Category Archives: Public History Course

On the Prototype Process and Digital Public History

This is my final blog post for HIST 694: Digital Public History, and is supposed to reflect on the process of building the prototype for my digital public history site, the work of doing digital public history, and my learning during the semester. The beginning of the semester feels like a long time ago, so I hope I can remember enough to write (somewhat) intelligently about these topics.

The process of building the prototype was similar in many ways to web projects I did in library school or while working as a librarian. Figuring out who the audience is, what its needs are, its ability to work with or preferences for using technology – this sort of information gathering is quite familiar to me, as are the tasks of thinking about site architecture, labels, text, usability, and project evaluation. I had not worked with Omeka extensively prior to this project (my project for the previous class focused on text mining/topic modeling using the HathiTrust Research Center) but I found it fairly straightforward. If I had questions, I was generally able to find the answer through the documentation. For my project, which focuses on collecting user submissions, Omeka was the perfect tool; it was easy to set it up to allow users to create accounts and submit items. I can see, though, how Omeka can also be limiting for other types of public history projects and can act to standardize public history projects (scholars like Sherratt point to this). However, it’s great to have tools like Omeka that make digital public history projects possible for smaller staffs/individual library, archive, museum workers/non-programmers. This democratizing ethos is really central to the practice of public history, and is enabled in many ways by digital technologies (e.g. with my own project, the collecting of materials is democratized).
For my project, I focused on the history of Detroit since 1945, which I am fairly familiar with already, but it was challenging to craft a succinct version of that history that was accessible (not the best way to put it, but I can’t think of a better word) but also didn’t cover up the complexities of that history, particularly in regards to race. This is something I’ve been thinking through since I began the course, as the dominant narrative around the history of Detroit is incredibly racialized and used to prop up white supremacy. How does a public history project challenge dominant narratives but not preach to its audience? How can it instead move the audience towards engaging with history and memory, even if it is uncomfortable for the audience? This is also something I think about in regards to librarianship and my own instruction. I don’t disagree that research tools should be easier to use (finding a journal article from a citation is stupidly difficult) but on the other hand, research is hard. The materials we use for research have complicated histories, and negotiating that complexity is part of research. Thinking critically and reflectively about history is also hard, and history is complicated and uncomfortable and unpleasant. I find this tension between giving users what they want and expect and pushing them to move beyond that to also be key to the practice of public history, and it’s something I want to think and do more with. I imagine that might happen in the next course, which is about teaching and pedagogy.

Using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer

Clearly the oral history I annotated is not embedded in this post, but it is the one entitled “An Irish American Oral History,” which I found on YouTube (it seems to have been done for a class). I wanted one long enough to give me some experience with using OHMS. OHMS itself (once I figured out that I needed to remove the s from the https:// in the YouTube url, which took longer than it probably should have) was pretty straightforward to use. Since I spend a lot of time trying to explain how search works and the various drawbacks of different sorts of databases/indices (only full-text or only controlled vocabulary both irritate me), the idea of indexing oral histories in lieu of transcribing them made complete sense. And I have also transcribed interviews, and it is painfully slow. I tried to identify major ideas that researchers might be interested in and to not have either too many or two few index terms. If this was my own project, I would definitely try to include more actual quotes, as that’s one of the things I find so wonderful about oral histories/ethnographic work.

Project Progress Update #4

This week I focused on revising my exhibit. Originally I had planned for a two-part exhibit but when I looked at it recently, it seemed liked I covered a lot of what I had planned to cover in the second half in the first half. I ended up revising the last section of the original exhibit to include some of the information and images that were meant for the second part. One of the additions was actually an animated map in gif form that I created with still images of maps (it was way easier than I thought it would be, thanks internet!). I also created a starting page for the exhibit that hopefully frames some of the issues, and also includes a most amazing ephemeral film about Detroit. I also focused on filling out the “related resources” page and did some digging around for open digital collections. I had already done some research to find blogs. Right now I’m also waffling on including books, too, mostly because I don’t want the list to be overwhelming. I also created an “About” page and wrote up a brief explanation. I played around a bit with the site’s appearance, but am pretty happy with it for the moment. It might be time for someone else to look at it, really.

Project Progress Update #3

This week I added a “Related Resources” page using the Simple Page plugin, which was very easy. I will also probably add an About page, so that users can have a brief, clear explanation as to what the site is for and what they can do on the site. I begin creating the list of related resources in a Google Doc. Right now it is primarily links to digital collections, both those specifically tied to Detroit and broader collections like DPLA (which actually links to some great Detroit materials). It would probably be good to have brief annotations for links like this, so I need to work on that. I’ve also gathered some blogs about the history of Detroit – there are several that include original research with primary materials. I’m planning on including books on the list, with links to their WorldCat entries, but am not sure about articles, since there are more of them, and the process of getting them is less straightforward than for books. I’ve not played around with the appearance of the site any more, so I need to work on that, and I also need to finish up the other half of the exhibition. Right now, I’m feeling pretty good because all of the plugins and interactive features are working.

