Creating new knowledge from the past — Archives & Digital Initiatives

Note: This was originally published on May 8, 2019, on the Wheaton Blog.

The authors of the post, Megan Brooks and Kate Boylan, stand back-to-back, looking over their shoulders, and smiling at the camera. In the background is signage for the Marian B. Gebbie Class of 1901 Archives and Special Collections.

by Kate Boylan ’04, Director of Archives & Digital Initiatives, and Megan Brooks, Dean of Library Services

Archives, digitization, and born-digital objects: students experience it all in the library

Archives are anything but closed and hushed spaces. They are sandboxes where active teaching, learning, and creation of new connections and knowledge manifest. In the archives, Wheaton students navigate the intersection between old objects and new objects to create new knowledge using old materials.

In many cases, a student’s first interaction with archival materials happens online. Often their research leads them to the archives, where they learn to work with physical objects, and then question, interrogate, and transform those materials by the act of digitizing them. Other students begin by creating scholarship that is completely digital. In both cases, we try to capture all of it in the archives for so future scholars—students or otherwise—can use it as the basis of their research.

Working with the Physical

Katie Greene ‘19 used a 19th century personal family diary and college records for her independent study project. While digitizing and transcribing her family relative’s diary, Katie considered how best to present information authentically as it became a new digital object and experience for readers. A student employee in Gebbie Archives, Katie just accepted an offer to enter the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s prestigious library science/archives master’s program.

Marisa Hexter ‘19 knows full-well the benefit of accessing both physical and digitized content. She completed in-depth women’s history research at the local historical society in North Haven, Connecticut. Though she used local physical collections, she pieced together the histories and lives of five extraordinary women, whose voices were unheard before Marisa’s research and spotlight. Based on her research experiences and her time working in the Gebbie Archives, her future goals include working in the public humanities, using research to amplify diverse and overlooked voices in archival materials.

The Move from Analog to Digital

In addition to working with physical objects, students learn common archival and preservation practices such as scanning, photographing, and assigning metadata to objects. On the surface, this may seem like straightforward work, however complexities of digital transformation are realized as students analyze and critique material for new and future uses.

Archives and Digital Initiatives student employee Brianna Medas ‘20 transforms physical objects into digital ones. She scans archival images and edits them for use by faculty, students, Communications and Marketing, and Alumni Relations. She also photographs objects from the College’s Permanent Art Collection. In these scans and photographs, she tries to create pristine final images as close to the original physical work as possible.

Ally Copenhaver ‘19 took it upon herself in her senior year, spring semester, to digitize Eliza Wheaton’s scrapbooks of plant specimens from her 1862 trip to Europe. The process is complicated with photographing delicate individual pages and specimens, and transcribing difficult to read notes, and classifying specimens to capture the full effect of the physical albums. Her work will one day be published on a public collection of images, and will inform (possible) digitization of the College’s herbaria collections.

Faheem Dyer ‘19 is the current editor of The Rushlight. Founded by one of the most famous poets of the 19th century, Lucy Larcom, The Rushlight has been the student arts and literary magazine at Wheaton since 1855. As an Archives and Digital Initiatives student employee, Faheem scans early editions and transcriptions of the magazine and assigns metadata to digital content in the College’s digital repository so that can be discovered by the public.

Working in a Born Digital Space

Students like Eammon Littler ’20 and Dominick Torres ’20 have helped turn the Library’s collective attention to what it means to archive born-digital scholarship, how to make new types of scholarly objects, and how to expand their access and reach.

Eammon is involved in the maker-movement, and is interested in how it is re-writing the scholarly record and cultural heritage at-large. Makers now represent a technology-based extension of DIY and programming culture that revels in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones, often supporting open-source hardware and software. Eammon is a student-partner on a grant the College received from the Council of Independent Colleges to curate new forms of digital scholarship and broadcast it from the Artstor platform using the back-end tool called JSTOR Forum.

Dominick has extensive experience scaffolding his knowledge of basic archival principles for documentary storytelling. He networked with the Association of Moving Image Archivists for an independent study project to develop his own organizational and metadata workflows for digitizing physical materials for his [digital] films.

Developing Information Literacy Skills in First-Year Students

Note: This was originally published at Wheaton Blog on December 18, 2018.

