Kaci Nash, M.A.

the past in progress


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(DayOfDH) Processing Texts: Making Documents Machine Readable

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

As planned, I have spent the greater part of the day organizing the approximately 2,000 freedom petition photographs I took at the National Archives into a coherent filing system, organized by term, category of filing, and case number and documenting the image numbers in the spreadsheet I maintained as I was photographing. I think I am a little over half done with this process. Though I still have about an hour and a half left to dedicate to the D.C. courts project today, I am turning my attention to my other project–Locating Lord Greystoke. Right now we are in the process of building two corpuses of texts–one that is large, inclusive, and will be used in our text analysis efforts, and and a second smaller one of key documents that will be featured on the project’s website. The document that I am working with now has been reviewed by the project leader, historian Jeannette Jones, who has pulled out selected passages from the text and made note of the people, places, and concepts she wants to be called out on the website. An undergraduate student also working on the project has already run the document through an OCR program, the output of which I will mark up in TEI. The notes on the document prepared by Dr. Jones indicate what will make it into the <profileDesc> tag in the TEI header, which items she wants to appear in the site’s Encyclopedia and thus need to be encoded in the text, and which places are going to appear as mapping points for this particular document. At the moment, the website’s documents are indexed in Solr and transformed by Cocoon, but we are looking into migrating over to a different framework in the very near future. You can  view a draft of this process in action at the project’s website, where we have set up a proof of concept using minimal documents and our first pass at the project’s mapping interface.

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A look at my screen: Dr. Jones’ notes; Oxygen, which I use to encode the XML document; and the Google Spreadsheet that is serving as a working bibliography of our project documents.


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(DayOfDH) Managing Collaboration

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

One of the projects that I am working on is a collaborative effort with scholars at another university–Jennifer Guiliano and Trevor Muñoz at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland. Because there are over a dozen people (located in various places) involved in the project, we have turned to the project management tool Basecamp to help organize our discussions and work plans.

Basecamp's Interface
Basecamp’s Interface

Thus far it has proven to be a valuable tool to keep project participants on the same page, though I am definitely interested in methods or tools used by fellow project managers in the Digital Humanities.


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A Day of DH Begins. Or, How Every Day is DH Day.

I am participating in Day of DH 2014 this year and maintaining a blog on their website. Cross-posting my entries here, because hey! I’m actually blogging.

Today I step off of the sidelines and into the game. After observing last year’s #DayOfDH from afar and blogging about it on my own blog,  I decided to join in in an official capacity this year.

I am a historian by training , and while I do work in an academic setting, my career path is very much alt-ac. Upon graduating with my Master’s Degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012, I was lucky enough to be brought onto a digital history project by William G. Thomas III looking into the history of and implications of petitions for freedom filed by an enslaved woman, Mima Queen, and various other members of her family. The project has since been funded by a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has evolved into a larger project looking into the family networks and legal questions found in the records of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. About a year later, I was also brought in by Jeannette Jones as project manager for her work, Locating Lord Greystoke: U.S. Empire, Race, and the African Question, 1847-1919. The project explores the ways in which the United States understood and participated in the partition of Africa by European powers using  mapping and textual analysis.

My day-to-day work for each project differs, but usually involves a bit of document transcription, TEI encoding, e-mail exchanges or brief meetings with project members, and if I’m lucky, a bit of web design. I do not have an office of my own, so I rotate between the computer lab in the History Department (where the faculty members I work for are) and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the library (where the projects’ tech staff is and where my paychecks come from).

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My workspace in the History Department.

Today I will be working in the History Department, where most of my time will be devoted to finishing up the organization of photographs of freedom petitions I took on research trip to the National Archives last week. I also need to finish preparing for the Mapping Lab I will be leading tomorrow at the DH Bootcamp @ UNL. Later this week, I also have  the Nebraska Forum on Digital Humanities 2014 to attend. Quite a week ahead for DH.

Today's workspace.
Today’s workspace. All the photos are on my MacBook, which looks hilariously tiny next to the iMac I usually use.


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Historical Side Effects: Befriending the Dearly Departed

I have a problem with attachment. I am not talking about an attachment disorder wherein I have separation anxiety or am unable to form bonds with the people in my life. No, I am talking about a habit of becoming overly-attached to the subjects of my research. I do not know if this is a common condition among historians or just a weird quirk of mine resulting from some strategically-placed strand of genetic material, but I tend to get invested in the lives (and deaths) of the people I read and write about.

