A brief, recent history of Laboring-Class Poets Online
Posted June 25, 2013on:
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!