COVID has affected our research in a slew of ways. Group members have had to direct their attention to pressing needs—from securing supplies for our families to battling the illness itself. We originally planned to let the online data collection take us as far as it could and then to scour library shelves for the remaining unknowns. Those shelves are now beyond our reach.
The research we are doing demands resourcefulness in the best of circumstances. The authors of children’s books, even award-winners, have not always been the topic of great celebrity like they are today. Having long exhausted the most revealing sources, author bios and Wikipedia pages, we have combed obituaries, copyright records, images from used book stores, digital archives, and marriage records.
The shut down has kept us from accessing the more obscure texts in search of clues. It has also kept us from reaching experts with access to those texts or author photographs or personal papers. Prior to the pandemic, I might have emailed archivists to ask questions unanswerable without visiting a distant library (which I was able to do when investigating Charlotte Perkins Gilman last year). But these archivists are barred from their own collections as well. For example, the University of Minnesota houses the Barbara Cooney Papers, which include correspondence that may provide clues to her collaborator, Edna Mitchell Preston, about whom little we can find.
Taking on this digital humanities project, our team knew we would be dealing with a variety of technologies and tools throughout the semester, but no one imagined that remote technology would be the only way to complete it. Our team went from all living in the same city and physically meeting once a week to being spread across the country. We are in different time zones, communicating over Skype, zoom and email. We had to adjust to communicating through a computer screen; hashing out project details is easier when we were all together physically.
Our project focuses on the winners and honorees of both the Newbery and Caldecott book awards. We planned on collecting information about the authors, illustrators, and protagonists of these books through a variety of methods, but with libraries and book stores closed, our search went online. I used mostly Wikipedia to find the information relating to the Newbery. This process went pretty smoothly, and I would make sure to cross-check the info with another site to confirm it.
Collecting the Caldecott protagonist information was much more time-consuming. I mostly used the Wikipedia page of the book in question. If I couldn’t find the info there, I would look at YouTube videos of people doing read alongs. These helped me determine the gender, race, and ethnicity of many protagonists. The videos could be 4 mins or more, and some had poor video quality so it was hard to see the illustrations. Sometimes I changed the playback function to go 2x faster so I could get through the videos more quickly. This is exceedingly more time-consuming compared to the author/illustrator data collection, which maybe took up to two minutes per entry because Wikipedia had most of that info available.
Though this part of the data collection takes more time, it has been fun to read the Caldecott books; I haven’t read any children’s books for a while. It’s also been super nostalgic to read a few books that I remember enjoying as a child like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.
Working on the Caldecott authors, illustrators, and protagonists has been tough due to our current situation. Internet searches and MARC records from the Library of Congress have been helpful, but it is not equal to holding a book in your hands and looking at the illustrations and book flaps. There were a lot of early authors, from the 1960’s and 1970’s especially, whose web presence was just their name. So I had to get creative to find out more about them.
I started looking for articles that analyzed the Caldecotts, and I came across a 2018 Journal of Children’s Literature article by Koss, Johnson, and Martinez ‘Mapping the diversity in Caldecott books from 1938-2017: The changing topography.’ The article was very helpful, but I needed to see all of the data for the two decades we were really stuck on. I decided to reach out to the three authors to ask if they would share their data. I explained our project and what we are facing here in New York City, and Dr. Martinez was kind enough to send an Excel spreadsheet with a full breakdown of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Analyzing the protagonists has been a little more difficult, but I found an interesting solution. Many Caldecotts are featured on read-alongs on YouTube. Parents, librarians, and the general public are reading these books to their audience, and they have become invaluable to us. Most are good quality, where you just see the pages and the reader is not on the screen. These videos, along with LibraryThing and other sites, are giving us enough information to make an educated guess about the protagonist. I am grateful to Drs. Koss, Johnson, and Martinez, as well as all of the readers on YouTube who have unknowingly helped us with our project.