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Visualizing Alchemy and the Scholarly Conversation

Published onDec 14, 2022
Visualizing Alchemy and the Scholarly Conversation

Author(s) & Project Role(s)


Amanda Koziura, Head, Scholarly Communication & Data Services, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Erin Smith, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Case Western Reserve University


Amanda Koziura, in her role as Digital Scholarship Librarian, introduced students to concepts related to data, data cleaning, data visualization, and digital humanities.  She led the discussion and activity in which they began to experiment with skills in these areas.

Erin Smith, in her role as Instruction & Outreach Librarian, introduced the students to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education information literacy frame of Scholarship as Conversation, engaged students in conversation surrounding the topic, and designed and delivered the reflective assessment.

Assignment URLs and/or Files

Learning Objectives

What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?

  1. Examine and interpret readings on the history of alchemy in relation to the Scholarship as Conversation frame of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

  2. Explore the breadth of forms data can take in the field of history, including images, text, and art.

  3. Recognize digital humanities projects.

  4. Experiment with digital humanities methodologies through selecting alchemical images related to the readings and using the associated metadata for visualization in a digital timeline.

Technology-Dependent Learning Outcomes

Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?

  1. Experiment with finding media and visualizing data and its associated metadata through filling out the date, headline, text description, link, credit, caption, and thumbnail fields on a Timeline.js spreadsheet.

  2. Practice data cleaning to properly visualize data in Timeline.js.

Skill Level

What is the course title and level?

The course, titled FSNA 170: Two Cultures?: The Relationship Between the Sciences and the Humanities, was intended for first-year students to gain college-level research and writing experience.

What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?

The assignment assumed little to no prior knowledge of the topic.

Assignment Description

Prior to the class session students were required to complete readings on the course subject in order to prepare for the discussion on the Scholarship as Conversation frame of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education led by the instruction & outreach librarian . The course itself revolved around an investigation of the perceived divide between sciences and humanities disciplines and the historical background of the two. The choice of these articles was a conscious decision because from one perspective, alchemy did not distinguish between such fields. Alchemical treatises contained art and coded language drawing on history, religion, myth, literature, and even music as much as they did scientific advancement or perception of scientific advancement.

Additionally, the class session was designed to serve as a brief introduction to digital humanities, including how historical works can be seen as data and visualized in new ways. To prepare for an exercise demonstrating this, students were asked to seek out images related to alchemy in order to collectively build a timeline using Timeline.js. The librarians provided several suggestions given as to where to locate said images (museum websites, library websites, etc.). Once an image was located, students were instructed to input the relevant metadata into a spreadsheet to populate the Timeline.js platform, although instructions were left somewhat vague to allow room for interpretation and experimentation. The spreadsheet was to be completed two days prior to the class session, but the readings could be completed any time before class started.

Prior to the class session, the digital scholarship librarian took the filled-out spreadsheet, made a copy, and cleaned the copy of errors to allow for a comparison between the two in-class. The choice to complete the data cleaning process outside of the class resulted from time constraints; if more time were available the process of cleaning the metadata could be done in-class by the students. Still, this comparison between the copy that had not been cleaned, and thus included broken elements, and the cleaned copy, which worked without error, enhanced a discussion of the importance of clear, consistent methodology for metadata entry and cleaning in order to produce a coherent visualization.  By engaging in the creation of the timeline and recognizing the need for data cleanup and organization, students took an active role in furthering their understanding of how Digital Humanities allows for added value to the research and educational process and was another way to engage with the Scholarship as Conversation frame.

Time Needed

How much time did you allot to this project?

Outside class work (students) - 1-2 hours for readings, visiting suggested websites to choose an alchemical image, and filling out a line in the Timeline.js spreadsheet.

Outside class work (instructors) - Preparation of the Canvas module and presentation slides took 2-4 hours. An additional 1-2 hours were spent taking the student-completed spreadsheet and creating a cleaned copy so that both can be compared in-class and preparing discussion prompts based on the readings. In total, the librarians spent 3-6 hours doing prep work for the class.

In-class work - 75 minutes of class time was divided between discussion of the readings, explanation of Digital Humanities research, and revealing of the finished timeline with emphasis given to pre- and post-data cleaning impacts.

Support & Training

What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?

While the instructors were available for questions, the primary support given was a Canvas LMS module consisting of the assignment context, readings, assignment instructions, and links to allow for students to do their own exploration and experimentation prior to the class.  In order to prepare for the Timeline.js assignment, students were provided with resources where they could find appropriate imagery as well as basic instructions for image searches and a Timeline.js template spreadsheet with instructions on which fields to fill out and what information they needed to include in those fields.

During the class session more detail was provided and students engaged with instructors and each other through discussion and asking questions.  The goal was to provide just enough information for the students to take some control of their learning experience while the instructors provided clarity and boundaries as needed to ensure that students were able to meet the learning objectives.


Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.

Resources required included Timeline.js and the associated spreadsheet to populate the metadata fields as well as the ability to screenshare either in-person or virtually. The librarians, who also served as the instructors for the session, had backgrounds in information literacy and digital humanities to pull from in order to develop the assignment, lead the discussions, and answer questions.


How did you assess or grade this project?

A brief “I Like…” and “I Wish…” qualitative assessment was distributed through a Google Form. Although it was a short evaluation, it allowed students to expand on their information literacy needs. Some students indicated that they enjoyed learning about the topic of alchemy as well as digital humanities broadly. Others hoped for more elements from a traditional library session such as working with library books and searching databases. For more on the assessment format, see Erin Sweeney Smith’s vignette “I Like… and I Wish…”  from The One-Shot Library Instruction Survival Guide, 3rd Edition (2021), edited by Heidi E. Buchanan and Beth A. McDonough.

Challenges & Opportunities

If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what? Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.

Due to time constraints, the assignment and discussion were primarily introductory in nature.  As the session was split between covering information literacy concepts and a brief introduction to digital humanities, several students in the “I wish…” section of the assessment wished they could have had more aspects of a traditional information literacy session where they would learn to utilize library resources such as print books and electronic databases or to further discuss peer review.  Additionally, if there had been more time, there was interest in allowing students to participate more fully in the data cleaning process and delve more into digital humanities topics.  By splitting this content across multiple sessions, perhaps one focusing on the information literacy aspects and another on the digital humanities aspects, more time and attention could be spent on both.

Overall, this assignment allowed for engagement between students and librarians that broadened students’ awareness and understanding of research methods and scholarship related to the course topic. Several students seemed to particularly enjoy the timeline and the discussion of data as well as the discussion of the readings.

Banner Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

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