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9.4 Creating a Thematic Research Collection

One of the easiest and most rewarding ways to begin engaging with digital research is to build what Carole Palmer calls a thematic research collectionA curated set of primary materials with explanatory and interpretive text that helps readers understand the meaning and significance of the gathered items.. In her article in A Companion to Digital Humanities, Palmer describes a thematic research collection as “digital aggregations of primary sources and related materials that support research on a theme.”Carole L. Palmer, “Thematic Research Collections,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), under “Introduction,” For a review of primary sourcesPrimary sources are literary or nonliterary texts from the period under study. In literary studies, stories, poems, and plays are primary sources, as are other historical documents such as letters, essays, sermons, and autobiographies., please see Chapter 7 "Writing about History and Culture from a New Historical Perspective". A thematic research collection is distinct from an archive because it does more than simply collect materials. A thematic research collection also includes the researcher’s commentary on those materials. In other words, the researcher composes text that will guide visitors through the collection, explaining connections among and interpreting the materials within the collection. In many ways, thematic research collections are like museum exhibits in that they contextualize primary materials for visitors.

Compiling thematic research collections gives students a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with professors. In fact, digital projects are often more amenable to undergraduate research than other kinds of literary research since they require many hands gathering, digitizing, organizing, and explaining project materials. For instance, the North Wind Archive ( Pennington, ed., “The North Wind Online Digital Archive,” St. Norbert College, represents a true collaboration between John Pennington, a professor and coauthor of this textbook, and his student Gretchen Panzer (“Editorial Intern for North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies,” The Collaborative: The Center for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities, St. Norbert College, The two worked to digitize the entire collection of back issues of North Wind, a scholarly journal dedicated to George MacDonald (a friend of Lewis Carroll). Gretchen and Pennington eventually copublished an article about their experiences working on the digital archive ( Panzer and John Pennington, “George MacDonald in the Virtual Library: The North Wind Digital Archive and the Evolution of MacDonald Scholarship,” North Wind 29 (2010): 1–10,,_Gretchen/sk001_George_MacDonald_in_the_Virtual_Library= _The_North_Wind_Digital_Archive_and_the_Evolution_of_MacDonald_Scholarship.pdf.

One excellent tool for compiling a thematic research collection is OmekaA web-publishing platform that allows anyone with an account to create or collaborate on a website to display collections and build digital exhibitions. (, a freely available “web-publishing platform that allows anyone with an account to create or collaborate on a website to display collections and build digital exhibitions.”“About,”, Using Omeka, you can collect various items—scans of historical documents, photographs, sound files, and videos—and organize them into exhibits that include explanatory text. The James Monroe Papers is an Omeka collection designed by students at the University of Mary Washington ( deGraffenreid, Seth Mintzer, MacKenzie Murphy, and Chris Wright, eds., “James Monroe Papers,” University of Mary Washington, These students digitized the letters of President James Monroe using scans of the original letters. They then organized exhibits that collect letters between Monroe and specific correspondents. If you click on one of the entries for Monroe’s letters to Edmund Randolf (, for instance, you will find a brief description of the letter’s content, a link to a transcription of the letter’s text, and images of the scanned original letter.

As you can see, thematic research collections don’t look much like traditional literary research papers. For one thing, they can include more visual elements, such as images, photographs, or even videos. The text in such a collection is composed in brief, skimmable sections rather than in long pages. However, thematic research collections like this one give students the opportunity to do real, substantial research and to actively contribute to the body of scholarly knowledge within literary studies. When published on the web, student research collections can be of use to other students and even accomplished scholars.