Project-Based Teaching in Special Collections: Building Digital Cruikshank

Screenshot of the landing page banner of the WordPress site, Digital Cruikshank: Etching & Sketching in Nineteenth-Century England.

In Fall 2022, students in my combined undergraduate and graduate English seminar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County participated in a semester-long collaboration with our Special Collections Library. Head of Special Collections, Beth Saunders, and Special Collections librarian, Susan Graham, and I secured seed funding from our university to design and run an upper-level course centered on digitizing a library collection and then curating and building a digital resource. In the 1970s, the library received a large donation from Edgar A. and Kathleen Merkle of materials related to English graphic satire and especially the works of George Cruikshank; this, we decided, would form the basis of our project. Cruikshank was one of the most prolific caricaturists and illustrators in nineteenth-century England and the Merkle’s donation included unbound manuscript materials like letters, sketches and ephemera as well as over 120 printed works in various formats: pamphlets, scrapbooks, placards, bound books of all sizes. The grant enabled us to digitize all of the unbound manuscript materials and around 40 titles in the collection, most of which had multiple engravings.

After some COVID-related delays, the seminar launched this fall with fourteen students, four of whom are in the my department’s Masters program in Texts, Technologies and Literature. They served as team leaders and met separately with Language, Literacy and Culture Ph.D. candidate, Jackson Tucker, who served as a “Course Coach” for the semester. The result of these tireless students’ efforts is Digital Cruikshank: Etching & Sketching in Nineteenth-Century England. The resource features over 130 unique sketches gathered into collections with accompanying explanatory essays, item descriptions and blog posts as well as a gallery of 75 additional plates and cuts. 

Many of the seminar students had never stepped foot in Special Collections and were a little stunned to realize what they’d signed up for: a massive group project (shock-horror!). The course met once per week for 2 ½ hour sessions with some optional drop-in writing sessions on Webex toward the semester’s end. All of our communication—file sharing, voting, task distribution, messaging—happened on a Slack workspace that students joined on the first day. Using a free app designed for teamwork was essential to the course’s operations. 

(L) Sample post from Digital Cruikshank Project’s Slack Workspace. (R) Conversation between students on Slack about a transcription question

We broke the semester into phases, which I will briefly illuminate below. But as with any project, it is impossible to narrate the myriad tasks that we completed to bring the site to fruition. From managing our Instagram stories to organizing spreadsheets, researching engraving techniques to composing Alt Text, this project drew upon an incredible range of skills and exercised new intellectual muscles for all of us. As one student, Sarah Nove, observed, “No one in the class or in Special Collections came into this project as an ‘expert’ on Cruikshank, but through communication and adaptation, we brought together our individual knowledge and interests to tell a cohesive story.” 

Phase 1: Digitizing the Materials (and Battling the Scanner) 

Before Susan Graham’s team at Special Collections began digitizing materials, we wanted to ensure that we weren’t duplicating the efforts of other institutions. We began by making a report from our catalog of all our Cruikshank holdings and then checked to see if these titles were digitized elsewhere in public repositories like HathiTrust and Internet Archive. We noted whether the existing scans were in black and white, had plates missing, or were a different edition from ours, among other characteristics. 

Between tech difficulties and understaffing, scanning was a tough task. Thankfully, the grant enabled us to pay a student assistant, Sarah Nove, who did an outstanding job scanning to our master file standards and creating the technical metadata. After the manuscript materials were finished, Sarah moved on to the published works, mostly books in various formats. We had to photograph some of the large format pieces like the 11 etchings from Mayhew’s Great Exhibition of 1851. To ensure the books were cradled properly, we used the library’s book scanner rather than a flatbed. The scanner, though, had major problems: it couldn’t save TIFF images, was prone to crashing and wouldn’t always focus reliably. Student assistant Gabe Morrison eventually took over the scanning and just when we thought we were near completion, we found uncatalogued works on our shelves that didn’t exist elsewhere online. Back to the cranky scanner! 

Ultimately, the work of digitizing materials continued through the middle of the semester and uploading completed items to our content management system, ContentDM, proved just as knotty. Students also “ordered” new scans of plates and cuts they liked for the exhibition if the quality of open-access images (such as those on Google Books) was poor or obscured an etching’s finer details.

Phase 2: Background Reading & Transcription

(L) A sample letter from George Cruikshank held in UMBC Special Collections (R) A transcript of the letter created by students

We spent the first few seminar sessions learning about best practices in handling the materials and dipping a toe into the worlds of cataloging and bibliographic description. In addition to background reading on Cruikshank and graphic satire, students also read articles, such as Sam Winn’s “The Hubris of Neutrality in Archives” and Kate Holterhoff’s “From Disclaimer to Critique: Race and the Digital Image Archivist,” on how librarians and archivists navigate offensive content. We stressed the fact that creating an exhibition of Cruikshank’s work was not the same as endorsing its contents or his attitudes. In the “Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes” section of the finished site, for instance, student Corinne Newsome crafted a critically-engaged series of contextual essays and item descriptions on the dehumanizing imagery that Cruikshank perpetuated in his caricature work. 

Our first applied task was transcribing Cruikshank’s letters (about 26 in total), which students completed in groups and batches. Thankfully, some students quickly took to the challenge of reading Cruikshank’s handwriting; others acted as proofreaders and helped enter keywords and subject tags from the letters into a shared Google sheet. At this stage, we also discussed how to use bibliographies like Albert Cohn’s George Cruikshank: A Catalogue Raisonné (1924) and exhibition catalogs to find bibliographical and artistic information about the works in our collection. An inspiring guest lecture on Webex from Professor Paul Fyfe (NC State) helped us think more critically about “illustration, ways of seeing and the digital image.” 

