Second Rotation: Public Projects Division

The Public Projects Division creates tools, projects and collections that encourage greater interaction with history among a popular audience. Some of the division’s projects are geared directly for public engagement while other tools help public history professionals more easily create collections, exhibits and projects of their own. During our four-week rotation in this division, we worked primarily on two projects, Omeka S and Mapping Early American Elections.

One of the most well-known and in-demand tools that RRCHNM has created, Omeka, comes out of the Public Projects Division. Omeka was released in 2008 as a web content publishing platform that would allow for the assembly, management, and exhibition of digital collections. Omeka S, the Public Project’s newest addition, builds on the popularity of Omeka Classic. Omeka S allows users to create and manage multiple Omeka sites on a single install. It also boasts new modules (plugins) for mapping and importing collections from other systems. Additionally, it allows users to share resources and collections among their multiple sites, and assign distinct privileges to different levels of users.

When we began our work with Omeka S, it was in its final phase of testing, but as of yesterday, Omeka S: 1.0 has officially been released. To start out, we worked with Megan Brett, the Omeka End User Outreach and Testing Coordinator. She taught us how to work with with GitHub and secure shell (SSH) via the command line to install themes and plugins on an Omeka install. Then we worked to simultaneously review the existing Omeka S documentation while testing the instructions on the dev site. We were asked to proofread, not only for spelling and grammar errors, but more importantly, for readability and usability. Did the directions make sense? Were there enough screenshots to help the user follow along with the text? Were the screenshots current? Did they display what a user would really see on his or her screen? Did the dev site respond in the ways that the documentation suggested that it should?

This process of reading and testing gave me firsthand experience with using Omeka S and provided me a more profound sense of the tool’s capabilities. It has enabled me to confidently describe Omeka S to others and explain how it differs from Omeka Classic. Finally, it has encouraged me to explore how I can use the new features of Omeka S in my own work.

During the second half of our rotation, we worked on the Mapping Early American Elections projects. As an Early Americanist, I was excited to work on a project in my favorite era. Although I normally focus on women, gender and social history in this period, looking at the early elections was really fascinating. At the time we (briefly) joined the project, the project team had already created a data set based on the information collected in A New Nation Votes (NNV). They were in the process of creating maps from that data set to represent each Congress in each state in order to help visualize the votes based on political parties.

In addition, they were adding brief interpretive text to each map to explain how each state’s election system worked and to call attention to any interesting aspects of the elections or trends from the previous election. To get a taste of this work, we were asked to write the interpretive text for all the states during the first three Congressional elections. Writing this text required us to look at each visualization (map), compare it to the chart devised from the data set, compare it to the data tables, footnotes and research notes provided by NNV, and then complete additional research for some of the more complicated elections. After we finished writing our interpretive text, Dr. Lincoln Mullen taught us how to use markdown and GitHub to add some of our text to the dev site for the project.

As a student of history, I really enjoyed the historical inquiry and analysis associated with this assignment, as well as the larger questions that the work forced us to discuss and try to answer. First of all, it reminded me how much I like the investigative and interpretive work of history–trying to sort through many different pieces of evidence in order to form one’s best (informed) guess or interpretation of what happened in the past. The more I found out about each election, the more digging I wanted to do.

Secondly, the work forced me to ask bigger questions like, what does it mean to be elected? In our original instructions, we were asked to mention in the text how many candidates from each political party were elected. While this at first sounded straightforward, we soon found out that it proved more difficult. For example, what about elections where one candidate received the most votes, but then the election was contested, votes were later ruled invalid, and the results were officially modified? What if a candidate received the most votes but died before he could take office or he declined to serve? Is there a difference between who was elected and who served in Congress? These and similar questions were discussed during the project meetings before settling on a more precise definition for the project.

Most of all, this project showed how me how digital history projects can make an argument and contribute to the historiographical conversation. Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, the Lead Historian on the project, writes in the project’s blog in a post called “What Did Democracy Look Like? Voting in Early America” that “Early American elections subvert conventional notions that portray the development of early American democracy as an orderly or systematic affair.” Doing the research required to write the interpretive text really drove home this argument. Early American elections were, in fact, really messy. After the Constitution was ratified, elections didn’t just automatically happen in an organized and efficient manner that was consistent from state to state. As Zagarri asserts, it was an era of experimentation.

