How I Work Open: Sarah Ketchley

Photo of Sarah Ketchley

Sarah Ketchley
Digital Humanities Projects & Research
Near Eastern Languages & Civilization
Newbook Digital Texts

Spotlight on: Digital Humanities

What kind of open work do you do?
I trained as an Egyptologist and developed a fascination for 19th century Nile travel journals. There were plenty of examples on the Internet Archive, but one journal was inaccessible—that of Mrs. Emma B. Andrews. I had to go to the Met Museum to access the journals. I was captivated by Emma’s writing and the picture she paints of Egypt at that time, so I worked to transcribe and encode the diary materials assisted by undergraduate student interns on the Newbook Project. I’ve been gathering related contemporary correspondence, notes, and ephemera from this so-called Golden Age of Nile travel since then. I work closely with Walter Andrews (Research Professor, Near Eastern Languages & Civilization and co-founder of Newbook Digital Texts) and Mary Childs, Lecturer, Comparative History of Ideas (co-founder of Newbook Digital) on the Newbook Digital Texts  project.

How would you describe your work to your family or people who aren’t your colleagues?
It is tough to sell the humanities these days. Students are told that they don’t offer much value. I sell our work as a passionate advocate for the transformative and imaginative experiences that the humanities can offer us all. I tell the students anecdotes about the past, to bring history alive through stories. These stories in turn bring our open scholarship alive on our website.

I teach about the value of experimentation and developing resilience. Students don’t like to fail and find it uncomfortable to begin with. But working with code is an often an experiment! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  When things don’t work out, that’s where the learning happens. The critical thing is to keep notes on how you got there, so you can work your way back to where things started to go wrong. Students enjoy seeing their work online. The digital humanities create a level playing field in this sense and student contributions are a bedrock of our broader research work.  The skills that students learn – communication, teamwork, practical problem solving – are essential for any career track.

How would you describe your work to your colleagues?
It’s a reinvention of traditional academic scholarship. The goal isn’t necessarily to create a monograph, working alone, and taking many years.  Rather, the process is more iterative and comprises a team of collaborators across departments and institutions, involving faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. This model creates the possibility to make research available from early in the process. Presenting something ragged or incomplete is uncomfortable, since we’re trained to only present finished work. My work has transformed how I present myself as an academic. I don’t want to be the ‘sage on the stage’–I’d much rather have an exploratory conversation and watch the process evolve. I’m certainly open to new ideas and methodologies.

How do you work openly?
Most of my work is with the Newbook Project, where I’m working student collaborators in a team-based environment. Our weekly meetings are an opportunity to check in with each other, troubleshoot and plan.  We have developed open documentation for our working processes and an Emma B. Andrews code book that students contribute to while they volunteer with us. The process is open for everyone to see. If something isn’t working, our students try and tweak it. It is an iterative process. As we transcribe and encode materials, versions of our work are kept on GitHub, a public repository.  Our work is published on our public website, which is the ultimate form of open scholarship.  Anyone can go there and use and reuse the materials that are under a Creative Commons license.

What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
We don’t have a huge amount of funding to license products for our work so we use free tools like Omeka, BBEdit, AntConc, Voyant and eXistdb.  We deal with lack of funding by building our own tools.  We built an autotagger that will automatically mark up a plain text document with XML.  We also created reversible transcription tools to take Ottoman Turkish texts and transcribe them to Latin script and Arabic.

What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
The biggest barrier—and the most meaningful barrier—is that we take students from any department as volunteers to work with the Newbook Project. They may have no experience in computer science or in historical methodology. It gives them an opportunity to explore secret passions for history, Egyptology, literature. We have had over 100 undergraduate and graduate students from thirty-five different departments volunteer with us. We foster core computing competencies in a project-based, collaborative environment. These are skills that are good for any type of employment. That’s the barrier I’m most proud of addressing. We’ve had many women and minorities come through our internship program. Students train intensively and then learn by doing. They study our documentation—we have weekly meetings—and I meet with them one on one, but then they have to step up and start working on their own. They hit barriers, and we work through them together. We ask for a commitment of six months but have had people stay on and work with us for three to four years, some returning after they have graduated. Each of our projects has five to twenty students working on it.  We advertise on the Undergraduate Research Program board, and I give my elevator pitch to various departments. This year, we’re hoping to engage more diverse students working with the Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS) program through the College of Engineering.

