Project-Based Teaching in Special Collections: Building Digital Cruikshank

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.

Revamping Hobson-Jobson

The Dictionary Project Assignment is from my upper-division class “Novel in India.” One of the university’s few offerings on South Asia, the class attracts English, History, and Anthropology, and Political Science majors, and occasionally Indian-heritage students.

A framing question of the class is: “can a language – English—and a genre –the novel – that were imported to India by British colonialists be ‘indigenized’?

Access, Books, and Digital Collections

On the things I’ve learnt from a few years teaching students how to ‘read’ a digital instantiation of a book is that without some knowledge of the wider context of that digitization – the platform, database, collection, or archive – it can be difficult to understand why the way digitized books look the way they do. This worksheet enables students to begin to learn what’s involved in the digitization of books. In particular, it aims to help students explore the various legal, technological, and economic factors involved in the creation of large-scale digital collections; and also the cultural contexts of representation and access against the hype of universal knowledge. The in-class task, a paper prototype of a digital archive, works particularly well to bring home the difficult choices between sometimes contradictory factors involved in real-life digitizations.  The session is part of a second-year undergraduate module entitled ‘Literature and Digital Culture’, following on from discussions in previous weeks about the digital medium, the digital divide and information privilege, and the representation of gender, race, sexuality, and intersectionality in Wikipedia articles. 

Pamela’s Letterbox

At first, the move from in-person instruction to an online Zoom classroom seemed like it would hit us particularly hard in Dr. Matt Kirschenbaum’s “BookLab: How to Do Things with Books” course. The course focused not only on the theoretical affordances of reading textual materiality, but also on getting our hands dirty with the physical production of material objects: using clay tablets, making paper, playing with a 3-D printed type matrix and punch, collation exercises, bookbinding, letterpress printing. On our last day of class, the same day our university announced its plans for a campus closure, we were all huddled around one of the presses pulling prints of Walt Whitman’s “A Font of Type” on the paper we had made only a few weeks prior.