By looking at the voting practices and results for several different states during the same election, it was easy to see how the election systems varied state by state. For example in the First Congress, Delaware’s election law required voters in each of the state’s three counties to submit names of two persons they wished to elect. Of these two persons, one was required to be an inhabitant of the voter’s own county and the other needed to be from a different country. The person who received the most votes overall (at-large) would win the election. In the First Congressional election in New York, on the other hand, the state was divided into six districts and voters in each district elected one candidate to represent their own district.

The experimentation of the era, even within an individual state, was also evident by looking at change over time in a single state during the first three Congresses. A great example of this is Pennsylvania. For the First Congress, Pennsylvania held an at-large election where voters were allowed to vote for eight different candidates who could reside anywhere in the state. For the Second Congress, Pennsylvania created eight districts, and only allowed voters to elect one candidate who had to reside within their own district. For the Third Congress, Pennsylvania’s number of congressional seats increased from eight to thirteen (following the results of the 1790 Census) and consequently, the state discontinued its use of the district system, and instead switched back to an at-large system like they had used for the first congressional election. Examples like these provide strong evidence that supports the project’s historiographical argument.

Overall, I enjoyed the mix of technical and more traditional (research and analysis) aspects of working in the Public Projects Division. Even though I am leaving this division, it will be interesting to track both of these projects as they progress; I will be curious to see how users respond to Omeka S in its first few weeks post-launch, and to discover what findings come out of the Mapping Early American Elections project.

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.

First Rotation: Educational Projects Division

One of the first people I ever met at George Mason was Kelly Schrum, the Director of Educational Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). At the time, I was visiting George Mason as a potential school at which to pursue my Master’s degree in History. After meeting with Dr. Schrum, witnessing her enthusiasm for what she did, and hearing about the diversity of engaging projects being created not only in the Educational Projects Division, but across the entire Center, I thought, “I HAVE to be a part of this!” Three years later, I am excited to finally join the Center in my role as a Digital History Fellow.

Naturally, I was delighted to begin my journey at RRCHNM by spending my first four-week rotation in the Educational Projects Division. While I have had little formal training in classroom-based education (educational theory, lesson plan writing, etc.), I have always been passionate about history education and have held several jobs and internships executing museum-based history education. Also, my interest in using digital tools to help create resources for classroom teachers had been piqued while taking a class called “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age” as part of George Mason University’s Digital Public Humanities Graduate Certificate (which, coincidentally, is partially administered by the Educational Division at RRCHNM.)  

While the Educational Division is somewhat separated from the rest of the Center by a hallway, it was clear right away that it is an integral part of what the Center does. There are multiple different projects that the division juggles at the same time, from creating education websites with partner organizations, to teaching and managing online courses in history and digital tools for classroom teachers and learners of all ages. The Educational Division keeps itself organized with a giant whiteboard, where progress is reviewed in a weekly staff meeting, and with To-Dos, messages and comments through project management software like Basecamp. Because of these organizational methods, it was easy for the DH Fellows to see the status of each project and know what needed to be done next. This allowed us to jump right in and start completing tasks that helped the division move forward on their projects. During what seemed like a short but productive four weeks, we focused on two main projects, Understanding Sacrifice and Eagle Eye Citizen.

Understanding Sacrifice is an ongoing program through the American Battlefield Monument Commission (ABMC) that allows teachers to research a fallen U.S. military hero buried in one of the ABMC cemeteries, write a short biography and eulogy for the fallen hero, travel to the cemetery where that hero is buried, give their eulogy at the hero’s grave, and then write a lesson plan for their students based on what they have learned through the process. This year, the teachers focused on fallen heroes from World War II in the Pacific. Therefore, the cemeteries they visited were in California, Hawaii and the Philippines. For this project, we worked directly with Jennifer Rosenfeld, the Associate Director of Educational Projects.

This project gave me experience doing a wide variety of tasks, as we worked to get this year’s lesson plans, source materials, educational resources, fallen hero profiles, and eulogy videos formatted correctly and uploaded online. Since this project uses a Drupal interface and required us to write basic HTML code, I was thankful for my previous internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, where I learned these skills.

Tasks for this project included transcribing audio interviews to be used in some of the teachers’ lesson plans, using YouTube to add closed captions to the eulogy videos and other content videos, inputting and uploading content to the ABMC Education website (images, hero profiles, lesson plans), double checking the sources for each lesson plan, and making sure sources were cited properly and linked to the correct websites. In addition, each online lesson plan also includes a printable PDF version of the lesson plan and applicable handouts. Once these PDFs were created by other GRAs in the division, we were tasked with proofreading them, not only for grammar, but also for content, formatting (spacing, bold, italics, font size, etc.), and consistency between what the teacher originally wrote, what had been added into the website, and what was in the printable PDF. Then we offered suggestions for improvement, which had to be sent back to the teacher for their response and approval before the necessary changes were made on the PDFs and on Drupal.

