(To go a specific resource item, please click on its link.)
Given the limitations on what can potentially be accomplished within a “micro” internship, all parties involved with what began as my one-week stint working with the Quill Project were positively surprised by how fruitful this experience turned out to be. On my end, being exposed to the inner workings of what, for now, can be termed a digital humanities project (I’ll return to this later) not only boosted my professional development and enhanced my knowledge of constitutional history, data entry and data visualizations, but also transformed the way I think about the relationship between technological advances and our approach to study of the humanities. Furthermore, the experience revealed the true benefits of interdisciplinary work, as I believe my perspectives as a literary scholar also led to some engaging observations and stimulating discussions with team leaders Dr Nicholas Cole and Dr Alfie Abdul-Rahman.
As Quill’s micro-intern, I was tasked with identifying material held at the Library of Congress pertaining to the activities of members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention during two “gaps” in formal debate, linking this material to the Quill database and providing explanatory material the explain the “resource collection” I built. I ultimately built four resource collections containing 25, 20, 5, and 7 resources respectively. Two of the collections pertained to the “gaps” from 14 to 25 May and the meeting of the Committee of Detail from 26 July to 4 August 1787. The two additional resource collections evolved out of necessity to account for various historiographical complexities emerging from my research about certain documents produced by the Committee of Detail put online by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and other drafts of the Constitution.
Throughout this process, I gained familiarity with the Quill platform and constitutional history, and came away with further reflections about the nature of the project. On a very basic level, compiling information on primary source materials digitized by the Library of Congress and then organizing this information in a way that is both easy to understand and faithfully represents the documents made me keenly aware of the significance of understanding the history of scholarship on the constitutional convention. The methodologies of iconic figures such as Max Farrand certainly shaped (and perhaps limited?) modern approaches to constitutional history through his own editorial choices. For example, in his monolithic Records of the Constitutional Convention, Farrand chose, understandably, to include only texts and excerpts of texts related directly to the shaping of the constitution. While conducting my research, I discovered that many of the texts he listed in his Records were fragments of a longer letter, diary entry, etc. and some other primary sources were entirely left out if they did not pertain directly to the convention. On the one hand, given the staggering heft of his task, Farrand’s strategy makes logical sense. On the other hand, the Quill project seems to fill a gap in our modern scholarship on the constitution by allowing editors and users to revise and supplement Farrand’s records. As a project that seems very much focused on the process behind the shaping of foundational texts, it is only fitting that Quill’s resource collections provide links to entire primary texts, permitting users a much broader sense of context, from encountering the document in its original (usually handwritten) format, viewing it as an entity in itself, rather than a single entry in a long list of entries personally selected by Farrand, and by granting more insight about the lives led by people behind the United States Constitution. Quill, in its ability to build resource collections specific to a certain date, committee, and convention member and to present a variety of data visually, grants users a new approach to scholarship that is unlike anything attainable in, say, a Microsoft Word document. As someone without an extensive background in data visualization, I have to say it was impressive to realize how much visualizing the data allowed me to process it dynamically; rather than just having to choose one metric by which to organize data linearly (chronologically, thematically, etc.), I was able to construct various collections around various topics while maintaining their temporal dimension by linking them to the larger convention timeline. By making choices such as entering each of George Washington’s diary entries as separate resources, I was able to develop my own methodology, and “see” the information in a new light.
My other task during my micro-internship was to assist in making the site’s “on-ramp” slightly more user-friendly. In order to introduce an unfamiliar audience to the Quill project, I created an explanatory video going through what Quill is, does, and what it allows users to do. As I will be staying on as an intern for one day a week, it is my hope to create a series of further videos demonstrating how to carry out certain tasks on the platform and “user guides” showing the best methods for accessing certain views or collections on the site. Dr Cole and Dr Abdul-Rahman are impressively committed to making their site as straightforward and intuitive as possible, for, in Dr Cole’s own words: “people need to know what it is in order to use it.”
Lastly, this internship reconfigured my perspective on what is called the “digital humanities.” The Quill project clearly solves an important problem for historians by visualizing negotiations, proposals/rejections of amendments, drafts, etc. and by creating an interface that links primary source materials and explanatory writings in the form of resource collections to provide context for these negotiations. I am convinced just in my short time with Quill that this work is worth doing in itself as it creates a product that allows people to engage with the United States Constitution in a wholistic, critical way; by putting all the information on an interactive interface, Quill places the locus of interpretation on the user him/herself rather than in the form of an established narrative. However, Quill is also responding to what Dr. Cole has called the “information age,” in which digital advances have made information exponentially more accessible and available to scholars in all disciplines, including the humanities. Therefore, I think rather than thinking of Quill as a “digital humanities” project, it might be more aptly considered a humanities project operating within 21st century parameters and taking full advantage of the technologies and information available within that framework. I quite like this view of the “digital humanities” because it breaks down the false divide between work done in the humanities and the world “beyond,” as if the humanities have somehow failed to progress at the same rate as other fields of study. It may well be true that some scholars themselves perpetuate this myth by participating in this diametric view of disciplines; I myself, however, am grateful to Dr Cole, Dr Abdul-Rahman, and the whole team at Quill for showing me that no study of the humanities exists in a vacuum and that all people involved benefit when technology and humanistic scholarship are brought together.