Yesterday, Prof. Poehler took our HONS391A class to the Digital Humanities Lab to begin our Class Group Project. It quite literally opened a door to new experiences and new technology.
First off, I didn’t even realize there was a downstairs to Herter. I spend so much time in that building as it is, I didn’t think there could be more to discover. But the Annex proved me wrong, revealing the exciting world of the Translation Center (and the tunnel to Bartlett, though that’s not entirely relevant to my story) as well as the impressiveness that is the digital humanities lab.
The lab is quite a large space – it’s slightly bigger than your average classroom in Herter. It reminded me of the computer labs in high school – a table in the center and desktops by the walls. Once everyone had arrived, Prof. Poehler gave us a synopsis of our goals for the day. Our assignment was to help in digitizing materials about the Old Chapel building from UMass Libraries Special Collections.
Prof. Poehler had divided the lab into our various teams for the day: Scanning, OCR, Metadata, and Editing. I was assigned to the scanning team, which meant I was the team that started it all. Prof. Poehler gave my teammate and I a brief rundown of the BookDrive Mini as he put the finishing touches on the system’s set-up. We had some technological issues at first – cameras can be fickle tools – but we soon had the system working correctly. It’s a fairly simple machine. Two cameras are positioned up above at 45-degree angles. Below, you place a paper on top of a V-shaped plate and place your book (or in our case, book) on the corresponding side. Once the pages are in place, you pull down the glass plate, and click to take the picture. From there, we saved it to a file so the other teams could work on their portion of the task.
Working with older documents firsthand was awesome, partly because I love working with old documents and partly because I recognized a lot of the information. There were letters written by President Butterfield, programs from the old chapel services, and copies of floor plans during its construction, just to name a few. As a UMass Student, this kind of work is really exciting. The Old Chapel is an integral feature of the UMass campus, representing its growth from the Massachusetts Agricultural College to the major research university of today. Being able to read through these documents gave me a better perspective of how important the Chapel really is.
It was also a great experience to be able to take part in their preservation. Even in working with some of these papers, we had to be careful not to make any creases, not to rip the paper when removing staples, and not to smear any of the ink. It really impressed upon me the advantages of digitization. I mean, I already know most of the advantages – I work with digitized materials all the time. Most of the documents I receive in class are from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. In my internship, I’ve been drowning in reels of microfilm. And thank goodness for the Internet, allowing me to find things relevant to my research. As a historian, my job is to interpret these sources. But as a digital historian, my job is to make these sources available in order to make such interpretations and research possible. Machines like the BookDrive make digitization a lot simpler and accessible, and are essential to the work of the humanities in general.