Reading Response: Oral History

I tend to think of oral history as central to the practice of public history, as it encourages users to think of themselves as contributors to/shapers of history. It encourages users to think of history not just in terms of big events or famous people, but also in terms of the everyday lived experience of ordinary people, as seen in something like the American Folklife Center’s Occupational Folklore Project. The readings and projects for this week emphasize the ways in which digital technologies have made the practice of oral history easier. Dispersed groups can be solicited to via the internet, as with the Bracero Archive. Fieldworkers and volunteers from all over the U.S. can be trained to do oral history via online tutorials and can submit and begin processing the histories they collect online as well, as seen in the Bracero Archive and the Occupational Folklore Project. The OHMS tool makes it much easier to create metadata for oral histories, which makes them findable even if they aren’t completely transcribed. One of the drawbacks to the use of digital technologies is preservation, given the instability of digital formats. I also wonder how the prevalence (dominance?) of widely dispersed oral history projects like the ones I’ve mentioned here impacts smaller, more locally focused projects like the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. The community involvement in this project makes it seem like there might be more local interest/investment in the project, but that could also not be the case at all. It just seems more embedded within the community than something like the Occupational Folklore Project.

In terms of my own project, if it were more than a prototype, I do think it would be really neat to collect oral histories dealing with Old Redford. I currently have the contribution form set up so that users can contribute sound files (and maybe even texts?) so if users wanted to contribute oral histories, they could. I do think there’s something to be said for having suggested questions, like the Bracero Archive does, or for focusing the interview on something more specific, so I would want to include tutorials or similar. While looking for oral histories to index in OHMS, I did come across the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project, which I will include on the list of related resources.

Reading Response: Landscape & Mobile

In some ways, I think that doing digital public history that is specifically tied to place offers a sort of viscerality that other types of digital public history might not. Digital public history sites that are intended to or can be used in specific physical spaces transcend their digital nature; they force some sort of engagement with the physical world. Sites like PhillyHistory or Histories of the National Mall that specifically draw connections between what currently occupies a space and what occupied that space in the past also seem to push users to engage with and think about historical change (and in the case of PhillyHistory, maybe even see that historical change reenacted). Digital public history sites also feel visceral in a different way. There’s something about living in a particular place that is powerful and that really interests people. Boyer and Marcus point this out in their discussion of PhillyHistory’s popularity, but it also comes through in a lot of these projects. PhillyHistory, Cleveland Historical, Spokane Historical and even the WWI exhibit at the Museum Victoria all deal with with the local histories of regular people, and there is something about that that seems to draw users in, especially if they have ties to the place.

Tebeau notes that the place-based digital public history tends to privilege sight and that is definitely the case in many of these examples that ask users to interact with the physical environment. He also notes that sometimes tying an historical event with a specific location can be limiting, and I think his interest in experiencing place through aurality is interesting, particularly in urban environments (and this is one of the things the Cultural Tourism DC mobile walking tour site does well, since music is central to the history it is trying to relate).

My own project is also place-based, in that it focuses on a specific neighborhood. I recently added the geolocation plug-in so that users will be able to map their contributions to a specific place. Although I do take Tebeau’s criticism to heart, I think this will be especially useful for user-contributed materials like photos that can be tied to a single location. Given the way the built environment of Detroit has changed so dramatically since 1945, I can also see how PhillyHistory’s augmented reality could enhance this project, if I could somehow make it happen on my own. It’s not specifically related to place, but I also liked how the “Explorations” in the Histories of the National Mall site ask a question and then kind of answers it with primary sources, but also leaves some room for interpretation and engagement by users. This is definitely an approach I’m trying to take with the exhibition piece of my project; it seems like a good way of “sharing authority” while teaching historical thinking.

Review of Cultural Tourism DC’s Walking Tour Site

This is a review of Cultural Tourism DC’s mobile walking tour site. The site includes five walking tours, three in downtown DC and two in the U Street neighborhood, which is pretty close to where I live. There are maps for each of the tours and the site uses your location to lead you through the tours. The sites on each tour are also marked on the maps. The sites are generally buildings or other locations like parks or historical markers. The mobile site asks you to engage by physically visiting the various locations on the tours.

All of the tours have audio components – you navigate to a site and then listen to a brief description of the history of the site – but some of the tours (both U Street tours) also have a video version of the audio description, which confused me more than it probably should have. The video version is in some cases identical and in some cases not. The video segments are mostly just montages of still images, but some do have music, which is nice since the U Street area was known for it music, particularly jazz. The still images in the videos include photos of famous people, newspaper articles, and other types of primary sources. Most of the audio and video segments are between 2 and 5 minutes long, although some are longer. When walking around, shorter is generally better, as it’s a bit weird to stand on a street corner looking at a building for five minutes while listening to an audio clip. I didn’t view the videos on the street, as I didn’t want to use a bunch of data on my phone to do so. This is a definite drawback to this format – it would take much less data to just read a webpage, although the music and images definitely do enhance the experience.

