Unconferencing #phillyDH

by Sarah Newhouse, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Unconference sessions at #phillyDH” by Michael Edson, via Flickr
Unconference sessions at #phillyDH, by Michael Edson, via Flickr

On June 4th, over 200 of the best and brightest (and nicest) from Philadelphia’s digital humanities community attended the PhillyDH@Penn event at the Penn Libraries’ new Special Collections Center.  The day was bracketed by two workshop sessions and the time in between was filled in with unconference sessions,  chosen and run by PhillyDH@Penn attendees.  It’s next to impossible to nail down the unconference experience, since you get out of an unconference what you put into it, so the experience is different for everyone. So for this overview, I’ll focus on the sessions I attended, but I also encourage you also to check out the PhillyDH@Penn website and read both the session proposals and official session notes, usually found in the comments on the proposals.

As you can see from the schedule, attendees had some hard choices to make. Sessions could be proposed by anyone and were run more like roundtable discussions than your traditional lecture-based conference – the same format as previous ThatCamp Philly events. (Side note: ThatCamp Philly is happening again on September 27-28, 2013! Mark your calendars.)

The sessions that I attended were a good mix of practical suggestions and big dreams. “Collaborative Approaches to Born-Digital Collections” provided examples of software used to appraise and manage born-digital holdings and attendees discussed how collaboration could help smaller repositories begin to work with their digital materials. Technical knowledge is obviously a barrier to using many digital asset management tools, but a collaborative approach would likely allow for skill sharing.

Using XML Technologies” turned into a show and tell/skill-sharing session as the room contained both people familiar with XML and people who wanted to learn more about it. Discussion included the basics like what exactly XML is and what TEI and EAD are designed to do, but also some more advanced topics like using XQuery and XSLT to work with your encoded data.

“Visualizing Social Justice” attracted attendees from a wide range of backgrounds, including academics, artists, activists, and archivists. The group discussed existing projects that document social justice movements and events, and also how archives can themselves practice social justice by removing access barriers. Access is restricted by requiring identification to enter a reading room, for example, but it can also be extended to previously excluded groups through mobile and web applications.

I also attended two workshops. The morning workshop, run by Holly Mengel, covered the basics of EAD finding aids and encouraged attendees that EAD really was worth learning, even though most repositories do not rely on hand coding anymore. The afternoon workshop on Omeka.net, run by Cheryl Klimaszewski, likewise encouraged everyone to get started building online exhibits with this user friendly tool.

The day was capped off by a gong-regulated series of lightning talks and a keynote talk by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution.

Notes from most sessions can be found in the comments on the PhillyDH@Penn site, http://penn2013.phillydh.org/

All of the tweets from and about the unconference can be accessed by searching Twitter for “PhillyDH” or through Storify: http://storify.com/search?q=PhillyDH

I’d like to give a final thank-you to the University of Pennsylvania and its libraries, the PhillyDH organizing committee, Michael Edson, and William Noel and the helpful staff at the Special Collections Center.

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