Reflection on the Public Projects Division

In some ways, Public History was a field I spent little time engaging before coming to George Mason. While I did work in a University museum for 2+ years during my undergraduate degree, I had always focused my career aspirations and attention on academic history only. In part, I had never formally been introduced to public history and the vastness of the field. Since starting the Digital History Fellowing, Public history has quickly come into focus. My rotation through the Public Projects division introduced me to the plethora of opportunities that digital public history has to offer. Over the course of these four weeks, we worked on multiple projects, each with differing tasks.

During our first week, we were introduced to Omeka. A CMS (content management system) designed with the focus on the item and not the word. Omeka is one of the flagship programs/projects for Public Projects. I was excited to learn more about this program as I had heard so much about it from around the Center. We started by reading about Omeka and exploring Omeka sites. This was followed by Megan Brett walking us through a command line install of Omeka on the Dev server. It was really interesting to work with the command line as I have little experience using Terminal or command line anything. In addition, the command line install differed greatly from the One-click install we did in our Clio Wired class on Reclaim Hosting. Working on the back end using git commands definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the ease of the One-click install while also highlighting the control command line gives to the user. We wrapped up our week on Omeka by installing PosterBuilder on our Dev Omeka and tested the plugin.

In our second week, we moved on to Histories of the National Mall. Our main task was to do mobile testing of the website while on the National Mall. It doesn’t matter how old you get, everyone loves going on field trips, especially to a place like the National Mall. We took a day off from the Center and traveled out to the Mall with the intention of testing the site on different devices. Alyssa brought an iPad, Stephanie had her Android phone, and I had my iPhone 5. Of the three devices, the Android phone worked the best (surprisingly). The Mall wireless network wasn’t working thus ruling out Alyssa’s iPad and my iPhone was running really slow. In spite of this, the whole experience was a lot of fun and very educational. Using the website on the mall allowed us to experience it as it was intended. We had to work around the sun glare on the screens, trying to get the map geolocation to work, and filtering the tags for each item.

During our trip to the Mall we were tasked with reading through an Exploration to gain a sense of the user experience. After we returned to the Center, we were assigned a rough draft of an exploration that needed to be both fact checked and edited. My exploration was “Who keeps the mall so green?” It covered the history of the Mall’s landscaping as well as its grounds maintenance. The fact checking process took an exceptionally long time to complete. It required me to read through various NPS documents as well as other government documents. As difficult and frustrating as it was, it was very rewarding in the end. I learned a lot about the McMilan Plan, the Commission of Fine Arts as well as the new Turf Restoration Project.

Our final project was the 911 digital archive. A retired FAA special agent from Boston sent in a collection of documents that needed to be cataloged into the archive. We each took five documents from the collection, read through them and then populated the respective metadata fields. It was quite fascinating to read these testimonial accounts or internal memos from Logan International Airport. I learned evermore about metadata as we had to follow the Dublin Core standard. While I have experience with metadata in general (metadata is important in GIS work), I was unaware of differing standards etc. Through this project, I learned more about curating items in a digital archive as well as creating and maintaining metadata.

Overall, my time in public projects was very beneficial. I was introduced to the expanse that is digital public history by taking part in multiple projects. Each project challenged me in different ways and helped me to become a more rounded digital historian. Truthfully, I am now contemplating and investigating Public History just as much as Academic History.

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