Preserving the Prairie … Digitally

Vivero Digital Fellow Mikey O’Connor ’24

January 30, 2024

Anika Jane Beamer ’22

Rootstalk is an online, multimedia journal published in conjunction with the Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell College. It is a place for original works spanning many disciplines and forms of expression and centered on exploration of place. Not just any place, either — the Midwest.

Since its inception in 2013, Rootstalk has been a team effort. Students, alumni, staff, and faculty alike are involved in its creation. But in the last year, one student has been particularly active behind the scenes of Rootstalk: Mikey O’Connor ’24.

O’Connor enlisted with Rootstalk via Grinnell’s Vivero Digital Fellows Program, a training and mentorship program that pairs students with faculty and staff projects combining technology and liberal arts scholarship. As paid Vivero Digital Fellows, Grinnellians learn by doing; they develop and apply skills ranging from data presentation and website development to geographic information systems (GIS) technology. “Doing something out of the curriculum and getting experience as a Vivero fellow is a huge opportunity,” O’Connor reflects.

Doing something out of the curriculum and getting experience as a Vivero fellow is a huge opportunity.

Mikey O’Connor ’24

Founded in 2017, Vivero’s name comes from the Latin vivarium: a space where new ideas are nourished and cultivated. The program aims to expand the reach and bounds of academic research — faculty and staff gain access to powerful digital tools without needing to possess those skills themselves. “At the heart of Vivero is a goal of diversifying the field of digital scholarship and digital liberal arts scholarship,” says Tierney Steelberg, co-leader of the program.

As a journal, Rootstalk embodies the essence of the digital liberal arts. Editor-in-Chief Mark Baechtel and Publisher Jon Andelson established the Rootstalk project in 2013 with support from a Grinnell College exploratory grant. They piloted a Digital Journal Publishing course modeled after journal editorial teams, involving students in all phases of production for the inaugural issue of Rootstalk. Andelson and Baechtel continue to teach this course each spring. Student editors contribute their own pieces exploring the ecology, history, and culture of the Midwest, while also reviewing and editing submissions to the journal. 

Since its very first issue, Rootstalk has been digital. In the Editor’s Note of that inaugural 2015 issue, Andelson explained the aim of this format, “This allows us to include not only the written word but pictures and sounds as well.” With the breadth of content types made possible by a digital journal, Andelson continued, the journal’s content could, “reflect the range of subjects which play out in the region: art and agriculture, food and immigration, prairie restoration and urban growth, business and climate change, politics and social justice.”

Andelson’s vision of a digital melting pot has become a reality. As a journal, Rootstalk is unique in the diversity of its content. With essays, art, photography, podcasts, creative writing, and memoirs, it is an evolving, unbound, and deeply interdisciplinary exploration of the prairie. “I enjoy being able to communicate messages that incorporate artistic and investigative content in a cohesive, novel format,” Andelson says.

Rootstalk’s multiformity relies on versatile online infrastructure. So, over the last decade, Rootstalk has gone through several digital iterations. It became an independent website soon after the first issue and has undergone a series of overhauls as both technology and the journal have evolved. For several years, that work has been done by Vivero Digital Fellows. O’Connor, a computer science and Spanish major, is the latest.

Last year, O’Connor worked to get older articles digitized and into a new interface. He converted five complete issues to an updated digital format, more than 60 articles in total. Now he’s developing an online form that will streamline the process for those interested in submitting to the journal.

When you want to go into website development, you envision working at a software company — you don’t think, ‘I’m going to help digitize a journal.’ But it’s a super legitimate job.

Mikey O'Connor ’24

Initially unfamiliar with both the prairie and the digital liberal arts, O’Connor has had the opportunity to engage far more deeply with the journal than most ever will. “I find the focus of Rootstalk really interesting,” says O’Connor. “Before working with the journal, I never thought about the prairie much, which is funny, because it’s where we live. This work has given me a greater appreciation for where I go to college.”

His work as a Vivero fellow has also expanded his understanding of the opportunities that await him in the future. “When you want to go into website development, you envision working at a software company — you don’t think, ‘I’m going to help digitize a journal.’ But it’s a super legitimate job.”

Vivero and Rootstalk introduced O’Connor to website development in an interdisciplinary realm. His fellowship has expanded his horizons, while also expanding the audience and impact of Rootstalk. Says Steelberg, “This is the amazing thing with digital humanities; Vivero benefits not only the students, not only the faculty, but everyone.”

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