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Students Explore State’s History with Digitized Collection of Vermont Life Magazines

October 3, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – On a Thursday morning, the 14 Middlebury students in the course
Vermont Life’s Vermont: A Collaborative Web Project are taking turns saying why they were each drawn to a class focused on a new digitized collection of Vermont Life, a magazine known for its iconic views of the state’s rural landscapes and its people.

“I think it’s very important, especially as a history major, to think about the direction of history and of keeping it current with the technological world we live in,” said Lizzie Sheline ’20. “It’s really critical that we keep making history new, accessible, and interesting.”

Taught by Kathy Morse, professor of history, and Michael Newbury, professor of American studies, the course takes advantage of a new, rich resource that is now on Middlebury’s website and available online to everyone—students, faculty, staff, and members of the public. The digitized collection, complete as of September 26, includes all issues of the quarterly. The magazine was founded by the state in 1946 and ceased publication in the summer of 2018.

During the class, students broke into groups of two or three to share feedback on timelines they created based on topics they found in digital copies of Vermont Life. Subjects ranged from French Vermont and the impact of IBM’s first 10 years in the state to roadside advertising and the history of Vermont’s ski industry. Some students shared challenges they had encountered with the technology the class was using.

An old winter issue of Vermont Life lies on a table in the classroom where students are taking a course focused on Middlebury's new digitized collection of the magazine.
Professors Michael Newbury and Kathy Morse are coteaching the class Vermont Life’s Vermont: A Collaborative Web Project. 

“You are developing a coherent story where the reader learns something from your narrative and analysis, not a list of events,” Newbury told the class.  “The various media you insert—video footage, images, and text—should enhance your timeline.”

Morse added that the students know how to write a five-page paper, but this project doesn’t benefit from just adding text.

“I like teaching this course because it’s fun and challenging to explore new sources and scholarly methods alongside students,” said Morse. “We are trying new things together, and sharing the adventure. The class also connects directly to my own scholarship, as I’m working on a research project which will take digital form.” 

The initiative began when Newbury and Morse met with Rebekah Irwin, Middlebury’s director and curator of special collections and archives, along with Michael Kramer, acting director of the Digital Liberal Arts, to discuss a small-scale digitization of the collection. Irwin suggested doing it all—more than 20,000 pages and 70 years of magazines.

When Newbury sought permission from the state’s administrators for Middlebury to pursue the project, they were thrilled. “There is great sadness that the magazine closed,” said Irwin, “so this was a way to breathe life back into it.”

The College contracted with a professional digitizing service that used original copies held by the state of Vermont, Middlebury’s Special Collections, and the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston, Vt.  

“This is a good story of new, experimental academic efforts of faculty partnering with archives and libraries,” said Irwin. “It is our natural role, after all, to preserve and safeguard. We are really interested in the archives as an academic resource. The students will benefit we hope, not just here, but across Vermont’s institutions.”

The digitization project was made possible with funding support from the following: Davis Educational Foundation; Middlebury College Friends of the Library; Middlebury College Departments of American Studies, Environmental History, and History; Middlebury College Digital Liberal Arts; the Center for Research on Vermont; the Vermont Historical Society; the University of Vermont Special Collections; and Saint Michael's College Library.

Photos by Jon Olender