This came to my attention while writing my Master’s thesis. Research for said thesis including reading over fifty sets of letters and diaries written by doctors, nurses, teachers, officers’ wives, but especially soldiers during the Civil War. After reading years’ worth of diary entries and letters—becoming endeared to his colorful personality, sharing in his hopelessness as he wrote repeated letters despairing, “I have not received word from you in months. Why don’t you write me? Have I said something to offend you?”— I always dreaded that last piece of evidence, the letter from a friend or that editorial sentence informing me of the death of the person I had grown so found of. As if being informed of the death of the author of 150 year old writing is a surprise. But there is something incredibly personal about following the journey of someone’s life through their own writing, especially through something as harrowing as a war.

The research project I am working on at present involves reading hospital registers filled with the names and afflictions of Civil War soldiers and inputting them into a searchable, sortable spreadsheet. This might seem like a chore to some people, but for me it is a privilege. The seemingly simple process of reading and transcribing a name can actually be an intimate experience. Perhaps no one has thought of musician Joseph Laycox of the 136th Ohio National Guard in nearly 150 years. But there he is, on the pages in front of me, admitted to the Post Hospital at Fort Williams, Virginia three times during the summer of 1864.

VOL 626 P2Just like people-watching at the airport, it is impossible for me not to imagine the life of this soldier. As a member of a national guard unit, Joseph Laycox was enlisted for a 100-day term of service. Surely, he must have thought that as a musician in a unit that would only exist from May-August 1864, he might serve his country at minimal risk to himself or the R. G. Laycox that enlisted as a musician alongside him— a brother perhaps? They were admitted to the hospital on June 5, 1864, with Joseph complaining of “Intermittent Fever,” malaria most likely. Both men would be sent back to their regiment after a few days’ stay in the hospital, but Joseph was admitted again several days later and returned to duty after ten days.

As I continued down the register, musician Joseph Laycox remained on my mind, for being one of the few musicians who appeared in the records, but also as a name I had seen more than once. And then there he was again. Joseph Laycox. Musician. 136th Ohio National Guard, Company F. Room 4, Bed 35. Admitted August 8. I ran my finger across the columns: Returned to Duty; Deserted; Discharged from Service; Sent to General Hospital; On Furlough. All blank. And finally: Died. August 21. His term of service would have ended nine days later.

Poor Joseph Laycox.

Thoroughly invested now in the life (and death) of the man, I turned to the Internet to discover that he left behind more than just his name on a line in a hospital register. The U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center in Carlisle, PA holds “The Joseph Laycox Papers,” containing a letter written to his brothers and father dated after his second stay in the hospital and a letter to his wife enclosing a poem entitled “To My Wife.” Perhaps he did not know that one day someone might happen upon his letters—or even just his name—and remember him back into a living, breathing man. But his family did. They treasured that little bit of their son and brother and husband enough to preserve his words throughout the centuries. For someone like me, just a bit too sensitive for her own good, who might look upon him as something like her own ancestor, even if only for one afternoon.

The discovery of the existence of this poem reminded me of something I had encountered during my initial research. In Mr. Lincoln’s Fort: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington, I remembered there being a poem at the end of the section on Fort Williams. And there he was again, Joseph Laycox, but this time, his own words. “Libbie, I am going to send you this sublime poetry. . . . I think it is the nicest thing I ever saw for this occasion.”

To My Wife
Dearest wife I still remember
With a husband’s aching heart
How it filled my soul with sorrow
When we two were called to part.
Though I’m but a private Soldier
Gone to fill my country’s call
All my trust is in the savior
Let me stand or let me fall.
When I get your welcome letters
As in Dixie land I roam
And you speak of our dear children
How it makes me sigh of home.
Then if we are only faithful
To the lord our truest friend
Safe we’ll rise to realms of glory
Where our bliss will never end.[1]

I do not know what became of Joseph Laycox— whether or not his family came to collect his body, where he was buried, if he had any children to mourn him or pass on his name. But I do know that he existed. And now so do you.

1. Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010), 74-75.