Projects Director: Sharon Leon
In our last rotation for winter 2013, the DH Fellows, supervised by Associate Director Sheila Brennan, cycled through a series of active and developing Public Projects:
In our first week, we were introduced to the Omeka development process. Our assignment for this part of the rotation involved using Github to install our own version of Omeka, then to pull and test new themes and plugins.
We also had the opportunity to explore and contribute to the Papers of the War Department project. Offered a choice between transcribing published documents and revisiting more problematic items, we were able to see how this archive works and learned a little bit about a lost part of American history.
For our week on Mobile Mall project (which will probably have a different name by the time it goes public), we were asked to research and contribute to the project’s working selection of places, people, and events related to the Mall.
Our final assignment required us to explore some of the collecting projects the Center has supported over the years. More specifically, we were asked to contribute to the Occupy Archive by using Zotero to preserve sites, images, and videos related to individual Occupy groups and events.
DH Fellows on Public Projects
Amanda Morton (2012)
Our organized course through Public Projects gave us the chance to explore a variety of active projects. In Education and Research, we primarily focused on a single project, which was useful in that we got an in-depth look at how those projects developed from beginning to end (at least, our end in that department). Our scheduled rotations in this department demonstrated the scope of the Public Projects at the Center, and I definitely appreciated the chance to dig in and participate in each of them.
Seeing the development process behind Omeka and participating in the testing process was interesting. I’d never used GitHub that extensively, and I learned a lot from seeing how project members with different interests and skill levels can communicate and solve problems. The Papers of the War Department rotation was less challenging, in some ways, but I did enjoy working with the revisit docs and puzzling out difficult handwriting in order to pull out elements that might, potentially, be important to future users of these sources. While many of the letters were not incredibly interesting, there were some that caught my interest. I think the most beneficial part of this rotation, however, was learning about the backend of this archive and seeing one way to organize and provide access to a collection of sources of significant size.
I particularly enjoyed the final two rotations. Researching and exploring locations on the mall and figuring out ways to coherently describe them using a single picture and small selection of text was fun and challenging, even when dealing with particularly stubborn lost sites or people, like the frustratingly difficult to locate fish hatcheries on the Mall. Working with the Occupy Archive and looking at the Center’s past collecting projects was a very different experience. I remember following much of the activity of the Occupy movement on Twitter, and thinking about how useful it might be to record the way these disparate groups and individuals connected, communicated, and acted, and why. The Archive has a great deal of potential, and I hope that it is discovered and used by participants in the current incarnation of the movement.
The breadth of topics and formats covered by this department is, I think, representative of the RRCHNM as a whole. As historians interested in the possibilities offered by digital tools and new levels of access, we should be focused on how we can develop new tools and formats to open up our knowledge of the past and participate in the process of archiving and learning from the present.
Ben Hurwitz (2012)
As Amanda mentioned, this rotation was somewhat unique in that we were able to experience several different projects. These projects were all different in their purpose, their content, and also their stage of development.
On one end, the Papers of the War Department represents a site which has long been built and is steadily approaching completion as transcriptions continue to flow in from volunteers. The day-to-day work on this project involves transcribing, transcription revisiting, management of volunteer accounts, and the like – monitoring the site, the content, and the volunteer community. Working with PWD allowed us to see a project which has in many ways ‘arrived’ – providing important historical content through an established community of volunteers.
At the other extreme, the Occupy Archive is still currently in the collection stage. The amount of web content generated by Occupy movements worldwide is enormous, and it is essential that this content is captured now while it is still available and, in many cases, while supporters of the movement are still communicating in these spaces. Most of the Occupy movements utilize facebook pages which are still active and provide a nearly complete history of their use. We archived these pages by capturing them with Zotero snapshots and storing them in a group library. It was an incredibly efficient way of gathering page images, and it exposed me to a feature of Zotero which I had never used before. We are not sure what the future of the Occupy Archive holds, but it was exciting to play a role in collecting content with historical value which is acutely available, and which could easily become unavailable in the future.
One of the characteristics of public projects is diversity in the kinds of projects that the team produces, manages, or supports. Over the five weeks that we spent working on public projects, our time was divided fairly evenly between different kinds of projects: public history, transcription, collection, and Omeka. The idea was that we’d be able to see how different kinds of projects are managed and carried out, and in return, provide extra support for those working groups.
Whether we were researching people, places, or events to create items in the forthcoming mall project Omeka site or transcribing documents from the War Department, each project was an opportunity to learn more about historical content and the ways in which history is written and presented in digital public spaces. My experience with the canal systems in the Niagara Region of Ontario was helpful in making sense of the canal drawings from the now-hidden Washington Canal. Similarly, I found content from the War Department papers that relates to the research I’ve done on the British and American forts along the Niagara frontier.
No matter what career a graduate student decides to pursue, the experiences gained working in public projects are invaluable; public historians will be able to draw on their decisions about historical content and presentation methods, whereas academic researchers will better understand the complexities of collections and archives. Most importantly, the continually changing set of projects means that each student gets to see a wide range of approaches and methods that can be applied in their future projects.