizing it, and providing the needed information.

This was just the kind of detail-oriented job that October relishes, and more than I do. But for me, the great dividend from working on the Data Dictionary was coming to appreciate and understand at a much deeper level the operation and power of Omeka S. As October and I talked through and then wrote the definitions for the different types of memorials, the historical periodization to place them on a timeline, the various organizations and affiliations that would link memorials and memorialized people across different campuses — all of this painstaking work helped me move up from the bottom of the class, maybe to somewhere in the middle.

Throughout the fall, too, the RP team was strategizing ways to recruit teams of instructors and students at other institutions to join us for a pilot year of testing. Designing the database was one thing. But we also had to demonstrate to our colleagues on other campuses its potential significance for them and their students.

To be continued …

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