- Using Metadata and Maps to Teach the History of Religion
In 2014, I taught an undergraduate course in the history department at Brandeis University titled “Mapping Boston’s Religions: A Digital History Seminar.” The main assignment for the course was a collaborative mapping project, in which students researched nineteenth-century sources to make a digital map of religion in Boston from 1800 to 1880. In addition to their shared map, each student created an online exhibit about some aspect of religious life in Boston, such as the history of synagogues or the history of African American churches. These exhibits each featured an interpretative essay, images and photographs, smaller maps drawing attention to the importance of space for religion, and records containing metadata (such as date of founding and the institution’s denomination) about various congregations.1 Students pored over maps and insurance atlases to find out where and when churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions had been located in the city. The aim of the project was to teach advanced undergraduate students the research skills that they would learn in a conventional history course: researching, writing, and analysis. But in this history class as shop class, the goal was also to teach new digital skills such as mapping, collaboration, and project management.2 I introduced mapping in this course in order to engage with the recent spatial turn in history and other disciplines.
The map and the exhibits were the finished product of the students’ scholarship. But the map was generated from hundreds of records of congregations and their changing locations, which are stored in the database that runs the site. The site runs on Omeka, an “open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, achives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions” created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The map the uses the Neatline family of plugins created by the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. Omeka is a system for keeping track of items (or records) and their metadata.
Metadata is data about data. To use a concrete example, the books on the shelves of a library are data, and the library catalog records that keep track of information such as author, date, and call number are metadata. Metadata are usually kept according to some agreed upon convention; for example, library catalogs use various standards defined by the Online Computer Library Center (oclc) and the Library of Congress. Every item in an Omeka website can be described using the Dublin Core metadata [End Page 112]
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standard, a generic set of fields that can describe many kinds of items. But Omeka also permits users to create their own metadata vocabularies: in other words, Omeka not only lets you fill in boxes about your records, Omeka lets you decide what the boxes should be.
Students looked through lists of city directories, maps from the nineteenth century, newspapers, photographic collections, and other records to find when churches or synagogues started, where they were located, what they looked like, and when the congregations split or the buildings were sold. While entering the fruits of their research into the database, students created records for many congregations, filling out boxes for each field.
On its face, this approach to research and learning could not be further from the kind of humanistic learning that I take to be essential to studying history in college. These goals include: learning to make an argument, understanding change over time, and showing how the past is unfamiliar to the present. But, using metadata offered extended opportunities to achieve these humanistic goals. In the early weeks of the semester, I asked students to look through records and maps...