You’ve talked a lot about working in teams and with students on these projects.  Do you run into trouble defining your academic identity working in a collaborative team?
I think that my academic identity has always been associated with Egyptology, and that is still at the core of the work I do as a Newbook team member. My interests have expanded over the past five or six years to include the theory and practice of making work available and accessible online, and my work with interns allows me to put the theories into practice. And I have my own research into Emma’s life, which is both separate from and integral to the open work we are doing to create a digital archive.  I feel that there is balance between my personal academic interests and how these translate to our team work.

What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
I trained in Egyptian art history. I got my PhD and then took several years off to spend time with my kids. When I came back, it became apparent that were no jobs in Egyptology. About the same time, I visited the Met Museum and also met Walter, who was doing exactly what I hoped to do – transcribing travel journals and creating digital editions of them. I’d always enjoyed tinkering with computers, but couldn’t code. I’ve spent six or seven years training myself, targeting technologies that would move Newbook and the Emma Andrews project forward in our goals. I’ve attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute for the past five years, taking a range of courses from text encoding, to repository creation and project management. I took data curation classes at Northwestern University, and also free online classes in XML and the Text Encoding Initiative. I’ve discovered a passion for metadata – there is a fine art to it, and I enjoy describing archival material, images and historical individuals.  I also value the digital humanities community – they invariably share generously of their expertise and I’ve learned much from them. I’ve learned from peers and students, and from observing and asking questions. Part of being an open academic is being able to say, “Hey, how did you do that?  I don’t understand.”

After six years learning these skills, I felt I was in a good position to teach others, so I developed the Introduction to Digital Humanities course for undergraduates and graduate students. Being self-taught, I was in a good place to understand the struggles that those who are new to this field with limited experience. The biggest barriers seem to be getting the work off the ground, defining the scope, and then actually finishing the work.  Honing in on the flow of a DH project, and developing a plan can be distilled into a series of practical steps which we developed in the DH class. Our work template is available for projects like Newbook Digital Texts. Our encoding schemas can be freely adapted by our colleagues schema to encode letters or diaries for their projects. I believe that it is in everyone’s interests to establish and use the same standards to future-proof our work and make it interoperable.

Do you incorporate open methods into your teaching?
I struggled at first. My inclination is to stand up there and lecture. That’s how I was taught as a student at university. With support from my department, I took a course called “The Flipped Classroom.” It gave me food for thought on how to adapt my own teaching. I gave students the foundations and the theory in readings, videos and brief lectures and then in-person class time was spent exploring and creating. I enjoyed the hands-on work with each group.

Students filled out a preliminary questionnaire before the class started, assessing things like tech expertise, interests and experience working in teams, and I put them into groups based on skill and experience, and to also to balance undergraduate and graduate students. Students created a project charter to identify and agree on the responsibilities each person would take on, and to establish good group dynamics from the beginning so that students could develop autonomy and a sense of personal investment. I tried to help them to anticipate any problems – they only had only ten weeks to complete their projects.  I saw myself as the general manager and gave them all the information and was available for consultation and guidance.

We were able to work in the Odegaard active learning classrooms which I believe contributed to the success of the course.  Each group had their own collaborative workspace including shared screen and writing wall. We were able to share our working screens to each group could learn from each other. We were also able to offer three student stipends after the class for promising students to take further DH training.

The first time I taught the class, I focused on the diaries of Emma B. Andrews as I was really familiar with this dataset and could anticipate some of the problems students might encounter during their work. The third and final time I taught the class, I let students pick their datasets, and they chose data from the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu” project.  Students created a range of data visualizations – one group looked at the effects of World War II rationing on meat prices on menus. Another group looked at menus and travel on the Great Northern Railway. They contacted the local railway enthusiasts’ community and were able to use them as a resource as they developed their project. It was a great way to see the different interpretations that can be made using the same data set, and it was important for students to learn how to source data responsibly online, and present themselves in as academics to a worldwide audience.

