Digital Humanities Internship #5: Final Reflections

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 Institution Archives.

As my internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives comes to a close, it is time to reflect back on what I have learned, how this experience has been helpful, and what it has taught me about Digital Humanities. 

During the course of my internship, I learned several new technical skills that will be beneficial to my digital humanities work going forward. First of all, I learned how to use a new content management interface, Drupal. While we had been introduced to several interfaces during the Certificate coursework such as Omeka and WordPress, Drupal was new to me. At first, it was a bit intimidating and frustrating as I tried to figure out how the system worked. Slowly, but surely–through lots of trial and error–I finally got the hang of it. Then after I had mastered creating basic pages, there were new types of pages like “Story Letters” and “Image Galleries,” each with their own intricacies, to figure out.

During this process, I was mostly left to figure it out on my own, although the staff at SIA, especially on the days I was working in their office downtown, were more than happy to answer any questions I had. My supervisor also eased the learning process by assigning me projects which required me to create very basic pages first, while reserving the more complicated projecting until I had more experience with Drupal. 

Secondly, as I completed more projects in Drupal, it became necessary for me to understand and be able to write HTML code–something I had not done before the internship. During the Certificate coursework, I had always used the “WYSIWYG” view (which looks a bit like a word processor) to create my work. In general, WYSIWYG is an editor which supposedly shows a user what the end result will look like while they are creating a page or document. Unfortunately, Drupal’s WYSIWYG mode was not that straightforward. For example, when creating a page in WYSIWYG, I would add a hyperlink to one word in the main body text. In the WYSIWYG view, it looked fine. But when I went to save/publish the page, the word and the whole paragraph surrounding it was one big hyperlink, and the paragraph had been switched to a different font size. It was quite frustrating! But as I learned, the only way to fix problems like these was to switch to HTML and move the hyperlink tags so that it only surrounded the single word, and delete the tags which told the text to change font sizes.

I also had to use code to add images to the pages I was creating. While some of my work required me to download images from older online exhibits and re-upload them to Drupal, some of the images I needed were already online on the SIA’s existing website. For these images, I had to use a small piece of code (modified with each picture’s identification number) in order to add them to my page. 

In addition to the technical skills I learned while interning at SIA, I also learned a lot about myself and gained valuable insight into my academic and professional future paths. As mentioned in my previous post, I learned that I do not like commuting into Washington, D.C. during normal business hours. Because of this experience, I would now be more hesitant to take a job that required that commute each day. 

This internship also helped to confirm some things about myself that I already suspected. First of all, I like to do work where I can put my own particular skills, abilities, and creativity to work. While I could see that the work I was doing at SIA was important and that someone had to do it, it is not something that I could imagine myself doing full-time. Instead of cutting, pasting, uploading, and arranging other people’s work, I would be much happier in a career where I am doing my own research and writing, and then creating my own exhibit. Secondly, I am an extravert. Sitting in a cubicle by myself, working on my projects by myself, is hard for me. I do much better in a team environment, where I can bounce ideas off other people, ask them questions about how something has worked in the past, or simply brainstorm new ideas. 

Finally, I am more excited about the work I am doing when I can see the connection between my work and the end user. For example, during my Certificate coursework, I created an educational portion of a website, geared toward teaching 4th graders historical thinking skills. My mother, who is a fourth grade teacher, assured me as I was creating the site that she would use it with her students when I was finished. This pushed me to be more creative and to put more work into the project, because I knew that it was going to be used and I knew who the users were. While I will admit that it is quite cool to take my friends and family to the SIA website and show them the pages I have created, I have no idea who or how many people have seen or used those pages. Therefore, the educational project I created is more rewarding for me, as I got to hear about how students used the website and educational resources I had created as part of their history education. 

The Certificate coursework did prepare me for my internship in some aspects, but not in others. I think it was most helpful in giving me a basic foundation in Digital Humanities. Instead of going into the internship blind, I knew where the field had come from, what types of work it encompassed, and had gained experience in creating my own projects. My experiences in coursework also hindered me though, in some ways, from enjoying the internship. For example, if I had completed the internship more toward the beginning of the certificate, I would have been quite pleased with what I have accomplished. But after being emboldened (through three class projects) in creating my own digital scholarship, it almost seemed like a step backwards to be cutting and pasting work that someone else had already done. I would have loved to apply what I learned during the coursework about audience and educational methods, but this is hard to do when you are not selecting the images or writing the text. 

Also, while the certificate coursework will be significantly helpful in my career going forward, it did not address the specific technical skills and interface that I was asked to work with for my internship. Since everyone in the Certificate cohort was placed in different Smithsonian internships, it is quite possible that most of the other students had previous experience during the coursework doing what they were asked to do during the internship. (For example, I know that another student was asked to work with social media for their internship–something we practiced during the coursework). But for me, the main two technical skills I utilized in my internship–HTML and Drupal–were new to me.

While doing the Certificate coursework, I initially appreciated that none of the projects required us to know HTML, since I didn’t know how to create it and I thought it would be complicated to learn. But as I completed my internship, I wished that writing HTML code was already part of my skill set. I feel like a basic understanding of HTML code and how it works would have been a useful part of the Certificate curriculum. It also would have been helpful to be exposed to even more interfaces during the coursework. While I understand that coursework can never cover all of the available options, it would have been nice to try a few interfaces that did a similar task. Instead of just working with WordPress, why not be introduced to Drupal too? Instead of just working with CartoDB for mapping, why not let us work with ARC-GIS? Even if these other interfaces were more complicated, harder to use, or didn’t offer the features we needed, it would have been helpful to learn about what the different options were, how they differed from one another, and why one might choose one interface over another. 

Nevertheless, the internship gave me greater insight into a small snippet of the larger Digital Humanities field. While the Certificate courses gave me an overview of what the field encompassed as a whole, the internship let me see how current employees use digital humanities on a daily basis to do their work. I was also able to have conversations with my supervisor about difficulties I had run into (see my third internship blog, “Estimating Work and Time”) and hear about how people working in the field encounter and deal with the same problems. 

My internship experience helped me to see that while the exact work you are doing (creating a website, doing text, analysis, etc.) or the environment you are in (academic vs. government) might change, some baseline elements do not. DH projects are always time consuming. They take longer than you expect them to, because you always run into unexpected hiccups along the way. They require dedication and attention to detail. They can change as you go along, until your end product is a far cry from your original idea. But in the end, doing DH work is rewarding. It is intriguing. It helps you see things in a new light or think about things differently than you did before. And it allows you to share these new ideas with others, and encourage their own curiosity.

Therefore, I am excited to continue expanding my practical knowledge in this field and have some new and different DH experiences as I work as a Digital History Fellow at George Mason University during the 2017-2018 school year. 

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