Kelly Schmidt and Marie Pellissier
Loyola University Chicago
The degree to which a digital humanities project can share authority with a public audience often depends upon a client’s expectations. Additionally, available resources significantly shape a project’s potential. This case statement is a discussion of Explore Common Sense (explorecommonsense.com), a digital critical edition of the first British edition of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet. The project, which is still a work in progress, was conceived by three graduate students at Loyola University Chicago—Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—in conjunction with Loyola University Archives and Special Collections. The digitization of the text was completed by the staff in Archives and Special Collections. As the client, the Loyola University Archives and Special Collections had input throughout the process of building the site.
Ultimately, Explore Common Sense operates in four ways. First, it provides visitors to the site with a chance to interact with the digitized version of the original text, side-by-side with a plain-text version. Secondly, it provides visitors the opportunity to compare the British text with the original American edition. The British printer, John Almon, had to censor Paine’s original text for fear of being arrested for seditious libel. Almon, a bit of a radical himself, chose not to simply censor portions of the text, but to highlight that censorship by leaving visible gaps on the page. By displaying the digitized British text side-by-side with the plain text, we had the opportunity to visually highlight the censored portions and add in the text that had been removed from the American edition. Thirdly, the site allows visitors to interact with the text. Using the annotation plugin Hypothes.is, visitors can add comments and questions of their own to the text. Fourth, the site provides interpretive content to enhance the visitor’s understanding of the pamphlet’s historical context. Hypothes.is also provides site creators another venue to offer interpretive content. By offering in-line annotations with context, we could add images and other interactive content. Hypothes.is enables visitors to comment on anyone’s annotations, including those we put forth.
We dealt with a larger struggle over sharing authority with our public through Hypothes.is. Limited resources, particularly time and funding, restricted the extent to which we could develop the project. As graduate students who began this project as part of a semester course, we knew that our transitory status would limit what we could commit to the project. With a minimal budget and only so much time, we had to prioritize how to share authority with our intended audiences. We hope that this site, in time, will be a resource for students and teachers from high school through university level, as well as scholars of early American history or literature and, in the future, public history sites and museums. By necessity, however, we rarely incorporated public input until the site became outward-facing. We began soliciting user feedback as we developed the project but chose not to do so on a large scale until we had a tangible platform they could actively build from. At that point, we solicited input from scholars and students in the form of annotations, exhibits, essays and constructive criticism. Consequently, our initial focus was primarily on achieving our own vision and on the wishes of our client, Loyola University Archives and Special Collections. More preliminary testing among target audiences might have been conducive to our project in its early stages but was impractical given the limits of our resources.
Hypothes.is gives any visitor who chooses to comment the ability to contribute to the site, no matter what their level of expertise on the subject. It is a valuable teaching tool, and a critical component of the site. It also presented a conundrum for us as developers. We had chosen to add annotations of our own, interpretive content that could provide context for a reader or direct them to other interpretive content on the site. We questioned whether to differentiate this commentary from that which users might be giving (which might be an inference or an opinion). In the end, we chose to color-code each type of comment in a manner that does not implicitly privilege one contribution over the other. We wanted to enable users, particularly high school and college students, to be able to differentiate our commentary from general commentary when they go to the site in search of information. In other words, we needed to ensure that we were transparent about where commentary was coming from. In building the site, and writing much of the interpretive content ourselves, we have established ourselves as an authority on the subject, but not necessarily the sole authority. We felt it was important that the two kinds of comments were visibly distinct, without implicitly privileging one over the other. We are still in the process of collecting feedback to determine how well this works in practice.
Defining our target publics—students and teachers at the high school and university level, scholars and others interested in Early America, and museums and other public history sites—helped us prioritize project goals that would meet their needs. We designed the content with our primary audiences in mind, but also tried to keep the site more broadly accessible to users with general interest. However, we realized that with our limited resources and time, we could not make our project as accessible to all audiences as desired. Our project, for instance, generally assumes or privileges an American-English-speaking audience. We shared our site with a few users who had vision impairments, and made adjustments accordingly, but did not have the time or technical skills to meet the needs of all users with disabilities. Additionally, based on the recommendations Roopika Risam makes in her article on intersectionality in the digital humanities, we tried to keep in mind how the structure of a site could be implicitly exclusionary based on its content. Risam discusses how even when a site does not focus directly on a marginalized group, a digital humanities project can recognize their absence or marginal presence in other ways, such as through search terms. Thomas Paine, for instance, only discusses slavery in a political manner in Common Sense, but we created tags and annotations that acknowledge the role of slavery, people of color, Native Americans, and women during this period in relation to the text, while pointing out their absence in the text.
The criteria for success for this project have shifted as the project has moved through various stages of its life cycle. At this point, however, we are using a few metrics to measure success. Test-running the project with various audiences—primarily other academics, but also including students and others outside the academy—provided word-of-mouth feedback on the site’s functionality and the degree to which the user came away with a better understanding of Common Sense. In a similar vein, it is possible for users to leave open-ended feedback via email. Peer review at conferences has also provided important word-of-mouth feedback on the site. Running Google Analytics has provided us with statistics on how often the site is used, but does not necessarily tell us who is using it and why. Surveys, distributed after classrooms use the site, help us know whether we are successful with students and teachers, one of our primary audiences. These methods of feedback, however, may be limiting in terms of measuring the diversity of people visiting the site, the purposes for which they are using it, and whether the site’s structure is conducive to their goals.
In making the first British edition of Common Sense available online, with appropriate interpretive material and the opportunity for audience interaction, this site seeks to break down some of the barriers between the public and the primary source. We began with the intention of creating a public-facing digital archives project, one that filled a need and satisfied both the requirements of our coursework and our client. The realities of limited time and funding, however, made incorporating public feedback into this project from its early stages a difficult prospect, one which we have tried our best to achieve.