Digital Humanist Interview with Erin Passehl-Stoddart

For my interview, I contacted Erin Passehl-Stoddart, who had been an archivist and digital librarian at Western Oregon University where I went for my undergrad. After contacting Passehl-Stoddart, I found out that she has since relocated to the University of Idaho where she is now the Digital Project Manager in the University’s Archives and Special Collections. Passehl-Stoddart earned her BA in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she spent time volunteering in the rare books collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She later went to graduate school at the University of Michigan where she earned a master’s degree in information with a specialization in archives and records management. Passehl-Stoddart noted that her first time working a digital collection was, “a little scary – I didn’t know how to code anything, and the technology was a little terrifying. However, I came to find that I loved working with new ideas and pushing boundaries for how users could interact with materials and research online.” From that experience she went on to receive a certificate in metadata for digital collections and has worked with digital collections and institutional repositories at academic institutions ever since, including at Cardinal Stritch University, Boise State University, Western Oregon University, and currently at the University of Idaho.

Collaboration, curiosity, and an open mind are all important skills to have for someone interested in the digital humanities according to Passehl-Stoddart. She stated that, “collaboration is so important; very rarely do I ever work on a project alone, and often times with people from all different backgrounds and expectations with regards to technology. It is important to be curious and open to learning new skills and ideas. You never know what you will find fascinating until you try it, including sometimes forcing yourself to feel uncomfortable with new experiences.”

Passehl-Stoddart is currently working on digitizing and creating metadata for a 550 photograph collection at the University of Idaho Special Collections and Archives. The Stonebraker photograph collection includes photos from an Idaho homesteader and pack train operator for miners at Thunder Mountain during Idaho’s last gold rush circa 1902. Passehl-Stoddart is applying GPS coordinates to the photos to provide another layer of searching capability to the collection, which will also as help researchers visualize the physical trail that Stonebraker helped create. While working at Boise State, Passehl-Stoddart worked to digitize the Peter Beemer Collection, which included a handwritten musical score of songs he heard in mining camps near Warren, Idaho. She was also able to get two musicians to reproduce recordings of the 150 year old music. According to Passehl-Stoddart this created, “a perfect example of what digital humanities can provide, an added value to existing work; in this case, performing songs that were played over 150 years ago that allows users to connect to the research and cultural material in a new way.”

I also asked Passehl-Stoddart about a project that she worked on at Western Oregon University, called WOU’s Future’s Past that incorporated videos on the history of the university and Monmouth Oregon. The project also incorporated interactive activities that were located throughout the Hamersly Library including a historical photo booth that had photo cutouts of Monmouth town founders, early students, and the 1909 women’s basketball team. I asked Passehl-Stoddart how the project came about and how students were involved in designing the project. She said that the project was, “meant as an introduction for freshman students to the university and to generate enthusiasm and interest not just in the university’s history, but as a way for students to interact with archival collections and create digital projects from it. We also used a short video I created using grant funds on the early history of the university as a jumping off point.” Students helped design the exhibits that were located throughout the library as well as researching and writing the script the video that explored the early history of Monmouth and Western.

Finally I asked Passehl-Stoddart what she would recommend for someone who was interested in the digital humanities. Her biggest piece of advice was to get experience wherever possible, whether it was paid, volunteered, or only lasted a week. Because these “experiences may change your life, take you down a new path, or provide a new relationship or networking opportunity.” While in graduate school Passehl-Stoddart, worked several different jobs and internships that all contributed to her professional interests, allowed her to travel, and to find out that the Pacific Northwest was where she wanted to settle down. Finally Passehl-Stoddart suggested that people interested in the digital humanities “don’t just focus on the ‘digital’ part – take on projects that allow you to see the big picture, everything that leads up to the ‘digital’ part. It’s all great experience.”