In 2013, I initiated a digital humanities practicum in conjunction with Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Special Collections Library and the Norwick Center for Digital Services. My purpose was two-fold: to learn how to make rare materials available to the public via web publication, and to publicize my dissertation project. I was worried that the DH project would take away from my already-limited writing time, but it turns out that digitally publishing the rare materials I was writing about opened up new avenues for thinking about them. I found myself writing with more ease, and theorizing the connection between the way we engage with material objects and the ways we think about them.
The project also reinforced my belief in the use value of a humanities degree. I thought I would be a burden to all the folks in the library and the digital center, but, as it turns out, they were intrigued by the information I brought to the table. I couldn’t have figured what ContentDM was without them, and they relied on me to provide historical context for the rare materials and put them into a narrative that made them relevant. The finished (but also ongoing…) product is our super cool DH project and website.
I’ve been so impressed by the feedback we’ve gotten from our collections website. A railroad museum in the Dallas metroplex contacted us for reproductions of the Fred Harvey menus to use in a dining car exhibit (they have a real dining car that they restored!) Scholars from all over the globe have contacted me to fill in Harvey Company/Santa Fe Railway information gaps in their own research. This response demonstrates how important it is to “liberate” all of these wonderful materials that are locked away in special collections libraries. The job the libraries do preserving and organizing all of the materials is absolutely invaluable, and digital works makes these preservations efforts even more worthwhile. I mean, what good are the preserved materials if nobody can access them? Internet publishing and online platforms like ContentDM and Omeka help to rectify that problem.
But let me be clear: accessing a digitized rare book, broadside, or letter online is a completely different experience than looking at these things in person and handling the physical object. Online access to an artifact can’t replace it; instead, the Internet enables our initial access to rare materials, generating interest that was not necessarily there to begin with.
Keep checking the website, as I’m adding and annotating the online Harvey materials all the time!