Today’s digital project assessment focuses on the challenges of adherence to digital projects’ missions, maintenance, and sustainability. This week, as I searched for a digital humanities project to review, I stumbled across the work of Claudio Saunt, who had posted a GIF showing the growth of the African population alongside the European population in North America before 1790.
For Black History Month, 1st-ever map showing African pop before 1790. Red dot=200 Africans, blue=200 Euros. Interactive w/native pop soon! pic.twitter.com/P36AUG8uRK
— Claudio Saunt (@ClaudioSaunt) February 6, 2017
As I was exploring Saunt’s work, I discovered eHistory, a University of Georgia online collection of several digital history projects that Saunt and Stephen Barry founded and developed in 2011. eHistory seeks to involve “citizen historians,” that is, the broader public beyond those who study history in academia, in a series of “citizen histories” for a public audience that “better reflects the way knowledge is created and consumed in our increasingly digital world.” Rather than focusing exclusively on one of these projects intensely, I have chosen to evaluate a selection of the projects both to highlight some of their individual merits and shortcomings and to provide myself a more expansive glimpse into several different ways scholars are incorporating digital humanities into the field of history. While I was initially excited by what the site had to offer, I increasingly encountered disappointments. I chose the following three sites to highlight the different ways people can use digital history either as a research tool or a way to display historical knowledge, as well as to highlight issues of quality and management.
The Invasion of America
Several of eHistory’s projects involve mapping historical trends. One of these, The Invasion of America, maps the United States’ expansion across the North American continent. The Invasion of America is one of several digital maps that Claudio Saunt has developed, often in connection with his research for a publication. The Invasion of America corresponds with his book, West of the Revolution. A popup window offers a brief introduction to the site, describing its purpose and use. Within the site, users may interact with the map by sliding the bar of a timeline over different years, watching areas of the map change color as the United States gains possession of it. Similarly, users may press a play button and watch a “time lapse” of this change. Users may click on any area of the map to view who owned it at a given time, as well as the date and the manner in which the United States obtained it. Where available, links to treaties and other records of the exchange are also included. The site also offers several avenues through which users may search for or filter information about the map, westward expansion, and indigenous dispossession. Other eHistory sites, many by Saunt, use the same mapping platform to share components of indigenous history or the spread of the smallpox epidemic.
Common Tongues (Corpus of American Civil War Letters)
The project description for Common Tongues drew my attention by declaring that it was a “collection of thousands of letters written by Civil War soldiers who wrote ‘by ear.’ Instead of writing grammatically-correct English, these ‘transitionally literate’ men used the alphabet to capture the sounds words made when they spoke them.” Reading this, I somehow mistakenly presumed that there would be an auditory component to the project, thinking that the developers had composed audio recordings of the letters as if they were being read aloud, to better demonstrate what they had learned through their linguistic analysis of the letters, thus reproducing virtually a rare opportunity to hear how a common person during the Civil War spoke. Growing excited, I tried to click all over the introductory page to find the link to the site itself, but there was none. A quick Google search led me to another about page on the University of Missouri’s Department of English website. A link to the project on this page leads to a poorly-organized for-profit Civil War history site. Nevertheless, the English department’s about page links to several Microsoft Word file transcriptions of the letters, with a brief overview of its author.
My original assumptions about the site proved not to be the case. What remains of the site suggests that it was merely another archival repository of image scans of original documents supplanted with transcriptions. I shouldn’t say merely—the site, if still accessible, would be hugely valuable for researchers of English, history, linguistics, textual studies, anthropology, and the like, and those with general interest in the Civil War, because it massively compiles and makes available in one place thousands of Civil War letters through the painstaking work of Michael Ellis of Missouri State University. Ellis has used his own work to write a book about the use of English among North Carolinian soldiers.
When I clicked the link to visit the CSI: Dixie project, I found myself staring into an error message. Again, I did a Google search, and this time with much more impressive results. In contrast with Common Tongues and The Invasion of America, CSI: Dixie is neither a set of raw materials available for further study, nor a visualization of data—it is an interpretive project creating an engaging historical narrative out of already-compiled research. The creators of CSI: Dixie collected South Carolina’s nineteenth-century coroner’s inquests to attain “rare glimpses into Victorian-era suicide, homicide, infanticide, abortion, child abuse, spousal abuse, master-slave murder, and slave on slave violence.” The site’s user-interface is aesthetically pleasing, easy to navigate, and thematically cohesive. It cleverly uses names of books of the bible for site navigation, integrating it into a theme found in attitudes about death at the time. “Genesis” for instance, contains the site’s about page and introduction, telling the story of the project’s origins, like every other page on the site, in the form of a novel-like narrative. Genesis continues by telling story of the coroner’s office’s origins, while “Acts” give accounts of the most common causes of death during the era and “Numbers” statistically and graphically analyzes the coroner’s office data. “Judges” tells the story of the era’s coroners, judges, and juries involved in cases of inquest, while “Chronicles,” delves into individual inquest stories. “Exodus” examines the racial components found in the coroner’s records, while “Revelation,” as the site notes, “ruminates on the experience of bearing witness to so much death.” Strangely, though the introduction and conclusion to the site are written in first person, I could not find the name of the site’s author.
Overall, while eHistory provides valuable resources to facilitate the production of these digital projects, its online presence lacks upkeep. While the projects hosted on this site are in most cases phenomenal, the host site itself is in need of maintenance. As the main portal into the work of its contributors, it reflects poorly on them not to have maintained the site better. Moreover, when I scrolled through the “people” page, I discovered that the contributors featured were all university faculty or graduate students who had spearheaded the projects. Where were the “citizen historians” who supposedly contributed to these projects? I suppose that deeper investigation into each individual project’s about page might reveal that a more diverse array of contributors were involved in the success of the project, but the stark contrast between the “citizen history” mission eHistory proclaims on its about page, followed by the list of academic history scholars on its people page was off-putting. Granted, it is likely that these scholars are the ones who have the privilege of time, funding, and other resources to be able to dedicate themselves to spearheading an expansive project, and that it is easier for others to contribute smaller components to their project in their own time. Nevertheless, I would like to see more of the “citizens” in this citizen history foregrounded.