Digital Mitford Next Week and Next Year

My backyard garden aspiring to futurity in Erie, PA.

Some of the plants in my garden were uprooted and replanted last summer right along with me, as I moved from my old job at Pitt-Greensburg to my new position at Penn State Erie. Moving and teaching and running a program in a time of global pandemic was fraught enough last year, but gardening has been a profound solace and delight in the months when we aren’t buried under several feet of snow. In a way, I think I’ve been gardening all year with the Digital Mitford project, too, and the transplanting has been delicate work. In this post, I’ll

1) Tell you about how we migrated our project to new digs this year, and

2) Invite you to a virtual workshop on Wed. August 11: an orientation to the oXygen XML Editor as we use it in our project.

TLDR: No, alas, there’s not going to be a multi-day face-to-face Digital Mitford meeting and coding school in the year 2021. The pandemic has made that pretty much too complicated to plan. But we are arranging some smaller-scale meetups and doing some important transitional work. With any luck, we’ll organize a longer meeting like our coding school of old in the year 2022.

Transplanting our workspace

I’ve had to transplant much of the infrastructure supporting the Digital Mitford project this year. I learned a lot in the process, and I confirmed some difficult things about sustaining a digital project in times of profound change. Whether I had moved or not, our project’s old workspace for our editing team in the Box.com network would not have been sustainable, as Pitt and Penn State together with many universities broke off institutional contracts with the cloud service on which we’d relied since 2013. Digital Mitfordians have used Box as a sheltered “village” workspace across multiple institutions, where we could easily communicate with each other in chat messages running alongside our files. I also knew it couldn’t last, but alternatives were either too gated or too complex to connect everyone so easily.

My large project for Digital Mitford in the past year has been to migrate us from Box into a Sharepoint cloud service, and this has been something like moving house all over again. I learned a lot. Back in 2013 when we began our project, we started having questions about how the Box comments and labels would transfer with our files if we ever had to move, and back then I had no idea whether it could be done. Years later with more Python experience, I squinted at the Box API Reference documentation over the December holidays to find out how I could rescue our local project chatter and labeling, to migrate not just files but also Box comments and labels into text files saved with our project XML and image data. I figured it out by early spring, and…it’s complicated because highly localized to the particulars of university client API authentication. I’ve got some code in our DM_Documentation GitHub repo on that transitional work.

That wasn’t the hardest part, though. Not by far. The hardest part was figuring out what do with the project workspace so we could continue to share it securely and inexpensively across institutions. That’s something I find to be far more difficult to work out in the year 2021 than in the year 2013 when we took our first baby steps with our project. Back in the year 2013, I believed the Digital Mitford project workspace and webspace could be supported and housed within the University of Pittsburgh infrastructure, and I did not think then of moving and taking the project with me. As I gained experience, I moved my technical infrastructure for the project into GitHub and I arranged for independent web hosting for Digital Mitford and all of my projects, as I learned what I could rely on and what infrastructure was likely to be ephemeral. These are topics best addressed in live conversation, the kinds of things we talk about together on gorgeous May/June evenings over pizza or tapas in a multi-day in-person Digital Mitford Coding School.

Finding optimal server support for a digital humanities project is highly context dependent, and I think no two projects will handle this the same way. Digital Mitford’s journey through web services has been vexing at times. Now they are a matter of renewed commitments to a project I care about, commitments of time, energy, and a mix of personal and institutional resources. I cultivate my server environments and care for them as a garden. They are where I teach and share and build communities, and they are very much “our village” for the Digital Mitford project. I like to think Mary Russell Mitford would approve my garden metaphor for the project of building and maintaining our web archive.

Well, this year, a major communal shared resource for “our village” had to move from Box to Microsoft Sharepoint, and I had some work to do with university IT in May 2021 to find out the logistics of a file sharing service supported by my university but open to my collaborators at many other schools. I believe our new system might be better than the old one for preserving version history of our files, but it is certainly a garden with many gates. Since most universities rely for internal operations on Microsoft cloud services, we needed to test whether and how we can access Digital Mitford’s Penn State-hosted Sharepoint workspace from multiple access points. This summer our core team has been meeting to figure out how best to access the space depending on how we work with Microsoft, and for some of us it’s easier to work with a non-university account, while for others their university access is best.

As we grapple with these questions, I’m glad we’ve been introducing a portion of the team to the more stable environment of GitHub. GitHub does not rely on university networks and and helps to manage our codebase most mindfully and effectively, but it takes some time to learn if you’re not familiar with it. We made a decision a few years ago to bring our team into GitHub when individual members are ready, though GitHub and command line experience are not necessary to be part of our project. Over the past few years, our Managing Editor Lisa Wilson and I have established a workflow in which files on their way to preparation for the published web archive move from the private (once Box / now Sharepoint) workspace into GitHub file repositories and thence to web publication via the eXist XML database.

We designed Digital Mitford with a purpose to offer our community a means of learning skills, and the recent transitions in our file sharing workspaces offer excellent new material for Digital Mitford’s future coding schools. So when we do meet again for a longer Coding School, you can expect discussion of these project sustainability issues. For now, we’re concentrating on just reconnecting with the project after a year of pandemic trouble.

As part of our project’s transition this year, Digital Mitford now has its own license key for the oXygen XML Editor to help support members of the team who can’t easily access this software. This week I’m hosting an internal team meeting to share that license and discuss some key features of the software to support our project. In the spirit of our Coding School, I’ll follow up with a general orientation for newcomers.

Next week’s orientation/review of the oXygen XML Editor, and how you can join us

On Wed. morning August 11 at 9am Eastern Time (North America), the Digital Mitford editors will be meeting to review updates to the oXygen XML Editor relevant to our project and take stock of our project’s next steps. In the spirit of our annual Coding School, I’d like to host an online orientation to the oXygen XML Editor later in the day at 2pm Eastern Time for those interested.

If you’re a member of the Digital Mitford project, please see your email for details: I’ll be in contact about our project meeting at 9am Eastern Time (North America). The meeting will help reorient you to working with the oXygen XML Editor, help those who need it to work with our new project license key for oXygen, and give us a chance to make some plans together.

If you’re not a member of our project,
and you’d like an opportunity to learn or relearn about some features of oXygen for XML work, please register to join me over Zoom at 2pm Eastern Time (North America). Register here: https://bit.ly/dm-oxy-2021

All those planning to join me on Wednesday (either morning or afternoon), here’s some homework. Before you join us, please download the current version of oXygen XML Editor suitable for your computer system here, and follow oXygen’s instructions for installation.

As for 2022, let’s see what develops! If nothing else, we may continue holding some two-hour workshops as we can. But I’d like to see our project aim for its old annual “sprint” of activity next year as we get to know our new workspace and reconnect with project work. I’ll keep you posted as we make new plans. Please be in contact as you have questions about our project or upcoming workshops. Find me at eeb4 at psu.edu or contact @DigitalMitford on Twitter).

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