Discipline-Specific Learning and Collaboration in the Wheaton College Digital History Project


KTomasekKathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History, Wheaton College (Massachusetts).




hamlinScott P. Hamlin, Director of Research and Instruction, Library and Information Services, Wheaton College (Massachusetts).




StickneyZephorene L. Stickney, College Archivist & Curator of Special Collections, Wheaton College (Massachusetts).




WheatonBookMegan Wheaton-Book, Assistant Archivist and Records Manager, Wheaton College (Massachusetts).

Executive summary (Abstract)

A long-term project that has combined undergraduate students’ transcription and markup of local archival sources with goals for online publication of those sources, the Wheaton College Digital History Project employs high-impact educational practices to teach students basic skills of historical research. The process-oriented goals of teaching and learning have been to some degree at odds with the product-oriented goals of archival-quality publication, but the project has been largely successful in achieving its educational goals.  Cross-institutional collaborations have been essential to the ability of Library and Information Services to develop a publication tool and markup recommendations to facilitate the goals of the project.

Case presentation

Since the 1990s, the American Historical Association (AHA) has recommended that students at both the K-12 and undergraduate levels be taught to “do history.” And some historians have built websites and tools to facilitate such learning by doing. But when former AHA Assistant Director for Research and Publications Robert B. Townsend surveyed historians to determine the effects of new media on research and teaching among historians, he found that few reported using digital tools beyond PowerPoint slides or blogs in their teaching. By the time most students reach undergraduate classrooms, many might have had experience blogging or creating presentations using PowerPoint, but few have interacted with original primary sources to any significant degree. Indeed, most have continued to attend lectures, take notes, and return information from course lectures and readings in bluebook exams. Reading script from a previous century, deciphering handwritten double-entry accounts, interpreting transactions in financial records—all of these are practices of historical research that too few students have the opportunity to experience as part of the process of learning to do history.

AHA recommendations that students learn to do history are grounded in research on teaching and learning over the past fifteen years that has led to more and more recommendations focused on the value of hands-on classroom experiences for students at both the K-12 and undergraduate levels. Much of this literature has been influenced by scientific study of the brain and learning, and the National Research Council of the United States has highlighted the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning, a model most readily exemplified by laboratory sections in the natural sciences. Rather than separating hands-on experiences from more traditional lectures, instructors should integrate opportunities for the practice of discipline-specific methods into the main classroom sessions of courses. In How Students Learn (2005), editors M. Suzanne Donnovan and John D. Bransford presented applications of these proposals in the teaching of history, math, and science at the K-12 levels. For students at the undergraduate level, references to inquiry-based learning can be found on the list of high-impact educational practices that the American Association of Colleges and Universities recommend as part of their Project LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise). These high-impact practices include undergraduate research as well as collaborative assignments and experiences. The assignments developed for the Wheaton College Digital History Project utilize collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, and inquiry-based learning.

The notion that undergraduates can do meaningful research using digital tools has a strong presence in the broader literature in digital humanities. Classicists Christopher Blackwell and Thomas R. Martin have made this assertion about their own students’ work in the Homer Multi-Text project (Blackwell and Martin). And historians have been using digital tools to implement recommendations for inquiry-based learning for some time. In an early example, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published digital versions of documents used in her Pulitzer-prizewinning book A Midwife’s Tale (1990) as one way to show students the research that lay behind her monograph (dohistory.org). Historians at both public universities and private liberal arts colleges in the 1990s developed model assignments in which students edited documents and made them available online (Sklar, McClymer). The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has been a leader in developing online tools for research, teaching, and public history (Cohen and Rosenzweig, Rosenzweig, Kelly, chnm.gmu.edu). And historians at a range of educational institutions have used such online tools as Omeka and the History Engine to facilitate students’ collaboration in creating historical exhibits and narratives online (McClurken, Torget, Benson et al., Meier and Shapiro).

In the Wheaton College Digital History Project (WCHDP), we use tools of digital humanities scholarship—digital images of primary sources and eXtensible Markup Language conformant to the Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (XML/TEI)—to teach students how to do history by transcribing and marking up documents from the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections. The Text Encoding Initiative is a consortium that maintains an internationally recognized set of standards for representation of texts in digital form. In use by museums, libraries, publishers, and individual scholars since 1994, the TEI outgrew the limitations of Standard General Markup Language (SGML) and thus contributed to the creation of the more flexible eXtensible Markup Language (XML) that underlies many of the applications that are part of our daily lives in the digital age (TEI Consortium). Our students mark up transcriptions of documents by embedding codes (or metadata) into the transcribed texts that describe different facets and features of the text. The TEI XML markup delineates the structure of the text (major divisions like journal entries, chapters, account book entries, or paragraphs), highlights information featured in the text (names, places, dates, commodities, and currencies), and further defines and provides context for items in the text (through digital glossaries and footnotes). By the time students have completed this work, they have created an digital critical edition of a primary source, which can be published and shared online and which applications designed for TEI encoded texts can use for further analysis through such methods as text mining (Moretti, Jockers).

