Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship 2015: Haley Tilt, Visual Memory and Livy, Part 3

Haley Tilt, '16, Classics, is adventuring in Rome, tracing and chronicling the geography described by the ancient historian Livy. She plans to create a virtual, interactive map of ancient Rome, based on Livy's depictions. 

The last couple of months have seen me ceaselessly behind my computer, tapping away at my keyboard (and more often, my delete key). Working in combination with the SDS was decidedly a good idea. It gave me access to support I couldn't have done without and a group of other folks equally confused as I. Working in combination with others held me accountable for explaining my ideas, for slowing down and dedicating time to decision making, and it allowed me to bounce a quick--or significant--question off someone else. Strangest thing of all, after two months, I am able to answer other peoples’ questions.

And I am able to build a website. It hasn’t been released yet, and probably won’t be until it’s endured a bit more tinkering, but Livy doesn’t come up on the Hum 110 syllabus until Spring, and I have a few more features I want to add. Things moved more slowly than I anticipated, and I learned that web development is actually rather difficult, a good deal more difficult than I anticipated. Just to give an idea of the breadth of concepts I had to explore: there was SQLITE, the language I used to talk to the database containing all of my images, notes, textual selections, etc., there was python coding, to build the web server, there was HTML/CSS, to build individual web pages and style them, and there were javascript and jquery, to handle all of the ‘interactive’ elements of the site. Although I had some experience with python and javascript, everything else was completely new to me, and connecting all of the pieces, passing packets of information between components and learning to unpack those packets at their final destination, was hard. Some of the features whose implementation I thought would be trivial were actually beyond the scope of my current skill-set, so in addition to learning how to develop my project, I also had to learn to think in stages. This particular instantiation of the project will allow people to view a map side-by-side with the selection of Livy’s text that is relevant to the location they have clicked, and to view images of that location today. As I move forward with the project, I want users to be able to do side-by-side comparisons between modern images of sites and reconstructions of those sites, and I want to bolster the research I’ve already done to better document how each of the sites Livy discusses have come to look the way they do today.

If anything is certain going into the future, it’s that this project has given me myriad opportunities to keep working and thinking about digital learning tools. The next phase of the project will see me abstracting and documenting my code base, so as to make it a more useful open-source tool. Multiple parties in and around the Reed community have already expressed interest in using and adapting my code to their own purposes, and in order to best facilitate their using the product, I’ll need to do some serious thinking about which variables should remain fixed, which should become flexible, and what the logical boundaries might be for this project’s possible applications.

Perhaps most exciting of all, I am beginning to look into opportunities outside of Reed for sharing what I’ve learned and built. One of my goals going into this project was to develop a resource that might be useful within other scholarly communities, and to learn more about the projects being conducted around the US to advance digital learning opportunities. I’ve already been accepted to speak briefly at the digital humanities conference held yearly at Bucknell University, and I plan to travel there this Fall. I hope that the conference will give me an insight into how the digital humanities are functioning and flourishing at other institutions, and how Reed might engage in collaborative relationships with other institutions developing work in this field. I’m also hoping that the conference will provide me with an opportunity to do some serious networking. If there’s anything I’ve taken away from this project, it’s that I’m most interested in project design, team leadership, assessing the resources required to implement a given feature, and developing the connections between the various parties that can make the project happen. I can leave the coding to someone else.

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, livy, rome, coding, programming, classics, history, digital