Information literacy is at the heart of digital humanities. Key to all successful digital humanities projects is a robust data structure or approach to data analysis, which goes hand in hand with a good grasp of the fundamentals of information literacy: understanding where information comes from, how it is constructed, that it is constructed, and that it has value.1 Digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom offer great opportunities for students to break new scholarly ground, either by being the first to apply techniques such as digital mapping or text mining to analyze a particular text or topic in the humanities, or, as in this project, by becoming information creators in their own right, using digital techniques to build an online exhibition of archival materials which have not been examined before. In order to build an online archive, students must engage in detailed critical research, thereby actively learning about the process of information creation, and also becoming participants in a scholarly conversation in order to justify their own research discoveries in the public forum of a website. Our collaborative team, a faculty member, archivist, and subject librarian, were charged with creating an introductory digital humanities course in the Department of English, and we used the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education to construct student learning outcomes which harness the powerful reciprocal relationship between information literacy and digital humanities to empower students to become better consumers and creators of information.2
This essay depicts our choices in developing course content, shares discoveries about the relationship between IL and DH, and provides a blueprint for assignments that could be adopted and adapted by instructors at other institutions who are seeking to enhance both IL and DH pedagogy.3 This approach can serve as an effective model for engaging more critically with digital scholarship as part of course design.
For their projects, students in English 2318, “Introduction to Digital Literature,” conducted original research on the Arden Club, Southern Methodist University’s original student drama group, using documents from the university’s archives. They constructed a public-facing digital archive of the documents by creating metadata to aid in accessing and analyzing their archival information and published their own research essays addressing elements of the primary documents.
Investigating Archival Information
Preparation by the archives department began early in the semester prior to the course offering in order to have all archival items pertaining to the Arden Club ready. The class was comprised of 18 students from a wide range of fields, encompassing everything from Business to Music Performance to English, and one of the beauties of the available archival materials was that there were at least one or two items which intersected with each of these varied fields. Preparation beforehand involved careful filtering and selection of viable materials for students to work with. We selected programs, photographs, and the Club’s meeting minutes, along with other materials documenting the Club’s history items, and divided the materials into folders by academic years (theatrical seasons), each year containing 10 items of various mediums so that the students would each be able to work with a variety of materials. These selected archival items were rehoused in a separate archival box to expedite access during class and research sessions. Note, this collection in its entirety remained available for research throughout the semester, careful documentation was kept regarding the location and description of each item used by the course. In order to allow students to provide some peer-to-peer support in what was going to be a very new and potentially intimidating process, we asked that they sign up in pairs to be responsible for researching and documenting the materials from a particular year, meaning that each student would document approximately 5 items for the digital exhibition. The selected items were digitized by SMU’s Norwick Center for Digital Solutions (NCDS) and placed on a campus file sharing site for the students to access throughout the semester. Though the students did not perform the digitization for all the Arden Club materials, we did introduce them to the process in specially-designed hands-on learning sessions to give them a sense of the full life cycle of a digital humanities project.4
While tricky at first, this Arden Club Project compelled me to investigate deep into SMU’s past, resulting in extraordinary comparisons to the present. (Henry Cohanim, Business – Real Estate student, sophomore 2019-2020)
In the archives, after a class session introducing special collections to the students and a tutorial on care and handling, students delved into the realms (and reams) of original research. They quickly engaged with the detailed material and connected with campus history.
A customized metadata schema was used to document the Arden Club materials for the website, enabling students to collect both basic information such as the date of the item, and its type, and also more specific data such as the theatrical plays being referenced within it, and local organizations involved (e.g. companies who might sponsor advertisements in play programs). The idea of researching and then presenting that original information in a regular, standardized way was new to the students, and in itself provided a valuable lesson in how information creation is a process. Creating metadata proved more difficult than expected in our initial iteration of this course, so in the second iteration we added exercises to build these skills, including reverse-engineering metadata in existing digital humanities projects, and exploring controlled vocabularies in various disciplines5. Students also developed descriptors for a searchable candy database, to help them visualize searching and internalize (literally) the difference between subject and keyword searching. One of the course’s central ideas about the importance of data structures and, when possible, making those consistent.
Several in-class research sessions inculcated students’ curiosity about metadata details and historical context, such as questions regarding the Club’s meeting minutes, which were handwritten. For materials from the 1910s to 1930s, the penmanship was largely unfamiliar to our students, and transcription proved a really valuable point in prompting additional sideways research to decipher words and names in these documents, cultivating resourcefulness, a cornerstone proclivity of information literacy.
From Archives to Information Architects
As part of this process, students examined information repositories and considered designers’ decisions. Then, by publishing their own content in a public digital project, the students themselves became information architects, actively engaging in and having to make the same kinds of decisions as the resources they evaluated. As creators and curators, students applied principles of responsible information creation and management. By empowering students to act as information authorities, DH has a unique relationship with IL that has the capacity to enhance both fields.
