Creating new knowledge from the past—Archives & Digital Initiatives

by Kate Boylan ’04, Director of Archives & Digital Initiatives, and Megan Brooks, Dean of Library Services

Archives, digitization, and born-digital objects: students experience it all in the library

Archives are anything but closed and hushed spaces. They are sandboxes where active teaching, learning, and creation of new connections and knowledge manifest. In the archives, Wheaton students navigate the intersection between old objects and new objects to create new knowledge using old materials.

In many cases, a student’s first interaction with archival materials happens online. Often their research leads them to the archives, where they learn to work with physical objects, and then question, interrogate, and transform those materials by the act of digitizing them. Other students begin by creating scholarship that is completely digital. In both cases, we try to capture all of it in the archives for so future scholars—students or otherwise—can use it as the basis of their research.

Working with the Physical

Katie Greene ‘19 used a 19th century personal family diary and college records for her independent study project. While digitizing and transcribing her family relative’s diary, Katie considered how best to present information authentically as it became a new digital object and experience for readers. A student employee in Gebbie Archives, Katie just accepted an offer to enter the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s prestigious library science/archives master’s program.

Marisa Hexter ‘19 knows full-well the benefit of accessing both physical and digitized content. She completed in-depth women’s history research at the local historical society in North Haven, Connecticut. Though she used local physical collections, she pieced together the histories and lives of five extraordinary women, whose voices were unheard before Marisa’s research and spotlight. Based on her research experiences and her time working in the Gebbie Archives, her future goals include working in the public humanities, using research to amplify diverse and overlooked voices in archival materials.

The Move from Analog to Digital

In addition to working with physical objects, students learn common archival and preservation practices such as scanning, photographing, and assigning metadata to objects. On the surface, this may seem like straightforward work, however complexities of digital transformation are realized as students analyze and critique material for new and future uses.

Archives and Digital Initiatives student employee Brianna Medas ‘20 transforms physical objects into digital ones. She scans archival images and edits them for use by faculty, students, Communications and Marketing, and Alumni Relations. She also photographs objects from the College’s Permanent Art Collection. In these scans and photographs, she tries to create pristine final images as close to the original physical work as possible.

Ally Copenhaver ‘19 took it upon herself in her senior year, spring semester, to digitize Eliza Wheaton’s scrapbooks of plant specimens from her 1862 trip to Europe. The process is complicated with photographing delicate individual pages and specimens, and transcribing difficult to read notes, and classifying specimens to capture the full effect of the physical albums. Her work will one day be published on a public collection of images, and will inform (possible) digitization of the College’s herbaria collections.

Faheem Dyer ‘19 is the current editor of The Rushlight. Founded by one of the most famous poets of the 19th century, Lucy Larcom, The Rushlight has been the student arts and literary magazine at Wheaton since 1855. As an Archives and Digital Initiatives student employee, Faheem scans early editions and transcriptions of the magazine and assigns metadata to digital content in the College’s digital repository so that can be discovered by the public.

Working in a Born Digital Space

Students like Eammon Littler ’20 and Dominick Torres ’20 have helped turn the Library’s collective attention to what it means to archive born-digital scholarship, how to make new types of scholarly objects, and how to expand their access and reach.

Eammon is involved in the maker-movement, and is interested in how it is re-writing the scholarly record and cultural heritage at-large. Makers now represent a technology-based extension of DIY and programming culture that revels in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones, often supporting open-source hardware and software. Eammon is a student-partner on a grant the College received from the Council of Independent Colleges to curate new forms of digital scholarship and broadcast it from the Artstor platform using the back-end tool called JSTOR Forum.

Dominick has extensive experience scaffolding his knowledge of basic archival principles for documentary storytelling. He networked with the Association of Moving Image Archivists for an independent study project to develop his own organizational and metadata workflows for digitizing physical materials for his [digital] films.