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Gordon Parks's The Learning Tree

Digitization Process and Archival Assignment

The assignment below is an example assignment we used for developing understanding of our own Gordon Parks Collection at K-State Libraries, while also teaching students about the larger processes that help curate archival and humanities content more generally. 

Though the assignment declares that we were going to publish the student work as part of the project, we opted not to fully integrate student work: the quality wasn't high enough to be useful as new publication, because the students didn't have enough prior knowledge about the film. However, we found the assignment to be very constructive for the students, creating examples like this which explores a picture of Parks with Dana Elcar. Below we have included the assignment guidelines as well as a sample of student work  

Student level: Undergraduate, Humanities Majors

Learning objectives:
The following learning objectives were used to create this assignment:
  • Familiarize students with archival practices for creating humanities content
  • Introduce students to scholarly processes used for interpreting primary source materials
Timeframe: 4 weeks

Resources needed: 
  • An archival collection not already described 
  • Digitization equipment (even rudimentary equipment)
  • Research materials to help students explore the context of the media
Original teaching professor: Cameron Leader-Picone

Interpreting the Gordon Parks Collection Assignment

Gordon Parks was a prototypical renaissance person. After growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks, like so many African Americans experiencing Jim Crow segregation, fled to Chicago. Parks gained his greatest fame as a photographer, both in the form of documentary realism and high fashion. Like many artists, he found financial support during the New Deal through the federal government, specifically the Farm Security Administration (FSA). You are likely familiar with the famous FSA photos by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange (for example, Lange's  Destitute pea pickers in California); Parks began his career documenting many of the same forms of poverty in the United States. He became the first black staff photographer at Life. While it is easy to forget now just how important Life magazine was in the past, it was the dominant documentary magazine, part of Henry Luce’s publishing empire, and published many of the most iconic images of the twentieth century. While serving as a writer and photographer with Life, Parks write The Learning Tree, based on his childhood in Kansas, and became the first African American director in Hollywood when he directed the adaptation of his novel. (To be clear, there had been many black directors prior to Parks, but they worked almost entirely outside the studio system). As a director, Parks is most famous for directing the iconic blaxsploitation film Shaft. To engage with Parks’ work, we must examine his texts across genres and media. In this case, we will be discussing fiction, film, and photography.

For this assignment, we are privileged to work with documents housed in Kansas State University Library’s Special Collections. As a native Kansan, Parks donated some of his documents to the University, including photographs taken during the process of filming The Learning Tree. The University is currently in the process of digitizing and cataloguing those images. I mentioned Parks’ various artistic endeavors because part of that effort involves making connections between the various mediums Parks used: literature, film, music, and photography.

For this assignment, you will work in pairs. Each pair will develop the metadata and a caption for four images. You will scan the images as .tiff files. We will practice using the special scanner found in the Special Collections office during our visit to the library. I will give each pair a flash drive on which to store the images. Make sure that you know where your flash drive is, otherwise we will lose the scans that you make.

The metadata for an image includes the following:
  • the catalog number the Special Collections team assigns the image 
  • the file name used on the image they create
  • a meaningful title for the image, that would identify it as unique when compared to other items in the collection (less than 40 characters)
  • a longer non-interpretive description in full sentences of the image itself, identifying main elements in the image (2 sentences minimum). These descriptions can help for searching for images online, and allow better access for individuals with disabilities to the images (machine readers read the description to the listener). This description should include:
    • A description, non-interpretative, of the items in the image (i.e. A Tree at the center of the image, surrounded by a fence, with three people, two white, one black standing in the image.")
    • A description of any identifiable people, images, elements from the film. 
  • Name of student scanning
  • Date of scan creation
  • Your caption for the image will take the form of two or three short paragraphs that provide a web surfer with enough image to understand the context of the image in the novel and the film. To do this, you should include the following:
  • What does the image capture? Who/what is present?

Then, depending on what the image is of, you should answer some of the following:
  • If the photograph captures the filming of a scene, what scene are they filming? How do you know? What aspect of the book is this adapting? What does the reader need to know about the book to understand the image? How does this scene relate to the broader themes of the novel and the film? What is the importance of this scene to understanding the work as a whole?
  • If the photograph captures Parks himself, what biographical information would help the reader understand the film in the context of this part of his life? For photographs of Parks, you will write shorter captions, with briefer biographical information.
  • If the photograph captures a film set, how is this set used in the film? What aspect of the film does it relate to? What aspect of the novel does the set represent? How does the set fit within the broader themes of the novel and the film?

With each image, there will be different amounts of information that you will be able to extrapolate from the photograph. Your captions should reflect what you can tell from the image, meaning that some will be shorter than others. Also, because each caption might be viewed separately by researchers, there will be/should be overlap and repetition between images of similar parts of the film.

You should also include your names as the authors of the captions, as they will be put online as part of the Gordon Parks Collection project.

These captions, and the metadata you provide, will form part of the growing Gordon Parks Collection project at Kansas State, and will be available to researchers and interested members of the public as they find out information on Parks online.

Student examples

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