Starting Over

When I started out with a project in the digital humanities, I knew that there would be frustrating moments where I’d have to scratch what I’d done and start over.  This is not my usual working process–I don’t ever recall trashing an entire term paper that I’d gotten well into, even in my undergraduate days.  While I often cut as many words as I have in a final chapter or article, everything seems salvageable.  I’m not used to starting over wholesale.

Until now.  When I began work on Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader, I decided to build a shell from scratch for the site using Dreamweaver, which essentially shows you what your HTML (or XHTML or HTML5, you get the picture) and CSS are adding up to, aka what your site looks like, as you go.  (I learned this is called a “what you see is what you get” or WYSIWYG interface.)  I thought using Dreamweaver would be like opening up Word, and that I would just intuitively know how to use the program as someone who more or less grew up with computers.  It wasn’t.  I had to follow the lesson plans in the manual I bought like I was back in grade ten computer science.  There were frustrating moments, like when I couldn’t figure out how to put a submenu below the main navigation (the answer, in case you’re interested, was to just use plain in-line lists for both menus).  But after about six weeks, I had a basic shell for the site that I was happy with, as well as a working knowledge of XHTML and CSS under my belt.  I learned with time and patience on my hands, I could figure these things out.

So, when I went to get some advice on what I’d done from digital humanists in my department, one casually mentioned that though what I’d done looked good for the needs of my project, I might consider migrating to Omeka, made by the same kind people who brought you Zotero, down the road.  Omeka is a content management system (another common example of a CMS would be WordPress) aimed at academics, librarians and museum professionals.  (There’s a great ProfHacker post by Jeffrey W. McClurken explaining it here.)  I went home and took a good look at it.  I mulled it over in the back of my mind as I was annotating and editing the first primary sources for my site.  It had a php database running in the backend, something I knew I could eventually do with Dreamweaver on my own, but which was going to be gruesome.  Moreover, the information in the database was organized according to the Dublin Core RDF, an academic standard that I knew I had to try and meet eventually.  And, their design was better than mine.  This last one shouldn’t have surprised met. While I had great ideas about the colours for the site (which, ahem, strangely matched my ideas for my wardrobe and paint colours–colonials blues, creams, maybe a shot of teal or red), and had learned about trends in web design (no more drop down menus!  they’re dated looking and not super accessible for people with motor and visual impairments), I had zero design experience.

So, I ripped the bandaid off, and migrated the site to Omeka, trashing the old one before it had any content.  Sigh.  At least my initial work taught me what the guts of a basic webpage look like, right?

What does your work process look like, for any project in the humanities?  Do you ever throw out what you’ve done entirely?

4 thoughts on “Starting Over

  1. Hi Karen

    Thanks for this! I just started thinking about my own digital edition and will definitely be taking a look at Omeka… Will keep you posted on my progress.

    1. Omeka is completely awesome, and they are very helpful on the forums! One issue is that you need to dive into the php to change anything, which I find harder than html and css. But not undoable, especially with guidance on the forums. I want to know what you are doing–do keep me posted!!

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