Digital Humanities Internship #3: Estimating Work and Time

Disclaimer: The views and opinion shared in this post reflect the author’s personal thoughts and do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of the Smithsonian Institute Archives.

When I first started doing my Digital Humanities coursework for George Mason’s Digital Public Humanities Certificate, one of the first things I learned was how hard it is to estimate the amount of time it will take to complete a Digital Humanities project. Originally, when you start out, you have a general sense of what you need to do for the project: gather a certain amount of research, create a certain number of pages, write a certain amount of text, add a few pictures, etc. The work seems manageable, and you prepare to complete it in a set time frame. But when you actually start to do the work of a Digital Humanities project, the amount of work that you first estimated seems to grow exponentially. There are extra pages to create. The pictures must be reformatted or resized before they can be uploaded. The HTML that you prepared is not giving you the result that you had in mind, so you have to try something else. Not surprisingly, this extra work means that the number of hours it will take to complete the project also grows.

Through my internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), I have learned that this difficulty in estimating the amount of work and time it will take to complete a Digital Humanities project is something that is intrinsic to these types of projects; this predicament occurs not only when one is trying to complete a project for class, but also when one is working in a real world setting.

I have experienced this difficulty over the past few weeks during my work at SIA. Currently I am migrating an exhibit called “From Smithson to Smithsonian” from its’ original 1996 format to SIA’s current Drupal interface. My initial assessment of the project caused me to believe that it would be fairly straight forward and would not take up that much time. My two main tasks would be copying text from the old pages into Drupal, and then locating pictures from the old version of the site in the Smithsonian’s online collections and uploading them to the Drupal site.

But as I started to work on the project, I realized that the original site what much more detailed than I originally thought. For example, the original site contains quotes from many important primary sources like letters, pamphlets, bills or newspaper articles. The original website also provides a link to digital images of each page of the primary source as well as a transcription of each source. Therefore, I have had to learn how to create a new type of page, which they call a “Story Letter,” in order to preserve the digital images and transcriptions of each primary source in the new format.

This process consists of: downloading the digital images of each page from each primary source from the old version of the website, uploading each image to the Drupal site, using that uploaded image to create a new page called a “Story Letter Page,” reading through the transcription and figuring out what part of the text corresponds to each image, pasting the corresponding text into the “Story Letter Page” with the correct image, and then creating another page called a “Story Letter” which combines all 3-9 “Story Letter Pages” into one page where all of the images and transcription for that primary source can be viewed on one page. Finally, one must insert a picture of the first page of the document into the exhibit page and then link it to the “Story Letter.” Completing this process for twelve primary sources has taken quite a bit of time, especially when I hadn’t anticipated creating them in the first place!

When I first started the Certificate program, I thought that projects were taking me forever to complete simply because I was new to the field Digital Humanities and was facing a steep learning curve. But, I believed that after a while, I would have a better sense of what I was doing, and that I would be able to complete my work faster. And while I have found this to be partially true, my work at SIA reminds me that this difficulty has not gone away.

Instead, I believe that projects continue to take me longer than I originally expect because I am always learning something new. Creating the “Story Letters” was not something I had expected to do and it is something new that I needed to learn how to do to make the project work. Similarly, I have, out of necessity, learned a lot more about writing code, so that I could potentially write (and can definitely edit) my exhibit pages in HTML if I need to. But learning and experimenting with these new skills takes more time than you expect. In the end though, the extra time spent on this project has been worth it because I have both learned something new, and created an end product (the “Story Letters”) that is even better for users than the original format.

Finally, I have also learned from a conversation with my supervisor at SIA, that this struggle with time management for DH projects is not unique to me. She admitted that estimating the amount of time and work it will take to complete a project is still something that is difficult for her at times. While this is reassuring, it also makes me wonder, how do we, as Digital Humanities scholars, get better at estimating the amount of time and work we will need to devote to a project? Do we need to spend more time in the planning stages, identifying each task and assigning it an estimated length of time for completion? Or do we just need to budget extra time overall, knowing that it will always take longer than we expect? Or does it not really matter because “projects will get done when they get done” and it is a waste of time estimate how long it will take? How does this time and work budgeting look different in a big organization (like the SIA) who has multiple staff members with different skills than it does when an individual works alone? I hope to find answers to some of these questions as I continue my internship at SIA.

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