Emma Hartman ’17 handles a crumbling course catalogue.
Emma Hartman ’17 handles a crumbling course catalogue from 1833.

Summer in the Archives, Digitally

While most of the class of 2017 has long since departed the campus to embark on their futures, four recent Amherst College graduates spent much of the summer deeply exploring the past of their alma mater.

At the end of July, participants in Frost Library’s Digital Scholarship Summer Internship launched an interactive website on “Early Amherst,” the fruit of weeks of research in the College’s Archives and Special Collections.

Now in its fourth year, the internship program—operated through the library’s digital programs department—assigns participating undergraduates or recent graduates a general project, and the interns delve into the archives, each according to their interests.

Interns work with librarians, archivists and IT specialists, learning research methods and skills related to digitization, curation, information visualization and project management, often with no prior technical or digital scholarship experience.

Left to right, front to back: Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17, Amanda Tobin ’17, Emma Hartman ’17, and Katie Von Campe '17
Pictured (left to right, front to back) are Digital Scholars Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17, Amanda Tobin ’17, Emma Hartman ’17, and Katie Von Campe ’17.
Library staff
Este Pope (left), head of digital programs, and Missy Roser (right), head of research and instruction.

This year, the interns took a look at early documents, both in hard copy and in digital form, from Amherst’s first years. This was in part with an eye to the upcoming bicentennial of the College’s founding in 1821.

According to Este Pope, head of digital programs, the library is undertaking a massive effort to digitize many holdings in the archives. Seeing these early documents through the interns’ eyes is helping that larger project.

“We have a very long list of what we want to digitize,” she said. “What they’re uncovering and where the exploration is taking them has been very eye-opening and helpful for us in our thoughts and planning around the bicentennial.”

Digitization Coordinator Timothy Pinault scans the old town map.
Digitization coordinator Timothy Pinault scans the old town map.

“You’re constantly revisiting your original questions and trying to map onto a framework,” said intern Katie Von Campe ’17. “When you write a paper, you know it’s for a very specific audience, but when you’re doing a digital humanities project, it really is meant to have a wider reach. You have to be able to take this information and make it accessible, and interesting, and valuable to a general public, but also to people with more specific interests.”

The interns worked on a deadline, keeping a blog along the way.

Von Campe researched the curriculum at Amherst during its infancy, producing data visualizations of the course load at young Amherst College, and an interactive admissions quiz, where the reader can see if they have what it took to enter Amherst in 1842.

“It’s really heavily classics-based. You need a lot of Latin and Greek just to get in,” she said of the 19th-century Amherst curriculum. “The biggest difference from today is that there were no courses, just books that you’d study. You’d be reading Livy’s first two books and then the third book. Over time, it gradually changed, so you get moral philosophy and a bunch of different texts and lectures, but it was a very different setup from today.”

Emma Hartman ’17 narrowed in on Amherst’s first library.

First College library catalogue.

It started at the school’s founding in 1821 as a modest collection of about 900 books on the first floor of South College, the first building on campus. The library grew, moving the next year to North College, and in 1827 to Johnson Chapel. Morgan Hall was erected in 1853 as the College’s first dedicated library building.

Hartman focused on the library of the 1830s.

“The library was used in such a different way back then. It was only open for half an hour a week, and not a lot of people would visit, because it was cold and uncomfortable,” she said. “The firsthand accounts I’ve read have indicated that the library was not like a gathering place in the way that we imagine it today.”

Hartman’s research resulted in data visualizations including a comparison between the academic course topics and how well they might be represented in the library’s holdings.

Archival document
A student essay asks, “Are works of fiction necessary to give a proper cultivation of the mind?”

Architectural studies major Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17 studied primary source material in the archive’s Buildings and Grounds Collection, including etchings, sketches and photographs dating before 1861. From this emerged a sense of the aesthetics of the early campus, which he outlined in an interactive timeline on the website.

“For example, I’m looking at mapping out the different architectural styles that were present in the College from 1821 to ’61, and then superimposing that over the different College presidents, seeing what influence the president had on the architectural styles,” he said.

Amanda Tobin ’17 centered her work on a detailed 1860 map of Amherst, focusing on the College and its immediate environs. She produced a photo gallery for the website, and a clickable version of the 1860 map which unfolds information and links to the latent history always present around Amherst.

Since working on the project, she said, “I can't walk around campus or around town the same way. I'm really seeing it in a very, very different light.”

Pope was impressed by the team’s work.

“It’s been really neat to see each of them bring their own interests and abilities and talents to the table,” she said. “With digital scholarship, it can be a solitary act, but I think it works best when it's collaborative, and interdisciplinary.”

Emma Hartman ’17 stands in the stacks.
Emma Hartman ’17 stands in the stacks.