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A Word Is Born is a digital outreach initiative showcasing the life and work of the Dictionary of Old English. 

The digital outreach initiative was a pilot project—the first of its kind at the Dictionary and at the Centre for Medieval Studies--led by Alexandra Bolintineanu, a CLIR/Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Medieval Data Curation.  In consultation with the Dictionary’s then-editor-in-chief, Antonette diPaolo Healey, and its systems analyst, Xin Xiang, Alexandra Bolintineanu decided that success would look like a digital humanities hydra: a combination of live workshops, a digital exhibit, a help manual, an online mini-course, and a collection of teaching ideas.

To accomplish this, Alexandra Bolintineanu integrated the initiative with a workshop series on digital tools and practices for medievalists. The Dictionary of Old English offered time with its researchers, professors Antonette diPaolo Healey, David McDougall, and Ian McDougall, and its project staff, Xin Xiang and Catherine Monahan, as well as access to its research collection. University of Toronto librarians Sian Meikle, Lisa Gayhart, and Kelli Babcock offered expertise, server space, and advice about digital archives and usability initiatives. And Alexandra Bolintineanu shaped the project and used pedagogical approaches more often found in computer science courses—pair programming and project-based learning—to fulfill both the students’ learning goals and the project’s need for documentation and outreach. The ensuing collaboration resulted in a (reusable, scalable) set of digital resources that the Dictionary of Old English and other research projects can use to build bridges to local and global scholarly communities.

  1. In her lecture, “The Future of the Past: Early English, Connectivity, and Sustainability in a Digital Universe,” Antonette diPaolo Healey introduced medievalists to the latest release of the Dictionary of Old English and discussed sustainability in the context of a long-lived digital humanities project. 
  2. In a follow-up workshop, graduate students and I ran a usability study to test the new Dictionary of Old English interfaces. To this end, I wrote a protocol that combines testing and training. I adapted pair programming, a computer science pedagogical approach that pairs up participants and allots one the role of “driver” (programmer) and the other the role of “navigator” (planner and observer). Instead of having one facilitator observe and document each user’s tests of the interface, as is typical in usability testing, I wrote a road map of user tasks and invited students to pair up. Each pair consisted of a tester, who carried out the tasks using the interface, and an observer, who documented the process. Midway through the testing, the participants switched roles. By the end of the session, participants learned about the importance of usability testing and gained hands-on experience with designing and running usability tests at a low cost to the research program.
  3. Based on the usability study results, Xin Xiang implemented some interface redesigns, while I created a set of learning resources, including a detailed Help manual and a series of video tutorials, about the Dictionary of Old English and the Dictionary of Old English Corpus. Since we expect the Dictionary’s newly released free access sessions to draw new users, some experienced scholars of Old English and some altogether new to the discipline, some of the learning resources are aimed at novice users and others at advanced users.All videos are provided with full-text transcripts for greater accessibility.
  4. In addition to the tutorials, I conducted interviews with the Dictionary’s editors and staff about the history and workflow of the DOE. I learned about the challenges of digitizing the Dictionary of Old English Corpus in the seventies, when each known Old English text had to be typed on Scantron sheets, using jury-rigged special characters; and about the challenges and rewards of Old English lexicography.
  5. To organize this documentation, I created an Omeka exhibit showcasing the Dictionary’s work and history (originally on the free hosted server at omeka.net, eventually migrated to a library repository, thanks to Kelli Babcock, Digital Initiatives Librarian). The exhibit documents the Dictionary’s workflow, with digital artifacts and oral narratives of the dictionary’s history. 
  6. Using this Omeka exhibit, I led a workshop on the Omeka content management system. I invited participants to contribute sample assignments and teaching ideas using the Dictionary of Old English to the Dictionary’s Omeka site. Participants drew on their own areas of research, from literature to archeology, history, and law, to construct interdisciplinary instructional resources. The following day, three workshop participants—Daniel Brielmaier, Kasandra Castle, and Anna Wilson—presented their resources at the Toronto Old English Colloquium 2014. Contributing to a live project not only motivated the participants, but encouraged them to raise questions that went beyond the technical basics of Omeka—questions ranging from metadata schemas to digital pedagogies.

Each of these steps involved the graduate student community at the Centre for Medieval Studies, who attended a talk about the Dictionary of Old English’s latest developments, acted as users and observers in the usability study, provided the questions and observations that motivated the video tutorials, and created sample assignments and teaching ideas for the Omeka exhibit. Graduate student participants provided invaluable ideas throughout the process, while at the same time learning about the Dictionary itself and about digital humanities approaches and tools. 

A hydra-like project—at once exhibit, community-building exercise, meta-scholarship, and experiment in distributed learningA Word Is Born brought together a group of librarians and medievalists with DH interests.  It created not only a collection of digital resources, but also a web of relationships across the University of Toronto community.

My thanks to CLIR for making this project possible, and for hosting a version of this essay on the CLIR blog, Re:  Thinking.