Reflections on Public Projects

Last week Alyssa, Jordan, and I completed our final rotation in Public Projects.  When I first arrived at RRCHNM, Public Projects was one of the divisions that I was most eager to experience due to my background in public history.  I am in the process of finishing up my public history certificate at Southern Miss and I have always wanted work with or pursue an entire career in public history projects.  This love for public history is what made me excited to learn and understand the digital work that goes into some of the RRCHNM projects that used since I was an undergraduate.

Our first week in Public Projects was one of the most difficult, but definitely one of the most educational.  As my blogs have shown from our rotations in Research and in Education, my coding skills definitely need some work.  However, our mentor that week—Megan Brett—was exactly what I needed to understand code life a little better.  She helped us understand SSH and was able to help me and my PC keep up with everyone else and their Macs.  For once I was never left behind with Alyssa and Jordan two or three steps ahead of me because tutorials weren’t adequate enough for PCs.  Megan was able to help me understand my windows PowerShell and never became frustrated when I forget one of the dozens of commands when trying to manipulate Omeka.  Whether it was Megan’s patience or the fact that I’ve been here for an entire semester and things are finally starting to stick, my first week in Public Projects made me feel like I was finally getting the hang of things around the center and that I could actually “talk tech.”

In week two with Public Projects, the first year fellows were sent on a mission to conduct mobile testing on Histories of the National Mall. The experience was exciting not only because we got to spend an entire work day on the National Mall, but because we were able to find some of the issues with the site on our phones.  Since I’m the one of the three of us with the least flashy technology (PC and Android kid), it was fun to see Histories of the National Mall working well and at a good download speed, whereas Jordan’s was a little slow and poor Alyssa could never find a wifi network for her ipad.  It was my own personal win for the week!  However, we were able to find a few content problems, specifically with Ghost Sites, that we were able to bring back to Public Projects.

In the last two weeks of Public Projects, we were tasked with adding newly submitted documents to the 9/ll Digital Archive.  The center recently received donated materials from Brian Sullivan who worked for the FAA around 9/11 and we were asked to submit them to the Omeka site.  We reviewed the 17 documents that were submitted and then created descriptions and other portions of Dublin Core that were needed before the documents can go live on the site.  On one of our days going through the documents we were even able to watch a documentary (Please Remove Your Shoes) that was also submitted by Sullivan so we could add it to the collection.  Aside from absolutely never wanting to fly again after going through the FAA documents and watching the documentary, I really enjoyed going back to one of the reasons I wanted to become a historian—going through primary sources.

My four weeks in Public Projects was a great experience, not only because I’m finally starting to find my way around the center, but because I was genuinely interest and excited about the content we were able to learn and create.  Sharon and Shelia made all three of us feel like we’d been in Public Projects the entire semester and it was such a smooth transition to begin working with everyone in the division because of how welcomed we felt.  The things I learned in Public Projects, especially working with Omeka, are something that I will be using throughout the rest of my time at Mason and hopefully for a dissertation project.  I’m excited about the possibility of working more with Public Projects in the future and cannot wait to learn more.

Reflections on the Education Division

Over the last four weeks the first year fellows had the opportunity to work in the Education division of the RRCHNM.  Since the start of our first year fellowship, working in the Education division was something that I was really looking forward to—especially since a lot of the projects they were completing were with National History Day.  As an undergraduate and MA student at Southern Miss, National History Day in Mississippi was always one of my favorite times of the year.  Having the opportunity to work with middle school and high school students on History Day projects and offering an outlet for students who were more gifted in the liberal arts has given me something to be proud of over the years and I was excited to do some work with the Education division on the national side of History Day.

Working in the Education division was more than just learning new aspects of something that I was already interested in, it was like coming back to my nice “cuddly blanket” of history that I was a little bit more familiar with.  While I enjoyed working with Research immensely, after having my ups and downs with Python coding and reaching the mid-point of my first semester as a PhD student, the Education division made me feel like I was “coming home” and it reminded me that I was still useful and could learn new things at a faster pace.

The first assignment we were given was to locate photographs of the 100 leaders for the 100leaders.org website.  While I initially thought this task would be simple, I quickly learned a lot about the overly complicated world of copyright laws.  I had always assumed that famous paintings and photographs became famous because they were open access and freely used enough by the public to become recognizable and iconic—e.g. Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Oh, how wrong I was.  While I had a feeling it would be difficult to find open access photos of Walt Disney (because Disney is notoriously good at copyrighting everything), I was more than shocked to discover just how difficult it was to find an image of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, etc.  These are some of the most famous and recognizable figures in American history and it is almost impossible to find a copyright free image of them for public use.  Even other—not as well-known—leaders such as Ray Kroc, and Rachel Carson would exceedingly difficult to find images of due to copyright laws.

In order to show how important these leaders were without using their own images, Jordan, Alyssa, and I had to get a little creative with our searches.  For instance, since Susan B. Anthony only has one or two open access pictures, I found free images of women protesting for their right to vote.  For Ray Kroc, I found an image of a retro McDonald’s and so on.  While it was frustrating at times trying to find new ways to represent the 100leaders, it was also an exciting challenge that reminded me of why I love history so much and chose it as a career.  The hunt can be frustrating, but when you find that one image that brings everything together it makes you feel like Indiana Jones.  There were definitely many “booyahs!” yelled out from my side of the fellow’s table.

Finding these images made up the majority of our work in Education and I learned so much from it.  I’ve had the opportunity to teach History 101 (pre-history to 1500CE) twice at the university level and after working on the 100 leaders project I’m aiming to teach a world history course again this summer.  Going through bios, finding pictures, and learning about figures that I’d never heard of before has made me want to revamp my lectures and inspired me to look at different ways of teaching. While I’m sure this wasn’t necessarily an intended lesson from Education, I’m so grateful it reminded me of how much I love history, research, and teaching.

In our time in the Education division we were also asked to do some testing on the 100leaders website before it goes lives in November.  Sitting down at the Education table and giving Thomas Edison a constant rating of “1s” is what I call a pretty fantastic day.  However, outside of my historical hate of Edison, I discovered that I’m interested in how these websites are created.  Getting to give feedback on whether the “slider” was working properly or how many times the system would lock up depending on voting made me want to explore more of the technical side of Education.  Even though we didn’t get to work with the design and construction of the website, I was constantly shocked by how many different components went into creating a simple slider and how many options there were for creating the pages for voting.  I had the same curiosity when we were asked to create a manual for the 100leaders website once Education hands the website off to National History Day.  I was in charge of creating a step-by-step guide for editing resources on the website.  Writing this portion of the guide helped me to better understand the inner workings of a wordpress website and also let me see all the ways these sites can be manipulated.  While we weren’t able to help create portions of the website, it definitely made me want to explore more with coding for future use.

I will definitely miss working in the Education division.  I looked forward to going to work every day and working on topics and projects that I love.  I’m excited by the possibility of working in the Education division again and will actively keep up with their projects throughout the rest of the semester.

 

Legacies and Sources

There have been some interesting discussions in the last week or so re: maintaining legacy sites and making sure 404 errors aren’t the most common decoration on your site about the history of cats during the French Revolution. The thing is, this problem has been around since…well, since Oregon Trail was the most well-known form of digital history scholarship, and there really isn’t a solution.

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Digital Humanities Now: Designing Information Flow

This week, our group met with the team behind Digital Humanities Now, an online compendium and journal that searches out and disseminates important scholarship throughout the digital humanities. Although the team has an official editorial staff of three (a number that likely fluctuates with funding), the time required to survey the many thousands of sources can quickly overwhelm even the most efficient team.

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