In the fall of 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 transcript data of the Library’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 was an interactive art project and web interface called At the Table with: Mary Church Terrell which supports artists, writers and poets during the generative process of creative writing. As documented in this blog post, their project aims to treat the Mary Church Terrell Papers not as a static collection of documents, but a vibrant and dynamic repository that leaves you with a renewed sense of the possibilities and power of words.
For those unfamiliar with Mary Church Terrell, a brief bio would not do her 90-year life justice. For Ide and Madeline, that was one of the central challenges and driving forces of their project. How could they illuminate the multifaceted life and career of a pioneering civil rights activist, suffragist, educator and lecturer from approximately 13,000 documents, comprising 25,323 images representing her diaries, correspondence, printed matter, clippings, speeches and writings?
Fortunately, between 2018 and 2021, volunteers transcribed the entirety of this collection by participating in the Library’s By The People crowdsourcing program and the Douglass Day celebrations. This work enabled unprecedented access for the interns to search and explore this collection in a way that would have been not possible for remote users . To further support their navigation of the material, Ide and Madeline performed in-depth research interviews with subject matter experts including Dr. Sharon Harley, Professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, Dr. Alison M. Parker, History Department Chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, Library staff within the Manuscript Division, members of the By The People team, and even a volunteer who transcribed the collection.
Both Ide and Madeline brought unique and complementary expertise and experience to the formation and implementation of their project idea. Madeline, at the time of her internship, was a recent graduate and African and African American Studies major at Brandeis University and a 2022 Mellon Humanities Scholar at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Ide, at the time of his internship, was pursuing both a MFA for poets and writers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a MA in Library and Information Science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. During their research into Terrell’s life, they were able to leverage their unique perspectives in exciting and sometimes surprising ways.
Madeline proposed the idea to visualize Terrell’s writing over time, juxtaposing and contrasting her personal writing with her public writing along with historical events that put her writing in context. She also envisioned the use of collage as a way to present Terrell’s personal life and public persona as interconnected. According to Madeline, “Utilizing a collage format sets the stage for the user of the interface to receive both her personal beliefs and public statements together, contextualized in a broader historical context.” During her research, Madeline highlighted two collection items which, when juxtaposed together, demonstrated the importance of understanding Terrell’s personal and public personas as part of a single complex figure. The first item is an undated document entitled “What Mothers Owe Their Daughters” where Terrell writes about mothering and motherhood. According to Madeline, “This document demonstrates how Mary Church Terrell supposedly thought mothers should carry themselves in the presence of their daughters and how to raise their daughters. This writing specifically focuses on how mothers should present themselves and their daughters in a respectable and agreeable way.”
However, a diary entry from 1909 provides important context to Terrell’s public writing like the one above. In this diary entry, Madeline observes:
Terrell writes about a comment one of her colleagues made about a speech or an article she had written… She is encouraged to “Make it a conversation between the mother and daughter and myself. Don’t interpolate and make each sentence jab.” I believe this demonstrates how Terrell either chose or was advised to take a stance on motherhood publicly, and not make any easily arguable public stances. When it comes to the women’s suffrage movement, black feminists noted it was hard to get white suffragettes to include them within the wider movement. By making a stance on motherhood, Terrell may have had an easier access to building relationships within the greater suffrage movement, while also not making any statements that could impose upon the goals of men in the Black rights movement that don’t center women’s experiences.
Ide’s research process differed from but was complementary to Madeline’s. Ide was struck by the aesthetic and emotional qualities of Terrell’s writing and wanted to create an experience that allowed users to generate new creative work by engaging directly with the words, language and themes embedded in Terrell’s writing. His research and creative process included the creation of new original works, including erasure poetry using primary source documents from the collection. According to Ide, erasure poetry can be used to “shine a light on the explicit or implicit themes or emotions present in Terrell’s writings no matter what the original intent of those writings were.” During a final presentation to Library staff, Ide performed one of his pieces which is described and embedded below:
Ide and Madeline’s ideas and approaches were creatively and elegantly combined into a single interactive art project and web interface 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 to identify and extract what the interns considered “creative prompts.” These prompts are loosely defined as questions, directives and instructions that could 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 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:
- 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.
In the interface, the user can generate thousands of prompts like these that were identified through the NLP process. These prompts are presented to the user in a way that encourages deep and creative thinking. They can help writers break creative blocks or provide a poet a second voice to generate ideas from. According to Ide: “While we sought to create an engaging product for the general public, we also had particular audiences in mind. Given Terrell’s life experiences, we focused on the usefulness of the interface and its generative process for Black creatives, educators, students, writers and poets especially.”
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, in this case, 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 widely vary 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 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 medium (i.e. diaries, letters, speeches, writings). Furthermore, a user can click on any prompt and see where in the source material the excerpt was pulled from. They can also see when the document was written in relation to major events within Terrell’s life and within broader historical time periods and milestones. In this way, users not only receive creative inspiration from the prompts themselves, but also receive a deeper understanding of Terrell’s life and experiences at the time of that writing.
It is also worth noting the interns’ focus on visual aesthetics and artistic elements during the process of designing the interface. When you first enter the interface, you see pieces of a collage coming together to form a scene with Terrell sitting in front of you at a table.
This scene references an artistic series by American artist Carrie Mae Weems called Kitchen Table Series. According to project mentor, Kimber Thomas:
Carrie Mae Weems’ ‘Kitchen Table Series’ was a photographic project that explored the beauty and complexities of Black womanhood. As we were getting to know Mary Church Terrell through her speeches and diaries, we were seeing some of those same themes from Weems’ work mirrored in the tensions and dualities of Terrell’s life. Ide suggested we frame the interface as a kitchen table conversation with Terrell, so we did, and we took Madeline’s idea of ‘collage’ and used it as a visual technique and metaphor, as a way to assemble all of these different parts of Terrell’s identity and experiences.
Another artistic element was the interface’s color palette of shades of brown, acknowledging the significance of colorism within Terrell’s life and career. Kimber explains:
The thought process behind the design of the interface was multilayered—we incorporated different shades of brown throughout the interface to reflect the pervasiveness of colorism during the late 19th century, for example—so embedded in the design concept are all of these other creative and historical elements that place Mary Church Terrell in a larger conversation of not only Black women’s history, but also Black women’s creative and artistic practice.
While the interface focuses on Mary Church Terrell and her materials at the Library, this project was built from the outset to be expanded and adapted for other historical figures and manuscript collections at the Library. Note the colon in the title At the Table with: Mary Church Terrell which 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 also been transcribed through the By The People crowdsourcing program at the Library. Since the software used to generate the prompts and interface for this project is open source, the opportunity for expanding to other collections is achievable 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 told about Terrell’s life and career, you are asked to interact with and respond directly to Terrell’s words. The interface also does not require you to have a prior research question or a research background, 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.”
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This program provides fellowships and grants to individuals and institutions for projects that innovate, imagine, and remix Library materials to highlight the stories and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.
For more about the Library’s historic Of the People initiative, click here.