The main portion of the WCDHP has focused on documents related to the early years of Wheaton Female Seminary, which was chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1834, and began to offer a college curriculum in 1912. The Wheaton family founded the school, and documents authored by Judge Laban Wheaton, his son Laban Morey Wheaton, and his daughter-in-law Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton are of interest to researchers investigating numerous topics in the history of the United States during the nineteenth century.

Since most of the documents in the project have not been available or well known outside the institution before work began on this project, they have not been considered in previous studies of the history of women’s education in the early United States. Digitization to facilitate access to them thus marks a significant contribution to knowledge about the topic. And since collaborations that include the work of transcription have been central to the project as they are to many in digital humanities, Wheaton College undergraduates have performed the kinds of work that graduate students have been accustomed to doing in large-scale digital humanities projects at research universities for some twenty years (Price). Thus, students who have participated in the activities described here have both learned skills of historical research and made meaningful contributions to historical knowledge.

Design and Implementation

The opportunity to begin teaching students about the past through transcription and markup arose when a confluence of events combined new interest in and experience with the TEI at Wheaton College and the acquisition by College Archivist Stickney of the pocket diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton. In its first iterations, the WCDHP developed in response to an opportunity to test the use of well-established digital humanities tools in the classroom. Beginning in January 2004, Wheaton College collaborated with Mount Holyoke College to host a two-part conference that explored uses of TEI in teaching and research at liberal arts colleges. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and the Center for Educational Technology (CET) at Middlebury College, the conference included instruction in XML/TEI from Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman of the Women Writers Project that originated at Brown University and has recently moved to Northeastern University. We embarked on our first effort at teaching with TEI the following fall.

The classroom pilot combined with the fortuitous acquisition of the diaries to lead to the development of a program of imaging, transcription, and markup in which students worked as summer employees with funding from the faculty member’s student-faculty research awards and fellowship sources from other divisions of the college. This stage of the project was underway between 2005 and 2008. Tomasek and Stickney collaborated with a technology liaison to develop a second iteration of classroom transcription and markup of financial records in 2009. Tomasek continued to use portions of the teaching module in various courses as appropriate, and new iterations of the project are now under way.

This section of the case study describes three early iterations of the project, ongoing refinements of assignments and plans for classroom sessions, and developments that occurred in 2013. Responses to shifting priorities of the principals as well as to the nature of the documents available in the local collection have affected the focus of the project as a whole. Tomasek and technology liaisons have concentrated on the pedagogical uses of transcription and markup for developing students’ skills in historical research. Tomasek has also developed a research agenda aimed at developing recommendations for TEI-compatible markup of historical financial records. Stickney has welcomed the opportunities that TEI presented for developing metadata-intensive editions of archival documents. She has also sought alternative means of increasing visibility of the collections. Hamlin has been part of a cross-institutional team that is developing TAPAS, a tool to facilitate publication of TEI documents from small colleges with limited ability to support TEI projects. Assistant Archivist Wheaton-Book’s joining the team in 2012 has created new opportunities for refining assignments and developing new models of collaborative instruction for students in Tomasek’s courses. On the whole, we consider the WCDHP to be an example of a fruitful collaboration that serves the multiple goals of the principals.

Classroom Pilot: The Journal of Maria E. Wood

In the fall semester of 2004, students in an introductory course on women’s history, U.S. Women to 1869, learned about the economic uncertainties in the lives of unmarried white women by transcribing and marking up the journal of Maria E. Wood, the daughter of a Maine Baptist minister. Tomasek, Hamlin, and Stickney collaborated with Jamie Spriggs, a technology consultant fluent in TEI, to develop a scaffolded assignment (Appendix A—Maria Wood Journal Assignment) to lead the students through the semester-long process of transcription, interpretive markup, and a final writing assignment that included use of the journal as a primary source:

  • Transcription—Each student was assigned a set of pages from the journal to transcribe.
  • Interpretive markup—Groups of students marked up their own editions of the entire journal using themes from the course: family, work, religion, death and mourning.
    • Students used oXygen, a cross-platform text editor developed specifically for use with XML for this stage of the project. The programmers behind oXygen collaborate with users of TEI and other developer communities to maintain a highly functional application that can test documents for both well-formedness and validity. The students who worked on the Maria E. Wood journal suggested that they should receive t-shirts reading, “My text is valid and well-formed.”
  • Final paper—Students wrote individual papers about the themes of the course, referencing the journal as a primary source in their examples.

Because of concern about the compressed timeline for proofreading students’ transcriptions and carrying out structural markup before the full journal was presented to students for the group, the behind-the-scenes workflow for the assignment entailed using Stickney’s earlier transcription of the entire journal and structural markup by Spriggs for the interpretive markup stage of the assignment. The teaching team—Tomasek, Stickney, and Hamlin—finessed this portion of the process for the students.

