Guest Post by Cassie Tanks, MSLS ’22 (Research Assistant), “Finding a place in DH: My ‘MySpace’ tech skills”

Thanks for the coding lesson, Tom

My fingers grope the back of the brand-new computer tower beneath the desk in my family’s computer “room,” a corner of the communal living room awkwardly stuffed with a desk and a chair that emerged somehow from the depths of the garage. Finally, I find the port I’m looking for and insert the phone cable. I take a seat, brush the dust bunnies off myself, and, after AOL finishes its squealing and whining, I immediately begin editing the HTML and CSS code of my MySpace profile. The song is changed (Yeah! By Usher ft. Lil Jon and Ludacris), the music player is hidden, the background of my page is now purple with glittery stars (I know, very cool), an angsty-teenage quote now scrolls across the page, and, of course, I’ve changed my top eight.

Image of the Apartheid Heritage(s) digital archive that I am building and managing on the Omeka content management platform.

The year is 2004 and this marks the beginning, and end, of my experience with coding. That I am now, and have been, a research assistant for Apartheid Heritage(s) is surprising, to say the least. I am constantly looking up definitions of tech terms and watching videos to understand the technological underpinnings of the work that I do. My YouTube search history is heavily peppered with phrases that use the terms “[this tech] for beginners”, “[that tech] for noobs”, or something similar. 

Finding a place in DH

But Apartheid Heritage(s) and my work for the project push against this exclusionary tendency by resolutely and unwaveringly centering humanity at every step of the process. From the text that I write, to resource metadata, to conversations about how to effectively incorporate annotations in a 3D digital environment on Scalar, the humanity of the subject and the user are central. Because of my (extremely) modestly growing skill-set – and my comfort with this type of research – I feel better able to share with you some things that I have learned to date (I occasionally need to remind myself the same, too).

Librarians have been invaluable sources of answers and guidance in everything from answering questions about metadata for the Apartheid Heritage(s) archive to explaining HTML embedding tricks and secrets.

Ask librarians

One, librarians love to help and teach people, especially beginners. Shameless professional plugging aside (I’m currently in the process of earning my MSLS ), I have learned so much by just reaching out to librarians and information professionals at institutions across the country – including institutions with which I have no affiliation – and they will step forward and help with a program simply because they happen to possess knowledge of it. I also worked in San Diego State University Library’s Digital Humanities Center for a while and the digital humanities librarian would practically skip over to tell me about how much she enjoyed seeing someone with no former experience learn a new DH skill. Bottom line, never ever underestimate the joy that helping people brings to a librarian.

Crowdsource

Two, crowd-source the answer to your question. I have lurked on, and posted to, many a subreddit and message board threads where I have received guidance that helped me along my digital journey. Are there sarcastic answers? Yes – the internet is a wild place. But helpful folks can be found between the haters. You will notice the glaring absence of harnessing the knowledge of the Twitter-verse. This works well for some, but I have made the personal choice to avoid Twitter at all costs.

This “noob” is now a proud owner and operator of a modest GitHub repository, something that I believed would be out of reach for me! Though my projects may be small and beginner, I am mighty proud of them.

Embrace your experiences and curiosity

Three, lean into the fact that you are learning and developing along with your digital project. This is perhaps the most important because, aside from giving yourself the space to make mistakes and fully engage with the learning process, it is a reminder that you bring an outside perspective to the project. Ask why something is done the way it is. Point out when things do not make sense for the user. Question if things are “too much” or “too flashy.

DH needs you

Not only is there space for you and for me in DH, there needs to be space for perspectives that shine a different light on a project. It may seem trite to say that there is no digital humanities without, you know, humanity but I think it is critically important to remember. I  boldly go forth and embrace my MySpace coding roots (but not the roots of my attempt at chunky highlights – those can stay in 2004) and I sincerely hope that others do too.

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