Digitizing Mason City’s Architectural Heritage

This semester, students in Assistant Professor Lindsay Mattock’s Archives and Media course are working on a database project that engages with the notion of architectural heritage changing over time.

The project began in the summer of 2017, when the Office of Outreach and Engagement reached out to Professor Mattock with a proposal for a community outreach project with Mason City, Iowa as part of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities.

Mason City is a community with a strong architectural heritage. A publication from 1977, Mason City, Iowa: An Architectural Heritage, features this rich history. However, this historic architecture book was last revised over twenty years ago. This year, Mason City had a desire to update the text once again, but realized that there were some limitations to only having the information in the form of a print book.

Instead, the city decided they wanted to build out a database, which would allow for continual updates as time passes and more buildings are acknowledged as historic. The database could also be accompanied with a web-based application, which would provide access to the information and allow it to be shared with the community, both within Mason City and outside of it.

The project—like the Archives and Media course itself—is part archives/special collections, and part digital humanities. Mattock is working alongside thirteen graduate students (twelve SLIS students, and one Public Digital Humanities Certificate Scholar from a non-SLIS department) on digitizing Mason City’s architectural heritage.

Mattock, along with Travis Kraus, the Assistant Director of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, helps facilitate the discussion between Mason City and the students. Mattock also provides the technological guidance for helping the students move forward with the database platform, and with building the web application.

The students themselves are the builders and designers of the database, as well as archivists. Mattock elaborated: “There’s kind of an aspect of preservation and access, and I think we’ll get into those conversations as we start to think about the sustainability of the project.” There is also an aspect of public engagement, and the idea of knowing your user.

“I see it as kind of an extension of all the things you’re learning in library school,” Mattock said. “But you get to do the hands on stuff.”image courtesy of Mason City, Iowa

In addition to gaining experience with engagement and outreach, the students are also working with a real-world dataset, and are developing their digital skills with databases and visualization. Because the project is grounded in the real world, and is working with real users that have real expectations, project management is especially important.

Mattock anticipates that they will accomplish building out the database and the website by the end of the Fall 2017 semester. The project might then be passed along to another course in another department that could further develop an application for the database, but the Archives and Media piece of it will be completed. Mattock expects to continue to serve as a liaison after the semester is over to help transfer the project to the community, as well as helping Mason City think about how they are going to move forward with the project.

This is the second time that Mattock has worked with the Office of Outreach and Engagement for a course. Despite the element of unpredictability that accompanies community outreach projects, Mattock believes them to be incredibly effective teaching aids.

“As a student, I always found it really rewarding when I felt like the work that I was doing was actually going to contribute to something larger. That it wasn’t just an assignment that I was completing for the term, but that it would have a life beyond that,” Mattock said. She has found that this kind of work, much like a database, “is a little bit more fluid and a little bit more dynamic than just working from a book.”

Architectural Heritage book cover courtesy of Mason City, Iowa