At the end of the course, the students noted the significant role that Hamlin played as a resource in helping them complete the transcription and interpretive markup portions of the assignment.  More importantly, the students also expressed a sense of having gotten to know Wood and having understood the past better than they ever had before.  We considered the pilot to have successfully met our pedagogical goals—to give students hands-on experience with a primary source and thus an opportunity to learn about the life of a white middle-class woman in the nineteenth-century United States by doing history. Tomasek and Hamlin presented this pilot at a conference on Technology, Knowledge, and Society at the University of California, Berkeley (Tomasek, et al., 2006).

An Archival Research Project: The Eliza Baylies Wheaton Diaries

Serendipitously, Stickney received word of the availability of a few of Eliza B. Wheaton’s pocket diaries in spring 2004. Stickney had long known that Wheaton had kept pocket diaries throughout her life, but none of the diaries had been preserved in the Wheaton Family Collection. Our work with the Wood journal in fall 2004 combined with the presence on campus of students with experience using TEI to give us the opportunity to propose the creation of digital editions. We called this foray into a more ambitious digital humanities project the Eliza Baylies Wheaton Diaries Project. In spring 2005 and subsequent summers, student research assistants collaborated with Stickney, Hamlin, and Tomasek to create digital editions of the diaries and a travel journal from 1862.

New England Revolution v Chicago Fire

Figure 1: Eliza B. Wheaton

This portion of the project developed and was funded in an ad hoc manner. In spring 2005, a student was employed through the library to begin transcription of one of the pocket diaries. That summer, a student who had been part of the pilot in Tomasek’s history course worked on one of the pocket diaries. The student was compensated through a student-faculty research award that Tomasek received from the Office of the Provost. The following summer (2006), Tomasek and Stickney employed three students to complete transcription of the remaining pocket diaries and of a travel journal that had been part of the Wheaton Family Collection before the purchase of the diaries. Tomasek’s faculty-student research award funded one student, while two additional students were paid through summer fellowships that originated from other divisions within the college. Students who worked in the Archives on transcription and markup in the summers of 2007 and 2008 also received funding through a combination of Tomasek’s student-faculty research awards and sources in other divisions. During the summer of 2008 the students’ work was funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Office of the Provost at Wheaton College.

TEI Archiving, Publication, and Access Service (TAPAS)

At this point in the project, Hamlin turned his attention to the problem of making the students’ work available online. Documents created in TEI-conformant XML can contain metadata indicating not only the structure of primary sources but—more significantly—interpretations of those sources by students and scholars. The classroom pilot using the Maria Wood journal and the archival project focused on the Eliza Baylies Wheaton diaries had produced digital editions of the documents, but online publication required greater staff resources than we had available on campus. TEI is an archival format that was created in part to solve the problem of inaccessibility of texts created in proprietary applications whose utility expired as corporations created new versions of the applications or simply went out of business. But the archival utility of TEI and its cross-platform flexibility mean that TEI documents need to be transformed into formats that are readable by currently available technologies. TEI has long had a notorious reputation for a time lag between initiation of a project and its public visibility.

Most often located at larger public and private institutions more focused on research than on the teaching mission of liberal arts colleges, text encoding projects often include staff members whose time is dedicated to various aspects of the project – transcription and encoding, programming, project oversight. At Wheaton and other small institutions, these tasks fall to members of the faculty and staff who have many other responsibilities. In addition, larger institutions usually develop robust web applications to store, publish, and provide access to encoded texts. At Wheaton and other small liberal arts colleges, software development of this kind is not feasible. The TEI Archiving, Publishing, and Access Service (TAPAS) project was created to answer this problem.

TAPAS grew out of a TEI workshop held at Wheaton in 2008, in which a number of scholars from a variety of institutions expressed frustration in their inability to present or share their encoded texts. Recognizing a common need, technologists, and librarians at Wheaton College, Dickinson College, and Mount Holyoke College applied for and received a year-long grant from the IMLS to plan a TEI preservation, publication, and transformation service. After several years of development, generously funded by implementation grants from IMLS and NEH, the TAPAS service, which began at Brown University and is now hosted at Northeastern University, will launch in spring 2014.

TAPAS will provide much needed publication and access services for the TEI community, particularly those at small and under-resourced institutions like Wheaton. TAPAS will offer scholars, practitioners, and students who are developing TEI encoded texts a place to store, transform, and share their work with others on the web. Members of the TAPAS community will be able to publish their TEI data through TAPAS, creating projects that house collections of TEI documents. Once materials have been published through TAPAS, anyone will be able to access and work with TAPAS data in many different ways. TAPAS will offer a collection-wide interface through which those new to TAPAS can explore, find projects and texts of interest, analyze the TEI encoding used, and perform other corpus-level activities. Individual projects will also offer their own views of their data, through their published collections. A reader interested in a specific project might visit it directly and use its collection interface to search, browse, and read the materials it contains. TAPAS will also offer an API to the TAPAS data, to support third-party use of TAPAS data.

