I’m in my fourth week now as a Digital Humanities Post-Bac and I’ve started to work with a number of popular tools and software programs that Digital Humanists really love to use to curate their work. In this post, I am going to talk about my experiences working with Omeka and Neatline, StoryMap JS, Scalar, and WordPress (links below).
In order to teach myself how to use these tools, I created four versions of the same archive using some of the pictures that I took while I was abroad as well as some of the poems that I wrote about my time abroad for my senior writing project.
I started out trying to to use the Omeka CSV auto-import plugin to upload all of my metadata and files but (as I found out later) a second plugin is required to make this plugin work, so I decided to input the metadata and files by hand. For 13 files for which I had already mapped and typed out the metadata, this took me about 30 minutes. After uploading all of the files, I organized them into an exhibit, which took roughly an hour because I decided to include some of my poems on the various pages, which made formatting the pages a little slower going. From here, I used the Neatline plugin to map my photos to an open-source street map (not unlike Google Maps). I did not change any of the default settings for the size and color of my points, so this took me about another hour. All in all, with very little customization, this site took me a little over 3 hours to create.
Next, I decided to create a Story Map using StoryMap JS. I did not install any applications in order to create my map, I simply signed up on their webpage, which was very easy to use. I really enjoyed the StoryMap JS interface because it included a few pieces that the Neatline plugin did not, including a search bar in which I could type the location of my points, making it the input of these items much faster. I also enjoyed the animation that showed my movement throughout the U.K. and Ireland. Though it can be frustrating to have to individually customize each slide (background, text, etc.), the interface is super easy to use. This only took me about an hour to make.
After creating the Story Map, I was encouraged to try out Scalar, though I was warned it was a bit more difficult to use. What I found was that I actually really enjoyed the book-style layout and though the tabs in the dashboard view of the website are misleading and often don’t contain the features that I assumed they should contain, a half hour of monkeying around with the site was all it took for me to find the features I was looking for. Creating a book on Scalar took me a good 2.5 to 3 hours, but when I had finished, it was customized exactly as I wanted.
Finally, I decided to create a WordPress site to host all of the same content because I know this is one of the most popular programs in classes throughout the five colleges. WordPress is fairly easy to use if you don’t let it get in its own way. The thing about WordPress is that it’s really easy to make a good looking website if you use one of the free themes readily available to you. The bad thing about WordPress is that a lot of the buttons and menu items are duplicative, so you could push two different buttons and get the same outcome from each of them and that can be frustrating. However, I did enjoy setting up both of my WordPress websites once I got to know the platform a little better. The final positive thing I’ll say about WordPress is that a ton of people use it, so if you get stuck or have a problem, the solution is super easy to find online. The website I created took me about 2 hours to make.
Now, I know that it seems unfair to compare these websites to one another since they were specifically designed to handle different types of collections. Of course I liked Scalar the best because the material from which I was pulling was in a book format. It seemed natural and easy to display the content on Scalar’s site. Had I been using hundreds of old photographs, it’s highly likely I would have preferred Omeka (provided I could get the CSV import plugin to work). So ranking one program over another isn’t really the point of this blog post. Instead, I want to talk about the student experience with technology.
I don’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t have the internet. I vaguely remember asking my mom to hang up the phone so I could get on the internet. So, I feel pretty comfortable navigating the various menus and buttons that these programs use. I know intuitively which layouts I do and do not like. I have a reference from other websites for how I think the information should be displayed. If I cannot immediately find the menu or button that will display the option for whichever element I want to adjust, I know that I can most likely just click around until I find it. But I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know about how the internet and programs like these work.
Of course the three horizontal lines means menu. Of course there’s an option to change the background color somewhere. Of course you can drag items into a different order in the table of contents. But what the hell is an API? And how does coding get put into the internet? And where would you write it? And what exactly does a server do?
I think I thought I knew the answers to these questions because everything I had always done on a computer didn’t require me to know the answers. I had a vague idea of how my graphic designer friend would write code to change the font on a website, but I never wondered where she wrote it or how she put it on the internet. As soon as I was confronted with the prospect of uploading my own work to the internet (without using out-of-the-box solutions like Squarespace or Wix), I realized I had no idea how to install a plugin or create subdomains or link a database to an application. I could ham-fist my way through the process (and kind of did) but I didn’t know what I was doing with .htaccess files or CMS folders. I needed a lot of help here from my supervisor and Youtube videos and the chat support on Reclaim Hosting.
As a person with a degree in creative writing with zero background in computer science or basic computing skills, I think it’s important that when we’re teaching students how to use these programs, we first start with the framework (where does all of the information get stored, how do you get started writing code, what does it mean to host a website, etc.) before we explain how to import files and change background colors.
Liberal arts students are scrappy, and I don’t just say that because I was one. The point of a liberal arts education is to teach students to continue learning even after they’ve graduated. A liberal arts education gives students the framework and learning skills to interpret the world around themselves. So the idea is that if they aren’t in a class and don’t have a professor, they could teach themselves the new skills and ideas that they want to learn because they have this basic framework and learning skills as a jumping off point. So, the point I’m making here isn’t that we need to teach everyone how to code or how to set up an API, but instead that it would be useful (though I wouldn’t want it to be mandatory) to incorporate some of this computing framework into the digital humanities discussions that take place in the classroom. The easy (easier) part is figuring out how to work iMovie or Scalar or WordPress. The hard part is understanding why they work the way that they do and how they fit into the larger framework of computers and the internet as whole.
I think we’re doing digital humanities and students of digital humanities a disservice if we don’t teach them these basics of computer science because without these pieces it’s harder to learn on your own. It’s not impossible. As I said before, liberal arts students are scrappy. But it is definitely harder and slower going if you don’t know that all websites have back-end folders containing all of the code and config files to make the website work. Silly me, I didn’t really think I would ever touch or edit these files or in some cases, I didn’t know they even existed.
I’ll use an analogy to make myself clearer. It’s like teaching someone how to do a specific equation in calculus without teaching them why the equation works. Maybe you can figure out how quickly a cone will fill up with liquid, but unless you know why you can use a derivative to figure out that rate and what it has to do with limits, what’s the point? It’s a lot to reengineer if you only have the equation as a point of reference.
And finally, I’ll end with a preemptive defense of my case. I realize that I make it sound like because I (and many other students my age) heard this noise while growing up, that I am intuitively computer savvy and that I don’t need help running iMovie or Scalar or whatever. The truth is that many students struggle to make these applications work. They’re not easy to learn and I had the benefit of having parents who encouraged me to create things on a computer from a young age. I am not arguing that no one needs help running an application or uploading files online. No, I’m arguing that if we (liberal arts students) are given a better understanding of the internet and computer science as a whole, it will be easier for us to figure out how programs like Scalar work. Everything on the internet is constantly evolving. There’s no guarantee Omeka won’t become obsolete when some cool, new application gets released tomorrow. If we want the liberal arts colleges and the digital humanities to produce autonomous, creative thinkers, we need to give students the framework upon which they can build the next generation of digital tools and thought.
My next challenge? Learning how to code!
URLs for all 4 projects:
Omeka and Neatline: http://omeka.sandbox.digitalolivia.org/cms/exhibits