Out of all the tasks for the ABMC project, I most enjoyed adding the captions to the eulogy videos. First of all, it was a lot like video editing, with which I have previous experience  and which I enjoy. Secondly, it allowed me to learn a lot about the fallen heroes–their lives and the sacrifices that they made for our country. Because I know little about WWII in the Pacific, this was very insightful. Thirdly, through the videos of the teachers reading their eulogies at the fallen heroes’ gravesites, I could hear in their voices how much they felt for the the fallen heroes’ families and see how much hard work they had put into recognizing their hero’s sacrifice. This made me want to work even harder to do what I could, to make sure that the teachers’ work in honoring these heroes and teaching their students about them would be ready and available to others.

The second project we worked on is Eagle Eye Citizen. This website was developed by RRCHNM in partnership with the Library of Congress. It teaches civics to middle and high school students by allowing them to solve and create challenges in a game-like environment using primary sources provided by the Library of Congress. As the students solve and create challenges, they earn points, badges, and can even level-up. All the while, they are learning about topics such as voting, political parties, rights and civic responsibilities. The site also offers students a chance to reflect on each challenge at the end, telling how they solved the challenge or giving rationale for their selections when creating a challenge. For this project, we worked primarily with PhD candidate Sara Collini.

When we started our rotation, the site was mostly complete, leading up to soft-launch and then the official launch a few weeks later. Therefore, one of our primary jobs for this project was to “break” the site. We spent hours testing, making sure that all of the interactive elements worked, that students could not move on without completing each task, that the audio clips played, and that all of the links worked. One of the features of Eagle Eye is a “Look Closer” button, which gives students a larger view of each primary source. We checked if that was working. We also changed roles, logging in as a student and then as a teacher, checking to see if teachers could create and manage a class of student users, as well as review their students’ reflections and challenges they had created. We tested the site on different operating systems (Mac vs. PC) and browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.) to see how it might respond. Through doing this work, I realized how hard it is to describe with words what, where, why and how something is not working correctly. In the end, I eventually reverted to taking screenshots of issues and then annotating them with text, arrows and circles to point out the irregularities. Finally, at the end of the testing, we even had a chance to create challenges of our own that would be used when the site launches.

Although I only got to spend four weeks in the Education Division, I feel like I did and learned a LOT! Not only did I learn new content (information about ABMC heroes, how a lesson plan is formatted) and skills (how to create bulleted lists in HTML), I also learned about the workflow of a digital history center and how to balance working on different projects at the same time. While I had read a lot about how centers like RRCHNM function (both during the Certificate program and at the beginning of the semester), it has been really beneficial for me to see how the Center’s work is carried out on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, and to be a part of it.

It is also exciting to feel like the small role I played was actually useful for these projects, and that I was doing something that really mattered. Even as we move on to the next division, I am excited to see both of these projects launch and to hear what feedback the division gets from the teachers who are incorporating both projects in their classrooms.

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. 

 

Digital Humanities as Resistance

We spent our first year as DH Fellows tracking and discussing the blog posts that filtered through DH Now, and were asked to track specific themes. I decided to follow posts where DH and activism intersected, especially as the recent campaign, election, and administration made political conversations hard, even irresponsible, to ignore. Before Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, the grey literature of DH had had a slightly more intellectual focus. There were certainly many people thinking about critical theory in DH, but those advocating for DH as activism in its own right was not as visible of a conversation. Of course, there are some exceptions here, most obviously in the form of media scholars, and particularly those who incorporate feminist critical theory into their work (for instance the #TransformDH community that formed in 2011). Aside from these groups, much of the DH discussion was focused on how to study or support activists working in the age of multimodal movements like Black Lives Matter. Not surprisingly, the discussion has become not only more critical but more urgent. It seems that DH scholars from all disciplines started to take stock of what we do well—promoting open access knowledge with a balance between theory and praxis (although not always an equal balance)—and found new ways to deploy those skills as acts of resistance.

