This blog post is written about a joint project with contributors: SCA volunteer Nancy Sullivan, Collections Archivist Stephanie Bennett, Digital Humanities Research Designer Carrie Johnston, and Public Services Archivist Rebecca May.
It may seem strange for me to start by confessing a few things. But for you to understand the hows and whys of my writing this, I have to tell you straight up – I live for the thrill of the chase and I am self professed hoarder of old things.
The beginning of the story behind an old, well worn tiny red journal is, I did not have to chase after it at all. In fact I found this little gem at the end of my bed in an old trunk where it had lived most of my life. One day I opened the trunk only to see in the midst of old papers and letters a small red book. I peeked inside and the first page read May 6, 1918 … and the chase was ON!!! Turning the fragile pages I quickly realized this was a WWI soldier’s story and I was seeing how he left his home in the remote mountains of NC, and traveled to the battlefields of Europe’s Western Front.
By comparison to other lofty finds this was but a tiny find, but I knew it held a ton of potential for my ever-curious mind. Having traveled in Europe throughout my adult life, I was convinced these small pages could take me to a time period I knew little about and to places I had never been.
I began by transcribing the journal and that led me to my first looming question. Could I match this soldier’s documented dates and movements, with the battle dates and movements of a US Army Regiment from WWI? A lot of searching yielded a miraculous match with the history that had been written for the US Army’s 120th Infantry 30th Division.
Once I knew the fit between the soldier and his regiment, I realized the little red book had quite a story to tell, and my keeping the story to myself was not the right thing to do. I first shared my findings with Wake Forest history professor Dr. Chuck Thomas, and he then introduced me to Tanya Zanish-Belcher, Director of Special Collections and Archives at ZSR Library. I knew immediately, that my little journal should move to this new home within the library where it could be used by many for research purposes. Once the donation process was complete, I could put that project to rest.
But days passed and I was drawn back to Special Collections where I now work as a volunteer! Surrounded by numerous materials within Special Collections, was only fitting that my first project here would be working with the same little red book.
Archivist Rebecca May realized the journal entries could lend themselves well to a story map format since most entries focused on the geographic movements of the soldier. Dr. Carrie Johnston introduced me to Story Map Knight Lab and with Rebecca and Carrie’s help the chase commenced once more.
To have gone from battlefields of WWI to the digital world is quite amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of that quantum leap!
Once the collection arrived in Special Collections’ care, I completed our usual workflow for manuscript collections. I accessioned the collection, making note of its previous owner and any information we had about its creation -not much in this case; the contents; date range covered by the materials and their condition; and anything else that is useful information related to its acquisition and our description of the materials. The collection was then processed, by which archivists mean organize and describe. With the help of a student worker, I organized the materials into individual acid-free folders that provided a title describing the contents, a date of creation (if possible). The folders went into an acid-free box. Using acid-free materials and storing them in our cool, temperature-controlled, light-protected stacks helps protect rare and unique materials, often on low-quality paper (especially during war time!), from degrading over the years as much as possible.
The final step for my portion of collections work is to create a document called a finding aid that acts as a guide to the materials. The collection’s finding aid, created by then-freshman and student assistant John Hagerty and me, lists the collection’s contents, the context for its creation, its subject matter, and other information that helps patrons and our reference staff make use of the collection. Since we don’t have the name of this soldier, the collection is called, simply, “World War I Collection” and its finding aid can be found by searching our online catalog. Once the finding aid is out in the world, the collection is ready for researchers, barring any restrictions for use (sometimes time-sensitive materials are not open right away).
Nancy’s little red journal was the perfect start to a digital humanities project. Additionally, Nancy had researched the journal’s origins and had also transcribed the journal, making this small physical object “machine readable.” In other words, she had already done the work to translate the physical text for the digital screen. Many people don’t think about this hard work that must be done at the beginning of building a digital exhibit, so when I first met with Nancy, I was delighted to see that half of the project had already been done!
As Rebecca suggested, Nancy’s research was a good fit for a mapping platform due to the geographic element of the soldier’s narrative of traveling through Europe during WWI. StoryMap JS, a storytelling tool created by Northwestern University’s Knight Lab “to push journalism into new spaces” was the perfect platform to visualize this story.
As the Digital Humanities Research Designer, I always advise researchers to keep their content, not the digital tool, at the center of their project. So, working with Nancy was quite easy for me, since she was committed to keeping the little red journal as the centerpiece of the StoryMap. Nancy had the great idea to quote the journal as the headline of each StoryMap slide. Augmenting the journal’s narrative with geographic locations on the map, as well as images that corresponded with the travels and experiences detailed in the journal, Nancy brought the journal to life through the interactive digital exhibit.
When Nancy joined our team as a volunteer, our first discussion led us back to her donation and interest in the WWI journal. Nancy and I began discussing the work she had done with transcription and research on the journal before she had donated it. It seemed obvious to build on the extensive work she had already done with some sort of visual representation of the journal. In addition to the extensive work that Nancy brought with her, Special Collections & Archives was beginning some World War I programming for the 2017 Centennial of America’s entry into WWI. I thought a project with this journal would be a nice complement to the World War I exhibit in the SCA Research Room along with the programming we had in place for the anniversary.
We spoke about how to translate the journal to the digital world while being true to the written word. Our solution to this was to quote the journal as the heading on each page. Nancy would then add the secondary source research and editorialize each of the entries to make them come alive. In addition to her research, Nancy spent time compiling representative images for each journal entry. Some of the images were directly from the journal, but other images were from a variety of resources, including our collections. The quotes from the journal, coupled with supporting images and information brings the small journal to life and allows users to visualize how troops moved throughout Europe during WWI, to experience the war through the eyes of a Western North Carolina man, and to get a better sense of life at the time.
As the Public Services Archivist, I am excited to share this project with patrons and have them experience the journal in a unique and interactive way. There are a few iterations of the project that you can access online: the Storymap, the digitized collection, and the finding aid. Please spend some time exploring and enjoying these materials! This WWI journal served as an excellent pilot project to use the StoryMap software on other collections. We have so many collections that include travel such as: diaries, correspondence, memoirs, and more. We hope to expand our project mapping to other collections in our holdings.