Written by Heather Wacha

Documenting DH is a project from the Digital Humanities Research Network (DHRN).  It consists of a series of audio interviews with various humanities scholars and students around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Each interviewee is given a chance to talk about how they view data, work with data, manage data, or teach data to others.  Most recently, we interviewed members of the Ex Libris Project – Kyle Neill, Matthew Mickelson, and Morgan Pabst, three recent graduates from the University of Wisconsin’s iSchool.  Their perspective on digital humanities has been shaped by their willingness to pursue the nascent idea of “let’s do-a-digital-humanities-project” through to completion, and shape it into a series of short videos, which feature the people and stories behind three rare books held at Memorial Library’s Special Collections.

What kind of data do you work with?

As recent graduates of the University of Wisconsin iSchool, the Ex Libris team is very data-savvy.  As Ex Libris team member Kyle Neill explains “[t]he data for this project is not a streamlined dataset that one might think of for, let’s say, a science project.  A lot of people in the humanities and the social sciences say ‘Well if I don’t have numbers, I don’t have data,’ and that’s not true.  Data for us just looks different.” For the Ex Libris project, a digital humanities project from the outset, the three members have gathered and generated data in several formats.  There are research notes and emails about the manuscripts they have been investigating, and these are mostly mostly in their own personal files and filing systems. There are also transcripts of videos held in text files, as well as multimedia data held in audio recordings, video recordings, and images.  The various data work together to help tell the stories of the manuscripts that each team member has uncovered over the course of the last two years.


How do you manage the data you work with?

As students at the UW iSchool, the Ex Libris team members were able to put into practice many of the good data management practices they learned about in their classes and coursework. As Kyle Neill explains: “Good data management is a good skill for anyone to have whether humanist or not.”  Indeed, good data management is discipline-agnostic.  One Ex Libris team member’s computer crashed during the research stage of the project and she learned firsthand the importance of saving one’s data on an external hard drive and/or on a cloud storage platform.  It may seem to be the simplest of ideas, she says, but it in practice it is imperative. Team members also recommend creating a purposeful, well-organized, and consistent folder- and file-naming system, applied across all of one’s projects and work.  One of the best things to keep in mind when planning that file-naming system is to think about the fact that someone else may, at some point, need to access your work.  In other words, even a file-naming system should show that you have considered issues of accessibility, whoever the audience might be. Finally the team members recommend streamlined, explicit, and understandable file names that can be applied across data formats. While the differences between humanistic and scientific data may be vast, good data management can, and should, be practiced by all researchers.


What do you find most interesting about your data?

All three team members found the most interesting part of their data was when they were initially gathering it. For Kyle, Matthew and Morgan, working with original manuscripts and early printed books kept them motivated, especially when they were met with barriers.  As they found ways to work around those barriers, they realized that they were able to make connections with librarians and archivists abroad and get information that surpassed even their own expectations. Matthew Mickelson contacted the surviving family of Count Ludwig von Eberhard who runs the family archives, and while Matthew was able to get information he needed about his manuscript, they were thrilled to hear what had happened to their ancestor’s Album Amicorum. Kyle Neill was able to find a key document for his book’s story after he wrote to the British Library in London, and they were able send him photos of a document that filled the only remaining gap of the book’s journey from Isaac Newton’s library to the University of Wisconsin Special Collections.  Morgan Pabst was able to find by accident an early printed edition of her manuscript in the UW Special Collections that she had no idea existed and this allowed her to tell the larger story of the owner of these two books.

If you are interested in hearing more, you can go to Ex Libris’s interview on the DHRN webpage where the project members describe their experiences taking a digital humanities project from inception to completion over the course of their two years at the University of Wisconsin’s iSchool.