CERES: Curation in the Classroom, Curation of the Classroom

[An adaptation of the following text will be presented as a lightning talk at Innovations in Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Local, National, and International Training, a mini-conference and member meeting sponsored by the International Digital Humanities Training Network / ADHO Training Group, on August 8 at Digital Humanities 2017, Montreal]

The use of CERES in the classroom provides a framework for Digital Humanities pedagogy and as well as a repeatable system for supporting this framework at our university. In the Digital Scholarship Group (DSG) at Northeastern University Libraries we find that the curatorial classroom is an entryway into the intellectual foundations of digital scholarship. In the curatorial classroom, both instruction and the technological infrastructure are based around, and introduce students to, the concepts of digital preservation and sustainable design for scholarship. CERES (the Community-Enhanced Repository for Engaged Scholarship) is the system in which student learning takes place.

CERES is a repository-based infrastructure for digital humanities project development and publication built by the DSG. Digital assets are stored in our Fedora-based repository, and expressed through an API to the WordPress environment. CERES therefore serves as the foundation for a set of flexible, scalable tools for creating and publishing digital humanities research projects, organized through the WordPress theme and associated plugins.

The design of this system is predicated on three basic principles. First, the library has the resources to build and support systems, not individual projects. Our focus is thus on developing tools that offer a steadily diversifying set of publication, editing, and dissemination features needed by DH projects at Northeastern, built in a way that the DSG can support them in the long term. Second, DH research objects stored in the repository should be simultaneously curatable and usable, and the curation and dissemination of these materials should be planned from the outset. Researchers wishing to develop DH research projects in CERES must first build a strong collection of data that meets our standards of long-term sustainability and open access principles. Third, expansion of the tool set — identifying and prioritizing new features, exploring their potential scholarly value, experimenting, and testing — is a shared research undertaking in which scholars and library staff are full partners with diverse expertise to share.

By bringing CERES into the classroom, the DSG and our teaching partners use curation in the repository (providing both constraints and affordances over “regular” websites) to prompt critical thinking and critical making. As students find or create digital objects with scholarly value, catalog and store them to high preservation standards, and then publish and contextualize those objects through a public website they are led through many of the foundational questions and activities of digital scholarship.

Students explore the intersection of findability and metadata and how the creation of shareable, high-quality metadata benefits scholarship, undertaking the intellectual project of creating a controlled vocabulary that captures their research needs. Students discuss the differences between popular “curation” (i.e. ephemeral social media lists created in systems dominated by for-profit entities) versus curation and preservation efforts in libraries, museums, and other non-profit cultural heritage institutions. As they combine, recontextualize, and publish objects in online exhibits, students not only undertake scholarly research to produce intellectual narratives, but also explore good practices in web design and design generally. They learn about foundational concepts such as information architecture, usability, and accessibility while focusing on the needs of a global public audience and design for sustainability. By bringing students into the world of curation and digital repositories first, the layered system design of CERES provides a clear set of stepping-stones for classroom inquiry and assignments. Through all this, students discover the push and pull between the structure and standardization needed for effective tool development and deployment versus the freedom required for imaginative scholarship and new ideas. In the end, students become more critical tool users.

Beyond supporting the intellectual framework of the curatorial classroom, CERES also provides a practical foundation for a project’s sustainability — curating the classroom itself. Every digital humanist will be able to recall instances where data created for a project website — book pages scanned, photo dates documented, geographical coordinates verified — were lost once the website wound down. By separating the digital assets and their metadata from their presentation in the WordPress layer, CERES ensures a level of sustainable preservation for each student’s base-level work. In addition, the DSG and the Library commit to hosting the public WordPress sites, performing regular site maintenance and updates for both security and backwards compatibility, and preventing the loss of log-ins and domains with student or staff turnover. This ensures projects’ lives over multiple semesters, enabling subsequent classes to build on the work of earlier ones. Finally, all Library websites are crawled by our preservation service Archive-It, based at the Internet Archive, capturing as much data from the presentation layer as possible.

Providing a single, predictable infrastructure for classroom use also allows the DSG to develop more sustainable classroom support. Rather than creating new bespoke websites for every class, we are able to more quickly rollout a known system and use our knowledge from increasing experience with that system to help teaching partners design assignments. Partnering in teaching with technology never just involves technology; it always also requires people-power in the classroom. We are therefore developing and refining a set of standardized pedagogical materials, allowing us to train our DSG Research Assistants to support multiple classes:

CERES website examples:

Looking to the future, we have identified areas for future research, and welcome input on our future research directions. For example, we want to provide structure, but what does too much structure look like? We want to form in-depth teaching partnerships, but currently lack the staffing to do so at a large scale — how can we develop sustainable instructional support? How much can we ask of teaching partners — can we require or provide course TAs, and thereby use a train-the-trainer approach? We are interested in learning from the experiences of other groups bringing digital scholarship into the classroom.