Written by David Beyea, Elyse Manosh, Domenica Piccoli and Shelby Schmigel
Our final presentation’s purpose was to tell the story of how Walter Harding brought “the lost giant of American Literature to SUNY Geneseo in 1965.” This “lost giant,” the author William Melvin Kelley, was a professor here in the English department for a brief period that spring semester. To tell this story, we created an exhibit on the Walter Harding Omeka site to add to the ongoing documentation of Harding’s tenure at Geneseo.
Our first and foremost task was to sift through the archives of the Milne Library to gather all documents relevant to our topic. We would not have had access to these archives nor even known where to start without the help of Special Collections Librarian Liz Argentieri, so shout out to Liz! Once we had a good selection of articles relating to both Harding and Kelley, we took numerous hours to select the most relevant documents for our project (consisting of letters, articles, and photos). Then, we scanned them and shared them on a group Google Doc, organizing them into sections of Kelley before, during and after Geneseo. This was probably the most time consuming part of our final project as it was difficult to determine which documents would be relevant, and easy for us to get side-tracked in sifting through these interesting the quirks of past events. In uploading the archives we rummaged through, we found that the “color” upload feature was our friend. At first, we scanned many old newspaper articles and documents in black and white and found the picture was unclear and fuzzy. Something so simple and silly that was challenging for us, we know, but having to go back and re-scan was time consuming.
Once we scanned our documents, we laid out an exhibit plan to split up the individual collections (pages) to our exhibit. Elyse and Domenica were responsible for introducing the exhibit as well as connecting Harding, Kelley and Thoreau. Dave was responsible for the page providing information on Kelley at Geneseo, all he accomplished, his involvement with the campus, etc. Lastly, Shelby was responsible for Kelley after Geneseo, his legacy and beyond; basically how Geneseo impacted Kelley’s life and what came out of it. After we divided up tasks of who was going to be responsible for what information, we then got started with Omeka.
Initially, Omeka was not an easy platform to use. We had a multitude of questions: Can we all work on this together? Can only one person upload something? Is only one person able to be an Omeka SuperAdmin? As none of us had extensive knowledge of what Omeka is and how it works prior to this class, it took us a bit of time to get that ball rolling. Most of our group met with Dr. Schacht at one point to have a lesson in navigating Omeka. Omeka requires Dublin Core metadata to organize its files and items. As a group, we decided to assign one person to be responsible for all the Dublin Core to help with keeping it consistent.
With using Omeka, we learned a lot about what worked well and what did not. Some of the “powers” of using Omeka included uploading items without alteration. We did not have to worry about files being too large to upload, as the uploaded items never gave us a “this item is too large” notification (as we were mostly dealing with small files in the kilobyte variety). Another power of Omeka is the many themes and templates to choose from in organizing and designed an exhibit. We assigned someone to view other exhibits on the Walter Harding website and used their experience to form a framework of how to structure our exhibit, thereby keeping the website as a whole thematically and structurally consistent. This helped to keep all our thoughts on the webpage in an organized and easy to follow manner. Lastly, Dr. Schacht granting all of our group members access to become SuperAdmins on Omeka was honestly a godsend. This allowed us to all work on the exhibit at once (in a similar manner to a google docs would be).
With all these powers we came to learn, we observed some limitations to Omeka as well. Omeka requires the use of metadata and Dublin Core, which was somewhat time consuming process for going through all the archives and documents we had gathered. It was relatively easy clerical work, but tedious all the same. In addition, we learned that Omeka is not necessarily a “safe place” for your work. With the granted access that many people have as SuperUsers or SuperAdmins, others can manipulate your page, and work can easily be deleted by mistakenly navigating or refreshing a page. We learned to put our work in separate platform before posting it on Omeka. Lastly, it took us quite some time to become comfortable, not sure that we still all are, with using Omeka. You have to make sure you click “Save Changes” frequently that way your hard work does not disappear (this happened to Elyse when typing up a very long paragraph! Thankfully she drafted it in Google Docs first!).
As for Thoreau, wow, did we learn a lot! First, the title of Kelley’s book, A Different Drummer, was influenced and derived from a quote by Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” More generally, we also learned that one of the nation’s leading scholars on Thoreau was SUNY Geneseo’s very own Walter Harding. We knew this man’s name from the Harding lounge in Welles, but this project put that name to life. In the quest to pursue the understanding of Thoreau’s work and life, Harding reached out across the nation for fellow scholars who represented Thoreau’s ideas. Through Harding’s invitation, a friendship formed between the two scholars (Kelley and Harding himself) and enriched the student community in the spring of 1965 at SUNY Geneseo.
If you ever get a chance to, we recommend you all go check out the Special Collections documents on Harding and Kelley, as many of them relate to Thoreau in many ways. We are very thankful to have the opportunity to add to the ongoing celebration of Harding’s impact upon the study of Thoreau and upon the Geneseo Campus.