What we see now is representation from a large group of digital humanists—archivists, educators, artists, historians, media scholars, librarians, literature scholars, sociologists, and others—working towards common political goals. Not only is DH facing a large-scale crisis over funding and resources (nothing new except for its scale), but, more importantly, over the emergence of a rising tide of fascism and anti-intellectualism. For example, conversations about open access have shifted focus from intellectual goals to political ones. Pedagogical posts are refocusing on ways to not only promote computer literacy, but also how to teach strategies of resistance in the era of misinformation. In this new climate, public engagement, critical studies, and activism are informing each other, and seem to be working to break down the disciplinary boundaries that have divided digital humanities into distinct fields of theory and practice. It is probable that the narrowing of these gaps is part of DH’s natural evolution as a field, but the current administration certainly seems to have sped up the process. This selection of posts that follows is a very small sample of the many groups and voices working to reshape DH into a field of resistance.

Beyond the hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice (February 29, 2016)
This report from the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University represents an early, concerted effort by scholars to explore Black Lives Matter and other web-based activist movements. With attention to the various groups and platforms involved in the fight against police brutality, this report explores the nature of protest on the open web and how multimodal approaches to activism can work to level the playing field for oppressed groups.

Creating Culturally Sensitive Solutions to Digital Violence (September 29, 2016)
This post, from the Digital Media + Learning Central blog, announces the Center for Solutions to Online Violence. This effort, funded by DML, seeks to find new ways to address intersectional experiences of violence online. This post showcases the project’s PI, Jacqueline Wernimont who speaks to the importance of applying feminist theory as we approach archives of knowledge and spaces of digital learning in order to build trust and foreground safety. From Wernimont: “a person’s ability to navigate what is an increasingly complex digital life is really important…We have to attend to those costs and how they are differentially born by particular people first — not as an afterthought.”

Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump (February 2, 2017)
This post by Audrey Watters on Hack Education traces computing machines to their military roots— “Command. Control. Communicate. Intelligence.”—and interrogates the implications of these ideas on our educational systems. She connects the potential uses of student analytical data collection to prior fascist attempts (both in Nazi Germany and the US) to track, control, and eradicate groups of people. She calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between student and institution, and implicates higher education institutions within the growing surveillance state. Watters’ desire is clear: “Now is the time for an ed-tech antifa, and I cannot believe I have to say that out loud to you.”

Our Work, Our Selves: Using Our Tools for Resistance (February 16, 2017)
This post by Des on Hack Library School calls for archivists to realign their personal and professional goals with their political ones, and provides a brief historiography for inspiration. The title, a reference to the landmark feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (now a digital source for knowledge about and access to women’s health care), plus the choice to open with an Audre Lorde quote situates this post squarely within a long tradition of feminist theory in DH activism. The questions raised here are meant to inspire ideas for HLS’ first Twitter Chat, and represents how new groups are forming as a reaction to the Trump administration.

The Urgency of Public Engagement (February 26, 2017)
In this post, Katina Rogers joins a number of scholars in reacting to the anxieties of the Trump administration’s effect on DH, and on the Humanities largely. Drawing from her experience as Director of Administration and Programs of the Futures Initiative at CUNY, Rogers calls for a new framework of academia in which we no longer prioritize insular paths to tenure, but rather recognize and reward outward paths to work with and serve communities. She centers the relationship between “innovation, equity, and public engagement” as one that can transform academia from an ivory tower to a public resource. She calls not only for a cultural shift, but for a concerted effort to train graduate students to pursue public-facing work.

Foregrounding the Question (March 15, 2017)
This post by professor Elizabeth Lenaghan argues not only for computer literacy in undergraduate writing seminars, but to find ways for students to engage with questions of source verification. Her approach, in her words: “we examine the way that concepts such as truth, authenticity, and originality—though often presumed static and absolute—are constantly shifting and morphing in relation to time, context, and audience.” They focus on both identifying and creating “media hoaxes, plagiarism, and remix culture” in order to develop the skills to easily recognize these in their online practices. Although she has been teaching this way since 2013, she argues that it is even more critical in our current “post-truth” era.

Teaching Digital Rhetoric in the Age of Fake News: Media Literacy and Source Evaluation in the First-Year Writing Classroom (March 17, 2017)
This post by composition instructor Elizabeth Fleitz argues for a new conception of digital literacy in the composition classroom. She first makes a plea that we not take the idea of “digital natives” for granted by assuming they have the skills to both use and assess their online worlds. In order to provide her digital native students with the skills to assess web content, Fleitz employs the strategies of fact-checkers in the classroom. She argues that not only does this fulfill requirements for students to learn to question and challenge sources broadly, but will equip them to develop political ideas and identities in the age of fake news.

