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.

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