“[I]n language strange”: Using Omeka to Bring (Digital) Archives to the Classroom

Students in survey poetry courses often encounter poems in anthologies. Poetry anthologies are comparatively inexpensive and well edited, and they offer an eclectic mix of brilliant work from a diverse set of authors. Much like the poems they contain, though, anthologies themselves can become sites of deep critical inquiry and fantastic resources for instructors wishing to train students on matters of book history and editorial practices. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy’s The Norton Anthology of Poetry (2005) offers a case in point: the decisions that the editors made when presenting John Keats’s famous ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” reveal some of the difficult choices that editors must make when compiling an anthology, and become an occasion for exploring the competing versions of Keats’s poem and the ways in which historical and contemporary editors have shaped its meaning.

Of particular interest is a footnote that the editors write concerning the poem they present: “This is an earlier (and widely preferred) version of the poem first published in 1820” (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 917). Such a note might prompt intrigued students and scholars alike to ask: What earlier version of the poem? Why is this one “widely preferred”? And what are the differences between the two versions?
As one of the scholars in that scenario attempting to meet students in the middle, I created a website that allows people interested in the various versions of “La Belle Dame” to explore its tortuous and torturous history: http://quotingjohnkeats.omeka.net/. A web-based platform that enables anyone to construct a quasi-digital archive, Omeka operates as a curated exhibit of images and texts that—in this case—helps tell the story of the editorial decisions that have literally and figuratively shaped Keats’s famous poem.
Omeka is particularly useful when teaching “La Belle Dame” because it allows an instructor to assemble texts from multiple archival sources into a single “collection.” Hosted by Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Oasis houses many of the manuscript materials for “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” but they do not hold—or freely share—all of them. Google Books provides various copies of The Indicator version of the poem—that is, the “less-preferred” version published in 1820—and Jack Stillinger’s John Keats: The Charles Brown Poetry Transcripts at Harvard reproduces a facsimile of what is likely the earliest, and most reliable, manuscript of the poem.
Presented with numerous manuscript versions of Keats’s poems, students can begin comparing the critical differences between versions, as well as interrogate choices made by editors both past and present. For instance, when the editors of The Norton say that they are reproducing “an earlier (and widely preferred) version of the poem,” to which version are they referring? The only version composed in Keats’s hand, sent in a letter to George and Georgiana Keats in the spring of 1819? Charles Brown’s manuscript? One of the two manuscript versions produced by Richard Woodhouse? The liberal use of quotation marks in the Norton version link it to one of the Woodhouse manuscripts—but Woodhouse heavily edited and synthesized material from Brown’s manuscript and version the Leigh Hunt edited for The Indicator to produce his texts. With Omeka, students can begin to appreciate the work an archivist does and to understand some of the complexities involved in researching a text’s history. In this particular instance, they can also see the ways that editors have altered the meaning of Keats’s poem by introducing quotation marks in a poem that, by Keats’s hand, originally had no quotation marks.
The Omeka archive on “La Belle Dame” translates well in upper-level—and even graduate—courses, too. The site itself serves an example and an invitation to students who bring more sophisticated theoretical and research approaches to the classroom. One fruitful project might include showing students the “La Belle Dame” Omeka archive and asking them to conduct similar research on poems with similarly complicated histories. What sort of new avenues of research might compiling and analyzing the various versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” produce? Such a project would benefit students in three important ways: it would provide them with a website that they can use for job or graduate school applications; help them to construct a meaningful, historically-informed argument regarding a Romantic text; and provide them with useful training in editorial practices. The free version of Omeka allows hosts to use up to 500MB of data—which is more than enough space for students to realize that, without warning, an archive can quickly “hath thee in thrall.”
When creating http://quotingjohnkeats.omeka.net/, I had to decide whether I wanted to include additional versions of the poem that some scholars have considered authoritative, such as the one produced by Richard Monckton Milnes that respected Keats scholar H.W. Garrod used for the basis of his version of the poem. Like Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy, I had to make difficult decisions during the editorial process, and that included deciding against sharing Milnes’s version because through my research I learned that it is likely derived from Brown’s manuscript. Students would learn how to make similarly instructive and crucial editorial decisions based on the research that they conduct.
Omeka’s greatest assets are its inherent promotion of open access scholarship and collaboration. Omeka enables curators to construct their webpage in “private” before making it “public” to the masses. Once public, the page is accessible to anyone in the world and, if constructed to do so, even searchable on Google. Scholars could link articles produced from the archival research shared in Omeka, and outside scholars—and students—can use the same archive to discover different readings of a given collection—always keeping in mind that, like all edited collections, Omeka has its limitations, which savvy curators would note on their respective splash pages. In a scholarly world galloping toward interdisciplinarity, Omeka promises not to leave scholars interested in bringing digital humanities approaches to teaching “alone and palely loitering.”