What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts? (March 2017)
Art has largely been considered a realm of political action, while the humanities has largely been seen as one of knowledge production. This survey question posed by MediaCommons received several answers from vastly different disciplines—artists, art historians, ethnographers, ecocriticism, #TransformDH feminist scholars, and others—demonstrating the ways that similar concerns are connecting DH scholars across disciplines. One respondent, Jarah Moesch who identifies as a “queer artist-scholar” offers this answer: “Perhaps, then, these rigid lines between so-called disciplines are actually the ‘problem’…I am also wary of the idea that the Digital Humanities should somehow transform “The Arts,” that this type of scholarship should necessarily play a role in art, while not considering how art might also transform the Digital Humanities.”

How Libraries Can Trump the Trend to Make America Hate Again (April 24, 2017)
In this post, Jarrett Drake, an important voice for archivist-activists and advisor for the Documenting the Now community and toolkit, argues that not only do libraries have a responsibility to serve the needs of their communities, but that this agenda should—must—extend into activism. In his words: “libraries should be on the frontlines to fight fascism because the control of information and ideas is central to the spread of fascism, and thus libraries will be forced either to endorse that spread or encumber it.” He traces earlier moments when libraries and librarians were active voices against oppressive regimes and ends with three main calls to action: assert authority, center communities, and never normalize.

Wrapping up with Public Projects

We ended our first year as Digital History Fellows in the Public Projects Division. As someone with career goals in Public History, I was most excited to get to work in this division. However, doing this year-long rotation through the Center allowed me to witness the strengths of all three. I was able to work with projects I wasn’t familiar with, and become more familiar with ones I was, as well as gain a broad understanding of digital humanities work. It was also interesting to see how the various parts of the Center function with distinct tasks, work styles, and guiding philosophies, yet come together to create one cohesive Center.

Over these last six weeks we were able to experience the many and varied projects that the Public Projects division balances. First, we got familiar with Omeka, one of the legacy projects of the Center. With the help of other graduate students, we learned how to install Omeka sites on our own server space provided by the Center. This is certainly a useful skill to take with us, along with the command line practice we received in the Research Division and Clio II. We were also given access to an Omeka S dev site that allowed us to also play with the some of the new features this platform offers. In particular, I spent some time with the CSV import function by putting together a spreadsheet with metadata for various early jazz album covers. The CSV import creates distinct items for each row, and allows for batch uploading of collections. Practically, having the content in the form of a spreadsheet will help in the future when sites need to be re-built quickly for new rounds of testing.

Speaking of testing, we also spent a fair amount of time working with previous DH Fellows to test new plug-ins like batch editing and comment blocks, or bugs reported in the Omeka forum. We had done a bit of testing while in the Education Division, so I was mildly familiar with the process. However, the kind of testing we did in Public Projects necessitated a very organized strategy between several of us to replicate issues and determine exactly which actions were causing the site to break. Thanks to our testing guru, Jannelle Legg, I learned how to organize a testing process to track and pinpoint our actions separately and together, and to provide useful feedback for the dev team.

In between testing, we also were introduced to Public Project’s long-running Papers of the War Department project. This project has two main parts. One, it is a digital collection that attempts to reconstitute the records lost when the War Department caught fire in 1800 by bringing together thousands of documents from archives around the country into one digital collection. Two, the Scripto tool developed at the Center turns this collection into a crowd-sourced transcription project in order to make the items searchable for researchers. Laura and I were give usernames and were asked to dig around the site to explore the various materials available, and then to transcribe some items to understand the process. The Public Projects Division continues to maintain Papers of the War Department and is still receiving new transcriptions from users and keeps an updated blog. It is an example of how the Center is not only good at developing new projects, but maintaining older ones to keep them accessible and relevant.

Our final task in the division was my favorite, as it allowed me to fuse my interest in music, public, and digital history. For the last three weeks, Laura and I helped with preliminary research for the Hearing the Americas planning grant. This project will attempt to contextualize a collection of early recordings digitized in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, so the bulk of our research was exploring musicians and songs that appear in this collection. Laura and I spent a lot of time working collaboratively to piece together the biographies of several musicians and genealogies of songs that not only revealed connections between people in the early music industry, but within larger themes in American history. I am looking forward to continuing this work over the Summer and during my second year as a Digital History Fellow in the Public Projects Division. Not only do I get to explore topics and themes that are interesting and relevant to my own research, but I get to witness, almost from start to finish, the process of writing a grant proposal that leads to the kinds of projects Laura and I have worked on over the last year.

