Digital Curation through Digital Annotation at Wentworth Institute of Technology: Reimagining the James Michael Curley House through MIT Hyperstudio’s Annotation Studio
On Tuesday, July 1st, 2014, the students in our Media, Culture, and Communications Studies (MCCS) Studio Course, “Curating the Legacy of Mayor James Michael Curley,” engaged in a new type of digital analysis, i.e., the close reading of a primary historical document. The document we analyzed was the so-called, “Gertrude Dennis Manuscript,” which was kindly provided to our class by Curley’s step-son, Richard Dennis. Gertrude Dennis was Richard’s mother and Mayor James Michael Curley’s second wife, and she lived with the mayor in his palatial mansion on the Jamaicaway in Boston for around 20 years. At some point during the 1950s, Gertrude penned a 34-page, double-spaced description of the Jamaicaway mansion that was intended to preserve the Curley home’s charm and luxury for her young granddaughter, Leslie Ann Dennis. Yet, because the Curley mansion now lacks all of the furniture and objects that once complemented its gorgeous architecture, Gertrude Dennis’ testimony also serves as one of our only portals into understanding how the Curley home appeared when it was completely furnished during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Since our course is focused on the virtual curation of the James Michael Curley house as a museum, this primary source description of the mayor’s mansion is critical to the house’s successful curation, whether digitally or, in future, physically.
Due to the Gertrude Dennis manuscript’s importance to our project goals, we decided that engaging in a close reading of the text would be a valuable in-class exercise for several reasons. First, the text includes several esoteric terms related to period-specific home furnishings and objects (e.g., portières or ormalu) that most students were probably not familiar with that needed to be defined. Second, because close reading involves examining the microcosm (i.e., individual words) in order to understand the macrocosm (i.e., what the house’s furniture and objects say about James Michael Curley) we thought that such an approach to a primary document would get our students to engage with the text in a more interactive and less passive way that would be useful for their later curatorial projects. Third, we believed that through this exercise we could introduce the students to yet another digital tool, MIT’s open-access and open-source Annotation Studio [http://www.annotationstudio.org/], a web-based annotation tool that permits the addition of textual commentary and multimedia annotations to words in a user-friendly HTML-based user interface. We had been introduced to Annotation Studio by Hyperstudio director, Kurt Fendt, last year, so we were eager to experiment with it once we found the appropriate document. Fourth, since Wentworth’s strategic plan involves integrating externally collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary curricula (or E.P.I.C.) for Learning (http://wit.edu/epic-learning/) into students’ college experiences, we thought that this inherently project-based and collaborative exercise would enhance student skills in this regard.
Our one hour and fifty minute lesson plan involved the following features:
1) Introduction to Annotation (20 mins) – Since our students had already been introduced to the Gertrude Dennis manuscript as a historical resource for their curation projects, we started the class by briefly lecturing on the history of annotation as a practice (e.g., discussion of medieval marginalia up to TEI and Rap Genius) and how close readings can enhance our understanding of both a text’s specific features as well as its larger meaning. We also highlighted the collaborative nature of annotation, especially when it is conducted in a classroom setting utilizing an almost real-time, web-based tool.
2) Introduction to Annotation Studio (20 mins) – Following a discussion of why we annotate, we introduced students to the main features of MIT’s Annotation Studio tool. First, we discussed how the tool helps to enhance the text by moving beyond learning-intensive TEI-type metadata additions to permit democratizing annotations that allow anyone to add commentary, tags, discussion, images, and video easily. Then, it might seem amazing, but we were able to teach the students how to create an account and add all of this metadata in a few short minutes through the videos uploaded to the Annotation Studio channel on YouTube and through going through a few annotation examples within the document (which had previously been uploaded by the professors).
3) Signing up for Annotation Studio and Assigning Pages to Annotate (10 mins) – We then got each student in our class to sign up for an annotation studio account and join our class group called “GDSM.” Then each student was assigned one page of the manuscript to analyze. Because we have around 34 students, and there were 34 pages, this division of labor worked perfectly.
4) Tagging and Annotation Protocols (20 mins) – We then introduced our students to a prepared document that outlined the protocols for annotating and tagging words encountered within the Gertrude Dennis Manuscript [see guidelines here: Annotating_Getrude_Dennis_MS]. The purpose of this document was to answer the questions: What should be annotated? How does a specific word tell us more about James Michael Curley? For each category, a group of questions was provided for the student so that these questions could be asked about the word. For example, for the “objects” category, the student was provided with the following questions:
- In 3-5 lines, describe this object. What were its key features?
- What is the object made of?
- Where was this object made?
- Can you add an image, video, link, or further data about this object?
- What do you think this particular object’s significance was to the Curley house or Curley himself?
