Diving into the Digital Humanities at WGBH

By Kenny Whitebloom

In case you happened to miss the news: through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’ll be publishing our full catalog of the Media Library and Archive’s holdings online later this summer.

We’re seeking students, scholars, and filmmakers to enhance our records with valuable metadata on a variety of levels. From filling out a short survey describing item(s) used, to mining the catalog and curating an entire online collection, scholars will play a crucial role in helping to make the WGBH Digital Library a resource suitable for research purposes.

This goal — to validate the legitimacy of audiovisual materials for scholarly research — is really part and parcel of a broader movement in academia towards open access and the use of non-traditional mediums, a disciplinary movement known commonly as the ‘digital humanities’.

A brief and by no means complete definition of this burgeoning field can be understood as something like: the use of information technologies to analyze and interpret the humanities and other interdisciplinary subjects. Brett Bobley, the Director of the NEH’s relatively new Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), wrote in 2008 that the digital humanities embraces such topics as:

…open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, GIS [Geographic Information System], digital reconstruction, study of the impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching and learning, sustainability models, and many others.

In many ways, the purpose of these new tools and methodological approaches is to make sense of the past decade’s digitized deluge; to organize, annotate, and interpret the masses upon masses of digital material now available to scholars online.

As a result of these new modes of investigation and new areas of support, many tools have been emerging for the individual scholar to utilize. Omeka, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason University, allows users to publish and arrange unique cultural heritage objects like photographs, maps, and text into digital collections. The Library of Congress’ Recollection tool, which essentially does the same thing, places its emphasis more on interactive timelines and maps. The Institute for the Future of the Book and the University of Southern California produced a tool called Sophie which lets users create shareable multimedia documents or, as the website suggests, books.

These are merely three tools amidst an expanding litany of others, many of which are currently in the works, but the common thread here is that the process by which original research is collected, interpreted, and published, once a solitary activity between author and text, has now become a collaborative, interactive experience.

But still: what do the digital humanities and other digital publishing communities actually produce? In many cases, projects considered to be within the digital humanities rubric are multimedia compendiums of text, audiovisual material, and sometimes user input on a specific topic or work. The Princeton Dante Project, for instance, is an annotated electronic text of the famous 14th century epic poem complete with images, audio, philology, commentary, and a variety of lectures. Others, like Columbia University and Vassar College’s ‘Mapping Gothic France,’ fuse images, texts, charts, and historical maps to create a spatial representation of historical trends and events. Crowd-sourced projects such as University College London’s ‘Transcribe Bentham’ and the New York Public Library’s ‘What’s on The Menu?’ invite users to transcribe digitized primary source documents so as to make them digitally searchable, and therefore accessible.

At the WGBH Media Library & Archives, our “Participatory Cataloging” digital library project aims to accomplish a mixture of the crowd-sourced and self-published works, as scholars and students contribute metadata to our catalog while curating collections of their own along the way.

For information on more tools and projects related to the digital humanities, head over to the ODH’s website and take a look at the July 2011 batch of grant recipients, or their library of previously funded projects. There you’ll find projects in which institutions are working on tools for computational analysis of film and other audiovideo materials, mobile apps that let users view musical theater multimedia, social network-like environments that allow scholars and students to share bibliographic information, and many, many more.

Along with the materials currently available for citation and sharing on this web site, we hope that researchers will soon take advantage of our full catalog, creating new and interesting scholarly products and helping us to increase the access points into our collection.

Mapping our internal catalog to Open Vault

For our “Participatory Cataloging” project, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are planning to post our entire internal library catalog on Open Vault in the coming months. I have the enviable task of mapping our homegrown Filemaker database to the PBCoredata structure that determines the metadata you see here on Open Vault. With the help of my colleagues in the WGBH Library, Archives and Interactive departments, we are working out exactly which piece of data will end up where on this site, and how to translate years of legacy workflows into something we can reproduce and sustain online.

Media Archives Research SystemOur homegrown database is called “MARS.” As librarians we love our acronyms. “MARS” stands for the “Media Archive Research System” and it is used here at WGBH to manage our physical archives. Productions use MARS to conduct research and to find and retrieve tapes. My department, the Media Library & Archives, home of MARS, uses it as a catalog of our physical collection. In addition, it manages circulation, maintains many of our controlled vocabularies, and relates our rights information to our programs. This is a lot to ask of one system, and a lot to ask of one web interface. This is the challenge of putting MARS online.