A cross-institutional collaboration inspired by the needs of TEI projects at liberal arts colleges, TAPAS is essential to Wheaton’s ability to support TEI projects; it will provide us with a publication interface for TEI documents developed in the Wheaton College Digital History Project and in other encoding projects. And it will provide the long-term storage and preservation required for these documents. Staff support continues to be an issue, of course, but with this major hurdle solved, the ability for Wheaton’s Research and Instruction staff to support faculty projects like the WCDHP will greatly increase.

Teaching Historical Methods with TEI: Financial Records

In spring 2009, the Wheaton College Digital History Project took a new turn, as students in the research methods course for History majors began to transcribe and mark up pages from the daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept between 1828 and 1859. This book contains a chronological record of financial transactions that reflect some of the range of Wheaton’s business interests during these thirty years, including agricultural pursuits and rentals for land and houses as well as tax collections, fees for legal services, and the operation of a store in Norton, Massachusetts.

Since Hamlin had moved into a new position as Director of Research and Instruction in a newly merged organization called Library and Information Services, Tomasek and Stickney collaborated with a new technology liaison. Because financial documents have a tabular layout on the page, this technology liaison preferred to use a spreadsheet application for the initial transcription. (Spreadsheets were originally created to represent the page layout and mathematical information found in account books.) The technology liaison created a transcription, transformation, and markup workflow utilizing Google spreadsheets because the Google product has the advantage of allowing multiple users to copy a template and transcribe their page spreads into sheets collected in a single spreadsheet file. The workflow also included a script to transform the spreadsheet data into a TEI table to represent the tabular format of the original document in XML. Finally, students used the oXygen text editor to add metadata, marking up the text with name and date identifiers as well as tags that included standardized information about commodities purchased, units and amounts of each commodity in each transaction, and currency units and aggregate prices for transactions.

As we had done in the case of Maria Wood’s journal, we developed a scaffolded assignment (Appendix B—Financial Records Assignment) that included transcription, markup, and writing about the primary sources:

  • Transcription—The students were assigned a page spread from the daybook. Each student was assigned a separate sheet for their page spread in the Google spreadsheet. We held a workshop session in which Tomasek and Stickney assisted students in their reading of the manuscript on the page spreads.
  • Markup—The students received XML files for markup in oXygen, and we held a workshop session in which Stickney, Tomasek, and the technology liaison were available to help students with markup.
  • Writing—Students wrote about their primary sources twice.
    • First, students wrote episodes for the History Engine, a collaborative tool for teaching and learning about history that is hosted at the University of Richmond (historyengine.richmond.edu).
    • Students incorporated their primary source research from the daybook into their final papers for the course.

In this case, the assignment was intended to model the steps in the kind of research project students are expected to complete in their capstone experience, a senior seminar in which students write a paper of at least twenty pages based on original research.

Students who undertook this work in the methods course as well as in various iterations in other courses have had the opportunity to learn several of the skills that are necessary for archival research. These include but are not limited to deciphering script and other elements of handwriting, as well as gaining some idea of the details of daily life that might not become evident through reading secondary sources. Since many of these students have little understanding of rural life in any century, encountering such items as bushels of potatoes and cords of wood adds to their ability to comprehend their distance from the lives of people who were alive in the 1840s (Tomasek 2011).

Tomasek taught this course in both spring and fall 2009, and in the intervening summer, she used a student-faculty research award and her faculty travel allowance to fund tuition and transportation for herself and a student assistant, Lauren Pfendner, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Tomasek and the student assistant attended the weeklong Introduction to TEI course taught by Flanders and Bauman. (This was Tomasek’s third time to take a version of this course, and this time the instruction finally made sense to her.) Pfendner immediately became fluent in XML/TEI, and she subsequently collaborated with Tomasek, Stickney, and the technology liaison in the second iteration of the course.

By 2010, Tomasek had concluded that she needed additional training in TEI in order to be able to ensure continuity with the project’s origins in exploring the use of TEI in teaching. She worked with Hamlin to arrange attendance at Advanced Institutes in TEI that were offered by the Women Writers Project. Four members of the WCDHP team attended an institute on an advanced form of TEI mark-up involving defining parts of a text known as contextualization in April 2010: Tomasek, Stickney, Pfendner, and the technology liaison.  Contextualization includes the creation of separate XML files containing structured metadata about people (called prosopographies or personographies), places (called gazetteers or placeographies), or organizations (called orgographies). Tomasek and the technology liaison attended an institute on customization (a method of enforcing the use of a subset of TEI codes in a project) in August 2010. Priorities of the principals had diverged at this point in the project.  Hamlin had turned his attention to the TAPAS project and his administrative duties. Stickney did not have time among all of her other duties to learn the intricacies of the TEI. Tomasek had begun to develop a new research agenda focused on the challenges presented by producing TEI-compatible markup for historical financial records.

