Understanding Tools: Working in the Research Division

In my research, I tend to focus on structures and institutions and their real-life implications for everyday people. In my everyday digital life, I have just come to a place where I am more comfortable with examining the structure of digital tools. This was my starting point for my rotation in the Research Division. At RRCHNM, the Research Division creates open-source tools to promote both individual historical research and the development of collaborative digital communities.

We began the rotation with an overview of PressForward, a software plug-in which allows users to aggregate and share digital content using WordPress. Once installing the plug-in, content can be collected via both a feed reader and bookmarklet. Users can discuss, nominate and share items (including an attribution link and metadata) within WordPress. When I learned that you can also keep track of notes and discussions, I wished I had known about PressForward when I was teaching; it would have been great to have this tool to allow students to review and discuss media related to our curriculum. However, PressForward is more than a cool plug-in; it is a tool by which scholarship outside of the typical journal article or dissertation can be widely distributed. Digital Humanities Now (DH Now) is an example of how PressForward is put into practice.

DH Now is an experimental, edited publication that highlights scholarship in the digital humanities that drives the field forward. Additional items of interest, such as jobs, CFPs, conferences, funding announcements, reports and other resources are also posted–again, the point here is encourage scholars to share via the open web, and to amplify work and resources that might not get the attention they deserve. Potential content for DH Now is aggregated in multiple ways, whether its via RSS from a list of subscribed feeds, Twitter threads, or other sources. The content is reviewed, nominated, and discussed  in WordPress using PressForward by volunteer Editors-at-Large. Rotating Editors-in-Chief (faculty and graduate students here at the Center) select content for publication. Acting as Editor-in-Chief gives graduate students the opportunity to examine both content and practice in the digital humanities; it also provides us with experience in crowd-sourcing a DH project.

As a DH Fellow, I’ve been a volunteer Editor-at-Large all semester; that practice combined with a new and deeper understanding of PressForward prepared us for our first task: serving as Co-Editors-in-Chief. Together, we reviewed all of the nominated content (which came by way of the feeds as well as from Bookmarklet), discussed the pros and cons of each piece, and decided on what we’d publish on DH Now. Our Editor’s Choice piece was the white paper “Digital History and Argument,” a product of the Arguing with Digital History Workshop  held here at Mason in September. We also published announcements for conferences and Zotero workshops, two job postings, and new grant guidelines for the DH Advancement Grant from the NEH.

I also spent some time working with Tropy, a newly released tool for organizing research photographs. Users can organize and annotate their photos, as well as export them to share and collaborate with others. I downloaded Tropy to my laptop and used a folder of images from my M.A. research (which may become part of my dissertation) to experiment with it. I was able to combine images (photographs of multiple-page documents) to create consolidated items that were easier to view. Tropy also allowed me to easily add metadata to my photos, such as archive and collection information. Once we had some experience with the software, we were tasked with creating metadata templates. I designed several templates using the following questions as guides:

With the photos I already have, how might have wanted to organize them differently when I was in the archive last year? For the photos I had, I created a template for that archive, with fields for Collection, Box, Folder, and Subject. Box and Subject were the most important fields for that template, as I was examining multiple events, each with extensive incoming and outgoing correspondence.

What other repositories could I access as I develop my dissertation topic? This question led me to some quick research on a nagging question I’ve had for a few weeks…and behold, I got an unexpected answer that will help me expand my focus for my dissertation! I located three additional repositories that could be helpful in the near future.

If I have access to, say, a collection finding aid, could I develop specific templates for these different repositories? One of the repositories I located had a finding aid (albeit not as detailed as that of the other archive I visited last fall), and I was able to use that to help me develop a template; for the other two repositories, I created a template that was a combination of the first two. In general, creating the templates were easy (and in the instance of furthering my dissertation topic, extremely helpful!)

I appreciated having the opportunity to work in the Research Division, to experiment with tools that I might have previously overlooked, and to examine ways in which these tools might be refined to serve the needs to even broader audiences.

