Creating, Collecting, Curating in Digital Space

Smith College librarians, educational technologists, and Museum of Art staff collaborated to redesign the Museum Studies capstone course.

In Fall 2015, Jessica Nicoll (Director & Chief Curator of Museum of Art) and Charlene Shang Miller (Associate Educator for Academic Programs, Museum of Art) approached Brendan O’Connell (Instructional Technology Librarian, Libraries) and Deborah Keisch (Instructional Technologist, Educational Technology Services) to discuss redesigning the Capstone project for senior Museums Concentration students to incorporate a digital final project as an alternative to writing a research paper.

What does a museum mean in the 21st century?

Librarians, instructional technologists, and Museum of Art staff worked closely together to design both an assignment and support structure for students during the semester. The new digital final project required them to not only conduct extensive original research on a topic of interest, but then to represent that research by building projects in a digital space that was largely unfamiliar to them for creating academic work.

“Digital space” was intentionally broadly defined: students were asked to consider the affordances, ideology, and limitations of five digital platforms (WordPress, Twine, Tumblr, Scalar, and TimeMapper) and then decide which platform would be most suitable for creating a praxis of course concepts, thesis, information architecture, and user experience.

Scaffolding for Digital

Based on prior experience designing digital project assignments with Smith faculty, Deborah and I knew students would need plenty of opportunities for drafting, critique, peer review, and expert research and technology assistance throughout the semester in order to realize their concepts.

How can students create technology-enabled, socially just futures for museum visitors and collections?

We developed two in-class digital project workshops for students, focusing on mind mapping, research and technology training, and critiquing a variety of digital platforms. Students were also encouraged to schedule individual research appointments with a librarian, which many took advantage of.


Designing for Social Justice

Students successfully engaged with difficult, unanswered questions inherent to digital scholarship and digital space: access, permission and representation; copyright and fair use; representing features of the physical (distance, space, time); and preservation.

Twine tour
Smith College Twine tour – A historical mobile tour of the Smith College campus built using Twine and featuring photos and other primary sources from Smith College Archives.

Students demonstrated a strong social justice focus in their projects and sought ways to leverage the digital to realize this. Student projects concerned everything from digitally archiving Smith College student life to developing a novel metadata schema for a digital collection to exploring issues around online access to in-copyright video art. A common thread running through many of the students’ projects was a desire to enhance the accessibility and discoverability of museum collections through digital means.

We believe all the students saw firsthand the value of presenting scholarly work on the open web, and the majority made their projects publicly available at the end of the semester. Scholars, Smith students, and the general public can now discover and engage with their work.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.49.11 AM
Free the Art – A shareable platform for un-exhibited works from Smith College Museum of Art built using Tumblr.

Creating in digital space significantly enhanced students’ digital and information literacy. Working in digital space and presenting their work publicly enhanced the quality of students’ research process and output, but it also made them consider the designed nature of digital space and how they would design an experience.

Students deeply considered questions they may not have previously engaged with: Who is the audience for this work, and how do I design for them? Do I have (or need) permission to use these copyrighted images in my project? What is the intended emotional affect of my project, and how do I create that? How does my work fit into scholarly conversation on this topic?

Finally, students learned a great deal about the development lifecycle of a digital project, which differs significantly from writing research papers. During the semester, students journeyed from proposed topic to conceptual design to sketching and wire-framing their projects to learning digital tools, while identifying and working with campus collaborators and partners they needed to successfully realize their ideas. They presented digital drafts to peers, then incorporated peer review and critique from a user-centered design perspective. In course feedback we gathered, students broadly agreed that their digital work in MUX300 would have real-world applications and gave them skills that they would carry beyond Smith.

Brendan OConnell

About the Author:

Brendan O’Connell is Instructional Technology Librarian at Smith College Libraries.

