I am exploring primary sources, available for free online, and using digital research methods and tools to search, analyze, and visualize information from authoritative databases. This project consists of assignments that I have completed while working towards a MSLIS concentration in Digital Humanities at Pratt Institute School of Information & Library Science. I began this thematic research blog during my Digital Humanities course, at the beginning of 2012, in order to openly document the process.

Months 1-6

Digital Annotation: First I searched the Library of Congress’ online database, Born In Slavery, in order to find quotes about quilting. There were 155 results, and I divided those into five types that emerged as I read the interview transcripts: quotes from or about specific women who quilted, quotes explaining how quilts were made, quotes describing how quilts were used, stories where quilts are mentioned, and a term that was new to me – “quilting party”. I created a website, where users can comment on each quote individually, so that contributors can engage the text, debate interpretations, and make their own meaning of the words.

Textual Analysis: Next, using the Google Ngrams tool, which measures how often phrases occur in scanned books, I searched for terms related to events (like “cornhusking” and  “quilting party”) and quilt block names. These were analyzed in relation to relevant time periods and terms (such as “runaway slave” and “underground railroad”), and they are presented as graphs with observations.

Mapping: Then, using the Leaflet Maps Marker tool (a WordPress plug-in), I created maps of 19th century quilt pattern occurrences. For this research method I used the online collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum. Each map uses a symbol to represent the quilt pattern, and the symbols are placed where the quilt is believed to have been made; the aggregated map shows all of the individual quilt pattern maps layered together.

Network Analysis: For my final Digital Humanities class project, in the Spring of 2012, I decided to preserve the data I found during the duration of the project (Jan-May 2012) on a quilt top. Using the Cytoscape software tool I created a frequency map of the quilt block patterns that were mentioned by Gracie Mitchell in 1938, but also existed in the 19th century; the size of the block shows how often the quilt pattern occurs (in the IQSCM collection). The colors of the log cabin block, the largest square (one side of the quilt), represent the five types of quotes. The quilt is framed with a border that provides the source code for the home page of the project website in May 2012, and the hanging loops around the edges represent the ethnicities of the women working together on an object at a quilting party. The network is connected/constructed by hand and by machine using multicolored thread.

Documentation: I created a video to capture the process of creating this quilt, and presented the quilt at the 2nd Annual Pratt SILS Student Showcase  and the Empire Quilt Guild meeting in May 2012.

Months 7-12

The following fall I took Information Services and Resources, and used this coursework as an opportunity to return to traditional information resources, armed with the myriad of questions that emerged from the Spring.

Reference Interactions:  I went to three different information resources and asked where to find published quilt research, and also for information on scholarships and grants that would fund ethnographic research on 20th century quilters. The three venues I approached are the Pratt Institute Brooklyn campus library reference desk, the Brooklyn Public Library 24/7 online chat service, and I phoned the reference desk at The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Bibliographic Essay: Then I wrote an essay, framed around an annotated bibliography, that metacognitively described how I would go about doing research on quilting.

Digital Library Guide: For my final class presentation, in December 2012, I created a resource on the LibGuides website. I designed it as a space to eventually house links and citations for all of the resources used in this comprehensive endeavor, but also thinking like a librarian at a reference desk, I organized it to reflect some ‘typical’ reference questions; the tabs on this website are “Teaching Quilting?”, “Making a quilt?”, “Designing a Quilt Studio?”, and “Researching Quilting?”.

Months 13-18

In the Spring of 2013 I started the Information Visualization course. I was satisfied with the quilt and research done so far, but I wanted to experiment with the data and figure out the best way to visualize it for analysis by others.

Quilt Dataset: At the beginning of the semester, I decided to use a more comprehensive database, The Quilt Index, to continue the project. It is a collaborative effort online to aggregate data about quilts in the collections of museums and archives throughout the United States. Using the Search tool, I am able to construct large comparison tables for item records, and then copy and paste them into Excel. After bringing the file into Google Refine, I was able to enforce a controlled vocabulary for the quilt pattern names in ~750 item records and format all of the dates the same way. After some additional cleaning, I made several linked datasets available openly through Google Sheets.

Interactive Map Visualization: Next, I migrated the data from one of the spreadsheets into a Google Fusion Table. With this brand new tool I was able to view the quilt pattern occurrences on a full screen map, and share a link where others could zoom in and out, finally able to filter by pattern! This is an improvement over using the Maps Marker plug in, where I was only able to add markers one at a time (and never finished building the layers for all 22 patterns).

Interactive Timeline: I created a Google Sheet with time-series data from Gracie Mitchell’s interview transcript, and then I researched relevant historical items (including still images, audio, and video) for each time span, topic mentioned, or location lived in, and placed it in the appropriate place chronologically. I set the timeline to begin with the date she was interviewed, so that to read it completely the user has to go backwards in time from 1938.

Small Multiples: Returning to my mapping challenge once again, I used Tableau to create an individual map for each block pattern. Initially, I had a complex spreadsheet and cluttered maps, but for my final project, the “Maker Known” data quilt visualization, I decided to show the oldest instances of the quilt pattern documented in the quilt index, approximately ten or less data points, so that users can consider the possible geographical origin for each design. They can also compare the designs to each other, getting a sense of what patterns are the oldest in the dataset.

Heat Map: In order to get a sense of the popularity of each of the 22 patterns over time, I retrieved a dataset from the Quilt Index that spanned 1840-1940 – the 100 years prior to Gracie Mitchell’s WPA interview. Using Google Refine, I made authoritative choices for dates (changing circa spans to a specific year) and pattern names, and then using Tableau I created a heat map with the data presented in five year ‘buckets’, where color codes frequency in the matrix.

Ego Network: Although the class as a whole explored Gephi to make network visualizations, I decided to stick with Cytoscape since I have been using it for a year and am familiar with the interface. I retrieved a dataset from the Quilt Index by searching for quilts made in the different states that Gracie Mitchell lived, during the exact year spans that she inhabited them. With a sense of my final project looking like a Reconstruction era American flag, I decided to use a circular layout, placing the Quilt Index data on the outer ring, Gracie Mitchell’s 22 designs in an inner ring,  and the 3 states in the center.

Documentation: I aggregated final versions of the information visualizations in to a whole cloth design for a quilt top, and had this printed on to fabric. I quilted this textile archival object at home by machine, and presented it at the 3rd Annual Pratt SILS Student Showcase  and the Empire Quilt Guild meeting in May 2013. I also submitted it to the International Quilt Festival, answering the “In the American Tradition” call for entries.

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