Origin Stories

Amanda Visconti

My M.O. for learning DH dev is: be struck with an idea for some digital object I absolutely need to see exist in the world (according to my own nerdy evaluation of the best of all possible worlds)–and then break the project down into the skills I’d need to learn to make the dream real. I don’t have a great general answer to how a person gets started in DH dev1, because it all depends on why you want to learn: ask yourself what you want to see exist, and work backwards2.

One of my driving passions has been sharing a difficult book–Ulysses–with more people. Joyce’s novel is thick, it’s complex, there are puzzles in it people are still solving today, and you need to read it more than once to understand everything. It’s fantastic–once it starts to make sense. I got through my first reading right when I was taking digital art courses on new media and 3D animation, and for some fateful reason I decided it would be really great if I made a website to help my friends read the book, too.

So, I started toward my current work with digital edition interfacing using my then-limited knowledge of HTML and CSS (and image slices all over the place) to make a kind of jokey site about why I thought Ulysses was awesome (peppered with stuff like this)3. From there, I started to have more questions: how could I customize the way the screen looked for readers with different backgrounds? How could I make textual annotations there when needed and invisible when not? Was there a better way to toggle annotations on words and phrases in the digital text than the current dense snarl of HTML tags I’d manually woven in? I started to hack together a crude “digital edition” (a term I didn’t know then), which was really messy under the hood but accomplished–in prototype form and with the color palette of the couch in your basement–some features I’m still thinking about in my work today. Not knowing about TEI or digital editions (I called what I was working on a “digital text”) forced me to push the skills I did have at the time to the limit and learn some fun hacky stuff with HTML, CSS, and JS that I might never have learned otherwise.

About that time, I stumbled into an IMLS internship that placed iSchool students in DH centers (MITH!), discovered the DH community, and things got really awesome really quickly (e.g. I learned Drupal, Wordpress, Omeka, and many more fun jumping off points for digital projects). Some years later, I’m still working with Ulysses as one of my dissertational code/design projects. The challenges of making digital editions participatory, of designing for accessibility and novice use and a customized reading experience, and–always–a deep enjoyment of making weird and beautiful digital things around a book that’s important to me, and of sharing my enjoyment of that book with other readers, has been a steady impetus to learn new ways of scholarly building.

  1. Okay, two things I do often say: try building an HTML page! and learn Omeka, because it has an impressively modest amount of code for a CMS.

  2. If you don’t have a dev buddy to help you figure out what you need to learn, you’re likely to get a helpful outline from most web dev fora if you post to the right place, ask politely, and provide as detailed of information as possible. DH Questions & Answers is a fantastic place to ask what skills/tools you need to get where you want to go, as is Miriam Posner’s “How Did They Make That?” blog post.

  3. A digression: Make a basic HTML page at least once, if you’ve never done it. The enfranchisement of typing some stuff and seeing it become a Real Webpage–that ubiquitous object that, until now, was something other people made–can be really simple under the hood, and a gateway into more advanced web work. One of my students told me that she screamed in triumph so loudly when she got her HTML page assignment to work that her sister ran in from the other room. Make a basic webpage from scratch, at least once.