Laboring-Class Poets Online

Archive for June 2013

One of the more interesting obstacles the team has faced so far in the process of transitioning to Omeka is settling on a controlled vocabulary for occupations. Early on, we decided to establish such a list as a separate field from occupations, which would allow us to narrow the range of terms describing poets’ jobs and thus make tagging and searching simpler. For example, all poets who did any kind of weaving would be called, simply, “weavers,” rather than defining them more specifically (e.g. handloom weaver, powerloom weaver).

But ultimately, creating such a list was an unfeasible task. Even eliminating more specific types of jobs would leave us with a very large list. And dropping such nuances risks ignoring significant historical and social details. Weaving on a handloom isn’t quite the same as weaving on a powerloom. A powerloom is a machine; a poet who operated one would have been active in the late eighteenth century at the earliest. Powerloom weavers likely worked in factories, and for this reason I would guess that there might be more women and children who were powerloom weavers than handloom weavers.

There is also a large group of Paisley weaver-poets (one of our collections on Laboring-Class Poets Online)—a distinct group from those who worked in factories in the nineteenth century!

In short, it is reductive and unhelpful to collapse all of this information into the single occupation “weaver.”

When it came to our controlled vocabulary, we also had to think about the end-user: What kind of searches might she conduct? How can we organize information about poets’ occupations in the most useful and sensible way in order to make searches simpler and more intuitive?

Rather than attempting to make a potentially reductive list of occupations, we decided instead to create a controlled vocabulary of “industries,” a broader categorization that groups together related occupations. And so all weavers fit into the “weaving” industry, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths are collected in “trades,” and so on. There are currently 22 industry categories, and each industry has a corresponding tag. This allows a user to search for all poets whose occupation fits within that particular group.

Now, if somebody is interested in all our powerloom-weaver poets, she can search “handloom weaver” in the occupation field. But she can also glance at the weaving industry tag and see the broader network of all those involved with that occupation. While it would be reductive to classify all weavers in the same way, having the option of searching for specific types of weavers as well as the larger category presents greater search opportunities for future users of the site.

The other day we came across a poet who worked as a milliner—is that classified under “shopkeeping” or “trade”? Does a milliner make hats or sell them (or both)? The OED reveals that the word first meant a seller of fancy accessories and articles of clothing, typically women’s, but that it came also to refer to a designer, maker, or seller of women’s hats. (Fun fact: The word Milliner, with the initial capital, originally referred to a native or inhabitant of Milan.) The same question applies to a haberdasher—is that a dealer or a maker of hats? And how does haberdashery differ from millinery?

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. Haberdasher can refer to a dealer in a range of clothing articles, including caps and hats, or a dealer in or maker of caps and hats. It appears that millinery more specifically deals with articles of women’s apparel, but, then again, none of us is sufficiently well-versed in the history of those occupations to say with certainty.

This example is illustrative of the difficulties of creating a controlled vocabulary of occupations that exist outside of our historical context.  Using “industries” instead, while not perfect, results in a smoother and more practical tagging system and, we think, a more useful experience overall for the end-user.

Now, off to research the differences between cobblers and cordwainers!

A brief, recent history of Laboring-Class Poets Online, from the perspective of graduate assistant and online transition project manager.

My involvement with Laboring-Class Poets Online began in September 2011 when, as a new graduate fellow at Creighton University, I signed on as a research assistant. In that first semester, my job was to turn a list of about two hundred eighteenth-century poets into an excel spreadsheet. At that time, as at this, the list I was working off of was literally just a list, a series of paragraphs, with more or less (less being more often the case) standard punctuation and ordering of elements, stored as a single Word document. It had been developed as the result of thirty years of research, a fact which I could barely comprehend. Dr. Keegan had recently volunteered to help the transatlantic research group behind the list of more than 1,700 poets (two hundred doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?) find a suitable online platform for dissemination.

By November, I was halfway through the data entry, but had little to show for my work. This first spreadsheet had twenty fields, at the time seemingly overkill, now unfortunately laughable. Dr. Keegan and I took a hiatus in the spring of 2012 to work on another project. When I came back to my LC work that summer, I saw the work I had done that fall in a new light: as inefficient, if not an outright exercise in futility.

In fall 2012, we were determined to find a better system. At THATCamp Kansas in September, in large part thanks to Amanda French and her enthusiasm for the project, we discovered Omeka. We gathered a larger research team, including several of Dr. Keegan’s undergraduate students, and took off running.

There have been a number of false starts…

For example, we quickly discovered that twenty fields would not suffice for the depth of information contained in the massive document we are working off of. We now have 49 fields – though of course, no single poet has information relevant to every field. Eight of these fields potentially describe a poet’s name alone: First Name, Last Name, Authority Name, Maiden Name, Married Name, Pseudonym, Bardic Name, and Other Name (a catch-all, which is relevant surprisingly frequently).

Having specialized fields takes best advantage of Omeka’s amazing search capabilities. I can run an advanced search on the field “Pseudonym,” seeking any entry that “is not empty” in this field. Which yields, even in this early stage, 27 entries(!), from Welsh woman poet Jane “Melissa” Brereton to “Autolycus” or the “Railway Poet of the West,” Thomas Henry Aggett.

With my MA complete and new studies at Notre Dame on the horizon, I have been able to focus fully on the project, and I can say that the last two months have been more transformative of this project than all the previous time I spent on it combined. We have been building the framework and working on data entry for the website that will host the database. Our priority is to make the “bio-bibliographical” information compiled in the LC Superlist accessible and useful as a searchable database. To this end, along with data entry, we also seek out other available online resources (such as digitized works, ODNB coverage, digital editions, etc) for users to connect to.

We have made some available to the public for outreach purposes (go to our Omeka site, “Laboring-Class Poets Online,” to see what we have so far). See also the “Collections” tab for an example of how we will follow the original document’s groupings and commentary, and play with our tags to see the potential for Omeka to make even more such connections.

Keep in mind that we are still in a beginning, even prototype, stage of completion. For those interested in the growing field of digital humanities, the construction of this database represents a potentially rich new corpus to use in network analysis and topic modeling. (Something I, personally, am chomping at the bit to dive into!) But certainly the most exciting development is our decision to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, which would allow us not only to complete this data entry and make our online coverage even more robust, but which would also afford us the chance to pursue the digitization and transcription of laboring-class manuscripts held in more than eighty research and regional libraries.

Keep following the blog for weekly updates from here on out!


Information about and updates from the "Laboring-Class Poets Online" project, an in-progress digitization of a database of British and Irish laboring-class poets who wrote between 1700-1900.

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