In addition, each category of word was given a tag that could be added to it so that patterns could be discerned. The categories included: People, Family, Object, Geographical Places, House, House Exterior, Architectural Features, House Rooms, Topic-specific or Dated Vocabulary, References to James Michael Curley, Memories, Historical or Political Events, Boston, Ireland/Irish Culture, Religion, Dates and Time Periods, Popular Culture Allusions, Metaphors, Figurative Language, and Tone.
5) Individual Annotation Time (40 mins) – The remainder of the class was devoted to helping students get started with annotating and adding different types of multimedia metadata. Students were able to learn to annotate incredibly rapidly and within 20 minutes or so, many sections of text were highlighted, tagged, and commented on with the addition of links, images, gifs, and embedded videos. The learning curve is steep with Annotation Studio. Students seem to go from no knowledge to complete usability in one class period. As students annotated, we walked around the class and asked them about what they were working on and frequently refreshed the master document that was projected at the front. The point of refreshing the digitally projected document was so that the students could see how rapidly our knowledge base about the document was being collaboratively improved through close-reading and how rapidly this process was occurring via a collaborative effort that was literally engaging the entire class at the same time. Thus, overall, not only did the students learn about specific pages, they learned to collaborate on the creation of knowledge and were able to see the fruits of their work in almost real time. Within 40 minutes, nearly every page of the manuscript had annotations that enhanced its meaning, and most students were able to walk away having learned a new digital skill that could be utilized on a host of other projects that require the collaborative analysis of texts (be they legal documents, computer code, building codes etc.).
Pros and Cons of Annotation Studio in its Current State of Release
In general, Annotation Studio proved to be an effective and user-friendly digital interface to use with college-level students working on a primary historical document. The interface is minimalist, and the learning curve is steep. In short, it is very easy to get a college-level student group working with this tool within a two-hour class period. Also, because annotating forces students to engage with a text and think about the best ways to elucidate it (often using multimedia), we believe that this can be an excellent learning exercise. This practice further seems to involve a different cognitive experience than simply passive reading. Moreover, once a text is annotated with explanatory commentary and provided with multimedia visual enhancements and links, it comes alive in a manner that certainly seems more interactive and illustrative and that might be easier to relate to for millennial students who have grown up with such multimedia technology. We definitely think that students got more out of the text through this close reading, digital exercise than if they simply passively read the text in a traditional fashion.
Annotation Studio is therefore a powerful digital tool that has the potential to bring texts to life for college-level millennial readers. Yet, at present, this program still has its functional problems. First, when we were trying to add chapters to the manuscript to split it up page by page, the instructions were too confusing to be helpful. Second, although we wanted students to tag words so that patterns could be discerned, the tag function has very little use right now since there is no way to aggregate tags into a word cloud widget (e.g., c.f. wikispaces) or to show the patterns via searching words. Future releases of Annotation Studio really need to address the tag analysis issue since this really hampers a feature of the program that could be valuable to text researchers. Third, when one is annotating, it would be good to be able to make the annotation window bigger (especially when drag-enlarging images)—and perhaps the fonts as well—as this would facilitate annotations and re-reading. Fourth, the fact that there is no way to make an annotated document available to the public as a read-only document at this stage is not very helpful. It would be great if the class could annotate a document seriously and then make this annotation available to interested readers. Such functionality would be very useful for our project in particular. Fifth, it would be better if the master document would update itself periodically (say once a minute) in quasi-real-time. If it did this, students could see their collaborative research add up and allow the professor to monitor rapidly the progress of individual students as well as the class as a whole. Finally, sometimes some annotations would simply not save; we are not sure why this error occurred, since when we re-added them, they appeared. This problem could have been related to specific student computers or connectivity, but it did not seem like this was the case at the time.
Summing Up: Annotation is a Useful Skill
Overall, based on personal communication, it seems that our students enjoyed our class on digital curation through digital annotation. This result may have been because it was more interactive than a typical lecture and because it was computer-based. Nevertheless, students also left the class with some sense of the history of annotation and how close reading could help one to better understand not only a specific text, but also its larger, overarching subject matter. Also, students learned to use a novel tool with Annotation Studio, which, although it currently has a primarily academic use, could also be used for a myriad of other uses—including business applications—within the course of these students’ future careers. Despite the fact that it still has a few functional problems, Annotation Studio has the potential to be a valuable classroom tool for a variety or research purposes, and especially within a history class like ours that deals with primary historical documents. Our students’ use of Annotation Studio has already enhanced our understanding of this key text for interpreting and curating the Curley House’s interior, the Gertrude Dennis Manuscript, and, as a result, we are encouraging our students to seek out additional uses for this platform within their large-scale curatorial projects.