By Becky Teague
In August of 2020, I began working as a graduate research assistant on a digital humanities initiative titled Global Makers: Women Artists in the Early Modern Courts. Together with the two principal creators of the project (both art historians at the same university from which I received my master’s, one being my previous advisor), I embarked on a journey into the unknown world (to me!) of metadata schemas, digital mapping, and controlled vocabularies.
The art-historical aspect of the project was familiar – researching little-known women artists who contributed to the production of visual and material culture in the courts of Europe and Asia from c. 1400-1750. As a recent graduate of an MA program, I was comfortable with research. I knew how to scour archives, libraries, and universities’ digital resources for information. I often spent countless days holed up in research rooms surrounded by open books and stacks of old journal issues, immersed in a world five hundred years before my own. However, as a first-year MLIS student trying to translate those worlds into easily understandable visualizations, I felt out of my depth.
We first began the project by creating our database, the primary storehouse of information on our women artists. Using the Omeka-S platform, we collaborated with the university’s DH Librarian and IT Specialist to choose some initial metadata sets we thought would work best for categorizing our artists, their patrons, and their artworks. With our schemas chosen, I set to work on populating the database with information – artist’s names, pseudonyms, collaborators, locations active, dates active, artwork formats, artwork mediums, courts involved, etcetera, etcetera.
“This isn’t so bad at all,” I thought, “why was I ever worried about this in the first place?”
Once we had around fifty items added, the team and I decided to open the site up to its first public users – a select few colleagues in the field who might have one or two artists to contribute.
Prior to our request for outside participation, however, our contribution forms started giving trouble, erasing the alternate text prompts and simply displayed the metadata sets and each prompt’s corresponding element. So, for example, instead of seeing the prompt “Title Awarded at Court?” among the list of questions proffered, visitors saw the less-than-helpful ‘foaf:geekcode.’ Before we knew it, the site was having a host of issues in terms of data storage, reconciliation, and retrieval. Our Value Suggest module refused to fully integrate with the forward-facing contribution forms; the resource templates were not aligning with the collecting forms, leading to a loss of information when a template was chosen for an item; and only a fraction of the rich content available through the Getty Vocabularies (particularly the Thesaurus of Geographic Names, or TGN, and Union List of Artist Names, or ULAN – both useful for regularizing data) would upload to the site. “This was what I was worried about,” I remember thinking, “We don’t know enough about site development for this.”
For nearly a year, the principal creators of the project and I fretted over the state of our project, frantically attending online Omeka-S workshops, organizing guest lectures from Getty representatives, and setting meetings with librarians and other specialists. We correspondingly kept pushing the opportunity to share our new site, even with our closest colleagues in art history. We felt self-conscious of its limitations, of our own incompetence and lack of knowledge. Who were we kidding to think that three art historians (one of whom, myself, was also a fresh LIS student) could create a complex, open-access database of early modern women replete with dynamic visualizations? Who did we think we were?
It wasn’t until Phase II of the site’s expansion focusing on visualization development began, just two months ago in early June, that we started realizing perhaps we weren’t quite as helpless as we thought. Our computer science research assistant, a Ph.D. student concentrating on information-centric networking, joined the team. We met with him several times, explaining our project goals, the current state of the database (which was clearly less than ideal), and the hopes we had for visualization functionality. He seemed impressed with the number of technical issues we had already overcome and was constantly more optimistic about the site and its potential than we had ever been. Within a month, he even had a fully functioning visualization program operating based on the information stored in our database. “Your database isn’t as broken as you think it is,” he told us, “I can still make it operate just fine, it’s the little things that need honing. You’ve only been working on this for a year!”
Now, as we prepare for a series of conferences on our DH project this fall, the team and I still have problems to fix. There are still bugs in the collecting module and Value Suggest options that do not work. But I think we’ve learned how to find comfort in the ambiguity, in the difficult space of “I don’t know.” In academia, we tend to learn our craft and how our field operates and then stick to that vein of knowledge, moving around in tiny circles of familiarity where we feel safe, competent, and knowledgeable; a place mostly free from that terrifying f-word – ‘failure.’ But that’s not where true growth occurs. We have to push ourselves to expand our interests into new territories, not feel incompetent and naïve for stepping outside our fields. After all, is that not what academia is, at its core? A dedication to continued learning and research?
As I begin formulating my conference papers for the next few months, then, I find myself wanting to talk more about this general hesitation to expand the bounds of our research rather than the technical developments of the Global Makers project. I want to tell fellow graduate students (and faculty!) that it is okay to be wrong, to ask “dumb” questions, to dare to explore a new field and its potential relevance to your own. That type of relentless and boundless curiosity is something academia (and the world) needs more of, and I fully believe the ones who pursue it are our best hopes for the future. Interdisciplinarity is the future.
Don’t be afraid of asking questions, be afraid of never asking at all.
Becky Teague is an art history instructor at Shelton State Community College, a Graduate Research Assistant to the Global Makers project, and an MLIS graduate student at the University of Alabama.
She loves spending her free time traveling, painting, and reading.
Note: Experiences, thoughts, and feelings shared on the ArLiSNAP blog are solely those of the featured author(s) and interviewees and do not represent the views of any employer.