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“Integrating Digital Collections into the Liberal Arts Curriculum” at HASTAC 2011

During the HASTAC 2011 Conference I had the chance to meet Catalina Oyler from the 5 Colleges of Ohio. During the Posters & Demo section of the conference we had a great conversation about utilizing digital archives in small, private, liberal arts institutions. As it shows on my HASTAC page, I go to a very old (175 years and going strong), very small (less than 600 students), private liberal arts college. Going to this school has been great in cultivating Digital Humanities because it is easier to get close to faculty and administrators. At the same time, going to a smaller school usually results in less money to spend on grand digital projects, such as the awe-inspiring Digital Media Commons at the University of Michigan.

This year my primary advisor in the English Department has submitted a proposal to receive an NEH grant to receive funding to create a digital archive of the vast stores of materials that we have at Wesleyan. As the first college in the world for women this digital collection would be especially interesting to other academics, not only in Georgia but for any scholar with an interest in the early years of the education of women. In visiting the demo, I was very excited to see another small school that has received the funding to do the same thing that Wesleyan hopes to do in the future.

To get some more information about The New Generation Library Project you can go to the website which gives information about specific projects that are being undertaken by the 5 Colleges of Ohio. From my conversation with Catalina I was able to learn about some of the issues that inhibit small schools from starting digital collections, as well as the ways in which digital collections can be a wonderful resource for small schools and other institutions of higher learning. One of the first inhibitions is, of course, funding. As I stated earlier, most smaller schools do not have the necessary funding to take a collection filled with a variety of materials, from manuscripts to clothing, and place them into a database or digital archive. As Catalina stated, the collection at the 5 Colleges of Ohio contains everything from student journals and papers to oral histories and scanned images of plants. This variety of items requires many different forms of technology to preserve it within a digital collection and the reason that they were able to obtain this technology was by receiving the Next Generation Library Mellon Grant. Another inhibition is the limited skill set of librarians. As Catalina stated, it is important for older librarians to update their skills in order to effectively work with digital collections and “meta-data”. At the same time, we don’t want these same librarians to feel that there is not a place for them in the newly evolving field of Library and Information Science.

Yet, while there are costs to creating a digital archive the benefits certainly outweigh them. Catalina stated that getting the grant from the Mellon Foundation gave the college library the chance to hire new digital librarians like her. By starting projects like this, alt-ac positions will open up for other librarians and/or archivists that have been trained in these digital conservation techniques. Also, one of the most important aspects of creating this collection is the use that the students get out of these collections. From the presentation/demo (which was mostly pages of the archives website on iPads which went perfectly with the overabundance of Apple products at this conference) I learned that many of the professors used the new collection to do projects with the students that not only taught them about the history of the school, but also taught them research skills within library science, such as how to scan items into an archive and how to obtain information in new ways.

In the end, integrating digital collections into the liberal arts curriculum is especially important because most liberal arts colleges have a rich history and archives filled with resources that could potentially help students in terms of education and with their own research projects. It is also important to remember that even as the Digital Humanities is becoming increasingly more popular there is still a digital divide among schools with large amounts of funding for new projects and schools that have limited funding. With the emphasis on collaboration that has been seen at this conference, I feel that it is not only important for schools to gain their own funding, but for schools with a great amount of resources to share their technology with other schools in order to assist one another on the path to furthering the Digital Humanities field. 

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