Searching for Secondary Sources
Searching as strategic exploration framed the approach of determining what secondary sources they would need. Since the students determined what to investigate about the artifacts, the subject librarian decided that they should help create the course guide. After examining the syllabus, she brainstormed likely sources and source types, such as biographies, newspapers, etc. In class, students determined the specific sources selected and how we described them, to ensure that they could navigate the guide on their own. The close collaboration continued for several sessions to give guidance to students engaged in this research process, giving students a realistic sense of what it means to be a professional researcher in pursuit of your own research question, and how to leverage the resources available to you.
This is how the ACRL pillars of information literacy informed student learning outcomes:
- Authority Is Constructed and Contextual
Students applied skills from their information literacy workshops to evaluate a digital resource and they learned to question the authority of the resources with which they worked. Perhaps the most distinctive element of this assignment is that in the third stage, when they became authorities, offering unique scholarly contributions in their essays about SMU’s Arden Club.
- Information Creation as a Process
The very essence of information creation as a process is modeled by design in this multi-stage assignment. In tandem with this experience, they learned about the process of digitization and metadata creation in collaboration. This hands-on work gave them direct experience of the decisions involved in the process of creating and disseminating information. They will never look at a website or digital database the same way again!
- Information Has Value
The hard-grind of conducting intensive archival research and the necessary follow-on secondary research to substantiate and explicate archival findings, as well as mediating those findings for a public audience, gave students a full appreciation for the value of information and the process involved in its creation.
- Research as Inquiry
The foundation of this course is research as inquiry. Students engaged in intensive archival exploration, then they researched items relating to those materials, selecting representative items to digitize. To present those digitized items, students needed to engage in extensive further research about the history and context of each item which they were going to document, sending them on a quest to track down as much contextual information about their topic and items as possible with the collaboration of the instructor and subject librarian.
- Scholarship as Conversation
At the end of the semester, students gave testimonies about their experiences in this course. Unprompted, each person spoke up to say that this class gave them an “aha!” moment in terms of understanding the point of scholarship, engaging with ideas, and creating new knowledge to which others would add.
- Searching as Strategic Exploration
Through workshop sessions, they learned how to think about finding information, where they could get help, when to persevere with a search process, and, crucially, when to stop. Moreover, the process of doing hands-on original research in the archives and secondary searching about the archival information in the main library’s holdings and databases allowed students to understand the value of digital humanities.
Extending The Relationship Between Digital Humanities and Information Literacy
The core of the Arden Club Digital Archive teaching project engaged metadata research and creation as a way of helping students to learn, first-hand, both the precepts and the values of information literacy as defined by ACRL’s Framework. This approach provided students with a really good foundational understanding of the research process, and of their role in both consuming and also producing information. However, the relationship between digital humanities and information literacy extends beyond these fundamental parameters when students encounter techniques such as digital mapping and text mining. These were techniques that students in this introductory course had a chance to experiment with for their final project, and in both cases, students had to confront their role as information creators and information authorities. In a number of cases, students chose to extend their Arden Club Digital Archive work for their final project, and their findings are testimony to the ways in which digital humanities can allow experiential learning of information literacy precepts.
Henry Cohanim, one of the students quoted in this article, opted to use digital mapping with Google’s MyMaps software to locate businesses that he had discovered to be sponsoring one of the Arden Club’s performances, Bury The Dead, in 1936. He researched the companies sponsoring the play to find out their locations and then went in person to visit there today, taking pictures as he went, and then proceeding to create an interactive digital map depicting these points ‘then and now’. This project is a great example of someone thinking about their role in information creation: he felt that in order to engage readers with the detailed and meticulous research he had done to find these companies, and to make them come to life in the present day, a narrative approach would be effective in which he imagined a hypothetical day which a student at SMU in 1936 might have had, visiting each of these businesses in the lead-up to attending the Arden Club’s play. This was a decision which Cohanim took very seriously: how do you imaginatively inhabit the past without imposing too much upon it? How do you make the past speak whilst retaining accurate information?
Another student quoted here, Alix Sommers, discovered a diary in SMU’s University Archives from precisely the years in the 1930s when she was investigating the Arden Club, and for her final project, she undertook to make a map of the places and incidents recorded in the diary. She annotated her digital map with quotations from the diary, and with some pictures, she found in SMU’s Archives of the diarist, Doris, and when she presented her work to the class it was clear from the slew of engaged questions that everyone was really captured by the micro-history which she brought to life. This was a different way of harnessing her role as an information creator, as she had to juggle the use of a modern digital mapping tool with the authentic presentation of Doris’ words from the 1930s, and creating a harmonious balance between the two was a great way of thinking about how research can act as a conversation not only with our peers or with fellow researchers, but also with people from the past from our communities.