First year students experience lots of new things when they come to college: new friends, roommates, campus food, new organizations, new professors, and new challenges in the classroom. For some, college may be the first time they are asked to write a substantive research paper using scholarly, academic sources.

Image of six colorful blocks organized around a center block. Center block reads "Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education." Colorful blocks read, from top clockwise, "Authority is constructed and contextual", "Information creation as a process", "Information has value", "Research as inquiry", "Scholarship as conversation", and "Searching as strategic exploration."

As it turns out, figuring out what sources to use in a research paper doesn’t come naturally to most people. Students may wonder: how do I figure out what my topic should be? How do I know if it’s too broad or too narrow? What information is accurate and what’s not? Who’s an authority on this topic? How do these sources talk to one another? How do I make sure to give credit to sources while building my claims?

Enter information literacy, an AAC&U essential learning outcome of a contemporary liberal education. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ current information literacy framework organizes information literacy into six major conceptual areas.

  1. Authority is constructed and contextual
  2. Information creation as a process
  3. Information has value
  4. Research as inquiry
  5. Scholarship as conversation
  6. Searching as strategic exploration

Wallace Library sports a robust information and technology literacy instruction program. Liaison librarians teach more than 100 class sessions every semester. They meet with almost every First Year Seminar (FYS) two times. In these meetings, students begin building information literacy skills because liaisons helps them tackle two major topics: fundamentals of research and the ethical use of information. As a result, students get hands-on experience exploring the ACRL information literacy framework concepts

The fundamentals of research session speaks to several of the frames. For example, using library search tools touches on searching as strategic exploration. Understanding authority ties to authority is constructed and contextual. Discussing which formats to use in academic settings addresses information creation as a process. And finally, generating topics and keywords connects to research as inquiry.

The ethical use of information session addresses the other two concepts. Because information has value, researchers should use it ethically. And since scholarship is a conversation, students practice identifying parts of a citation, knowing when to cite, exploring citations as conversation, and avoiding plagiarism.

First year information literacy instruction exposes students to crucial skills. As they move to 200- and 300-level courses, they dive deeper into disciplinary topics. Fortunately, many faculty continue to partner with liaison librarians on course and assignment development, so students get the opportunity to develop more sophisticated approaches to working with information as they advance through college.

Our goal in the library is for Wheaton students to graduate as information literate citizens of the world. This instruction program, particularly the First Year Seminar portion, is one major part of achieving that goal. Faculty members who want to learn how to integrate information literacy concepts or instruction into classes and students who want to improve information literacy skills can consult with a library liaison for expert help.

Collecting Cats: Library Lessons from Neko Atsume

Note: This was originally published at ACRLog. 

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kelly Blanchat, Electronic Resources Librarian at Queens College, CUNY, and Megan Brooks, Director of Research Services at Wellesley College.

This blog post is the culmination of a Twitter conversation between librarians talking about their experiences playing a phone game. The game is called Nekoatsume and it involves taking care of digital cats in a virtual backyard. Nekoatsume is entirely in Japanese, a key fact that actually started the Twitter conversation (and not the fact that the game involves cats, as might be expected).

In short: a librarian started playing a game, wrote some enticing tweets, and many more librarians joined in — and still are to this day.

While this was happening, Kelly wrote on her personal blog about the joy & ease of understanding the game despite its language barriers, and how it would be nice if students felt the same way about using databases and library resources. Library databases should be just as user-friendly as a game in a foreign language, but too often they’re not. Our students do use recreational technology, and Nekoatsume isn’t the first app in Japanese or Chinese to gain popularity in the U.S. in the last month. And it’s not that recreational technology is always user-friendly, either. Torrenting platforms, such as the Pirate Bay, are notoriously convoluted – especially in regards to persistent content – but anecdotal evidence suggests that our students are able to navigate these platforms with relative ease.1

Tweet by @skalibrarian: Always wonder why stdnts can execute complex gaming maneuvers on a kybd but not on a search.
Tweet by @skalibrarian: Always wonder why stdnts can execute complex gaming maneuvers on a kybd but not on a search.

As more and more librarians join in to play Nekoatsume, there’s a common experience that happens early on: the digital cats have disappeared — maybe they died, or ran away — and we believe that we’ve played the game wrong.

