For many years, I have been studying the life and career of Moses Dresser Phillips (1813-1859), a prominent Antebellum publisher and the founder of Atlantic Monthly. He was the subject of my dissertation, “A Publisher’s Hand: Strategic Gambles and Cultural Leadership by Moses Dresser Phillips in Antebellum America” (American Studies Program, The College of William and Mary, 2001). In addition, I have curated exhibitions about Moses Dresser Phillips at at Charlton Public Library (Phillips’s hometown in Central Massachusetts) and Dinand Library, College of the Holy Cross (my alma mater and one of my places of employment), and I have presented on Phillips and his publishing firms at conferences and both academic and public talks. I have continued my research on him and his firms, and I am revising my dissertation into a book. As I contemplated potential projects for my Introduction to Digital Humanities course at George Mason University, I knew that I wanted to create a project related to Phillips.
In my October proposal to Dr. Robertson, I included three project options: I had a map project in progress, a very rough Neatline timeline that I thought about working on, and an Omeka exhibition in its early stages. While discussing the project with Dr. Robertson, he asked me to select one idea, I decided to create the Omeka site “Moses Dresser Phillips and His World.”
Looking back at my ideas for the Omeka site at that point, I realize how much my project has changed. I had been thinking of doing an online exhibition of the imprints from Phillips’s publishing business in Worcester, MA (M. D. Phillips and Co., and M. D. Phillips), as well as his more well-known Boston firm (Phillips and Sampson, later known as Phillips, Sampson and Company). I had decided on Dublin Core metadata and Item Type metadata, the latter focusing on books. At that point, I planned to include secondary sources within the items.
I got to work adding items and decided to have both text and person Item type metadata. It occurred to me that I could utilize Voyant to add an interesting component to the texts for the Phillips imprint. It was something that I had not seen done, and I decided to try that out.
Several weeks later, Dr. Robertson asked that we submit project updates in preparation for another discussion with him. The questions that he asked really helped me to think, plan, and focus. His questions were
- What is the aim and/or the question your project seeks to answer? Why did you choose this focus?
- What is the intended audience for your project? Why did you choose this focus?
- What data/sources are you using in your project? Why did you choose this material?
- What software are you using in your project? Why did you choose this software?
- What design, organization and navigation are you using in your project? Why did you choose these forms?
- What is your process for completing the project? In what order will you undertake the tasks that you project involves, and how will you go about completing them?
After much thought, I answered the questions to the best of my ability. I knew that time would be a major issue, but I had a very optimistic timeline:
Week of November 6 – Started experimenting with Palladio for Phillips imprints (I was able to copy and paste info from Access and then try different things) and began authority work for authors. Complete authority information for authors, continue adding authors to the Phillips Omeka site
Week of November 13 – Finish adding authors and begin adding imprints
Week of November 20 – Finish adding imprints
Week of November 27 – Curate Moses Dresser Phillips exhibition
Week of December 4 – Finish Palladio graphs and begin curating author and imprint exhibitions
Week of December 11 – Complete exhibitions, proofread, and edit
Dec. 16 – submit final version
I wish that I had been able to achieve my goals, but I learned both negative and positive lessons along the way.
On the negative side, my time estimate about finishing adding authors by November 13 and imprints by November 20 was both optimistic and naive. I had no idea how much time it would take to add all of the metadata for even one item.
I’ve spent hours on each item and the project as a whole:
- searching for allowable images, WorldCat identities, and biographical information,
- verifying the identities of individuals noted in LC Suggest on Omeka,
- trying to locate the correct imprints on Archive.org and Haithi Trust, and later saving images of some title pages to serve as placeholders for missing authors,
- creating Voyant sites for texts and word clouds to serve as placeholders for missing author photos (until I realized how to save the images of the title pages and used them instead),
- adding Dublin Core and Item type metadata,
- and creating as many tags as possible for each author and book.
Since I created the exhibitions, I have spent a great deal of time adding the items to the exhibitions and editing the exhibitions. For a while, I experienced frustration with Palladio, and it took some time to figure out how to add those graphs on Omeka (Dr. Robertson came to the rescue with wise advice). Once I learned how to add the graphs, I decided to wait until the end of the project to add them. On many occasions, I’ve worked for over ten hours straight on days that turned into nights, as well as nights which turned into 1:30, 3:00, 4:30, 5:00, or 6:30 in the morning. I loved what I was doing, and I was so glad that I had learned the tools that allowed me to be able to create this project (Flow, as Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi says), so the hours just flew by. Since I have had other assignments for this course, I have been teaching four college courses and have been working at two other part-time jobs, and I have a personal life and a need for sleep, I have had to take breaks from the project. As I noted in my project progress report to Dr. Robertson and my peers, I wish that I could have cloned myself to have been able to get all of the Phillips authors and imprints into the exhibition. I have worked extremely hard and am proud of what I have accomplished to date, but it was impossible to get the project to where I had hoped to. As I prepare my timeline for future projects, I will utilize the lesson that I learned to be more realistic about project management.