Our Success Story
The results were striking: the quality of virtually all student papers in this assignment was markedly high, with each person genuinely investing in the process. Students’ engagement was demonstrable, for example: deciphering difficult-to-read early twentieth-century handwriting to follow the work of the Club’s secretary through the year in 1921-1922; looking through hundreds of pages of The Dallas Morning News’ digital collection to find the three mentions of the person whose name caught their eye in a play program; finding a diary that was serendipitously deposited in the University archives during the semester that documented life at SMU in the 1930s; tracing the names and locations of businesses that sponsored the Arden Club productions in the 1930s, and visiting those locations today; discovering that their erstwhile sorority sister from the 1920s was a key player in the Arden Club, and using their sorority archives to augment their research.
Completing archival research on the Arden Club Project allowed me to see the change in social and cultural contexts over the decades, as well as find a shared past and common identity with history. Through researching the Junior Arden Club minutes I discovered an SMU student’s diary from 1931 to 1935 in the DeGolyer Library at SMU which allowed me to further develop an understanding about student life during the Arden Club’s existence. (Alix Sommers, English and Business student, senior 2019-2020)
Students pushed themselves to make discoveries, to research things they would never otherwise have realized worthwhile, and to think about how best to share that research with the public, a key life skill.
An Ongoing Process
So far, we have documented the Club’s earliest years. The project will continue to grow as subsequent classes explore the archives. The Arden Club Project was always conceived an iterative one, with this first class setting up and establishing the pattern of information and research which would then be carried on by subsequent cohorts. There was an overhead in the initial setup of the course, but the fact that it has already iterated repays that investment. The in-person, hands-on support provided during multiple class sessions with energy, excitement, and expertise deemed indispensable by virtually all of the students.
This Will Work for You
It was the combination of being empowered to do their own original research, knowing that they were dealing with materials that few other researchers had examined, but also having collaborative support and guidance through the different phases of the research process that made this project so successful.
Coming into college as a statistics major, I have always been interested in data analytics. However, the raw crunching of numbers never excited me as much as I would’ve hoped. Taking this digital humanities course and working with texts and other people opened my eyes to the fact that data analytics has so much more to offer than binary code that drones on, it really can be humanistic. 😊 (Mallory Vroegh, Statistics student, sophomore 2019-2020)6
Having manageable chunks of research allowed students to be invested in this choose-your-own-adventure assignment. Moreover, the phased research process guided students in the development of their information literacy dispositions. It was applied information literacy, and all of the students were very vocal in saying how this empowered them both academically and in their lives beyond the classroom.
- John E. Russell and Merinda Kaye Hensley have discussed how digital humanities pedagogy can offer effective ways of thinking actively about choices made in information creation, generation, and analysis; “Beyond Buttonology: Digital Humanities, Digital Pedagogy, and the ACRL Framework,” College and Research Libraries News 78.11, p.558 (2017), doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.78.11.588. Steve Kolowich likewise discusses the ways in which digital humanities can enhance information literacy: “Behind the Digital Curtain: Could Weaving the Digital Humanities into Undergraduate Education Help Improve Students’ Information Literacy?,” Inside Higher Ed 27 January 2012, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/27/could-digital-humanities-undergraduates-could-boost-information-literacy ↵
- Janet Hauck highlights the importance of collaboration and true partnership in these kinds of teaching initiatives; see “From Service to Synergy: Embedding Librarians in a Digital Humanities Project,” College and Undergraduate Libraries 24.2-4 (2017), p.434-451, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1341357. Melanie Griffin and Tomaro I. Taylor similarly discuss how partnerships in digital humanities pedagogy can redefine the traditional library liaison role: see “Shifting Expectations: Revisiting Core Concepts of Academic Librarianship in Undergraduate Classes with a Digital Humanities Focus,” College and Undergraduate Libraries 24.2-4 (2017), p.452-466, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1325346. ↵
- Anne Jumonville has discussed information literacy as a way of enhancing humanities instruction: “The Humanities in Process Not in Crisis: Information Literacy as a Means of Low-Stakes Course Innovation,” College and Research Libraries News 75.2 (2014), p.84-87, doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.75.2.9072. ↵
- Susan Powell and Ningning Nicole Kong have suggested that in-depth instruction can be a good opportunity for libraries to engage in digital humanities: “Beyond the One-Shot: Intensive Workshops as a Platform for Engaging the Library in Digital Humanities,” College and Undergraduate Libraries 24.2-4 (2017), p.516-534, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1336955. ↵
- To reflect the varied majors within the classroom, the digital humanities projects whose metadata we reverse engineered included Mill Marginalia Online (https://millmarginalia.org), the Isabella D’Este Archive (IDEA) (http://isabelladeste.web.unc.edu/), and Charles Darwin’s Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/collection/darwinlibrary). ↵
- With thanks to our students Henry Cohanim, Alix Sommers, and Mallory Vroegh for their time in sharing their reflections upon the course with us. ↵