Public Projects

Our final rotation of the year was in the Public Projects division. We had the chance to try out Omeka S, help with Omeka testing, get familiar with Papers of the War Department, and do some research for Hearing the Americas.

One of our first tasks was to participate in testing the Editorial Plugin for Omeka. Simulating realistic scenarios required having several people work on testing at the same time and communicating with each other about what we were each doing, so the process was much more lively and enjoyable than one would normally associate with the word “testing.” Getting to discover issues as part of a group was a very satisfying experience, especially because I could see how useful this plugin will be for people working in groups. Along with this testing, I also got to play around with Omeka S and do an Omeka install on my server space. All of this was a great way to gain more familiarity with Omeka and to learn some of the features that I haven’t needed to use in the past. Doing the Omeka install, I also got to brush up on using the command line.

After a few weeks working with all things Omeka, we were introduced to the Papers of the War Department. In part, it was helpful to learn about it because I had seen others at the Center working on the project but didn’t really know much about it. But it was also helpful to see what it takes to keep a project running after it’s launched and the funding has run out. Because Papers of the War Department is a project that makes use of crowdsourcing ,we were asked to create an account and try our hand at transcribing some of the documents during our downtime from Omeka testing. As someone who studies the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I don’t find many opportunities to transcribe eighteenth-century handwriting, but I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it, despite how illegible it looked at first glance.

In the last few weeks, Jessica and I have been attending meetings for Hearing the Americas and getting some research done for the project. The goal for Hearing the Americas is to expose the commercial and transnational roots of jazz, blues, and country, focusing on the early years of the American recording industry. Right now, the team is still working on the planning phase (with the help of a Discovery grant from the NEH), so we were tasked with researching a few individual singers and musicians to get a sense of how much information is available in the secondary literature and in primary sources. Jessica and I split the list, and after several days spent leafing through books in the library together, we’ve surprised ourselves with how much we’ve learned and accomplished in such a short amount of time. I think our productivity has been fueled partly by how fascinating the topic is and partly by getting to work together on this. Doing academic research is usually a pretty solitary activity, so it’s been fun to be able to bounce around ideas and share interesting finds with someone. With our new knowledge on the subject, we’ve been able to contribute to the meetings and provide suggestions on important themes to pursue, so it’s been valuable to experience firsthand the challenges, questions, and conversations that shape a project in its early stages.

It’s sad to find that our time in Public Projects has come to an end and, with it, our first year of the fellowship. But thinking back on my nerves and confusion at the beginning of the year, I am proud of everything that I’ve learned and accomplished, and I am looking forward to returning next year as a second-year DH Fellow.

 

Indigenizing and Decolonizing Digital Humanities

All year, the DH fellows have been looking through the aggregated content of DHNow and selecting interesting posts to discuss at our weekly meeting with Dr. Robertson. The process has been a great introduction to the variety of people, projects, and discourses that make up the field of digital humanities, and it’s enabled me to identify and track key themes and trends over the course of the year. I quickly became interested in questions of ethics in DH, gravitating especially toward posts and projects that take an Indigenizing and/or decolonizing approach.

Indigenization transforms academia and public scholarship by integrating Indigenous voices, knowledge systems, histories, and cultures and by empowering the success of Indigenous students, scholars, and communities. However, as Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken explain in Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization, “Indigenization cannot be attempted without first making space to decolonize what types of knowledge the academy sees as legitimate, otherwise projects have the potential to become tokens used to absolve settler guilt.” Indigenization requires decolonization—identifying and challenging colonial systems in order to shift power relations and transform the structures of settler society.

So what would decolonizing and Indigenizing DH look like? What does the process demand? Is decolonizing DH even possible or are colonial systems and structures too deeply embedded in the web and digital tools? The posts below ask or attempt to answer these questions. Although they do not all directly address Indigenous histories and cultures, they are all part of a growing conversation about the need to challenge colonial power in digital humanities.

Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization by Skylee-Storm Hogan (Kanien’kehá:ka) and Krista McCracken. Although not specifically directed at DH, this is a very relevant and useful overview of what historians can do to Indigenize and decolonize their teaching and research practices.

Exploring Indigenous Data Sovereignty through Water Governance by Kelsey Leonard (Shinnecock). In this introductory post to her work at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, Leonard explains that, “Digital scholarship can aid Indigenous Nations in our efforts to decolonize water governance regimes and enhance coordination for the management of transboundary waters” and that her “digital scholarship aims to digitize the work of Indigenous Nations and our water protectors as they fight to (re)claim inherent sovereign rights to govern our waters.”

Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities by David Gaertner. This post makes the argument that, “Indigenous lit scholars resist DH because the concerns Indigenous communities have about the expropriation of data have not been taken seriously. Those concerns will not be taken seriously until decolonial critique is actively installed at the foundations of DH theory and methodology and settler scholars need to start taking up some of this labour.”

Remediation, Activation, and Entanglement in Performative (Digital) Archives by Jacqueline Wernimont. This post is a critical reading of Performing Archives: Edward S. Curtis and the ‘vanishing race,’ a digital book project that Wernimont directed. The project features the (often staged) photographs of Native Americans taken by Curtis, an ethnologist and photographer who believed he was documenting a “vanishing race.” Wernimont concludes that the project does not do enough to “decenter” Curtis and instead “largely activated memories of oppression and settler knowledge systems.”

The Practice of Play by Tim Sherrat. This post describes how Sherrat “multiplies contexts”—hacking, breaking, and playing with data and digital resources—to challenge the power of the colonial state’s power of surveillance and reverse its gaze.

Data and Humanism Shape Library of Congress Conference by Mike Ashenfelder. This post is a summary of talks given at the Collections As Data Conference in September 2016. Some of the talks address such topics as the repatriation of digitized objects, bias in metadata practices, and the Traditional Knowledge Labels tool.

Speculative Collections by Bethany Nowviskie. In this post, Nowviskie asks, “How can we design digital libraries that admit alternate futures—that recognize that people require the freedom to construct their own, independent philosophical infrastructure, to escape time’s arrow and subvert, if they wish, the unidirectional and neoliberal temporal constructs that have so often been tools of injustice?” In another post, Nowviskie calls for design experimentation to answer this question and describes five possible axes along which we should run this experimentation.

A Life Reduced to Data by Tim Sherrat. In this post, Sherrat points out that as historians investigate questions of identity using historical datasets (the Australian census is his example), we need to remember that, “In some cases we are the beneficiaries of systems created for the surveillance and control of suspect populations.” Although he argues that we can “turn these systems on themselves,” we must “make that decision and engage accordingly.” As he asserts, “There is no neutral position.”

Research

With our return from Spring Break, our rotation in the Research division has come to an end. Our main projects were working on documentation and testing for Tropy and contributing to the redesign of the PressForward website. In between, we were also able to spend time learning HTML, CSS, and Python and doing lessons on the Programming Historian.

From the beginning of our time in Research, we participated in meetings with other members of the division to brainstorm the contents and design of a new PressForward website. We had to take on the mindset of marketers without relying on jargon or soon-to-be-outdated buzzwords and without sounding either too academic or too corporate. It was a difficult balance to strike, but it forced us to really think about what it is that PressForward does and how it can be useful. By the time everyone settled on the language and layout of the main page, Jessica and I had developed a working knowledge of HTML and CSS through online lessons, so we set to work coding it using Foundation. Once we had the basic structure, we spent the rest of the day testing out fonts, color schemes, and other design elements. Some of our ideas might end up on the finished website, but more importantly, we got to play a role in many parts of the process, influence the design, and practice our web design skills.

The other main project that we helped out with was Tropy. As a tool for historians to organize the digital photographs they take in their research, Tropy is also meant to help historians better manage rights and metadata, so our first task was to research best practices and create first drafts of documentation. Learning about rights and metadata may not be the most exciting thing, but it’s always useful to brush up on them. What was exciting, though, was actually getting to test Tropy. Because Tropy is still in development and has not yet been released, Jessica and I got to be the first to see and use it beyond the project’s core contributors. Knowing how excited everyone at CHNM is for its eventual release, it felt important to be as detailed as possible and to try to break it in as many ways as I could think to. Getting to see how useful this tool will be for my own future research made testing all the more interesting.

Starting the Data and Visualization in Digital History course at the same time that we started in Research  meant spending a lot of time with programming languages over the last several weeks. Having taken two computer science courses as an undergraduate, I came into the program knowing that I enjoyed learning and using programming languages, so I was eager to learn more and to see how that work can be integrated into historical research. I had the most fun doing text analysis with Python and tried it out on some documents relevant to my own research. I haven’t yet determined if or how I’ll use all of these tools ultimately, but even without having exact plans for the future, it’s good to know what the possibilities are and to be able to approach historical questions with a “toolbox” of many skills. At the very least, it’s also important to me that I have a sophisticated enough understanding to be able to critically assess other digital work. Thinking about programming in these ways has been an important take-away from the last couple of months.