A New Archival Project: @ElizaBTweetin

During the development phase of the TAPAS project, the College Archivist and Assistant Archivist have collaborated with the Digital Learning Liaison and undertaken a new project with the Eliza Baylies Wheaton diaries to create some more immediate visible products of the WCDHP. Launched on March 18, 2013, a dedicated Twitter account, @ElizaBTweetin, presents the transcripts of Eliza B. Wheaton’s diary entries on a daily basis. This project is a direct outcome of the work done by students to transcribe, edit, and mark up Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s diaries. @ElizaBTweetin uses HootSuite to schedule posts to Twitter. The College Archivist and a student assistant type the posts into HootSuite for scheduled posting. Blog posts accompany many of the entries, explicating content that is unusual for its obscurity, or has significant local or institutional interest. A web presence for @ElizaBTweetin contains a brief biography of Eliza B. Wheaton; an image gallery of paintings, photographs, sketches; a prosopography or personography (who’s who); a map showing her travels (using Google Maps); collected blog posts; collected tweets; and a section “about the project.” This site may be found at: http://wheatoncollege.edu/archives/eliza-baylies-wheaton-elizabtweetin-2/. Once all six of the diaries have been tweeted, a scholarly edition including the contextual blog posts as well as the other features of the website will be compiled and published. While this project’s audience is less scholarly than some of our others, it is our hope that by slowly anthologizing the diaries they can be used to both highlight/garner support and interest for the individuals (and institution) involved as well as provide a deeper look at women’s education in mid 19th century New England. Our hope with this project is to encourage others outside of the academic community to understand the value of what goes into TEI and what TEI can in turn provide.

New Classroom Collaborations

In fall 2013, Wheaton-Book and Hamlin worked with students in Tomasek’s First-Year Seminar, History and Culture in the Digital Age, to introduce them to XML/TEI and the pocket diaries. This new iteration of the classroom inquiry-based module for using TEI to teach students historical methods has led us to consider further refinement of our pedagogical practices, as we adapt the module to fit the abilities of students at different levels of their undergraduate experience.

In this new iteration, students were given a background introduction to XML and an overview of how to mark up a document. They were then given a few basic elements, like names and dates, to examine for each of their previously transcribed entries. Students were presented with both the transcription and digital versions of the Eliza Baylies Wheaton diary. Students identified and marked up the elements they had received, and then they once again proofread the transcripts for accuracy.

The basics of markup were not particularly challenging to most of the students. Students were most engaged by the decision-making component of comparing their transcriptions to the images of the original documents that they viewed. They were most challenged by the handwriting, raising interesting and problematic questions. Students were able to engage with the diary in ways that made it more accessible than just seeing the digitized version. They were excited when a name or a date appeared and they could apply those elements. Overall students seemed to enjoy the process.

Evaluation and outcomes

Assessment of student learning has gone through as many iterations as has the project itself. Tomasek considers the earliest of these to have been the most thorough with regard to gathering data about the students’ experiences with transcribing and marking up the journal of Maria E. Wood. At each stage of the scaffolded assignment, students were asked to reflect on the tasks they had just completed, and Tomasek collected hard copies of these reflections and compiled them for the article that she co-authored with the team in 2006. Tomasek and Stickney informally asked students who worked on the pocket diaries to write up their experiences, but the students did not comply. And Tomasek simply forgot to build data collection into the scaffolded assignment used in the classroom work on financial records in 2009. Recent developments in the collection of data when Research and Instruction liaisons work with students in courses across the college will lead to improved practices on this score.

Much of the work of the WCDHP promotes student information fluency skills and digital literacies, which faculty members and members of the Research and Instruction Department within Library and Information Services have been collaboratively promoting for many years. The Research and Instruction liaisons, a group composed of professional educators with varied backgrounds – librarians, web designers, instructional designers, instructional technologists – collaborate regularly with faculty members to help students gain 21st century skills in gathering, evaluating, analyzing, manipulating, and communicating about scholarly information. The liaisons and members of the faculty work together to promote these skills at various levels in a student’s undergraduate academic career at Wheaton – starting with foundation courses and working through discipline-specific courses to capstones within their majors. This project is a good example of collaboration between a faculty member and Research and Instruction liaisons that promotes these skills.

Students who have worked on parts of the WCDHP are developing the necessary skills for becoming informationally fluent and for becoming 21st century historians. Text encoding encourages students to engage deeply with primary sources – reading and transcribing unfamiliar handwriting, encountering unfamiliar vocabulary, understanding how a text fits into its historical context. Text encoding helps students understand how editions of texts—both digital and analog–are constructed:  what is left out, what is included, how parts of the text are interpreted. Text encoding allows students to analyze a text and embed that analysis directly into the document; in this sense it makes the process of edition more visible than it is in analog editions. And finally, the end product of much of this work is a form of 21st century scholarly communication – an online critical edition of a text layered with descriptive and analytical mark-up. Students are reading, evaluating, analyzing, and manipulating historical data and using the results for scholarly communication.

