During the spring 2017 semester, I worked with Dr. Marjorie Hunt, Education Specialist and Folklife Curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Dr. Hunt is currently preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Folklife Center. The primary purpose of this year’s festival (June and July) will be to highlight the individuals and groups who have been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship, the “nation’s highest award for excellence in the folk and traditional arts.” Since 1982, more than 400 individuals and groups have been awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship for a variety of artistic fields, including story tellers, santeros, horsehair hitchers, and musicians. As part of the celebration, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage will showcase each of these artists on the American Folk Story Map, an interactive digital educational resource created by Esri that will be featured on the American Folk program’s website this summer. As an intern, my task was to write short biographies (100-130 words) for a handful of these individuals; these biographies, as well as other items such as photographs and songs, will eventually be incorporated into the map. This digital map will be available to the general public.
Since the focus of the internship was to write biographies about the fellows, and not actually create or add to the map, I primarily learned who these amazing people are and what they did to earn the fellowship. I had vaguely heard about this program, but I never really understood who the program was honoring. For the most part, these are individuals whom the general public might not ever know or hear about. For example, one of the individuals I wrote about, Alfredo Campos, was a horsehair hitcher; in other words, he braided horse gear. I used to ride horses quite a bit, and I can honestly say that I never even thought it might be an individual, and not a machine, who created the horse gear. Yet, this individual is well-known in his community for his art. Another example would be Ray Hicks, an Appalachian storyteller whose songs tell the story of his ancestors. He was even invited to a national storytelling event. Sister Mildred Barker was a Shaker who collected and recorded the music of her people. According to her fellow Shakers, Sister Barker learned more than 1,000 songs. She also wrote a book of poems and prayers, published by the Shaker Press. These are just some of the individuals I learned about during this internship. Without the internship, I never would have learned about these people.
It may be obvious, but the best part about the internship was learning about these people. I was also, hopefully, able to brush off my skills in writing short, pithy biographies. It is challenging to tell someone’s story in 100-130 words, so this internship allowed me to practice my writing skills. As for what I enjoyed the least, I will say that I wish I was more involved in updating the actual digital map. For my first project in the certificate program, I created a digital map using CartoDB that highlighted female lighthouse keepers. The American Folk program’s map, created by Esri, a company seemingly like CartoDB, looks to be very similar. However, I did not get the opportunity to really “play” with this program. It would have been nice to practice creating or updating a digital map similar to my CartoDB map. So, while the end product will be digital, my actual work this semester had nothing to do with digital humanities. I would have really liked to have applied what I learned in the digital classes to the internship.
As of right now, I am truly not sure how this experience will be useful as I move forward with my own professional development. One thing that might be helpful to me is that I learned about a new website company that creates digital maps. I was previously only familiar with CartoDB; I did not realize that other companies were doing something very similar. While I did not get to work Esri’s story map this semester, in the future I may consider using this tool to create a digital product.
Since my primary task for the internship was to write biographies, I think the only lesson I took from my classes was how to write for websites. Throughout coursework, I learned that it can be quite challenging to write for a website. The website has to provide a person with information in a way that is both interesting and useful. After all, if a person finds a website difficult to read or use, they will leave the site. So, the language has to grab the person viewing the website. It cannot be too much, or the person will become overwhelmed. So again, the information on a website has to be informative, yet to the point and interesting, but not a sensory overload. So, I was able to practice writing for a website. Given that two of my final projects involved creating a website, I was able to apply what I learned about writing for a website to this internship.
This internship increased my understanding of digital public humanities by introducing me to a new digital tool (in this case, Esri’s story map) and highlighting another historical and educational organization that has found fun and informative ways to use digital tools to inform the public. One of the most helpful assignments we had during our classes was to view and sometimes to review public websites. This was helpful because we had the opportunity to see how other educational resources are using digital tools and what they are using. The more tools I learn about, the more ideas I develop about my own projects. So again, this internship introduced me to another tool and project, which I always enjoy learning about.
As I stated above, my task for this internship was to write biographies for a digital story map. I was not responsible for adding the biographies to the map. Therefore, this internship was not as digitally focused. As such, the coursework did not really prepare me for this internship. As I previously mentioned, the coursework did allow me to practice writing for a website, which was helpful. In addition, I was familiar with the concept of story maps because of the projects I completed for the coursework. In other words, I understood the goal of the project from the beginning. Lastly, while I mostly pulled information about each person from the NEA National Fellowship website, I also conducted as much research as possible for each person. While I conduct research on a daily basis for my job, it is always good to practice research and identify what is good information and what is bad information.
The primary challenges I faced for this internship had more to do with the actual internship process than with the actual internship. But, one challenge I did face was the final submission of work. Since the internship started a bit late, I thought I would be able to submit my final entries a few weeks after the end of the semester. However, about two weeks ago, Dr. Hunt asked if I could submit my remaining entries by the end of the semester. This threw me a bit, as I am a graduate student and I work full time. Since I had planned to finish my graduate course first, and then finish the internship, I had to re-organize my schedule. This was a bit challenging, as I traveled quite a bit for work this semester. So, readjusting my schedule was difficult.
On the whole, while I sincerely enjoyed learning about the fellows and I enjoyed “meeting” and working with Dr. Hunt, I must admit to being a bit disappointed with the internship. I was not able to really apply what I learned in the classes, which were so wonderful, toward the internship. I would have enjoyed learning a new tool or working with a team in developing a new digital project. But again, I did learn about some extraordinary people, and for that I will always be grateful.