Throughout our time in Research, Sean Takats, Director of Research, asked us to think critically about how the Research division fits in at the Center and, more broadly, in the historian’s research process. We had to consider what it is that historians do and how the research process is mediated by digital technology. In other words, how does technology shape the research process and what do we think technology could or should do in the future? I’ve thought a lot about whether digital tools—both those built specifically for historians and not—have significantly changed the practice of history. The argument can be made, for example, that many historians use online search uncritically, without understanding how search algorithms or OCR work, and this causes them to miss potentially useful or important sources. Alternatively, it can be argued that this is far from a fundamental change; historians have always missed sources and information because of the selective nature of archives, absences in inventories, misplaced documents, etc. I’m inclined to believe, though, that the changes taking place are more than superficial. Whereas historians have been trained to use archives, to understand basic archival principles, and to look for and try to overcome silences in the records, training in digital tools is usually not explicit enough. Because almost everyone uses the internet and its tools in their daily life, there is the prevalent belief that this frequent use is enough to understand them. But the effect is a tendency to treat things like interfaces and search algorithms as natural and neutral, without realizing that these are actually highly controlled ways of interacting with historical sources.

So how do I imagine the possibilities for what technology could do? Ideally, there should be more transparency in how searching works, although this seems an unlikely future when most searching is run by Google. Technology should also force users to think critically about the technology itself, rather than lull us into trusting its accuracy, neutrality, and objectivity. Additionally, instead of boxing users into controlled ways of searching and viewing items, databases should be facilitating multiple ways of manipulating and interacting with items, making it easier to put things together or pull them apart and to view them outside the confines of the database. Of course, it’s much easier to imagine this future technology in theoretical terms than to actually design something that functions smoothly and doesn’t scare away users, but these are just my preliminary thoughts on digital technology and the research process. The rotation in Research was a great opportunity to learn some very technical skills but also to really reflect on the broader context of the projects we were working on and the skills we were learning. This week, we start our final rotation in Public Projects.

Research Division

Laura and I spent the first half of the Spring 2017 semester in the Research Division. We were given a range of tasks, some of which definitely took me out of my comfort zone. First, we were asked to work through the Python tutorials on The Programming Historian. After that, we worked through the HTML and CSS tutorials on Code Academy. At the same time, we are taking Clio II (or, Data and Visualization in Digital History), which is introducing us to R programming. So, I suddenly went from having no real familiarity with any coding languages, to having at least a cursory understanding of four. Although a bit overwhelming at first, I can now see the benefits of this kind of exposure, as it better enables me to assess other digital history projects and have realistic understandings of how this could fit into my own research. We were also asked to try out some of newly acquired HTML and CSS skills by designing a mock-up redesign for the Press Forward website. After spending an entire workday tinkering with row sizes, fonts, and colors, we produced a mock-up that really wasn’t so bad, and was actually pretty fun to build once I started to get the hang of it.

During our time in Research, we were also involved with creating proto-documentation for Tropy, the division’s newest project. Tropy will provide a way for researchers to annotate, organize, and search through the increasing number of digital images we collect from physical archives, digital archives, and/or born-digital sources. This task placed me much more squarely in my comfort zone, as we were asked to think about metadata, copyright, and user testing, and write up outlines for future project documentation. It was also useful to get a kind of inside look at Tropy through early testing to understand the process of developing projects that are meant to offer specific functions to a wide audience. I expect that Tropy, much like Zotero, will become a vital tool for many researchers. After all, most historians (whether they consider themselves digital or not) can relate to the problem of having too many images and too little metadata.

We spent the last couple of weeks in Research discussing the work of historians—what is it that historians actually do—and what is gained and lost as the field becomes more and more digital. It seems to me that as we engage with representations of the past—whether in the archive, through mediating technologies like microfilm, or by searching through digitized records—the process of locating, reading, and contextualizing sources always obscures as much as it illuminates. Our discussions raised several questions along these lines. Doesn’t the process of rooting through dusty boxes or searching in Google shape what we can say about the past in analogous ways, and shouldn’t we be more transparent about the paths we take through both? Also, what is unique about the space of the archive? What do we lose when we can’t stumble upon unexpected ephemera, when provenance is replaced by keyword searches, or when marginalia isn’t retained in scanning? Conversely, what do we gain in digital research spaces? These theoretical questions are certainly things I plan to keep in mind as I progress through my career as a digital historian.