Analysis, discussion, lessons learned

The case presented here arose out of an opportunity to try out a particular set of technological tools in one faculty member’s classroom. In its use of documents from the founding period of the college, the case built on existing (analog) practices that had been developed over an extended period of time. The College Archivist had long worked with many members of the Wheaton College faculty to use various books, objects, and documents from the collections in courses in the Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities.

The project has developed in response to many conditions outside the control of the principals, including the faculty member’s teaching schedule, the archivist’s interest in uncovering hidden collections, and the genres of primary sources available within these local collections. Thus, the specific nature and scope of the project have shifted over time, and its boundaries have been somewhat blurred.

A particular challenge has arisen in the disjuncture between pedagogical goals that value students’ mistakes as part of the process of learning and archival goals that quite rightly value accuracy of transcriptions. When Tomasek has tried using the transcription module in courses other than the one for which it was originally designed, Stickney has faced a considerable burden in the task of proofreading students’ work. For the production of archival quality files, proofreading for accuracy is of course an important part of the workflow and one that has created a bottleneck to production of files ready for publication.

At first, and for many years, Stickney desired a literal transcription of the manuscript materials: to recreate every misspelling and represent every dot, blot, and curlicue seemed important to represent the original intent of the author. As time has gone on and each rereading has suggested a change or reinterpretation, Stickney has come to realize that the appearance of the transcription is seldom important enough to worry about, especially if it can be linked to an image of the manuscript. This sea change will allow us to move past the detailed structural encoding necessary to create the appearance of the diary entry or financial columns toward concentrating on the content of the entries or transactions.

For the financial records in particular, some level of abstracting and/or standardizing the transactions may make it easier to search across documents for related or matching transactions. This, of course, increases the importance of TEI-conformant contextual files such as personographies in which randomly assigned identifiers are linked to standardized biographical information about individuals mentioned in the documents. Similar files that abstract the semantic information found in financial records are currently called “transactionographies.” Standardization of such information as weights, measures, and currencies from such records enhances the utility of the data for federated searching across collections as we consider the use of data from our own collections in wider research.

Can undergraduates working in courses widely divergent in time contribute to the creation of contextual data? Probably, but Stickney urges the need for significant checking after the process. She notes that this returns us to the original workflow problem that a single individual can devote only a portion of their time to the task of proofreading. Stickney emphasizes problems that arise when a particular genre of records has a complicated syntax like that of double-entry accounting. In this context, the words “By” and “To” in a daybook have particular meanings that are critical to understanding whether the transaction is a debt or income, and the transcriptions of transactions, if accurate, can tell us much about daily life and people other than the author. Lack of knowledge about day-to-day 19th century life and the quirks of handwriting and bookkeeping of the period, however, restricts undergraduates’ ability to read and interpret the manuscript entries they encounter, and limits their ability to make educated guesses about obscure entries. Stickney offers the following examples:

Tomasek_Figure2 Such errors, Tomasek points out, are part of the process of student learning. And at the same time, even when we proofread, we catch only a fraction of errors. With regard to @ElizaBTweetin, Stickney writes, “Despite many hours of proofreading the diary transcripts, I still find errors, so tweeting provides an opportunity to once again proof and correct the entries.”The standard of accuracy for archival publication of the documents remains under discussion.

Because of the ad hoc nature of our program, and because we devised specific projects for particular courses, we have not always thought enough, in advance, about long-term goals. The immediate goals of student engagement with primary sources, of creating something students could use for papers in that semester, and the varying degree of difficulty they encountered with the materials or the technology, meant that we often ignored how each course contributed to the long-range plan to make those materials available to a larger public audience. We have not, for instance, thought about a transcription of the daybook separate from the spreadsheet/database, in other words, a transcription that literally mirrors the transactions, versus a database that standardizes the entries allowing searching across transactions.

Questions about TEI-compatible representation of financial records constitute a substantial proportion of Tomasek’s current research agenda, and she has presented posters on the topic at both annual Digital Humanities conferences and TEI Member Meetings. She has published on the topic in both the Journal of the TEI and the Journal of Digital Humanities (Tomasek 2013, Tomasek and Bauman 2013, Tomasek and Bauman 2014). Bauman and Tomasek will present a co-authored short paper at DH 2014 (Bauman and Tomasek 2014). Tomasek also continues to explore more layout-focused presentation of financial records with colleagues at the Massachusetts Historical Society. She hopes that these consultations will result in additional publications as well as solutions that can be applied in this project.

