Monday, June 24, 2013

Code is Not a Four Letter Word: Lessons Learned by THATCamp Newbies

By Tawnya Ravy

A few weeks ago, Leigha, Molly, and I decided to attend ThatCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) which is an open, free meeting of humanists and technologists. Coming out of Alex Huang’s Digital Humanities class this past semester, a few of us decided that we are what we now know to be “code curious” in that we wanted to learn how to do some computer coding for our own DH projects. Luckily we heard that a ThatCamp would be held at a local university in June. Having been plugged in the DH world for a few months via Twitter, we were all familiar with the concept of ThatCamp which is where DH enthusiasts can freely let their freak flags fly. More importantly, we heard that we might be able to get some free lessons in coding for DH projects. ThatCamp describes itself as an “unconference,” and we were immediately struck by how different this was from a typical conference experience. You have to apply to attend, but there is no conference fee (the event is sponsored by several companies and by the generosity of attendees at the end of each day). Each participant is expected to propose a topic, session, or workshop on the conference blog ahead of time with the understanding that we would all vote on the first day for our favorite topics/sessions/workshops. We arrive with no determined schedule in place, but by 10:30am we have a full schedule posted on the blog with copies in hand by lunch. Topics and sessions ranged from pedagogy-related conversations and theoretical applications to hands-on workshops and Wikipedia-editathons. Before beginning the sessions, 15 participants are allowed 2 minutes or less to perform what they affectionately call “Dork Shorts” – I did one of these myself. Basically you take 2 minutes and talk about your current DH project to the whole group while votes are tallied for the sessions. This was one of the best decisions I made all weekend because immediately anyone in the room who had tools to help me knew who I was and how to find me later for a chat. As a result, I met several great people who gave me advice and tools for my DH project.

This? Overwhelming. But tools like Code Academy help to let us know code and other DH tools are not that scary.

One of the coolest things we learned about was a tool specifically designed for ThatCamp conferences – the Participad which is now available for other applications. For each session one member of the group could create a notepad for that session (via the wordpress blog) on which every other member with a computer could take notes. Each participant’s notes shows up in a different color. You can also create personal notepads as well. This was immensely useful especially because we could not attend every concurrent session – and some folks take way better notes than I do.
Much of the sessions which we attended were focused on how to build digital collections and access materials for your DH projects. As a result, we came up with an impressive list of open-access resources that you might want to consider for your own DH work including (a Digital Library), (historical collections in digital format), Gutenberg Project (Digitized Books), Library of Congress (an incredible resource), and Digital Public Library of America (brings together American heritage archives, art, and books). A piece of advice that we hear everywhere is to take some time and see what your own institutional library offers in the way of collections and resources. For example, I found out that our own Gelman Library offers the chance to archive individual twitter feeds (and provide valuable data about them) for students and researchers who want to study individual twitter feeds – start now and they will keep grabbing batches of tweets from your favorite politician, celebrity, author, etc.

So now you have materials for your collection, but now what do you do with them? For a few years now I have been using Wordpress which, for me, is a shortcut way to a useful website/blog platform (as in, I don’t have to know code to use it). While Wordpress has some great features and is a leading blog platform, there are a few other platforms that you might find useful if you are contemplating a DH project. For example, we spent one whole session learning about how to use Omeka. Now I had heard of this platform in my DH class, but I could not see then what it offered me that Wordpress didn’t, but now I do. If you are interested in building a collection of any kind, Omeka is an excellent tool (and bonus, you don’t need to know code for this either). Whereas Wordpress only allows me to link to things (and thus risk losing the data if the link breaks), Omeka allows me to upload any kind of file I want in a collection or series of collections. Here is an example Omeka website: Another platform that we heard about, but with which I am not as familiar is Viewshare. This site has a very helpful two minute video explaining what it can do, so watch it! Finally we learned about Drupal as another option for content management. The designers of these platforms all swear up and down that they are different as night and day, but from my luddite chair I can tell you that while they offer different kinds of services for your DH projects, they are not so dissimilar that you will struggle if you are used to working with only one of them. Take a look around, google some how-to videos, and find the right platform for your project.

But wait, didn’t we go to ThatCamp to learn code? It is true that we were all hoping for some beginners coding lessons, but no session offered hands-on coding this time around. In the ThatCamp newbie session we learned that there are many, many different types of coding, and selecting which type to learn depends entirely on what you want to do with your project. This left us feeling a little overwhelmed, but we also learned about two resources to begin our code education: Code Academy and Rails Girls. A few of us are planning on participating in the next Rails Girls event, so let us know if you want to join. The truth is that I am not expecting to be able to build my own site from the ground up, but my limited experience with Wordpress and Omeka has let me know that learning some code would help me more easily manipulate those sites to do what I want for my project. The bottom line, however, is this: do not let your ignorance of coding stop you from starting your DH project. There are plenty of tools available to you that do not require you to know code. Don’t know even where to start? Check out this helpful website dedicated to listing out popular DH tools and their uses: Bamboo Dirt.
My final word on how to start being a fellow DHer? Join Twitter! I am not exaggerating when I say that the bulk of what I know about DH comes from the amazing, collaborative community of DHers on Twitter. Not sure how to sign up and/or use Twitter? No problem, check out this Twitter 101guide

Also, get organized – there are plenty of digital tools to help you map out what steps to take to getting your DH project off the ground. We learned about Trello, for example, at ThatCamp which allows you to see the whole picture at once (also great for keeping to-do lists). What tools do you use for your DH projects? Please feel free to share!

If you have any questions about these resources, do not hesitate to contact me: Tawnya Ravy

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