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DIG540: Digital Collections & Exhibitions

Syllabus v2.1, 3 credits

Course Information

Course Description

This course covers the technical means and social consequences of assembling and sharing cultural data and artifacts. Topics include the fundamentals of relational databases; a survey of collection management packages and practices; and an introduction to the special concerns and programming concepts necessary to customize off-the-shelf database solutions for domain and content appropriateness.

Course Goals

Upon completing the course, students will have:

  • Been shown a variety of the collection management packages in use across the field.
  • Learned the fundamental structure and logic behind relational databases.
  • Been introduced to concepts used in the PHP language to customize a CMS.
  • Used data transformation tools to migrate collection data between formats.
  • Gained an appreciation for the special source concerns of working with cultural data in an information system.

Required Materials

Readings will be provided for you throughout the semester. No specific text is needed.

Course Site

There are two main areas where you’ll find material related to the course: Slack, and GitHub.


The course will be held on Slack, a relatively new but popular player in the online collaboration tool arena. We will be using, evaluating, and experimenting with this environment throughout the semester. Slack conversations take place in topical channels where messages are streamed in chronological order; the channels we will be using are:

#discussion - Where the majority of the class takes place, by which I mean your interaction with the instructor and other students. Talk about course videos, concepts, and other pertinent things here.

#feedback - Your assignments will be discussed in #feedback, by both the instructor and other students. Yes, this means that a) other students can see what you’ve done and b) other students can critique what you’ve said or created. This is a good thing! Discussion is an opportunity for learning, which everyone in the class is there to do. Remember, if everyone was an expert who did the assignment perfectly the first time there would be no point in taking the class.

Think of the difference between #discussion and #feedback as the present vs. the past: #discussion is for the topic of the moment, whereas #feedback is where you consolidate and crystalize what you learn from doing your work. That said, don’t worry too much about what goes in each, and certainly don’t let anxiety about where to put something stop you from posting at all!

#reference - Where I will be posting videos, occasional reading materials, and assignments. There is nothing stopping other people from posting here, but if you do so please make sure it is a useful reference link. Responses and questions should be posted to #discussion.

#general - The first thing you see when you log in to Slack, it will be used for high level announcements.

#random - everything else you might want to talk to the class about.


This course will use GitHub to distribute files, assignments, and even this syllabus. You’ll also be turning your work in using GitHub. GitHub is a site that is often used to manage and distributed open source software. It’s built on top of Git, a version control tool that you’re going to see a lot of if you hang around software development circles much. More details on how we’re going to use this tool are in the first week’s videos.

Course Flow

The course is broken up into a series of topics that consist of video lectures, readings, and associated assignments. Nominally each topic takes one week, though you should expect some variation based on the complexity of the material in the topic (you'll notice that there are topics than weeks in the semester). New topics will begin on Wednesdays. For each topic you are expected to:

  • Watch all of the lectures and tutorials listed in the week’s introduction and read any assigned material.

  • Submit the assignment on GitHub (or as a link to another site or resource, as appropriate).

  • Participate in the ongoing discussions on Slack. It cannot be emphasized enough how important this is to successfully taking an online-only course. A significant part of what you get from the class will come in talking and listening to other students and the instructors as they discuss their own take on the material.

This course is designed to be completely asynchronous so there are no specific times for meeting with other students or the instructor.

Attendance Policy

Attendance in an asynchronous online course is a somewhat nebulous concept. While it is expected that you will accomplish all of the tasks by their assigned deadlines, participation in the class' online discussion is also critical to your success in the class and the frequency and depth of your interactions with other students and the instructor will be considered part of your “attendance” and thus part of your grade. If you for any reason think you may have an issue, either on a specific day/week or overall, talk to us! It is much easier to make accommodations ahead of time than after the fact.

University Policies

  1. Academic Honesty Statement: Academic honesty is very important. It is dishonest to cheat on exams, to copy term papers, to submit papers written by another person, to fake experimental results, or to copy or reword parts of books or articles into your own papers without appropriately citing the source. Students committing or aiding in any of these violations may be given failing grades for an assignment or for an entire course, at the discretion of the instructor. In addition to any academic action taken by an instructor, these violations are also subject to action under the University of Maine Student Conduct Code. The maximum possible sanction under the student conduct code is dismissal from the University.

  2. Students with disabilities statement: If you have a disability for which you may be requesting an accommodation, please contact Student Accessibility Services, 121 East Annex, 581.2319, as early as possible in the term. Students who have already been approved for accommodations by SAS and have a current accommodation letter should meet with me (the instructor of the course) privately as soon as possible.

  3. Course Schedule Disclaimer (Disruption Clause): In the event of an extended disruption of normal classroom activities, the format for this course may be modified to enable its completion within its programmed time frame. In that event, you will be provided an addendum to the syllabus that will supersede this version.

  4. Sexual Discrimination Reporting: The University of Maine is committed to making campus a safe place for students. Because of this commitment, if you tell a teacher about an experience of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, relationship abuse (dating violence and domestic violence), sexual misconduct or any form of gender discrimination involving members of the campus, your teacher is required to report this information to the campus Office of Sexual Assault & Violence Prevention or the Office of Equal Opportunity.

