This is a guest post by Brian Foo, Senior Innovation Specialist for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) at the Library of Congress.
In fall 2023, Ide Amari Thompson and Madeline Toombs participated in the Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) as interns with the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) team. During their 10-week remote internship, they explored how transcription data from the Manuscript Division’s Mary Church Terrell Papers could enable new forms of storytelling and/or creative research that would deepen and enrich our understanding of Terrell and the lasting impact of her work. The result of their time with the Library of Congress was an interactive art project and web interface called At the Table with: Mary Church Terrell that aims to support artists, writers, and poets during the generative process of creative writing. Their project treats the Mary Church Terrell Papers not as a static collection of documents, but a vibrant and dynamic repository that leaves users with a renewed sense of the possibilities and power of words.
For Ide and Madeline, one of the driving forces and central challenges of their project was how to do justice to Mary Church Terrell’s long and multifaceted life and career as a pioneering civil rights activist, suffragist, educator, and lecturer using the more than 13,000 documents in the Terrell Papers (comprising over 25,000 images), which includes her diaries, correspondence, printed matter, newspaper clippings, speeches, and writings.
Fortunately, between 2018 and 2021, volunteers participating in the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing program and the Douglass Day celebrations had already transcribed the entirety of the Terrell Papers. This work enabled unprecedented access for the interns to explore the collection in a way that otherwise would have been impossible without searchable text.
Ide and Madeline brought unique and complementary expertise to the formation and implementation of their project idea. Madeline contributed her background in African and African American Studies, and Ide tapped into his experience with poetry and writing, as well as library and information science.
Creatively and elegantly, Ide and Madeline combined their respective talents to produce a single interactive art project and web interface they called At the Table with: Mary Church Terrell. The goal of the project was to use natural language processing (NLP), a method of using computer software to parse and make sense of human language, to analyze the sentence structure of Terrell’s writing, and to identify and extract what the interns considered “creative prompts.” Creative prompts are loosely defined as questions, directives and instructions that can be “spoken” directly to users of the interface. More technically speaking, the goal was to identify sentences that were imperative (e.g. “Read a book”) or interrogative (e.g. “Should I read a book?”) rather than declarative (e.g. “I am reading a book”) or exclamatory (e.g. “This book is great!”). Since this was an automated process, and NLP is not perfect, the results are not perfect. An upcoming blog post on The Signal will dive deeper into this process.
While many of the prompts are profound and thought-provoking, some can be jarring, peculiar, or humorous. Excerpts from the collection include:
- Be sure not to sit in a cold room.
- Be careful to make your sentences as short and as clear as possible.
- Now reply immediately like a good hubbykins.
- Go to the polls and vote.
- See the dark side of life, more clearly.
- What have we accomplished as a race?
- But write it dispassionately.
- Can you come straight to the point and say it with a punch?
- Engage in public work.
- Never mind the names.
The interface acts as a random generator of thousands of prompts like these. For creative writers, the act of generating a new prompt could be compared to the act of divination, where one draws a random line from a sacred text which, in this case, is the Terrell Papers. During the writing process, these prompts could trigger a new idea, connection, or line of thinking. They could also be complete non-sequiturs. This game of chance is what makes the experience particularly fun and exciting. It also challenges the user to draw their own connections to Terrell’s words, which will vary widely from person to person.
However, the creative prompts are just one of two core components of the interface. It was critical to put these prompts in the context of Terrell’s life. To that end, in order to generate a creative prompt, a user must select a time period within Terrell’s life as well as a primary source medium (i.e., diaries, letters, speeches, writings). A user can also click on any prompt to view the source material from which the excerpt originated. They can also see when the document was written in relation to major events within Terrell’s life and broader historical time periods and milestones. In this way, users not only receive creative inspiration from the prompts themselves, but also gain a deeper understanding of Terrell’s life and experiences at the time of writing.
While the interface focuses on Mary Church Terrell and her collection at the Library of Congress, this project was built from the outset to be expandable and adaptable for other historical figures and manuscript collections at the Library. The At the Table with series title allows for future iterations, such as At the Table with: Rosa Parks or At the Table with: Susan B. Anthony. Both the Rosa Parks Papers and the Susan B. Anthony Papers have been transcribed through the By the People crowdsourcing program. Since the software used to generate the prompts and interface for this project is open source, the opportunity for expanding to other collections can be achieved with modest additional effort.
What is particularly profound about Ide and Madeline’s work is that it opens up new creative and serendipitous pathways into the Library’s collections and Terrell’s life. Rather than simply being a passive recipient of information about Terrell’s life and career, you are encouraged to make direct connections from Terrell’s words to your own. The interface does not require you to have a prior research question or a research background, thereby opening up the experience to those who may not identify as scholars or researchers. As Ide and Madeline state in their artist statement, the interface provides “reimagined ways of interacting the Mary Church Terrell Papers not as a static collection of documents and images, but a vibrant repository of information on a person with tenacity and zeal to confront the inequities of the world around her.”
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“…the act of divination…” This is not the first time the subject of divination appeared in a project that used transcription data from a Library collection. Ashley Brewer created Haphazard Hockley, which randomly generates “new readings” from the British occultist and scryer Frederick Hockley’s The Crystal: A Record of Visions and Conferences With the In-dwellers of the Spirit World. The book is the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.