Public History and Digital Tools: Working in the Public Projects Division

As a public history student at University of Maryland Baltimore County, I was part of the discussions that led to the creation of the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Over the last two years, I have been interested in the ways public history projects–particularly community archives of contemporary events–are created by way of digital tools. As such, I was eager to begin my rotation in the Public Projects division.

The division works to develop digital tools, collections, and exhibits that facilitate public participation in history. Popular tools for online exhibitions and community transcription such as Omeka and Scripto are developed and maintained in the division. Several digital community archive projects are also housed in the division, such as the September 11 Digital Archive, a Digital Memory Bank commemorating Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the Bracero History Archive.

My first task was familiarizing myself with GitHub, a version control repository used primarily for code. Next, I worked through Omeka S as its version 1.0 release drew near. To clarify, Omeka S is different from Omeka Classic: it has a different code base, and gives individuals and organizations the ability to create multiple sites from a single install with shared resources; these resources can be shared as linked open data. I reviewed  documentation (which also introduced me to Markdown via MkDocs), and tested the tool by completing a variety of tasks.

The remaining time in Public Projects was focused on working on Mapping Early American Elections, a project which produces interactive maps and visualizations of elections from 1787 to 1825. I reviewed the election maps, visualizations, and election data from New Nation Votes to draft explanatory paragraphs for state elections for the first three Congresses (1788-1792). My historical research is firmly situated in the late nineteenth century, yet I thoroughly enjoyed examining eighteenth century elections, tracking electoral trends. The last day of my rotation, I was able to utilize GitHub and Markdown to pull my paragraphs into the dev site.

While my introductory rotation is over, I am looking forward to returning to the division next semester and further developing my skills as a digital public historian.

Behind the Screen: Working in the Education Division

Before becoming a Digital History Fellow here at Mason, I taught American History to students in grades 7-12 for fifteen years. In planning lessons over those fifteen years, there were some online sources I returned to repeatedly, such as Herbert Hoover’s “Success of Recovery” campaign speech in 1932. Students liked being able to both hear and read the President’s words: “…the gigantic forces of depression are today in retreat.” It wasn’t until I began my fellowship that I learned that the site I bookmarked—History Matters—was created here in the Education Division of RRCHNM, the product of a collaboration between the center and the American Social History Project. As I continue this transition from full-time teacher to full-time student, I appreciated beginning my work in this division.  

The first project, Understanding Sacrifice, has two components. The first is a professional development program for teachers across subjects, who conduct research and develop lesson plans using the resources of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The second is an online repository of these lesson plans, as well as supplemental teaching resources for teachers. During my rotation, my work focused on the online repository, inputting images and sources into the project website; proofreading and editing lesson plans and associated materials; and captioning both eulogy videos honoring fallen service members and short PD videos for teachers. Inputting the images and sources on Drupal gave me an opportunity to use HTML, which gave me a flashback to the days when I used Adobe PageMill. I was able to lean on my classroom experience to effectively proofread and provide feedback on the lesson plans and materials. Having shown many a YouTube video clip in classrooms filled with a wide range of learners, I know how important having accurate captions are; captioning the eulogy and PD videos allowed me to learn more about the individual service members’ lives and develop a new skill. 

The second project, Eagle Eye Citizen, is an interactive designed for middle and high school students which encourages them to explore civics and history by way of primary sources at the Library of Congress. I found myself moving toward almost exclusively using primary sources in my classes in the last few years, so I was eager to see and use this interactive as it moves toward going live. I worked on testing Eagle Eye Citizen for functionality–Does this link work? Does the link open correctly? Does the image open in a new tab?–using different operating systems and internet browsers. This was a time-intensive task, but I enjoyed exploring an interactive and investigating it for possible issues. It also reminded me of how much we take for granted that when we click on a link that it will take us to the correct place. In testing, I had the opportunity to create various challenges within the student portal, which allowed me to review Library of Congress resources and design questions. I appreciated this functionality of Eagle Eye Citizen, because it places students in a position to both apply what they already know and create new knowledge. 

Supporting the production of two online projects utilizing primary sources, designed to encourage civic and historical understanding in classrooms over the last few weeks has been insightful. I look forward to seeing both go live in the weeks to come.