The overarching narrative of the U Street begins with the neighborhood as a site of African American culture and community, moves from that to the riots of 1968, and concludes with recent changes/revitalization. The downtown tours have less of a narrative, as they cover a more disparate set of sites and a broader time period (from the 19th century to the present).

It was difficult to find a public history site that focused on the neighborhoods of DC; most are put out by organizations like the Smithsonian Institution or National Park Service, or deal with public spaces in the city, like Histories of the National Mall. This isn’t really surprising, since that’s what DC is primarily known for (and what is very apparent during cherry blossom season, ugh). I appreciated that Cultural Tourism focused very specifically on DC neighborhoods, because I think the local and everyday history tends to get subsumed in the grand narratives presented by places like the National Mall. The Anacostia Community Museum is also really good at this, but it’s not a museum a lot of tourists visit. In some ways, it would have been nice for the Cultural Tourism mobile walking tour site to rely less on famous people, but it does a pretty good of balancing the famous and the not.

Project Progress Update #2

This week I was inspired by the readings on place, particularly the Boyer and Marcus article about (this would be really neat to do with a project like mine, too), and worked on installing the Omeka Geolocation plugin. This plugin was very straightforward, although I might end up playing around with the configuration to change the appearance. I added a location to an item on the admin side and it worked (an example) and it’s also working on the public site. I have not yet tested it from the contributor side. That’s one of my next steps, as is finishing the other half of the exhibit and continuing to play around with the options for contributors. I also need to build the related resources page/bookshelf (as OutHistory calls it). I also might play around more with the appearance of the site, as that’s something I enjoy doing.

Reading Response: Local Sites & Community History

This module is highly relevant to my digital public history project, as it is essentially a local history project and if I were to expand it beyond a prototype, it would probably look something like the Postville Project – a combination of exhibitions, digitized materials (including items contributed by users), and links to related resources. The chapter by Gordon and the article by Gutterman really identify one of the core issues of my project, the tension between the community and historians/scholars/curators. Gutterman pretty much nails something I’m trying to work through in my project: “sometimes the public does not want to hear the histories educators and scholars need to be told” (105). Gordon gets at it, too, when she describes how the Penderlea museum does not make a point of mentioning how residents had to be white, which is (to my mind) pretty important in understanding the New Deal. Gordon sort of talks about how community history museums can tend towards nostalgia, but the rest of her examples are community history sites focused on and often run by people that have historically been marginalized, which makes it easier and less problematic to talk about “indigenous curation.” The Penderlea museum reads more like nostalgia or like it’s presenting a version of history that ignores the unpleasant parts, and this is something I want to avoid in my project. I also don’t want to alienate community members, but in the case of my project, failing to acknowledge and deal with Detroit’s racial history could alienate other community members.

I was also interested in Gutterman’s discussion of framing users as “historical subjects” versus “historians” and wonder what role broader historical contexts and connections (which Gordon seems okay with throwing out in the case of community museums) might play in helping users become “historians.” Being able to analyze some historical event or object (or, for that matter, to challenge other analyses and interpretations) is easier if you’re able to place it in some sort of context, and this to me seems to be where the educative role of public history comes into play. I didn’t dislike Gordon’s chapter, but I did want her to think through more of what goes on at somewhere like Penderlea versus the Shoshone museum, the educational role of public history, even when it’s community-based, and the perils of nostalgia (and how it can function, say, to prop up white supremacy).

On a completely banal level, I really liked OutHistory’s related resources page and might try to duplicate it in my own project.

Project Progress Update #1

This is my first “project progress update” post, and it’s late as I had guests last week and didn’t get much of anything done (in any context, sigh). I did set aside some time today to work on my site, though, and managed to make some progress. I’ve set up half of the exhibit, so today I focused on installing the plugins that will allow users to contribute materials. I followed the instructions and managed to get everything working (I created an account, viewed the submission form, looked at users from the admin side, etc.), which is pretty exciting. What I didn’t think about, though, was how to customize everything – What information do I want users to include with their contributions? Do I want to give them the option of creating a profile? What sorts of items do I want them to be able to submit? What are my site’s terms and conditions? There are so many different choices here, and while I did do some thinking about what options would be most appropriate for my site and users, I have a feeling that I will end up revising them in the very near future. This is both a challenge and a next step, as is finishing the other half of the exhibit, thinking about how to incorporate a list of additional resources, and figuring out how to add and configure the geolocation plugin.