The Black Unicorn Project


popupbannerAt the end of an academic year that began with students of color and allies protesting racial hostilities at campuses across the country, Smith Libraries worked with students to create a library project that explored the concept of safe space. The Black Unicorn project was a week-long installation in the Neilson Library Core, that celebrated the lives and experiences of people of color through literature, scholarly work, art, and media. In collaboration with Steinem Artist-in-Residence and self-described radical librarian, Bekezela Mguni, students in the PRISM (queer students of color) and QUINTA (queer international students) organizations curated a collection of 75 books from a list of 500 suggested titles by or about queer, trans, and feminist people of color.

The project transformed the typically sparse and subdued Neilson Core into a vibrant living room environment which featured student art and Mguni’s screenprints depicting black feminist icons. The space was enclosed by a West African wax print fabric patterned with birds in cages. The aesthetic changed over the course of the week, to incorporate post-it contributions from passers by, a guest book, and screen prints created by staff and students in a mid-week workshop.

The Black Unicorn exists because there are not enough spaces to celebrate our beauty, to seek refuge from the world’s brutality and for education that feeds us.- B. Mguni, Facebook Post (3/18/16)

The title of the project references a poem by the iconic black lesbian feminist author Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn, who characterizes the black unicorn as greedy, impatient, restless, unrelenting, and “not free.” The intention of the collaborators was to provide an uplifting space in which a marginalized community on Smith’s campus would feel seen and heard. Invisibility and silencing are problematic conditions that queer and trans students of color experience on many campuses because of homophobia, transphobia, and racism. This installation became a space that they owned and defined, where their unique experiences and sources of inspiration were collected and affirmed publicly.

Screening Post

Students led and advertised most of the events held in the space, including an open mic, a screening of the biographical documentary A Litany for Survival about Audre Lorde, followed by a discussion of Beyonce’s Lemonade and a “study-in” by members of QUINTA and PRISM. The Library and the Steinem Initiative co-sponsored a screen printing workshop featuring selected images from Smith’s Special Collections. The week culminated in a salon to discuss Lorde’s essay  “The Uses of the Erotic” (1978), and celebrate the end of the semester.

The Process:

These events came together quickly, starting with conversations in early April between the Steinem Activist in Residence Bekezela Mguni, Digital Scholarship Librarian Miriam Neptune, and Tyahra Angus ’16, a student leader of PRISM who also works in Neilson Library. Tyahra invited PRISM students to participate in culling and preparing the list of proposed books. The Steinem Initiative helped to secure refreshments for events, and produced library outreach materials.

Working with Sophia Smith archivists to select iconic images from Special Collections.
Working with Sophia Smith archivists to think of iconic images from Special Collections.

Bekezela and Miriam met with archivists from Smith’s Special Collections to identify copyright-free images that could be adapted and used as screens for the screen printing workshop. Events were advertised on the library website, Twitter, Facebook, and the 5 College Studies of Women and Gender Listserv. Flyers and emails were sent to faculty whose work touches on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Throughout the week, additional invitations were made to both faculty and administrators to participate in specific events.


Visitors to the library left comments in a guest book and on post its provided around the space:

A true embodiment of what ‘diversity at Smith’ should look like.

Important. Powerful. Thank you for focusing on people too often rendered invisible.

Thank you, Arigato, Muchas Gracias – This space IS, period. Affirming, beautiful, acknowledging, heartening, tremendously, inspiring.

Wow! Keeps me motivated…

Comments like these expressed what many expressed about the space, that it provided an environment in which they felt recognized and understood. Some appreciated that it exposed them to literature they had never read, and topics they had yet to consider. The project achieved the librarian’s goal of demonstrating that the library has the tools to facilitate a connection between community and collections, and between intellectual ideas and lived experience.

In many ways, visitors became the project, through their presence — they co-authored the story of the space through conversations in and around the space. In the final salon, participants shared a list of things that give them life, ways to find pleasure in the face of struggle. This kind of community knowledge production and sharing was fundamental to the project’s mission.

About the Author:

Miriam Neptune is Digital Scholarship Librarian at Smith College Libraries.