Although the ultimate objective of the CHI Grad Fellowship will be for each fellow to launch their own digital cultural heritage project, our early weeks have been spent on an activity designed to exercise our coding muscles. Using a vision document we put together, we were directed to work in small groups to build a website from the ground up for pitching a digital project to a cultural heritage institution. My group consisted of Andra Durham and Marwa Bakabas, and we decided to pitch a project aimed around Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Considering the time allotted to us, I think our website turned out looking fairly polished and professional. For me, though, the journey we took to finish this activity was what was most instructive. Building this website drove me to use a series of tools rather new to me as well as learn how to collaboratively combine a set of individually developed components while interacting in person remains impossible.

For our portions of the necessary coding, Andra, Marwa, and I decided to use Atom, a desktop text editing application that easily interfaces with GitHub. GitHub is where we hosted our website, which we constructed with the aid of a Bootstrap framework. This framework came prepackaged with code we could manipulate, and I found this to be a particularly productive part of the activity. When I was accepted to the CHI Grad Fellowship, I was initially fraught with a sense of trepidation because I expected that coding would require me to call upon math skills that I have (regrettably) allowed to languish since high school. To my surprise, though, the process felt much more like some combination of learning a new language and solving a puzzle. With foundational code at our disposal, we really just had to ascertain what syntax to utilize and determine where to insert it to make our computers output something that matched our group vision.  

Portion of Code from Virtual Storytelling on the Wanuskewin Landscape

Some complications arose, however, when it came time for Andra, Marwa, and me to put together all the pieces of code we worked on by ourselves. This required us to manage GitHub’s system of branches, pull requests, and merges, something we found quite challenging to communicate about over Zoom. Occasionally, the timing for our merges would conflict, and one member of the group (usually me, I admit) would accidently override the work that another group member committed. I cannot help but wonder how much smoother this process would have progressed if we had the opportunity to troubleshoot these issues within the same physical space. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it does not look like this year’s cohort of CHI fellows will be returning to LEADR anytime soon, adding another degree of difficulty to our collaborative work. Luckily, this rapid development challenge helped me come to terms with the fact that in digital humanities it is apparently alright to break things. No matter how many times our group accidently omitted important lines of code or merged branches in ways that caused critical errors on our website, we were ultimately able to recuperate from our losses and fix what we had broken. This puts my mind a bit more at ease as I think about my own digital cultural heritage project.

Please stay tuned to learn more about my ongoing work, and follow me on Twitter @MJJAlbani.