An additional issue is the historical inconsistency of the data. Over the years, we’ve had varying levels of description and cataloging coming in from our productions as they archive their materials. We rely wholly on the productions to describe the materials they deposit and, if they don’t describe it well, they can’t find it again. In recent years, as our compliance managers have worked hard to set up procedures and tools for our producers, the data has improved substantially. But what to do with all of the older empty fields?

The empty fields are the main motivation for this project. Once we have our catalog online, we will work with our users to see if they can help us fill in the gaps. For example, a researcher watching a videotape will know more about the contents of the tape than our MARS system records. We plan to work with that researcher to incorporate his or her notes into the catalog and improve the accessibility of that tape’s record.

Admittedly, we have a bit of a chicken and egg issue here: how will the researcher find what they need if the tape is not fully described? Well, it’s possible. As shallow as our catalog sometimes is on the details, it is deep on context – if you know how to read it. Our researchers’ archival sleuthing skills, combined with the knowledge of our reference staff will hopefully land them in the right place until we are able to build out the details.

Despite these challenges, as I work with the fields in MARS, a clear picture is emerging of our core data set. As a working corporate archive with a public mission, we sometimes feel a bit of schizophrenia. We are constantly accessioning new materials, adding new records to MARS, and circulating old materials for re-use and re-versioning. With all of these moving pieces, it is very gratifying to see that the core data set and structure holds strong.

I may eat these words when I move on to mapping our multi-layered, multi-modal digital asset management system… stay tuned!

[Chicken courtesy USDA]



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Elliot Norton Reviews: A Peek into Boston Theater History

by Jessica Green

Last Monday night, the Boston theater community gathered at the Paramount Theatre to celebrate an impressive season of groundbreaking theater and honor the designers, playwrights, choreographers, actors, and directors that made it such a success. The 29th annual Elliot Norton Awards, originally known as the Norton Medal, were founded in honor of respected Boston theater critic, Elliot Norton, upon his retirement in 1982, after 48 years in the biz.

From 1958-1982, WGBH, one of the sponsors for the awards, was home to Norton’s television show, the Elliot Norton Reviews. Think Inside the Actors Studio with Elliot Norton as James Lipton, no studio audience, and all Boston theater people. Each 30-minute episode features one to three actors, directors, playwrights, or other theater personalities speaking with Norton about their recent or upcoming production, season, or career as a whole. They discuss the writing, rehearsal, and production processes and touch on topics including script analysis, production changes, design choices, acting styles, and casting decisions.

As an intern at WGBH and drama nerd, I have the privilege of cataloging the Elliot Norton Reviews this summer. This entails the joyful process of skimming through the videotapes of each of the 150+ episodes in the WGBH archives and writing a short summary of the topics covered by Norton and his guests. Unfortunately, it would take far too long to watch and transcribe every full episode, but these records will at least make researchers aware of the resources available to them at WGBH.

As a part of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported Participatory Cataloging Project, the records for the Elliot Norton Reviews will be published online and available free of charge later this summer. These records, along with other records in WGBH’s Media Library and Archives catalog, will raise awareness of the rich collections available at WGBH.

Researchers and theater enthusiasts will be able to view records of the individual episodes and potentially come to WGBH to view the episodes firsthand, or work with WGBH archivists to access them online. There will also be an opportunity for scholars to enhance the records that are specific to their areas of expertise. In addition, WGBH is planning to work towards supporting and making available streaming archival media. These archival records will be a valuable resource for scholars, students, and all the theater people out there who are looking to remount a production, deepen their understanding of Boston’s rich theater history and find out fascinating tidbits about some of their favorite plays and actors.

– Jessica Green, Intern

Mellon Project Report: Media Digital Library for Scholars

The WGBH Media Library & Archives completed a digital library prototype project in December, 2009. With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we worked closely with three scholars to discover how they would want to search, access and make use of archival moving image materials online. (This project built on an earlier Assessment for Scholarly Use.)

The prototype is still live at http://openvaultresearch.wgbh.org though you will notice that many of the features developed there have since been further refined and integrated into this site.

The project also included sustainability research conducted by Ithaka’s Strategy and Research team.

Read the final project report, detailing work accomplished, lessons learned, and future directions for the MLA online.

We welcome your comments and suggestions!