I think students’ work in the course informed their scholarship and made them think about new media and public engagement. This model is certainly evolving for postgraduates – employers are looking for digital experience as well as academic competency.

What feedback did you get from students on the course?
Project management was one aspect of the course students were not expecting to think about.  It was eye opening for them as they worked to define the scope of their project, figure out how to make the scope realistic and then manage the workload, how to plan, and how to work iteratively through a cycle of creating, testing and display. Many students had never created anything online before, and it gave them a great sense of pride when the final projects were published online.

The TAs created a Python package for students to use to mine websites for data, which was then automatically compiled into a CSV file. Students were able to follow the process, run the code and then ask, “How did I do that?”  They were impressed with the results and several of them then wanted to go on and learn to write the language themselves.

Why do you work openly?
In my work, I’ve benefited enormously from high quality information that is freely available online. I’m thinking specifically about resources like the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive and the countless projects that have made their data freely available. I’d like my work to join the ranks of this work. I also really enjoy the alchemy that comes from working in a team – it’s a ripple effect. Small ideas grow large and evolve when exposed to different experiences, viewpoints, and skills. The sum is better than the separate parts. I work openly because I can only imagine the potential that comes from these conversations and collaborations.

What opportunities does working openly offer that traditional scholarship does not?
On a practical level, it makes the process of publication more straightforward. Print journal articles can take years before finally being published. Digital publishing is less of a monolithic process. If you need to make changes, you can do so fairly swiftly. Research work can include community engagement and input. The process becomes a more dynamic and organic experience. But of course the bottom line is always the writing and careful framing of thesis and argument which is the basis of all quality academic work. This doesn’t change by working openly.

The DH community incorporates scholars from all over the world, and the conversations and different perspectives are invaluable. I’ve explored new methodologies, and investigated how other projects work because their process is also transparent. Of course, I have encountered digital humanities naysayers but I don’t see it as an irritant. I see it as a different way of working, and an opportunity for fruitful discussion. I believe that it is becoming more mainstream to work openly, and publishing digitally is increasingly the norm. DH centers are being developed in academic institutions around the world, including military colleges and in areas as far flung as the central Andes.  Curiosity and a sense of undiscovered potential draws academics in to these centers, asking “What can I do with my data?”

You’ve talked a lot about the process-focused nature of creating digital humanities work.  Much of academia is still focused on product.  How can we in academia help with the transition from product focus to a process focus?
I agree that the process can be confusing and overwhelming – starting at one point with a dataset and wondering how to end up with a digital product.   I believe that identifying clearly what this digital product is, and then working backwards, is an effective way of tackling the problem. It’s also critical to choose a ‘minimum viable product’, or the smallest iteration of what you’re trying to achieve, and then do the work.  It’s more powerful to have completed a small task than to have a myriad of unfinished projects.  Once the small task is completed and the process is defined and tested, then expansion of scope can take place.  Documentation is critical at all steps in the process.  Doing DH well is a discipline.

The starting point should also be with clean data, and your data dictates the platform that you’ll use to showcase your work. Thinking about sustainability at an early stage is critical. What will your project look like ten years from now? How will it be archived, and how will it be found in the future?  Librarians can help with these questions – they are essential partners in DH work.  

What’s your vision for an open future?
Our work will make quality materials freely available online for anyone to engage in whatever way piques their interest.  Our transcribed texts, encoded in XML, are freely available. I’m particularly interested in historical individuals and social networks, and have tagged the texts to capture this information.  Others may use the same data to imagine or explore something different.  Our work is only a small piece of a much broader movement towards open scholarship, and I believe that 10 years from now, the nature of academia will have evolved into something more collaborative, more iterative and perhaps ultimately more sustainable.

What do you think is the future of open scholarship in your field?
There will be gradual changing of the guard over the next couple of decades, as digital work becomes the norm, and evaluation standards become clearer. I hope that there is a movement towards establishing long-term digital archiving and repository standards that are broadly adopted – this will be a positive step towards longer-term archiving and sustainability. I believe that there will be an even wider variety of quality open source information online, which can only benefit current research in history, Egyptology and digital humanities.

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