Making Connections: Finding a Content Management Solution for an International Digital Humanities Research Project
Technology and research increasingly go hand in hand in higher education. But it’s not just the “hard” sciences that require labs, special hardware and robust software. Tech skills in the arts and humanities have always been a need, but the pursuit to “digitize” and archive the stories of humanity have moved beyond the scanner. For many, preservation is not enough. The next step, the 21st-century challenge, is how do we make it accessible and convenient? Can we find it? Can we search it? Can we mine it? Can we share it?
French and Illinois researchers of the digital humanities project, Corr-Proust, (“Corr” shorthand for “correspondence”), are tasked with transcribing and digitizing 6,000 original letters to and from Marcel Proust, a French novelist and critic whose writings and letters range from the late 19th century through Proust’s death in 1922. The Corr-Proust project, led by Kolb-Proust librarian Caroline Szylowicz and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) French professor François Proulx, started in 2018 in partnership with colleagues at the Université Grenoble Alpes and the Institute for Modern Texts and Manuscripts at the École normale supérieure in Paris.
Nicholas Strole, who holds a PhD in French from UIUC, joined the Corr-Proust team last year. As project manager, he was asked to streamline the workflow as the goals of the project broadened.
Nicholas Strole, PhD Corr-Proust Digital Humanities Project Team Member
Dena had all the answers we were looking for. And even if she wasn't familiar with a particular topic, she knew exactly where to go on campus to find it.
“The main goals of the project are to expand the print transcriptions done by Illinois researcher Philip Kolb, and make Proust’s letters available to a wider audience,” explained Strole. “We are doing this by digitizing, transcribing, and encoding over 6,000 letters to and from Proust, and we are doing this here [at Illinois] because there are over 1,200 original letters housed in the University of Illinois library, which is the largest collection in the world.”
The Corr-Proust website, a product of this project, displays Proust’s original letters as images and also shows transcriptions of each letter with additional features, like reference notes. While scanning the images may seem like a simple task, properly digitizing the archive requires a cumbersome, but necessary, workflow process that presents several challenges, including:
- Teammates that span two continents and two languages.
- 6,000 letters that must go through an eight-step transcription, coding, editorial review process all before publication.
- Data stored on unreliable platforms with undefined organization.
- Limited funding and resources (as often is the case for humanities projects, hiring a developer or programmer to design and build a unique database was not an option).
Strole reached out to the Scholarly Commons at the University Library for help with this mighty undertaking.
“The Scholarly Commons put me in touch with Research IT, and Research IT set me up with a database consultation,” said Strole. “[Our consultant] had all the answers we were looking for. And even if she wasn't familiar with a particular topic, she knew exactly where to go on campus to find it.”
The consultant, Dena Strong, Senior Information Design Specialist at Technology Services, and Tech Liaison for the University Library and Research IT, met with Strole for a reference interview.
“The first thing I do for a database/workflow/usability consult is sit down with the researchers and get a clear understanding of what the problem is,” explained Strong. “What do you have? What do you need? How does the data relate? How does the process flow?”
Together, they were able to identify the workflow issues and determine that the project needed a comprehensive content management system, not just a database. The (almost) perfect solution was a no-code, freely available application: a cloud-hosted Microsoft SharePoint site.
“Dena was able to ask the right questions, visualize what I was describing in abstract forms, and really make it concrete on a whiteboard,” said Strole, “that's how we were able to move forward on this project.”
Dena Strong Senior Information Design Specialist at Technology Services
I love being part of the connections between Technology Services, Research IT, University Library, and people all over campus. These are the people I talk to when I need to figure out how to solve a problem.
The SharePoint interface provided many solutions, including: a multilingual interface, searchable grid view, views by stage of the process, and automatic version control. Plus, it allowed for rapid prototyping and agile development in a relatively short period of time. The project PI’s were pleased that it was intuitive, user-friendly, more secure, and truly streamlined the workflow.
“SharePoint adapted to us, rather than us having to adapt to SharePoint,” expressed Strole.
While the interface solved many of the issues, it still needed adjustments, particularly when it came to the search function, and task collaboration with colleagues in France (non-NetID holders). So, the team reached out to Field Consulting for assistance.
“My goal with this [solution] was to make sure that Nick and his team had everything they needed to understand the system and be able to customize it themselves without depending on my availability,” explained Strong. “But, I’m a consultant, not an implementer. I can say here’s how to do this, but I can’t do what Darius does, which is to actually build [and customize] a database.”
Darius Summerville, former Senior IT Field consultant at Student Services IT and Lead of OnSite Student Consulting, joined the solutions team to help push the interface through this final mile.
“It is pretty straightforward once you figure out the language behind SharePoint,” explained Summerville. “By the time that I was brought in to fix the search function and customize the filters, the SharePoint site was already done. There were just a few points of correction that needed to be made from there.”
Using his technical experience from other research projects, along with his coding skills, Summerville was able to complete the needed customization to the interface, perfecting a system that will now allow the Corr-Proust project team to focus on their research rather than their workflow.
Thanks to a collaborative, integrated network of research support experts, and a free campus consultation service, the project team was able to keep the cost of this robust solution to under $500.
By using a consultative, low-code, and agile approach to development, the Corr-Proust research team now has a multi-lingual, multi-continental system that is largely self-maintained, with occasional adjustments from consulting staff.
To request a free research consultation for any UIUC research project at any stage in the life cycle, email researchITemail@example.com.
To hear Nick, Dena, and Darius talk about the project first hand, watch their video, Caffeine Break: The Corr-Proust Project.
You can also find a tutorial on their process in the video: Multilingual Content Management and the Corr-Proust Project.