Phase 3: WordPress Training & Blogging

(L) Students were asked to create headlines, feature images and “teaser” content for their blog posts so that they would have a uniform look on the site. (R) Emma Jett’s post on Cruikshank’s send-up of sham doctors peddling their wares to gullible Brits in Victorian London. 

With transcription work ongoing, we held an in-class WordPress training with UMBC’s library webmaster, Jim Doran. We chose to host the exhibition on WordPress for ease of integration with the library’s other pages and for its intuitive design tools. With grant funds, we purchased the Museo theme and a zoom plugin that allowed the viewer to cursor over an image for a closer look. Jim trained students on how to create basic posts using various “blocks” such as text and image, gallery, and pull quote. Students were also taught to write Alt Text descriptions for each image on the site.

Students followed a brief prompt I created for their “Show and Tell” blog posts and wrote these in batches, workshopping drafts with our course coach before posting. By blogging, students got their feet wet working in WordPress and learning how to write for a general audience and the MA students helped create a guide for the posts. This inspired other guides, such as the “Guide to Exhibition Label Writing,” that we designed as a class after a Slack brainstorming session. In this way, Slack chats outside of class informed our in-class work and students were producing not just the site but the site guidelines and templates. 

Phase 4: Organized Chaos

Sample entries from a portion of the exhibition spreadsheet 
Sample entries from a portion of the exhibition spreadsheet 

After completing a midterm self-assessment (described here), we spent several more sessions in the library getting our arms around the materials. Students were taking notes on around 8-10 items each visit and we coordinated with library staff to rotate through new materials each week. In a large brainstorming session that followed these visits, the class drafted site maps using Google Jamboard and then, eventually, a program called miro, which I used to work up three possible maps on which they voted. 

An early draft of a site map using miro.
An early draft of a site map using miro. 

Next, each student filled out a survey identifying their research interests and skill strengths for the second half of class. Using our site map as a guide, I slotted them into writing groups (e.g. “Sketching Politics”; “Sketching People”) and task groups (e.g. photo editing, managing social media, presenting at the launch). To avoid too many cooks in the digital kitchen, only one student from each writing group handled posting items on the site when the time came. 

Most of our hour seminar sessions for the last month of the term were spent researching and writing. We had earbuds in our ears, coffee in our veins, Halloween candy in our bellies. Students worked, generally, from a “Writing Guidelines and Best Practices” document adapted from an earlier version I created with Dr. Molly O’Hagan Hardy (NEH) in 2015. Teams assembled detailed outlines and page hierarchies which allowed the page builders to easily convert our hoard of docs, sheets, and jpegs into cohesive pages.

Phase 5: Putting the Pieces Together

(L) Screenshot of the preview images for three collections in the “Art of Illustration” section. (R) Screenshot of item-level description of a piece in the “Temperance” collection

In writing the exhibition content, we followed two principles: 1) What’s yours is mine; 2) Quick sleuthing not rabbit trailing. We learned not to become too possessive over our own paragraphs. In any given Google doc there were lurking Anonymous Sloths and Axolotls, cursors and notes and comments. Students learned to share (“expose” they sometimes felt) their writing in its nascence and also let go of their idiosyncrasies so that the site could achieve univocality.

In research, our goal was to become quick studies on a range of subjects and to achieve depth without getting mired in the minutiae that could alienate users. I intentionally kept the required reading light knowing that teams would be reading on an as-needed basis from an array of sources. For example, some teams combed through nineteenth-century periodicals (mostly on HathiTrust and Internet Archive) as well as biographical profiles of Cruikshank to pull quotes that would illuminate his life and times. We pushed beyond the comfort of asking primarily interpretive questions–How does this engraving depict class relations?–to ask interrogative questions that aided our curatorial work. How expensive was this illustrated book of fairy tales? Consult Reid’s bibliography! Where did Cruikshank live? Map it! What were the Peterloo Massacre Six Acts? Google it! 

Building the pages themselves was the absolute last step and happened at the absolute last minute. Students on the page building team input the materials shared by the image editing team (most scans had to be resized on Photoshop to under 1MB) and because all of the writing was organized and shared, the pages came together quickly using the outlines (or page “recipes”) that each group created. 

Phase 6: And We’re Live! 

(L) Exhibition launch poster developed by UG student Reilly Robertson (C) MA student presenter Harley Khaang delivers lightening talk on George Cruikshank’s life (R) Buttons distributed at the launch; “Original Catfish” designed by student Amanda Lyons

Our public launch event was hosted in the UMBC Library Gallery during our last seminar meeting. A panel of five students gave lightning talks introducing each section of the exhibition and library staff pulled items from the collection for public viewing. We gave away buttons designed and voted on by students and our cake even featured our site banner, designed by MA student Faezeh Pasandi. The presence of faculty, staff, administrators, students, friends and family made the launch not only a delightful end to the semester but a keen reminder of the public nature of our project. We had been building Digital Cruikshank in the classroom but now it is in the world as a shareable and accessible resource, a testament to what collaborative work between students, instructors and librarians can achieve. 

Lindsay DiCuirci

University of Maryland Baltimore County