Digital Tools for Civic Engagement

Last week I attended the second national workshop for the Consortium on Digital Resources for Teaching and Research. Sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the national workshop brings together librarians, staff, and faculty from liberal arts colleges across the country to develop digital collections using Shared Shelf. This year’s workshop featured updates from participating institutions which, by the end of the workshop, were less about digital technology and more about making a difference.

For a summary of last year’s workshop, see my post: Writing a Book in a Digital Age. This year the workshop had more of a “sophomore experience” feel. We are now deep into our projects, but still dealing with lots of unknowns. It was fun catching up with those I met last year and also meeting the many new faces involved with Shared Shelf projects. Among them was Erika Wade, the new digital services librarian at Illinois College. She started just three weeks ago but is doing an amazing job, and I’m so excited to have her on board.

The keynote speaker on the first evening, Andrea Rehn of Whittier College, set the tone with a talk on “digital well-being” (you can see her presentation slides here). She argued that the careful application of digital tools in our classrooms can be transformative for our students. She countered the notion that all of our students come to college as “digital natives” by pointing out that broadband internet access is a luxury. Most Americans living in low-income situations access the internet through smartphones, which provides a vastly different interaction with on-line resources. Furthermore, all consumers struggle to determine whether on-line information is reliable. As a result, part of our job as educators is fostering our students’ “digital well-being,” or confidence with using digital tools not only for their own use, but to make a difference in their communities.

Clearly, Rhen was talking to the right crowd. Over the course of two days, I was repeatedly struck by the group’s strong commitment to using digital technologies – and their institutions resources – in addressing critical social issues. For example, the folks at Roanoke College are documenting the LGBTQ+ community with oral histories, documents, and periodicals.They are also documenting a collection of 42,000 freshwater fish, which has already had real implications for conservation policies in the state (read: one phase of the project required a student intern to sit in a dark room and type the labels from 42,000 preserved specimens into a database. Thank goodness for student workers!). At Presbyterian College, they are documenting life in their mill town, which has changed dramatically in the face of economic decline. At Gannon University in Erie, PA, they are collecting oral histories from refugees (which make up 10% of the population in Erie) – an especially important project in the current political climate.

This isn’t just a by product of do-gooders at liberal arts colleges. We also heard from Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Digital Public Library, who talked about the importance of making information available to those who need it. He talked about securing free access to 3,000 children’s books in a new initiative to enhance literacy for our youngest citizens. And research, he argued, is increasingly synthetic. Digital tools, like the DPLA, can help us see – all at once – text, audio/visual resources, and a variety of materials from institutions large and small. This is incredibly exciting because I am hopeful that it will help reshape our national narratives and encourage historians to take a closer look at smaller repositories and all things local.

Thank you again to the CIC and Artstor for another great workshop. See you next year!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: