Primary Sources, Essential Dialogues, and Cool Tools

Classes have resumed (in fact, somehow it’s  nearly mid-term), and I’ve been learning the strengths of a coterie of new students. To me, this is among the most interesting aspects of every new semester — an excellent opportunity to modify course materials and assignments in recognition of students’ abilities and interests.

On a research note (though not exclusively research, as it’s difficult to separate my current long-term project from pedagogy), I’ve been deeply immersed in the development of a digital archive which will disseminate documents (manuscript and typescript papers & photographs) from the Martha Berry Collection. Berry is my undergraduate alma mater, so – needless to say – this project is on some level a labor of love. But, much more importantly, Martha Berry (MB) is a serious and worthy subject; her work as an educational innovator (founder of Berry Schools  in 1902, later Berry College) has had a profound impact on education in the U.S.  as well as in Georgia. As I examine current educational trends, it fascinates me to note that Berry’s educational theories and practices – which are experiential, consistently calling for engagement of the “head, heart, and hands” – have long anticipated twenty-first century participatory learning models.

A lifelong philanthropist who devoted her life and fortune to the education of the children in the mountain regions of northeast Georgia, Berry moved among a highly influential circle of benefactors and correspondents (from Margaret Sanger and Booker T. Washington to Henry Ford and Pres. Theodore Roosevelt), and the documents in the Berry Collection are rich in history — a veritable turn-of-the-century must read.

Working with manuscripts is among the research tasks I find most rewarding. Indeed, reading and editing primary source documents is as close as I think we can come to holding a conversation with the documents’ authors, and whether working with texts authored by putative forgers, Icelandic grandmothers, or Martha Berry, the kind of dialogue ms. editing espouses has, at least for me, without fail proven extraordinarily worthwhile.

Work on this archive has inspired the development of a new tool, Crowd-Ed, which will enable community-driven (i.e. crowdsourced) editing of the documents in the MB archive (and collections in general — the tool is being designed as open source, freely available, and highly extensible to facilitate adoption by other projects), and my colleagues and I envision (pending funding) implementation during spring and summer 2012. Crowd-Ed will be integrated within the archive itself (which leverages Omeka for the publishing interface and Fedora Commons for the repository), and we are engrossed in development of an archive design model that will not only disseminate the works in the MB Collection, but will also, via Crowd-Ed, invite students and community members (as well as academics) to engage in participatory editing.

Omeka is as easy-to-use and as flexible as Fedora is seriously robust – both are essential to the archive project and highly recommended; one more useful tool that we’ve adopted for non-technical project management is BuddyPress; clearly I’m late on the scene with this one, but it’s proving indispensable as a collaboration tool embedded within the project’s public site.