Yet, the lessons that I learned were not all negative. Part of the reason that I have taken longer than anticipated with the items is that I decided it was wise to create the frameworks for the exhibitions earlier than I had planned to. I had divided the items into collections, with “Moses Dresser Phillips and His Authors” as one and “Phillips, Sampson and Company imprints” for the other. As I was adding the items and putting them into collections, I realized that it made sense to create the exhibitions and to add the items to each exhibition as I went along. Instead of having a separate exhibition for Phillips’s life and career, I thought that I would include him in the exhibition on “Moses Dresser Phillips and His Authors” to tie him to them. My second exhibition was the “Phillips, Sampson and Company imprints, and my third was “Phillips, Sampson and Company genres.” I added the authors and imprints that I had at that point, and It has been quite a time saver to include the authors and imprints to the exhibitions as I create the items. I realized how important it is to be flexible and open-minded when creating a DH project, and to use, as Robert Sternberg advises, my analytical, creative, and practical intelligences.
Working on the Moses Dresser Phillips biographical sketch, I included and then excluded the information about Phillips’s personal life. It was hard to work it into the story of his career, so I eliminated the information. I have integrated the two in my dissertation, and in my working book manuscript, but I have so much to say in a few pages in this exhibition. The project is due in less than twenty-four hours, and I’m still trying to decide what, if anything, to do with the personal information in this project. However, I have enjoyed adding the Omeka items into the Phillips narrative, and I am so pleased that I have learned to work with Omeka, WordPress, Voyant, Palladio and Carto this semester. I’m happy that I have been able to utilize what I have learned about them, copyright, digitization, and more during this course. As I teach my composition students, the basics have to become almost automatic so that someone can focus on the content of what he or she is creating. I’m very grateful that I have learned so many tools and DH processes which have enabled me to create the site and the narrative.
Doing this project has been such a joy, and I have loved seeing the images of the authors. It is one thing to research and write about these people, and holding the letters of Phillips, Emerson, Stowe, Edward Everett Hale, and others in my hands has been unforgettable, but it is another thing entirely to actually see the people who were in Phillips’s world. As I was working on each individual, and then as I grouped them together in the “Phillips, Sampson and Company authors and their imprints” exhibition, I finally felt like I had entered Moses’s world. I was seeing them and re-reading their biographies and making social networking connections between them (which made me think of adding personal network graphs at some point), and it got me even more excited about telling the larger story in my book.
Having had material culture as my major field in my Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, with books as my object of competence, I’m quite aware of the importance of visuals. In fact, I missed being able to see the bindings of the books in archive.org. I realized that seeing the authors grouped together was helping me to ask better questions, ones that were helping me to use them as primary sources to examine their culture.
In addition, looking at the faces of the men and women whose words and actions I have been studying for many years has touched me emotionally. I find myself thinking about them and what their worlds were like. I wonder how they juggled their busy lives and why they found the courage to persevere with their writing. I’m curious about how they came to know Moses and what they thought of him. I look at his face and see a man who founded the Atlantic Monthly at forty-three, and just three years later realized that he was dying of consumption. What fears did he have for his business and for his wife and young children? How did his authors react to his passing? These people are fascinating, and I have so many new questions that I wish I could ask them and Moses.
When I realized that one author was born centuries earlier than I was, but in the same year of the century, and then that he passed away at the same age that I am now, I stopped in my tracks. I started to think about how much he had done by the time that he was my age, and I admired him and the other productive authors even more. I’m so determined to tell their stories, and I hope that my hard work on this project will help others to be inspired by Phillips and the people in his firm’s stable of authors.
Near the end of the course, we were required to contribute to the Gallery of Student Projects on our course web site. We needed to utilize the questions presented, which were similar to our project update questions, and to present any questions that we had about our projects. In addition, we were asked to review two people’s projects. Similarly, we would get feedback from two peers. I started to think that I should pull out the Moses Dresser Phillips information from the first exhibition and put it into its own, as I had planned from the start. I’d also been wondering if the Voyant word clouds did not look sophisticated/polished enough, so I inquired about that. Finally, I asked how to fix a problem that I have been having eliminating something in Voyant. I was nervous about getting feedback and excited about the possibility of getting assistance with my Voyant query.
As I prepared my first review, I learned how DH projects should be evaluated from the website that Professor Robertson had given us. That helped me to review my peer’s project, and it also gave me a lot of food for thought about mine. I was so impressed by her project, and I loved the opportunity to learn about her project and methodology. Just about the same time that I finished my first review, I heard back from one of my classmates. She had positive feedback regarding the site and the Voyant word clouds, so I felt grateful and relieved. Next, Dr. Robertson let me know that he thought that my project was progressing well. I was pleased to hear that and prayed that he would have the same response to my “final” product. When I was able to review the second peer’s project, I got a chance to see another Omeka project in action. As with my earlier review, I admired the hard work my peer had put into the project and learned quite a bit. As it turns out, the second peer had reviewed my project. His constructive criticism was very thought provoking and inspired me to create a separate space for Phillips. He also gave wise advice about my Voyant issue. The review process has been a learning process and a positive experience.
As the semester has progressed, I’ve realized that creating and editing a DH project requires a passion for the topic of the project, an excitement and commitment which makes the hours of work both enjoyable and worthwhile. I know how much I have loved working on Moses Dresser Phillips and His World, as well as contributing to Trove and The Papers of the War Department, and I look forward to future courses and my internship with the Smithsonian. I am so pleased about and grateful for the opportunity to be in GMU’s Digital Public Humanities Certificate Program.