Accessibility: When Do We Want It? Now!

Last year, I ran into a colleague at a restaurant in Des Moines that I had yet to meet. Don’t worry, she assured me, I will email you soon about joining the Accessibility and Disability Task Force. I didn’t think much of it at the time (We were at a cheese store, and I was far more interested in the cheese than anything else), until shortly thereafter, the phone calls and meeting requests started. I initially suspected that my boss had thrown me under the bus in what was clearly going to be a time-consuming amount of committee work (a theory he denies), but soon enough I was going on retreats and attending sub-committee after sub-committee meeting.

I went through a couple of phases during this work. Initially, I was all for it. I spent years in high school volunteering at the Deaf Services Bureau in Miami, I was a nanny for a special needs child– I am all for inclusiveness. This was something that I was going to enjoy working to promote.

Then I learned what accessibility actually entailed. I became intimately acquainted with the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, all sorts of new acronyms like WCAG 2.0 and VPAT, and the many, many laws regarding accessibility. It became clear that I had a very limited understanding of what accessibility meant and what was needed to provide equal access for students with disabilities.

My experience is not, I think, uncommon. I asked a friend of mine what they were doing at their college about accessibility, and she said that since they were on a hill, they really couldn’t do anything. Many of us are, I suspect, terribly ignorant. Well-meaning, yes, but sorely underprepared to face and redress the situation.

And I think my next phase is also one that many people go through. For once I understood the full scope of accessibility, I balked. Why are we making such an effort for such a small segment of the population? Why do faculty need to completely re-develop their assignments because one student has low vision? Why do we have to spend so much time making such minor changes to the CSS of a website? Do we really have the budget for this?

For a while I struggled with what I perceived to be the competing interests of the goals of the task force and the inventiveness and creativity of digital humanities. Then finally it dawned on me that the goals of each were not at odds, but one and the same. At its best, digital humanities is committed to openness, equal access, and the transformative potential of the digital. That’s precisely what we were asked to provide for all our students through the task force. And, really, shouldn’t this be something we are all in favor of?

At the end of the day, does it take more time and effort to develop digital humanities projects that meet accessibility standards? Yes, it does. Luckily, we have a fantastic team of people here at Grinnell who help to make that happen. Moreover, we want everyone, from the creators to the users of digital humanities projects, to be able to access them. How can we resist becoming part of the structures that continue to reinscribe oppressive relations of class, disability, and ethnicity if we do otherwise?

ILiADS 2016

Last week, I finished the second of my two DH camps this summer. It began with DHSI at the University of Victoria in June, and last week it ended at ILiADS at Hamilton College. Going to these workshops reminds me of how much I love the DH community and how much I love what I do. I come away inspired by my colleagues and their dedication, their innovation, and their projects.  How can you not when you see, for example, the team from Dartmouth’s project, Remix the Manuscript, which aggregates different digital projects underway at the institution that are all seeking to understand how digital technologies affect access and understanding of material culture.

I really enjoyed seeing the sex and scandal presentations develop at ILiADS. In Steinheil: Sex, Scandal and Politics in Belle Époque France (or, Project Scandal), Prof. Sarah Horowitz, Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow Brandon Walsh, and rising senior Samuel Gibson at Washington and Lee are using digital humanities textual analysis methods to ask the question, what is the language of scandal?  And at Oberlin College, Profs. Libby Murphy and Greggor Mattson’s project on prostitution and Paris, A la Recherche des Femmes Perdues,  built on Omeka, examines the 19th century book De la Prostitution dans la Ville de Paris.

Not only did I come away in awe of the collaborative DH projects being done at SLACs across the country, but I also came away from the week with a new sense dedication to ensuring the sustainability of my own center at Grinnell, the Digital Liberal Arts Collaborative. Thanks in part to two very pointed talks by Donnie Sendelbach and Angel David Nieves, I was reminded again of the central importance of project management and documentation to digital humanities.  My project management game is already pretty on fleek (can I still say that? Could I ever say that? Should I ever say that?), but I’ve been super remiss in documentation. Moving forward this year, documentation is going to be the DLAC’s battle cry. We’re going to get better at it, and we’re going to encourage our partners across the college to get better at it.






Have we reached 27,500 yet?

With the breakdown of the political order and the outbreak of civil war in England in 1640, the mechanisms of print publication censorship ceased to exist. What had once been a vigilant system of control gave way to an explosion of unlicensed printing. Over the next twenty years, historians estimate 27,500 books, pamphlets, newsbooks, and the like were printed.

With content no longer being so tightly controlled, what made stationers–the printers, publishers, and booksellers–decide what to produce and sell?  Were their motives entirely capitalistic? Or were they guided more by political and religious ideology? Were they based on relationships? Or was it a combination of all three?

Having recently helped plan and run a data and the digital humanities weeklong workshop, I decided to take advantage of the relative lull in activity summer in Grinnell affords to use the methods we explored during this workshop and see if I could answer any of these questions.

I started with the bibliography of printed publications that grew out of my languishing book manuscript. By no means was it exhaustive of the period, but it gave me a good list of stationers to start with, particularly those narrowed down to the men and women who were active in the print debates over religion from 1640-48.  With these names, I was able to run searches in the English Short Title Catalogue, producing over 1500 entries.

One of the fun things about 17th century texts is that they are so weird that beyond the initial search by name, there is so much variation in names, spelling, and forms that it defies automation.  Luckily, I am one of those people who find wrangling data to be immensely calming. It’s my version of gardening.

So now I have my 1500 texts. The metadata for each of them–the author, the publisher, the printer, the bookseller–is not complete. For each, I have at least the title, the publisher who is usually the bookseller, and the year of publication.  I have a complete set of metadata, for my purposes, for about 800 texts.  That does not mean I can still not do a lot with the incomplete texts, but for now I am going to focus on the complete texts.

Having just cleaned the data, initially it appears to me that my earlier suspicion that ideology would win out over capitalist interest does not seem to be correct.  A cursory glance seems to indicate that the stationers are involved in the production of a range of materials, not exclusively of one religious denomination.  I am interested to work with the data more to see what exactly is going on.

The next phase of my project is to visualize the complete texts.  Hopefully these visualizations will reveal more about the networks and relationships among the stationers working in London in the 1640s.  I’m going to start with Excel, but I anticipate quickly moving to Raw and Gephi.