Tomasek and Stickney named the Wheaton College Digital History Project strategically, in an effort to draw the college administration’s attention to a collaboration that had, in their view, significant potential for highlighting one component of the institution’s strength in digital humanities and the LIS organization’s ability to support development of students’ digital literacies. As might be expected for a project that began a decade ago, institutional policies and sources of support have shifted over the time that has elapsed since the first iteration of the project began. The Great Recession that began in fall 2008 hit the college hard, and subsequent reductions in staff positions had particularly devastating effects for the ability of LIS to support labor-intensive collaborations. Some of the burdens of this project fell particularly heavily on Stickney, especially proofreading. At the same time, Hamlin and Tomasek turned their attention to grant writing as the project’s initial success led to the need for new tools and methodologies. Future iterations are likely to distinguish more clearly between the process-oriented pedagogical goals and the product-oriented archival goals of the project.

Future plans

Over the past several years, institutional emphasis on digital imaging of archival objects has expanded the digitization program of the College Archives and Special Collections beyond Tomasek’s emphasis on teaching students the skills of historical research and the collaborative development of scholarly editions.

The process of establishing the Archives as a Humanities and Digital Commons began with the installation of a large flat-screen in the Reading Room, making it possible to teach students digital methods, make presentations, and reveal the degree of mediation between digital and original sources. Additionally Assistant Archivist Wheaton-Book attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, in June 2013 to gain further insight into TEI. She has since begun an internal archives project in which work-study students use TEI to transcribe and mark up archival materials, specifically the student literary magazine, The Rushlight (1855-present). Students experienced in/with using TEI are supervised in their markup, and work collaboratively with the Assistant Archivist to create more accessible versions of manuscript documents. The Archives plans to make these versions available through TAPAS as individual publications are completed.

An increasingly important aspect of the archival program will be scanning entire runs of college publications such as the Wheaton News/Wire (1921-present) and The Rushlight (1855-present). Digital imaging of publications and of particularly important manuscript collections, such as those of the Wheaton Family and Lucy Larcom, will provide a corpus of material not only to researchers but also to faculty members who may want to develop projects similar to those we have already undertaken in the WCDHP. As these materials are scanned, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) will be used to provide a baseline transcription. A new work group, including the Assistant Archivist, Digital Asset Curator, and library Cataloger, is developing priorities for digital imaging of archival collections, establishing a digitizing lab in the Library, and developing a workflow for digitizing, cataloging, and making images publicly accessible. At the same time, we will be scanning our image collection, which may be useful in thematic or other studies. We want to be ready when additional faculty members decide to include digital learning projects in their courses.

Tomasek remains committed to the more narrowly defined goal of using transcription and markup to teach students skills of historical research. Development of the TAPAS Project and professional development in TEI for Assistant Archivist Wheaton-Book increase institutional ability to support these goals. Wheaton-Book envisions TEI workshops modeled on the pattern of library instruction sections that have been developed by the liaisons in Research and Instruction over the past three years. The TEI workshop section should:

  • Begin with a short assessment quiz to gauge where the class experience level is with coding.
    • This quiz should be multiple choice rather than short answer.
  • End with an assessment for each of the sessions to see what went well and what could be improved.
    • These quick, 5 question, assessment quizzes would be based on replicating in-class exercises, rather than anecdotal experiences, and should be given at the very end of each session.
  • Include out-of-class assignments using TEI.
    • This will give students a clear reason to focus on learning specific TEI principles and allow them to benefit from in-class lessons being reinforced outside of class time.
  • Include a question on student experience of TEI in the overall course evaluation to gather anecdotal evidence.
  • Ideally, become a lab component of the course, with either one class period every week devoted to working with TEI or an additional class meeting for TEI each week.

In the fall of 2013, students worked best when paired up; this created an environment where students could raise questions amongst themselves and work through their problems before asking the instructors for assistance or “the answer.” This aspect should be kept intact. However,

  • The groups need to be expanded to three or four students so if two of the students are struggling they have someone to turn to and students can get different perspectives on how to approach their challenges.
    • This is where the baseline assessment prior to the TEI workshops would be most beneficial.
    • Students with little experience or low confidence-in-coding could be identified.
    • Students would be matched with different experience levels to ensure that group learning has the greatest potential impact.


As Wheaton College develops more comprehensive programs in hybrid, integrative, and online learning, the project described here represents only one example of the myriad initiatives supported by the Research and Instruction Department in Library and Information Services. Similarly, the individual faculty member’s teaching and research in digital history represents only one of numerous faculty-initiated projects utilizing digital humanities tools and exploring the use and study of new media across the college.

We are looking forward to using TAPAS as a tool for class projects in the future. We see it as serving several critical functions that have been missing from many class projects. First, it will provide students with a readable version of their encoded texts within minutes of uploading the file to TAPAS. Students should be able to do this at various stages of their project to test their files rather than waiting for someone else to transform their files for them. Second, it will provide a central lasting digital repository for this work. Students can upload their finished work to TAPAS and the faculty and staff involved in these projects will all have a central location to access the ongoing work. And finally, TAPAS will provide students with a way to publicly share their work with others, particularly those working with digital texts in the Digital Humanities. Once launched, TAPAS will provide public access to texts stored there and grow into an online community where scholars working with encoded texts will share their work with others. And Wheaton’s students could be a part of this community. With these critical pieces in place, LIS staff supporting future text encoding projects will be able to devote more time to helping students with the encoding and less time trying to transform, store, and provide access to the work that students are completing.

