DLF

The James Merrill Digital Archive and Documenting Ferguson: Leveraging Omeka for Two Distinct Collections

Shannon Davis

This Member Update was provided by Shannon Davis, Digital Projects Librarian, Washington University in St. Louis.

Over the last year, Washington University Libraries has launched two distinct digital projects using Omeka digital exhibition software. The first, The James Merrill Digital Archive, contains drafts, notes, and other writings from the Pulitzer prize-winning poet. The second, Documenting Ferguson, is a collection of user-contributed material recording the events that unfolded in Ferguson, MO, after the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The two collections are radically different in content and context. One makes use of technology to enhance research of traditional special collections, while the other embraces the challenges of documenting cultural events while they are unfolding and collecting user-contributed materials.

The James Merrill Digital Archive provides online access to a selection of materials from the James Merrill Papers housed in Washington University’s Special Collections. While a faculty member’s interest in Merrill’s work was the impetus for developing the online archive, the idea quickly grew into a multi-year project involving faculty in the English department, staff from the University Libraries’ Manuscripts and Digital Library Services units, and students and staff in the Humanities Digital Workshop in the school of Arts & Sciences.

Work on the archive began in 2013, with the digitization of transcripts written by Merrill during Ouija board sessions with a spirit named Ephraim. These transcripts were later developed into Merrill’s epic poem, “The Book of Ephraim,” published in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Divine Comedies (1976) and in the first installment of The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Notes, drafts, galley proofs, and other material from Divine Comedies have also been digitized and are available in the digital archive, thanks to student workers, who digitized and captured metadata for thousands of pages of Merrill’s work. Two exhibit sections, The Book of Ephraim and Ouija Transcripts, present materials in their entirety, organized by archival box number. A third section, Merrill In Process, was curated by a student familiar with Merrill’s work, who arranged items to show progression in Merrill’s writing and editing. Using the Fedora connector plug-in for Omeka, we were able to jointly preserve all of the metadata in a Fedora repository and use Fedora object IDs to populate item records in Omeka.

Work on the archive is ongoing, as staff and students work on transcription and TEI encoding of already digitized papers. The digital archive will also eventually include comparisons between poem draft versions using Juxta collation software. While the unique and otherworldly origins of Merrill’s work might catch one’s attention, exploring the archive reveals an engaging collection of material from one of the leading poets of his generation. The archive was initially publicized with great reception from St. Louis Magazine and the Poetry Foundation, among other outlets. I will present a poster on the digital archive at the DLF Forum in Atlanta next month.

While James Merrill used a spiral notebook to capture his thoughts, events today are captured in much more varying, fleeting media, from cell phone cameras to Twitter. The temporal nature of this media makes it paramount for academic libraries to capture user-generated data, particularly when it is documenting such important cultural events as the unrest in Ferguson, MO, after the death of Michael Brown. Washington University Libraries has created a project, called Documenting Ferguson, to capture, archive, and preserve media documenting subsequent events, including peaceful protests, police action in the wake of violence and looting, and community reactions. We have used the Omeka Contribution plug-in to provide a form for users to upload media files and metadata for inclusion in the collection. Metadata and media files will also be ingested in a Fedora repository for long-term digital preservation. Additionally, the Libraries have been working with Archive-It, from the Internet Archive, to document websites and social media in a Ferguson, MO collection on their site. A project team spanning the Washington University campus will focus on gathering additional media and stories, preserving these events as they are unfolding, and facilitating the use of these important materials in teaching and research at the University. Going forward, we hope that this collection will be one of many user generated, culturally focused projects, providing greater opportunity for engagement with the University’s surrounding community.

These are just two examples of the robust digital collections offered at Washington University and an example of using open source software to deliver vastly different collections in format and functionality. Over the next year, we will continue to expand these collections in Omeka, while also working toward our ultimate goal of implementing Hydra to deliver the University’s digital collections. To this end, the Libraries have recently been awarded a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for training and travel related to the Hydra Project. We are also seeking a digital infrastructure librarian to add to our staff expertise in digital library development. Completion of this project is expected in 2016.