I spent last week in Winnipeg, working in the U of M Archives and the Archives of Manitoba. During my brief, frantic visit, I was able to scan material for three digital projects: the digital edition of Dorothy Livesay’s Right Hand Left Hand: A True Life of the Thirties, Bart Vautour and Emily Robins Sharpe’s project Canada and the Spanish Civil War: A Digital Research Environment, and Anouk Lang’s work on Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse.
I spent my time scanning, the true grunt work of DH. I have spent most of the past four months scanning–an unbelievable amount of time. I want to remind everyone, especially those embarking on digital projects, just how time consuming they can be. No matter how many shortcuts you come up with, you (or your greatly appreciated RA) will still have to go through the processes of creating, organizing, editing, backing up, and ingesting files.
This trip was also a reminded of how vulnerable digital projects are to technical difficulties. This week, I negotiated with no less than four different scanners. Scanners are the very worst coworkers: they are slow, they lose things, they make mistakes, and sometimes they refuse to work altogether. Now that I am back home, I am discovering what irreversible mistakes my scanner and I made, and cursing the imperfect nature of this technology.
Scanning aside, the trip gave me a chance to thoroughly examine Dorothy Livesay’s papers, specifically her documentation of the Thirties. I found some great material and noticed some interesting rifts in memory from one document to the next. She wrote many times about her job in New Jersey, a job she was forced to leave due to illness. The nature of this illness varies: in one version it is an ulcer, in another it is chronic appendicitis (for the record, I had appendicitis, and I don’t think it can even be chronic–it’s really a one time thing). In another version she attributes her illness to high blood pressure, and in another she admits it may have been “a slight nervous breakdown.” She is clearly an unreliable narrator, even concerning her own experiences.
It is only because she left behind such an extensive physical archive that I can notice these discrepancies. Deep in archival work, I began to think about how much personal records have changed with the digital turn. Now, the majority of correspondence takes place in email, text messages, facebook, even twitter. We are documenting our own lives more than ever, but is this documentation durable? Will the kind of archival research I am performing be possible if the subject of study is the so-called digital native? To me, the digital file feels far more ephemeral than the physical photograph, letter, newspaper. Maybe this has more to do with my inherent digital clumsiness–I delete when I mean to save, name files incoherently, and so on. But I still worry that 80 years from now, when I am a fascinating famous person, archivist and researchers will know little about my relationships, experiences, or actions because so much of this information is stored in networks and servers, not boxes.
Of course, we at EMiC are (hopefully) creating sustainable digital projects. Personally, I am far more cautious when it comes to archival scans. Multiple versions of each file ensure that mistakes are minimal and reversible. After all, I know how much work goes into creating each file, and I don’t intend on repeating all those processes.
Undergraduate students at St Thomas University are in the process of creating the Atlantic Canadian Poets Archive “to answer a need for academic scholarship on writing of the Atlantic region.” They invite submissions to the archive from undergraduate students.
A Letter from the East
The Atlantic Canadian Poets’ Archive started as an idea among a group of seminar students and their professor. Through the fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011, the students of Dr. Kathleen McConnell’s Contemporary Atlantic Canadian Women Poets’ seminar slogged through databases in search of scholarship. We found physics papers, geological studies, a handful of reviews, but no scholarship.
So we wrote it ourselves.
Though constrained by our undergraduate status (we take our editorial process seriously, but the Archive is not peer-reviewed), the contributions on the ACPA are the first of their kind: succinct critical analyses of poets from the Atlantic region, available to the public with a few keystrokes. Each poet featured on the ACPA has a short critical analysis, a biography, a comprehensive source list, and the text of the poem which is being analyzed.
Among the challenges we faced as editors was obtaining contact information for some of the poets. In some instances, these poets had written the requested poems decades earlier, and then promptly disappeared from the public eye. Poetry from the Atlantic region is obscure already, so finding contact information for even less recognized poets proved challenging.
Fortunately, the tight-knit, supportive atmosphere of Atlantic Canadian poetry has worked in our favour. To illustrate: we had been trying to get ahold of Newfoundland poet Carmelita McGrath. We explored the usual avenues: checked out organizations she had been involved in, scoured university faculty pages, but no one knew where to contact her. We became obsessed. In the middle of our hunt, two of the ACPA editors had gone to Great Village, Nova Scotia for the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival. Among the poets reading at the festival was Michael Crummey, another Newfoundlander. When the editors met him, they described the McGrath Conundrum. After conceding that yes, of course, he’s an Atlantic Canadian poet too and we’d include him as soon as possible, he promised to put us in contact with Carmelita McGrath. The two, it turned out, were old friends.
Because St. Thomas University (the birthplace of the Archive) is an undergraduate institution, the editorial staff for the Archive is impermanent. The founding editor graduates next spring, while our second editor, Allyson Groves, has already graduated. Maintaining the project has become a key concern for us, as we strive to maintain the editorial continuity we have established while also ensuring our own academic growth.
It is this growth that we want to see in the Archive in the following years. It allows students to contextualize their analytic and editorial skills in a real-world situation, while also helping to fill a gap in academia. We welcome submissions from undergraduate students (though exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis). Our complete Submission Guidelines, along with some great analyses, are available at stu.ca/acpa.
