Danielle Cox is the Digital Collections Coordinator at Charleston Library Society and was awarded a bursary to attend the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School in 2023, on the When Archives Become Digital strand. To find out more about this year's bursaries see here. To join the mailing list and learn about the next summer school sign up here.
When I was twenty years old I applied for the History MSt at the University of Oxford. I was just about to graduate with my undergraduate degree in history from the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d wanted to work in museums for so long, but despite all of the excellent insight and advice I received from professionals in the field, I was still shocked and dismayed that my lowly undergraduate degree wouldn’t be enough to get me a job in an industry oversaturated with talented professionals. So I took my frustration and ambition and channeled it into an application to Oxford. The idea of Oxford was so comforting, collaborating with people passionate about the same things I was on a campus older than my own country. I think the Radcliffe Camera was my desktop wallpaper for a while.
I did not get in. In retrospect, it was a good call on the admissions department’s part. My application was a mess. The research project I proposed was half-baked at best. I couldn’t really come up with a reason why I wanted to go specifically to Oxford besides wanting to go far away for as long as it took to get another degree. And, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I really wanted a graduate degree at that point in my life. I was burnt out from years of school and not quite sure if I even still wanted to work in public history. So I licked the wounds of my rejection and instead entered the glamorous world of healthcare administration.
Two years later, right on the cusp of the pandemic, I revisited the idea of grad school. To save my sanity between mind-numbing data entry tasks and emailing (breathtakingly rude) doctors, I read articles about museum practices. I read about groundbreaking work different institutions were doing with their collections. I saw how they could bring people closer to the past with new technology. I tried to teach myself SketchUp to do recreations of historical buildings, and Omeka for online exhibits. And then my alma mater tweeted a code to waive the grad school application fee.
My master’s program was in history, with a concentration in public history. I was able to take a special topic class in digital history, and the program was flexible enough that I could experiment with my own interests. Heat maps based on historical death records! Choose-your-own-adventure games about Gilded Age journalism! LibGuides and finding aid websites and more! After I graduated I was lucky enough to get a job as the Digital Collections Coordinator at the nearby Charleston Library Society, where I digitize historic manuscripts and maintain our online digital collections, and generally have the time of my life.
I like to say I have a “Googlable level of knowledge” on most digital humanities tools. I’m not an expert in hardly anything, but I know enough about a lot of things that if I have a question, I know how to find the answer. But as I continued in my position at the Library Society it felt like I was often Googling best practices, or which tools are best for different jobs, or what technology exists, full stop. Our more underrepresented collections especially, from free Black intellectuals in the antebellum period to twentieth century transgender icons, deserve the care and respect that comes from working off a solid educational foundation.
Once again I saw a tantalizing tweet, this time from Digital Scholarship @ Oxford. On a lark I filled out the bursary application for the archives strand of the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School. I had no real expectation of anything coming of it, but thanks to the support of the bursary and the Library Society I found myself at Keble College at the beginning of July. I think I expected it to be like my digital history education thus far, playing with different digital toys and maybe reading an article or two. But Andrew Cusworth and the speakers he brought in guided us through the most winding depths of digital and archival theory, through concepts and questions that had never occurred to me. What even IS an archive, we asked ourselves over and over again, with deeper and juicier answers every time.
At least as important as the theoretical foundation I was lacking was the camaraderie I found with my colleagues in the strand. In and outside of class it was so satisfying not only to see what kind of work people were doing around the world, but to revel in our shared passion and expertise. In a field that often feels niche and technical, there’s something special about drinking a (frankly shocking amount of) tea with talented and brilliant people who speak the same language, learning with them and from them.
I came home to South Carolina with dizzying ideas about structured data and collections findability. And, cheesy as it sounds, I had this deep satisfaction that something in my career had come full circle. It wasn’t in the way I originally envisioned, but I made it to the place I fantasized about when I had no idea what I wanted or where I was going. Oxford was there waiting for me when I was finally ready for it.