Neither TAPAS nor developing suggestions for TEI-compatible markup of financial records would be possible without cross-institutional collaborations. Our description of the WCDHP has focused largely on the intra-institutional collaborations among a faculty member and members of the LIS staff at Wheaton College.  To some degree, these mirror the sorts of collaborations that Kenneth M. Price, co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln described for digital humanities projects generally. But as Bryan Alexander and Rebecca Frost Davis noted in their contribution to Debates in Digital Humanities, small colleges do not have the resources found at large research universities (Alexander and Davis). For us at Wheaton College, collaborations with institutions and individuals within the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and beyond have been instrumental to the ongoing development of digital projects at Wheaton College. We expect the need for such collaborations to continue as we adapt to ongoing developments in libraries and information technologies.


Portions of the work discussed in this case study were funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment of the Humanities, and the Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or any other funding organization.

Works Cited

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American Association of Colleges and Universities, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), http://www.aacu.org/leap/index.cfm, last accessed December 14, 2013.

Benson, Lloyd, Julian Chambliss, Jamie Martinez, Kathryn Tomasek, and Jim Tuten. “Teaching with the History Engine: Experiences from the Field.” Perspectives on History (May 2009). http://historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009, last accessed December 16, 2013.

Blackwell, Christopher, and Thomas R. Martin. “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research.” dhq: digital humanities quarterly, 3/1 (2009). http://digitalhumanities.org:8080/dhq/vol/3/1/000024/000024.html, last accessed December 16, 2013.

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McClurken, Jeffrey W. “Teaching and Learning with Omeka: Discomfort, Play, and Creating Public, Online, Digital Collections.” In Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy, ed. R. Trebor Scholz (2011), http://learningthroughdigitalmedia.net/teaching-and-learning-with-omeka-discomfort-play-and-creating-public-online-digital-collections, last accessed December 5, 2013.

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About the Authors

KTomasekKathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History, Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Kathryn Tomasek has been a member of the History Department at Wheaton College since 1992. She received her B.A. from Rice University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her early research included articles about white women and Fourierism in the nineteenth-century United States and about race, gender, and utopia in the work of Louisa May Alcott and L. Maria Child. Her website, http://kathryntomasek.org, includes a blog as well as scholarly editions. Tomasek was Project Director on Encoding Financial Records, a 2011 Start-Up Grant from the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her work from that award has been published in the online Journal of Digital Humanities and Journal of the TEI, as well as at http://encodinghfrs.org. Tomasek is a member of the American Historical Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Professional Evaluation of Digital Publications by Historians.

hamlinScott P. Hamlin, Director of Research and Instruction, Library and Information Services, Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Scott Hamlin leads the Research and Instruction Department, which includes media services specialists, academic technologists, and research librarians. He and his department work with faculty, staff, and students to create and sustain effective teaching and learning experiences and environments, support the goals of the college curriculum, and increase information fluency through the use of information resources and technology. He has worked for many years with multiple institutions to promote the use of TEI at small liberal arts colleges and is currently a project director for the TAPAS Project (http://tapasproject.org).

StickneyZephorene L. Stickney, College Archivist & Curator of Special Collections, Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Zeph Stickney has been the College Archivist & Curator of Special Collections at Wheaton College since 1980. She earned her A.B. at Mount Holyoke College and had an Apprenticeship in the Operations of an Historical Library at the College of William & Mary. Together with the Assistant Archivist, she oversees the Records and Information Management (RIM) Program, College Archives, Manuscript and Rare Book Collections at Wheaton College. She collaborates with faculty to introduce students to primary sources through class visits and assignments, and individual research. TEI has been used in several projects to educate students about the mediation that occurs between primary sources and any sort of presentation, be it printed or electronic.

WheatonBookMegan Wheaton-Book, Assistant Archivist and Records Manager, Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Megan Wheaton-Book has been the Assistant Archivist and Records Manager for Wheaton College since 2012. She earned her B.A. from the University of Vermont, and her M.L.I.S. and M.A. from Simmons College. Her research interests include the performance and construction of gender identity through everyday materials and behaviors, specifically women’s relationship to home brewing, as well as managing digitized and born digital materials through digital forensics. She collaborates with the College Archivist, and members of the Research and Instruction Department to make archives materials available in a digital format. Additionally Wheaton-Book oversees the archives internal TEI project where undergraduate students transcribe and mark up archival materials. She recently collaborated with Kathryn Tomasek and Scott Hamlin to introduce TEI to first year students.

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