Texas Woman’s University is teaching a course that’s sneaky important.
The Bibliography and Research Methods class, offered by the English, Rhetoric and Spanish program, may not seem that big a deal on the surface. The name sounds tedious. One of those classes students need but don’t want. It’s not going to lead to curing diseases or solving the mysteries of the universe. But when someone does those things, this is the class that determines how those stories are remembered and told.
It’s a course in preserving history. And it just completed a successful test run.
“It’s one part how you do graduate level research and one part book history,” said Ashley Bender, PhD and assistant professor of English. “I wanted students to do archival work in our special collections, and then make it digital in some way. What we ended up doing, partially because of my own research interests and a lot of the interests of our students, was to focus on women’s letters. The class was all gung ho, yes, let’s focus on women’s letters. So they started to explore various collections.”
Bender’s spring 2019 edition of the Bibliography and Research Methods class spent months pouring through TWU’s collection of donated documents. After a considerable delay due to the COVID pandemic and with the help of the TWU Library’s Kristin Clark, manager of the Digital Collections; Corynthia Dorgan, digital asset archivist; and Amanda Zerangue, director of digital strategies and innovation, the efforts and persistence of nine TWU students is now online.
“Moments of Inscription: the Lives of Women Through Their Letters” features selected digitized writings and artwork to shine a light on the stories of nine extraordinary women:
Each section of the exhibit includes reflections from the student who compiled each subject’s documents. The reflection is the student’s experience working on this project, expressing why they chose these materials, what they felt was important and how these materials impacted them.
It’s the latest addition to the TWU Digital Exhibits, joining a dozen collections in the digital archive.
In addition to the help of library staff, one of the students stuck with the project from inception to the conclusion.
“I was the grad student that wouldn’t leave,” said Beth Headrick, who is now a digital strategies and innovation specialist with the TWU Library.
“We did a class-wide collaborative project where we went into the women’s collection, the vaults,” Headrick said. “We looked for collections that had not been catalogued or had anything done with them. We pulled out letters and pictures and did transcriptions. We tried to create a digital portrait of who these women were.”
“The exhibit really focused on their letters and how those letters draw a portrait of the women and the kind of work they did,” Clark said. “It wasn’t completely digitizing the entire collection. The students selected interesting pieces that they felt were really representative of these women and what they did. The exhibit highlights the students’ work and the lives of these women.”
“One of the things that we see when we look at women’s writing is even when women weren’t writing in a public space or publishing or even circulating poems and things like that in manuscripts, they were writing on a daily basis,” Bender said. “They were writing as part of their everyday lives, writing letters to each other, account books and recipe books for the household. Preserving this kind of writing is extraordinarily valuable because it is complementary to the other kinds of literary production of any particular period. If we put these artifacts next to some of the literary productions of a particular period, we have a much larger sense of what was actually happening. It gives us a much better historical record.”
The Bibliography and Research Methods course is intended to teach techniques for researching a thesis or dissertation, but the class has applications for digital humanities. Humanities are the study of human society and culture, including language, literature, the arts, history, and philosophy – four of the five departments/schools of the College of Arts & Sciences. Digital humanities combines humanities with digital technology.
Why is that so important?
History is littered with significant figures who have simply disappeared from the record, their lives and accomplishments forgotten. There are uncounted volumes – certainly millions, probably billions – of pages of historic documents around the world in vaults or basements or musty attics or forgotten cabinets gathering dust or themselves turning to dust.
“That’s why it’s so important that people donate these materials to us, so that we can find out who these people were that we don’t know anything about,” Clark said.
Classes like Bibliography and Research Methods teach the skills and methods which not only preserve history but make it available to future historians and researchers and to those outside scholarly confines who are simply interested in where they come from.
“That’s what this exhibit is about, showing how archives are important, how they tell the story of the individual and how those stories can impact users and researchers,” Headrick said.
A project of this nature is a part of the ongoing evolution of recording and publishing the stories of our lives. A 15,000-year journey from stone tablets to tablet computers. But that never-ending evolution presents its own challenges.
“Preservation becomes tricky when we’re talking about things digital,” Bender said. “One of the things that keeps coming up in various conversations that I have is, how do we keep digital records? How do we maintain them? Because technologies change over time. Servers change. So on the one hand, there is this sense of preserving. On the other hand, it requires a different kind of upkeep than material artifacts. There is still this material side of things if you think about the servers and the computers. So it does create sort of this whole new realm of problem solving making sure that these records are still available in perpetuity in their digital form.”
Everyone involved in this project agrees that are more documents to be examined, more history to be recorded and more stories to be told.
“I’m not sure what future projects I’ll do, but anytime I teach the bibliography class, my goal is to do another version of a digital exhibit of some kind, whether it’s adding onto what’s already there, adding additional records to this particular exhibit or just creating wholesale new exhibits,” Bender said. “Through as many classes as possible, I really love to have my students touch the special collections, smell the books and get a sense for what it is like to engage in that sort of work. I’m fascinated by the embodied nature of archival research and the connections that we feel with the materials as we create these exhibits.”