  • If you want to talk in confidence to someone about an experience of sexual discrimination, please contact these resources:

  • For confidential resources on campus: Counseling Center: 207-581-1392 or Cutler Health Center: at 207-581-4000.

  • For confidential resources off campus: Rape Response Services: 1-800-310-0000 or Spruce Run: 1-800-863-9909. Other resources: The resources listed below can offer support but may have to report the incident to others who can help:

    For support services on campus: Office of Sexual Assault & Violence Prevention: 207-581-1406, Office of Community Standards: 207-581-1409, University of Maine Police: 207-581-4040 or 911. Or see the OSAVP website for a complete list of services at


If the only time you post a comment is when you're turning in an assignment then you will have little opportunity to display your understanding of the ideas being discussed and we will not have much information to use when evaluating your success in the class. Ask questions, throw in comments, and generally add to the discussion as much as possible, particularly if you think you missed something or you have a stupid question. Odds are other people are as confused as you are.

As with all classes, it is expected that you will treat others with respect. If you are repeatedly abusive toward your classmates you will be moderated out of the conversation and it will be considered an absence for purposes of the attendance policy.


With the exception of the final project, grading for your assignments is weighted equally across each week of the class. Your final project will count as 1/4 of your grade, as it largely occupies the final 1/4 of the semester.

In most cases you will be allowed to submit your work more than once if you so desire. Since you are allowed to resubmit work you will generally not be given an explicit grade on each assignment. If you want I can provide a grade, but in general I'd rather have you focus on understanding concepts and getting technology working than hitting a specific point mark when you decide whether or not to resubmit any given assignment. If you feel like you need to review or rework something you probably do; if you don't feel that way and I don't tell you otherwise, you're probably fine.

Participation is a significant part of your grade. The more you add thoughtful, insightful comments to the discussion the more both you and other students will benefit. Note, though, that does not mean you need to write a carefully considered treatise in order to contribute! Stream environments like Slack work best with shorter, more back-and-forth discussions. Questions are always welcome and should be asked publicly so that everybody can see the answer unless there is a very good reason to ask privately. In many cases you will be expected to look at and critique other students’ work as an absolute minimum level of participation.

This is a graduate level course and you are expected to perform accordingly. Meeting the requirements in an average manner will result in a "C" as the final grade. Better than average effort and execution will result in a "B". An "A" is reserved for those students who demonstrate exceptional creative development, application, innovation, effort, and an in-depth understanding of process. Under normal circumstances a C or lower grade cannot be used as a graduate student to count towards completion of your certificate. Failure to complete any of the required components of your grade with an average or better effort will result in a "D" or an "F" as your final grade.


Unit 1: Virtual Collections

Collecting information on artifacts is only the first half of the responsibility of cultural preservation and cataloging institutions; they must also work to keep that information alive and share it with researchers and the public. In a digital context, methods of sharing data can range from an internal database made available to other institutional staff to a public website designed for dissemination. This unit looks at how different goals can be met by different types of information systems. Students also examine the shift in control from curator to viewer that attends the transition from physical to virtual exhibitions.

Unit 2: Database Structures

Understanding how data is stored helps understand how the storage medium and mechanism influences the representation of an artifact. This section introduces concepts of how databases are structured and demonstrates a common tool used in their creation and manipulation, the SQL language.

Unit 3: Publishing Data on the Web

Databases are rarely exposed directly to the Internet, and for most people would be largely useless if they were. Intermediary languages take on the role of formatting data for output and passing data input from the interface to the database. This unit introduces PHP, one language that is often used to manipulate web pages.

Unit 4: Merging Data and Logic

In order to be useful, web interfaces and databases need to be connected together. This unit demonstrates some basic programming techniques that are used to insert, access, and display database information on web sites in the PHP.

Unit 5: Scope and Planning

The final unit will allow students to plan modifications to a collection management system to meet the needs of their particular cultural information. While off-the-shelf platforms are useful, many cultural collections come with special concerns that must be respected and are not accounted for in generalized data models. This section both highlights some of the potential issues involved in dealing with cultural data and gives students the opportunity to address those issues by adjusting the data model and output of a collection management system.

Topic Breakdown
Part 1 : Virtual Collections
Setup – slack, github, VSC, reclaim
Collections, exhibitions, and databases
Embedding values in data structures
Evaluating effectiveness and appropriateness
All* the ways data are annoying
Making data less annoying
Data types and sources
Part 2 : Database Structures
Introduction to database concepts
Properties of data
Database normalization
Introduction to the SQL language
Writing data into a database
Administration tools
Reading data from a database
Searching fields and text
Joining rows across tables
Part 3 : Publishing Data on the Web
Introduction to PHP
Variables, flow control, input handlers
Breaking a program into parts
Part 4 : Merging Data and Logic
Where does data come from?
Software libraries
Transforming data with logic
Database abstraction layers
Query portability
Data objects in practice
Planning for obsolescence and other data disasters
Standardizing data
Data output for alternative uses
Part 5: Scope and Planning
Ethics of exhibitions
Structured sharing
Platforms and tools
Final Project Due: 5PM on Friday, Dec. 18