Tweet by @edrabinski: @RachelMFleming Where did my cat go?
Tweet by @edrabinski: @RachelMFleming Where did my cat go?

Megan even initially deleted the app out of frustration. The experience of not understanding phone cats, even when “everyone else” seemed to, left her in a position that many of our students might find themselves: lost, stupid, and unwilling to engage any further. Sadly, library resources do not contain cute digital cats to lure users back after a bad experience. Megan, on the other hand, was willing to give Nekoatsume another shot after the Twitter conversation, and she also found a walk-through for the game online.

The satisfaction from playing Nekoatsume comes from getting more & more cats, and more & more points. For library resources the outcome is often much less immediate: find resources, analyze evidence, fill a resource quota for a bibliography. The research process can also be very solitary, and having the ability to apply similar or shared experience can counteract that as well as other obstacles with online library resources. That is to say, having a related experience can help the process to feel seamless, less daunting. In the case of Nekoatsume, the language barrier subsides once the basic movements of the game are understood, whether through trial and error, consultation of the Twitter hive-mind, or reading online tutorials. Such resources are comparable to “cheat codes” in the gaming world, elements that facilitate getting to the next achievement level. In the library world, they are often referred to as “threshold concepts”. And while most online library resources do contain the same basic functionalities, such as as a button for “Search” and and a link for “Full-Text”, differences from platform to platform in placement and style contribute to a block in fulfilling that need for seamless usability.

Libraries do make a great effort to provide users with workshops, tutorials, and LibGuides to facilitate user understanding and research methods. However, such content can require a lot of explanation whether with words, pictures, live demonstrations, or a mix of all three. Sometimes it can feel like tutorials need their own tutorials! Discovery layers, such as Summon and Primo, begin to address the usability issue by providing a single destination for discovery, but with that libraries still need to address issues of demonstrating research purpose, enthusiasm, and information synthesis. With so many variables in acquiring research — design, functionality, search queries, tutorials — the outcome of research can be overshadowed by the multitude of platform interfaces, both within the library and on the open Web.

The hype for Nekoatsume may eventually subside (or not), but another app will likely take its place and we librarians will still be asking ourselves how to facilitate the next steps of scholarly research for our students. If we can find a way to foster essential research skills by relating them to similar experiences — like with social media, searching on the open Web, downloading torrents, and playing games with digital cats — perhaps the process to knowledge can feel less daunting.

…but maybe we should just embed cute cats into all things digital.

  1. This statement is not an endorsement for downloading torrents. []

Reference Librarian Haiku

Note: This was originally published on my now-defunct website, I reproduce it here because it makes me laugh.

Every semester during reading period and finals, there is a protracted online discussion in which students bemoan their current state of affairs in haiku format. Yesterday, I was working at the reference desk and thought I’d jump into the foray in an attempt to drum up some business. What follows is a series of haikus I sent out over the course of the 4 hours I was working.

writing a paper?
librarians have mad skills.
consult with megan.

here till 5pm
i can answer your questions
glorious sources

research pressure mounts
pubmed lion econlit
move beyond google

footnotes and endnotes galore
save time talk to me

what is your style?
chicago turabian
help with citations

i’ll help you today
someone is here tomorrow
use our great knowledge

(Reference Librarian Haiku by Megan Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.)

After posting those to my Facebook account, my friends Eric, Steve, and Mac all supplemented my offerings with ones of their own, which I offer here:

Find a citation easy
Document your sources right
Science Eye Brain Neuron


dewey decimal
what in the hell does he know?
go right to the source.


She knows where to find
the answers contained herein.
Your fault if you fail.

FInd the best sources.
The librarian knows where
they are all hiding.

Paper is due soon
Your Zotero is empty.
You should ask for help.

Do you understand
what the reference desk does?
You should ask, buddy.

The cursor blinks.
You will need more evidence
to support your claims.

You chose your topic,
but are not sure which journals
might aid your research.

I write these haiku
Hoping to charm you into
Asking me questions.

I am an expert
in tracking down resources.
I earned a degree.

Please don’t walk by me
another time looking lost.
I am here to help.

(Nine Library Haiku by Eric Behrens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.)

I am highly entertained.