Lisa Banks (Managing Editor, Summer 2011, Summer 2012)
Allyson Groves (Managing Editor, Winter 2011-Spring 2012)
Patrick O’Reilly (Managing Editor, Summer 2012)
What I enjoy most about working as a research assistant for EMiC is how varied my responsibilities are. Last semester, my tasks including researching and writing biographies for people mentioned within Le Nigog, and running our scanned images through OCR software. This semester, my main task has been obtaining permissions for the works we plan to publish in our digital archive, that is, tracking down the copyright information of French-Canadian artists and intellectuals who died almost–but not quite–fifty years ago.
When I was first assigned this task, I wasn’t even sure how to begin. Matt Huculak linked me to Copyright databases, as did the Dalhousie Copyright Officer (he was very helpful in providing resources and answering my questions, no matter how vague, and he still sends emails checking up on me and my project):
Copyright Renewal Database
Copyright Clearance Centre
Unfortunately, these databases did not contain much information on my obscure French-Canadian authors. At Huculak’s suggestion, I turned towards archives and libraries for more guidance.
I was a little wary about initiating this kind of contact, particularly as much of the correspondence would be conducted in French. So before I began I wrote up templates: clear, concise messages that could easily be modified depending on the individual. I wrote one in French and one in English and had them proofread by someone outside the project to ensure they made sense–I didn’t want my requests ignored or misunderstood. Note: Huculak insisted that I use email as much as possible and keep all the messages on file, so that we had evidence of our search and its results.
Thankfully, my predecessor had already tracked down fonds and collections of these authors and left me links to finding aids. I chose to contact the archivists to see if they had any contact information related to the fonds. Contacting the archivist themselves proved to be more difficult than I anticipated, lost as they were among the myriad of information on the archive and collection websites. I tried to locate the emails of specific archivists and librarians, but often the closest I could get was a vague info@ email or, worst case, submitting an information request into the abyss of the Collections Canada and Archives France websites. Once my requests were sent, I imagine they were referred from person to person until they reached the right one. Now that I have successfully corresponded with many of these archives, I have the coveted emails on file and I can post them for the use of others.
Finally, I waited. Some archivists replied at lightning speed, some took over a month. Some gave replies that had absolutely nothing to do with my request, and some gave me exactly what I needed (contact information of rightholders, heirs, or estates).
When the responses stopped coming in, I contacted Bibliothèque et Archives Nationals du Québec, explained my situation, and asked if they had any resources they could share with me. They linked me to Copibec, a Quebecois copyright database. Like the Copyright Clearance Centre, these folks charge a fee in exchange for obtaining permissions, but they also help users research rightholders. ( a full list of copyright societies like this one can be found here) I contacted them with the names of the missing authors. They were able to confirm that three of the others were nowhere to be found–Copibec had researched them and come up empty handed. This was very valuable information, as the Copyright Board of Canada gives permissions in the case of unlocatable copyright owners. This is where my carefully archived emails will come in handy, as we need to prove that we have made an adequate attempt to find the rightholders.
After two months I have whittled down my list significantly. I hope this post can help others have the same success.
I will admit I was pretty nervous before arriving at TEMiC. After all, what does a confused young undergraduate have to offer a group of experienced scholars? I had no idea how many people would be there, what kind of a pace we would learn at and where I could possibly fit in. Of course, I could have saved time and stress if I had taken a brief moment to reflect on how lovely and generous everyone involved in EMiC is and has been to me from the moment I joined the project. TEMiC was no different. Everyone in the small group of grad students and professors was excited to meet me, hear about my project and share their own experiences and plans. I absorbed as much as possible, taking mental notes on everything they told me and still saving energy to enjoy myself as much as possible.
I only attended the second week of TEMiC, a week focused on project planning. For five short and seemingly leisurely days, we learned a great deal, as you can plainly see from my fellow classmates daily reports. The flexibility of the workshop schedule was really our greatest gain, as it gave everyone a chance to bring his or her own concerns up for discussion. As a result, we were able to discuss (seemingly) all aspects of planning a digital editing project, including securing funding, choosing and using scanners, software and programs, negotiating permissions, copyrights and archives in order to enjoy the most freedom with your material, and the time consuming task of digitizing your material. Through presentations by Zailig Pollock and Melissa Dalgleish, we were able to look in depth at projects currently in progress and get a practical sense of the challenges we would all face. Through presentations by Dean Irvine and Matt Huculak, we learned about the theory and work that is currently going into creating of the EMiC Commons and gained an understanding of how our smaller projects fit into huge advancements in the field of modernist studies and digital humanities. On top of all this, we even found time to win Trivia night at the local bar, suggesting that maybe we have the knowledge and determination to achieve it all (or maybe we just know too much about Hulk Hogan and the Beach Boys).
There were a few key things I took away from the week:
-Modularity! Melissa reminded us all just what a huge amount of work a digital edition is. Starting small allows you to accomplish tasks without getting overwhelmed by a huge amount of material and work.
-Paranoia. I had no idea digital files degrade. This is a little terrifying. Back up your work.
-Collaboration. Academics have the resources and interest to help each other out a lot, especially in the relatively new and intimidating world of digital humanities. We discussed how some kind of EMiC mentorship program could really help people get through their projects, but also how collaboration should not be entered into without any kind of guidelines or ground rules.
Although I am still in the dark about some aspects of digital editions, particularly the ridiculous number of acronyms, I am incredibly grateful for the experience and for all I learned. I am really looking forward to putting my newfound knowledge to use and hearing more about the remarkable projects of my EMiC fellows. I am even excited to run some more files through OCR! Kind of.
Special thanks to those at Trent University who put together such a great workshop and drove us around the city.