Newsroom

Digitized Diary Offers Rare Glimpse into 19th Century Culture

Alma Professor Scott Dexter and co-investigators receive national award for innovation in the use of digital media for advancing knowledge about theatre and performance.

Harry Watkins. Photo courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University.Harry Watkins. Photo courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University.Harry Watkins was a 19th-century American actor and playwright who kept a diary from 1845 to 1860. He wrote nearly every day, describing the books he read, the events he experienced and the people with whom he worked. He also discussed his experiences at political rallies, temperance and women’s rights lectures and meetings of fraternal organizations.

The diary offers rare access to the mind, habits and lifestyle of a hard-working actor seeking professional recognition and social respectability during the years prior to the Civil War.

Scott Dexter, Alma College professor of computer science, was among a team of scholars including editors, technologists, transcribers, proofreaders and designers that has digitally preserved the diary, making it available to students interested in U.S. history and culture.

“Theatre historians were aware of the Watkins diary because it was cited in other people’s writings in the 1930s, which begged the question: Where can this diary be?” says Dexter. “Amy Hughes, one of the project’s co-editors, traced it to the depths of Harvard’s theatre archives where it was sitting in an ulabeled dusty box.

“This leading actor from before the Civil War, not famous except for his diaries, wrote about the trials and tribulations of being an actor and also offered observations about the state of the nation,” says Dexter. “These are invaluable primary source writings that need to be preserved.”

Dexter served as technology director for the project, which ultimately produced both a printed book and a digital edition. “The Harry Watkins Diary: Digital Edition,” hosted by the University of Michigan Libraries Digital Collections, allows readers not only to engage Watkins’ sizeable manuscript — more than 1,200 pages in 13 volumes — but also to search the entire text for specific terms and subjects.

From left: Scott Dexter, Naomi Stubbs, Amy Hughes and Patricia Herrera, ASTR vice president of aw...From left: Scott Dexter, Naomi Stubbs, Amy Hughes and Patricia Herrera, ASTR vice president of awards.The project has drawn national recognition. Dexter and his co-investigators have received the ATHE-ASTR Award for Excellence in Digital Theatre and Performance Scholarship, jointly sponsored by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the American Society for Theatre Research. The award is given to scholars who demonstrate innovation and rigor in the use of electronic/digital media for disseminating knowledge about theatre and performance.

“My job was to do the technical stuff,” says Dexter, who joined Alma’s computer science faculty in 2019. “The challenges were significant. We had 1,200 digital scans of handwritten pages and 20 people spanning four college campuses working on them simultaneously. How do we keep track of different versions while ensuring we follow rigorous standards for editing documents?

“My role was to inject structure to support our work and to provide technical assistance in representing the information in a digital format,” he says.

Co-editors Hughes (University of Michigan) and Naomi J. Stubbs (LaGuardia Community College) developed processes for transcription and verification, while Dexter created a Drupal-based workflow tool that also serves as the project’s public web site. During the publication stage, Chris Powell (University of Michigan Library) worked with Dexter to create the user interface.

Dexter describes himself as a computer scientist who seeks collaborations and connections in the humanities and social sciences.

“This project is an example of the kind of work I pursue in the digital humanities,” says Dexter, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan. “My scholarship in general focuses on how computer scientists can enage with scholars in the humanities and other disciplines to think about computing and address problems. My most satisfying projects are collaborations.”

Story published on November 12, 2019