Posts Tagged ‘material culture’

Digital Collections of Material Culture

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Hello, everyone! I’ve been reading over everyone’s posts and comments, and letting it all percolate – but today’s my day to finally post my own thoughts.

Here’s my original proposal:

“Digital collections of material culture – how to make them, share them, and help students actually learn something from them!

– “quick and dirty” ways for faculty to develop digital collections for the classroom, without giving up on metadata. For the recent workshop we held at Vassar, I’ve been working on demo collections (see ) to evaluate 8 different tools,  including Omeka. In each, you can view the same 8 historic costumes and their metadata, with 43 jpeg images and 1 QTVR. I’m developing my work as a template, with support documentation, for others to use.

-how students can use digital collections and contribute to them, without requiring a huge technological learning curve, especially for students with non-traditional learning styles

-the potential of union catalogs”

Of course these issues cross over in many ways with issues that have already been posted. So, I’m not sure if this needs to be a session, or if it’s more about bringing this material culture perspective to other relevant sessions. That probably depends on how many other material culture people are coming – anyone?

Deep Digital Collections / The Thing-ness of Things

Projects that successfully represent 3D objects are still pretty rare. Current systems of image representation are not sufficient – 1 image per object is not enough. Artifacts also continue to defy controlled vocabularies and metadata schema. For example, one of my current projects involves studying a historic dress inside and out – I have over 100 detail images and complex data (see a sample blog post that shows the complexity of the object).

I’m working to create digital access to the Vassar College Costume Collection, our collection of historic clothing, with about 540 objects dating from the 1820’s to today. Just to clarify, in the field of costume history, the term “costume” refers to all clothing, not theatrical costume.  For about 7 years I’ve been exploring different ways of digitizing this collection, giving students access to a database of the objects, and then sharing their research projects, in a variety of digital formats, as virtual exhibitions.

“Quick and Dirty” Classroom Tools / Low Tech Digital Humanities

In my demos, you can view the same 8 historic costumes and their metadata, with 43 jpeg images and 1 QTVR, in Omeka, CollectiveAccess, Greenstone, Luna Insight, ContentDM, VCat, Filemaker, Excel, and GoogleDocs.

My inquiry has developed beyond the initial comparison of different available tools, to explore a kind of “division of labor” in the process. My approach has been very much on the DIY side, but couched in a collaborative experience. I initially created my demos for a NITLE sponsored workshop at Vassar this past March (entitled “Digital Objects in the Classroom”). Our workshop emphasized the importance of collaboration, and we asked participating institutions to send teams of faculty, librarians, instructional technologists, and media specialists. Perhaps ironically, the demos have mostly been my own work (with wonderful help from Vassar’s Systems Administrator and Visual Resources Librarian). I continue to search for the perfect compromise – for faculty and students to be able to quickly and independently get resources both into and out of collections, while administrators feel comfortable with the security and maintenance of the technology involved.

Student Contributions

Even if you’re not working in a traditional academic setting, I encourage you to view your audience as students. We can use technology as part of a suite of pedagogical tools to provide differentiated instruction for different styles of learners.  What I imagine is a way for students to add to the conversation in ways beyond tagging and commenting – to contribute their own images and research.  Our work in the last couple of years has reinforced this in a backward kind of way. We envisioned a large grant might allow us to carefully photograph and catalog much of the collection, which we could then present to students (on a platter?). Such a grant hasn’t come through yet, but the students have kept on coming! So, each semester brings us a new project, with new research about some of the objects, new photographs that students have taken to support their research, new citations of and links to supporting references. And the database grows. And I wonder, if we did present the virtual collection to students on a platter, would they be as inspired to work with the objects doing their own research? Would it seem as fresh to them? We need to keep the focus on our students and not on technology for its own sake.

Union Catalogs / Federated Searches

For each of our collections we’re working hard to structure our metadata and to define controlled vocabularies. But most of the time we aren’t taking advantage of the sharing that structured metadata allows. Either collections aren’t having their data harvested, or if they are, they’re going into giant collections like OAIster where it can be hard to find them. We need more union catalogs for material culture objects that are oriented for specific disciplines. By harvesting for a more specific kind of union catalog, we can transcend the “dumbing down” of data for Dublin Core standards and create variations that allow for richer data in each of our fields. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but building on Dublin Core or VRA or CDWA can really benefit our specific fields. For collections that have a strong visual component, some form of image needs to be a part of what is harvested and shows up in the federated search.

I look forward to reading your comments – and to meeting you all in person later this month!

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