Data, Diaries, and Dolomite

Posted January 23rd, 2018 at 5:42 pm.

On the morning of January 3rd, I made the short train ride from Downingtown to Bryn Mawr to begin my “Winternship” with Bryn Mawr’s Digital Scholarship department. Starting last semester, I, along with three other Digital Scholarship Research Assistants, began working on the History of Women in Science project, headed by postdoctoral fellow Jessica Linker. For the first phase of the project, we will be building an interactive 3D model reconstructing a science lab in Dalton Hall, which, prior to 1938, housed the Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Geology departments. This Winternship was a sort of extension of our work during the semester.

My co-Wintern Jocelyn and I spent the first week or so improving upon our digital skills by learning about several tools that may come in handy as we move forward with this project. After using MAMP to set up local servers on our computers, we got some experience using MediaWiki, the open-source software that powers Wikipedia and many other popular websites. I also completed a tutorial on Markdown, a programming language that allows the user to quickly and easily format text. The formatted text can then be converted to other file types, such as HTML. I then had the opportunity to try out the command line interface. When using the command line interface, rather than visually clicking and dragging on files and folders, you move, rename, copy, and delete files by typing commands directly into a plain black window. While this is a somewhat old-school way of doing things and can take some getting used to, the command line interface is a powerful tool that is, I’m told, useful for tasks that require a high level of precision. For this reason, it’s often favored by people who are doing, say, historical research—like us.

That brings me to the second component of our Winternship. One of our tasks was to begin collecting the historical information that we will need in order to build the 3D model of Dalton Hall. Before we were ready to jump into the archives, however, we got some practice transcribing selected portions of the diaries of Mary Whitall Worthington, which are available on Triptych. Worthington attended Bryn Mawr from 1906 to 1910 and went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins; sadly, she died before completing her studies there. You could hardly ask for a better introduction to historical research: Worthington’s diaries are engaging and funny, filled with descriptions of college festivities and the antics of her friends and classmates. Though many of her entries are concerned with pro-suffrage activism and social engagements, at times her interest in science and medicine shines through in both expected and unexpected ways. In one memorable entry, Worthington writes of being distracted from her biology homework by a pretty tree outside her window. She recounts, “It took me about ½ a second for the stimulus to travel along my sensory nerves to my central nervous system and so to my motor nerves causing me to spring from the window seat, seize a pen and begin to write.”

Photo of the main biology lab in Dalton Hall.

The main biology laboratory in Dalton Hall, c. 1890s. [Biological Laboratory (Dalton Hall), c. 1890s, Bryn Mawr College Photo Archives, Phillips Photograph Album, PAA 002 Phillips, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.]

As we began to delve into the College Archives, we came across posters from Bryn Mawr’s exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. We were baffled to discover that many of these posters consisted of actual students’ blue book exams (names redacted, of course) tacked onto the poster board. Evidently, fair-goers were meant to be impressed by the rigorous academic curriculum being offered at this small women’s college. And evidently, they were impressed, because Bryn Mawr was awarded a grand prize for the exhibit. Besides speaking to Bryn Mawr’s attitude towards student scholarship, these posters include examples of exams from chemistry, physics, and biology courses, as well as students’ responses to the exam questions.

A poster with exam questions and blue books for a Major Biology exam.

Exam booklets from a biology class. [World’s Fair exhibit poster by Bryn Mawr College’s Department of Biology, 1904, Exhibition Papers, Box 3, M 139, Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.]

As Jocelyn moved on to the papers of Emmy Noether and Marion Edwards Park, I spent a good deal of time leafing through the correspondences, maps, and illustrations of Florence Bascom, who founded Bryn Mawr’s Geology department in 1901. Bascom was the first woman to be employed by the United States Geological Survey, and the preponderance of her papers are related to that aspect of her work, with virtually no information about the methods and instruments she employed while teaching in Dalton. They contain only vague hints as to her experience as a woman of science around the turn of the century. One letter that struck me particularly was from a colleague of Bascom’s, a professor at another women’s college. He writes to Bascom of a promising pupil who wants to pursue graduate study in geology at Bryn Mawr; he notes that, in the past, he has “always had good reasons to discourage” his female students from this course of action, but he finds that the pupil in question “has all the qualifications, mental and physical, which are desirable and necessary for other women geologists.” Exactly why this professor felt the need to dissuade so many of his students from attending graduate school, or whether this was a common experience for male undergraduates as well, I can’t say.

Illustrations of microscope slides of "rhyolite structure in an aporhyolite" and "piedmontite."

Minerals seen under a microscope, illustrated by Florence Bascom. [Microscope slide illustrations of minerals, Florence Bascom Papers, Box 11, Folder 4, 1977-5, 1980-1, 1983-33 3H/ Bascom, F., Bryn Mawr College Special Collections.]

I’ve had a lot of fun these past few weeks broadening my digital competencies and gaining experience with historical and archival research. I’m excited to see the new directions we’ll take and the new voices we’ll encounter when the other DSRAs, Mimi and Linda, rejoin us at the start of the Spring semester.

Filed under: Digital Scholarship Research Assistants,Projects by Courtney Dalton

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