Collections as Data Series Moves Community Online

In kicking off the first event in the 2020–21 Collections as Data series last Wednesday, the University of Pennsylvania’s Jennifer Garcon emphasized that the projects in which she is involved are part of “the ongoing work” of helping Black communities in Philadelphia to preserve archival materials and data. The notion that the work is ongoing, she noted, is crucial: “[These communities] were already hyper-aware of the importance of their documents and had already been engaging in the work of preserving that material,” she said. “What they needed, I think, was support.” 

Graphic logo of a book with a HTML code signal in the centerIt was a fitting introduction for this year’s edition of Collections as Data, which takes “community” as its theme. “The last nine months have forced us to redefine community as we knew it,” says Natalia Ermolaev, associate director of the Center for Digital Humanities. “And at the same time, we have become so keenly aware of the role that information and data play in shaping our communities, culture, and society.” Ermolaev hopes that this year’s series will invite participants to consider, among other things, how data-based projects build new communities, how researchers can involve the broader community or help to care for community-generated data, and how archival, library, and museum data impacts community experience. 

Last week’s panel, “Preserving Black Histories, Cultivating Black Futures,” featured Garcon, along with Synatra Smith (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Amanda Henley (UNC-Chapel Hill), both of whom presented projects related to Black history and culture (read more about the speakers and their projects from the first event and watch the event recording). Upcoming events include the annual Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon, a discussion about academic libraries partnering with tribal communities on digital archives of Native American cultural material, and a conference about crowdsourcing cultural heritage in partnership with the Princeton Geniza Lab and Zooniverse

From top left: Amanda Henley, Natasha Ermolaev, Jennifer Garcon, and Synatra Smith
Clockwise from top left: Amanda Henley, Natasha Ermolaev, Jennifer Garcon, and Synatra Smith. Watch the event.

This is the third year of the Collections as Data workshop and speaker series, co-organized by the CDH and Princeton University Library. The series launched after Ermolaev attended a week-long “Collections as Data” workshop in summer 2018. The first year of Princeton’s series coincided with the CDH’s “Year of Data” and emphasized the technology behind PUL’s digital content and archival collections. Other highlights have included presentations by staff from the HathiTrust Research Center in 2019 and a reading and discussion of Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018).

In the past three years, Ermolaev notes that “engaging with library collections as a source of data has become much more common for both librarians and scholars,” even more so as research and teaching have gone online during the pandemic. Ermolaev adds that PUL’s commitment to data-driven research has also grown, notably with the establishment of the Princeton Research Data Service. “For the CDH, the more robust the data, services, and support provided by PUL, the more Princeton scholars can collaborate with the CDH on projects that push the boundaries of humanities scholarship,” she says. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Collections as Data took place as a series of lunchtime discussions at Princeton with a wide range of members of the university community joining in interactive conversations. “One of our goals was to bring people whose paths don’t normally cross into the same room to tackle the shared challenge of coordinating and sustaining data-driven scholarship,” Ermolaev says. Because the series has been moved online this year, the interactive small groups have been set aside, and the series will feature a more limited slate of events. The upside, though, is that virtual events are accessible to more people. Last week’s event, for example, drew about ninety registrations, most from beyond Princeton. 

“It’s been really exciting this year to have the chance to engage with colleagues at other institutions who are putting the collections as data approach into practice in diverse ways,” Ermolaev adds.

Anyone interested in the relationship between library and archival collections and data-based research is welcome to attend future events in the Collections as Data series. Keep an eye on the CDH event page and this newsletter for details.

Graphic by CDH Communications Assistant Ara Eagan.

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