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.

Public Projects: Reflection

Our first semester at the Center for History and New Media has flown by. We spent the second half of the semester in the Public Projects Division which was a diverse and rewarding experience.

During this rotation we were able to tour the entire division and spend some time working with many of the division’s projects.  We spent a large chunk of time working with Omeka, testing plugins, themes, and other items that are in development.  One thing I took away from working with the Omeka team and attending the Sprint Planning meetings is how collaborative this division, and the center as a whole, is.  Between programmers, designers, testers, and content development– Omeka really is a team project that seeks to make collecting easier for museums and archives.  Through working with the software we also got some hands on experience with the amount of work it takes to build an archive and what kinds of issues come up when doing so.  We discussed and experienced issues such as the naming of pages and areas on a site, creating a strict vocabulary to make searching consistent, and developing content first hand.

We also spend time developing content for projects such as The Histories of the National Mall and Papers of the War Department.  The National Mall project allowed us to think about how the public utilizes mobile history sites when at a museum or a national park such as the Mall.  We spent a wonderful afternoon down on the mall testing the mobile first site (and enjoyed some excellent tacos from the local food truck tacos!).

Papers of the War Department was a different experience and we spent time both transcribing documents and tagging meta data for documents. Using the Scripto plugin for Omeka, we first tagged revisit documents with key words, names, places, and topics.  This element of the project required some knowledge and required a deeper engagement with the documents than transcribing did.  Transcribing the documents was challenging (seventeenth century handwriting is interesting) but we could all see the immense benefit to having the documents both transcribed and tagged on the site.

I think we are starting to really begin to understand the inner workings of the center and the projects and goals of each division.  Public Projects does several different things from software development to content based projects and I think we all benefited greatly from our tour around the division. Coincidently, the first year fellows were also taking Clio Wired I this semester and often what we did at the center overlapped with what we did in class making the experience even more valuable for us.  I think we all came away from this semester having learned a great deal and I feel much more aware of many of the issues facing scholars in Digital History centers as well as in academia in general.

Reflections: Year Two, Semester One

As the first term of 2013-14 closes, it seems appropriate to reflect on the experiences of the Digital History Fellows. Last year, our first cohort of DH Fellows spent the first semester meeting with Dan Cohen, learning the history of the center, discussing current projects, and thinking about how digital history is practiced. We spent our second semester working in each of the divisions for five weeks, and then decided in which division we would like to work in the second year. Although there was no specific requirement that we take positions spread across the three divisions, we were drawn in different directions. From the first days of the fellowship, Ben Hurwitz was most comfortable in Education and quickly entrenched himself at their community table. He now works on various educational projects, including the Popular Romance Project. Amanda Morton worked closely with Fred Gibbs before he relocated to New Mexico, which helped her transition into Research, where she works on Digital Humanities Now and related PressForward projects. Spencer Roberts was drifting toward Public Projects before the summer started, and settled in once the center received a grant to work with the National Park Service to revamp their War of 1812 site.

This year we welcomed three new members into the fellowship, bringing our total number to six. The second cohort follows a different schedule in their first year, so Amanda Regan, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, and Jannelle Legg stepped directly into the mix at RRCHNM, splitting their semester into seven-week blocks in Education and Public Projects. During those weeks, they have written reflective posts about the projects to which they’ve contributed, all of which can be found here. Next term, they will spend a block in Research before moving into a final seminar with Stephen Robertson.

Continue reading

Public Projects: Reflection

The past seven weeks have moved really quickly but I have benefitted a great deal from the time we spent in the Public Projects section of CHNM.

Due to my relatively limited technical skills, this section has proven to be the most challenging thus far. However, with some help, and some pretty detailed instructions, I have been expanding my skill set and feel a lot less intimidated by the tools we work with. There are three main projects on which we focused: testing updates in Omeka, transcribing and revisiting documents at the Papers of the War Department and contributing to and testing the National Mall site.

I have deeply enjoyed them all, especially the sunny morning we spent at the National Mall. Additionally, a great deal of our work overlapped with the theoretical reading and discussions of our coursework as digital history scholars. It is rare for theory and application to be balanced, but that was definitely my experience this semester. I was frequently surprised to find applications of class reading at work and often referred to the work done at CHNM during course discussions.

Public Projects was deeply inclusive for us as fellows. I got a real sense of each of the ongoing projects and I learned a great deal about the collaborative work required to produce the resources described above.

Overall, this semester the fellowship has given me a structured place to develop my knowledge and expertise with digital tools, like Omeka and Scripto, and given me a sandbox to play with Git Hub and the command-line (if you know what those things are, you are in a much better place than I was three months ago!)

I’m looking forward to learning more in the semester to come!

Reflections on Public Projects

This week, we finished our rotation block with Public Projects. I both struggled and thoroughly enjoyed working in Public Projects, as I learned so many new and helpful things while I also found my weaknesses in some of the more technical aspects of digital history. This block included many different types of projects, such as live testing a new website at the National Mall, writing entries for that project, testing Omeka, and even transcribing letters for Papers of the War Department.

I also got to venture into DC for the first time for work during this rotation, which I enjoyed immensely. I was very thankful that I got to test the new National Mall project with my other first year fellows, and you can read more about that experience here. I am excited to see it go live, and I hope that when it is live, many other first-time and returning visitors to the Mall can utilize it.

I also had some difficulties in the block that I overcame, which makes me feel incredibly accomplished. Although I felt comfortable with Omeka coming into this block, I have learned so much more about how it functions and the different uses than I had previously known. I also learned a lot about how transcribing and pulling out keywords from handwritten letters are entirely different experiences. This was difficult, especially figuring out what particular words were, but it was so useful, connecting, and interesting to read these letters from when the US was a brand new country.

I loved working within this block, and I liked that I was challenged by a lot of the projects we worked on. I have learned a lot of useful skills that I can apply to my future career or dissertation as a historian. Coming into George Mason University, I already had my MA in Public History, and I have a real passion for making history accessible to the public. I believe that a lot of the work that is being done in the Public Projects section of CHNM is applying this concept, and I take great inspiration from the people and projects that I have encountered while working here.

An Africanist in the American Revolution

Before beginning the Papers of the War Department rotation, I was mostly interested in learning about the archive itself, how the content was collected, and about the process of managing volunteers for crowdsource transcriptions. As someone who studies the history of South Africa, and who knows little about the American Revolution, I did not expect to find much content that would be particularly applicable to my own research or interests.

Continue reading

Skipping Through Revisit Documents

A significant portion of the documents archived on the Papers of the War Department site have been, or still are, located on a revisit list. This list is made up of documents that have not been completely sorted by the items, places, or people mentioned within. Because I was interested in getting a general idea of what is available in this collection, my experience with the PWD this semester mostly involved working through some of these documents. The unorganized and generally un-tagged nature of these documents, listed only by number, makes revisiting less of a specific look at a particular place, person, or keyword, and more of an exploration of the sheer variety of War Department documents in this collection.

Continue reading