Digital Assessment: eHistory

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.

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. Read more

Conveying the Holocaust through Video

Digital exhibits containing video are harder to come by than imagined. As I searched for new history websites to review for their multimedia presence, I found that very few incorporated video into their exhibitions. Those who did, such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute, simply hosted 1-2 minute videos of a scholar sharing a brief academic commentary on a specific topic. Access to Gilder Lehrman’s online exhibitions page, which promised more videos and multimedia experiences, required a paid subscription. Of the websites I searched, only Colonial Williamsburg, which has its own digital productions team, had a variety of freely accessible educational history videos available online, though even Colonial Williamsburg kept its best material locked behind a subscription screen, and for good reason—video production requires extensive time, money, and effort, which is why so many of the sites I visited had little video to show.

However, I eventually stumbled across Yad Vashem’s online exhibitions, whose multimedia usage impressed me. The site’s exhibits incorporate images and video into their textual narrative to tell stories of Jewish history, culture, and life before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Death March to Volary exhibition’s use of video was particularly powerful. The exhibit tells the story of approximately 1,000 Jewish women forced on a death march from a camp in Poland. An introductory video blends the stories of women who survived the march with images and film clips to make the horror of their experience more vivid. The video served as a compelling introduction to the site, bringing the opening text to life. The rest of the exhibit traces the chronology of the march day by day, from its origins to liberation and return to life. In each section, more videos, images, and artifacts pertinent to the event tell the story of those specific days of the journey. Unlike many other unsuccessful attempts to integrate written historical narrative and video components that I’ve seen, the text, audio, and video on this site complemented one another. Not only does the video enhance what’s described in the narrative, text and photographs situated alongside the videos contextualize the experiences the women describe in their testimonies.

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Challenging Dominant Narratives in the Historical Record

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Image from ncph.org.

Along with several of my colleagues, I attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting this past week. This year’s theme, “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” raised important questions about the obstacles to uncovering obscured narratives.

Several panels and workshops I attended taught me powerful lessons on these topics, but one particularly stood out to me in light of much of my own work. Courtney Hobson presented on her experience as a docent at Darnall’s Chance, a historic house museum and the only museum in Prince George’s County in Maryland interpreted from the perspective of a woman, Lettice Lee.

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Darnall’s Chance House Museum. Image from Darnall’s Chance House Museum website.

Courtney recognized that the narrative focused solely on the white elite woman of the household, and relegated discussion of slavery, and the important women of color within this household, to the kitchen. She has sought to reconfigure this narrative to include the women of the Davis-Bentley-Barton family, who were descendants of a white indentured Englishwoman named Mary Davis and a black slave, Domingo, who married during the colonial period. Read more

Access at a Price

This past year, Colonial Williamsburg worked to relaunch its website on a new platform at the domain history.org (not to be confused with the History Channel’s history.com!). In addition to providing information for tourists interested in planning a trip to the living history village, the site also seeks to achieve educational outreach goals by providing a host of digital materials for researchers, learners, and history enthusiasts of all ages. Some of these resources are free and publically accessible. Others, however, require a paid subscription (although some opportunities are available to subsidize these costs). Within some tabs, educational opportunities are mixed with endeavors to advertise and sell products. Sometimes these commercial impositions unexpectedly inhibit open exploration of the site, though they are a clever means for an institution dependent on income to sustain such an incredible physical and online presence.

The site has an almost overwhelming array of tabs to choose from, putting information at an explorer’s fingertips. Some of these include: Read more

Visualizing Women’s Suffrage

As Maggie, Fazila, and I work to digitize collections for our final project, an online exhibit featuring Evanston neighborhood women’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, I consider how I can use tools like Photoshop to enhance the quality of images we digitize. Having used photo-editing services such as Gimp, Picasa, and Paint to crop and sharpen photos for a brief documentary video before, I have learned that editing can go a long way to improving the visibility of a photographed or scanned document or image, but can take a lot of time and effort. Often, the digitized format for sources needs some enhancement before its online presentation: scans are often washed out and need sharpening, while photographs of collections often need straightening, cropping, and sharpening to correct glare and other issues. I am curious to see what features Photoshop has to offer when we experiment with it in class next week. Here are some raw images I hope to enhance as a result: Read more

The Virtual Bookshelf: Shelfari and Goodreads

This week our blog assignment is to write a brief history of a social networking site listed on Wikipedia. Seeing Shelfari, a virtual bookshelf-sharing site for book-lovers, on the list, I thought, “Oh good, I love Shelfari, I’ll pick that!” Much to my alarm, when I clicked on the Wikipedia page, I saw the following statement: “Shelfari continued to function as an independent book social network within the Amazon.com family of sites until January 2016, when Amazon announced on Shelfari.com that it would be merging Shelfari with Goodreads and closing down Shelfari.” Luckily, Amazon provided users an easy option to save their booklists for their own records, as well as to migrate their booklists to a Goodreads account. I quickly hopped onto Shelfari, saved my booklist, created a Goodreads account, and started the merge. My mini-emergency serves as an important reminder for public historians who use digital programs to store and share material that digital platforms often have short lifespans. But first, a history of the two sites: Read more

Museum 2.0: Caveats and Considerations

Ready to dive into a new online history project? You may want to pause for a second and make sure that you’ve considered all of the effort it will take before you begin. If you haven’t fully assessed all of the work necessary to complete a successful digital history project, you may be unpleasantly surprised when issues keep seemingly popping up. As a part of my Public History New Media course, I will be working with classmates to design an online exhibition. In preparation for beginning the project, I consider here some of the challenges we may face as we compose and complete the digital exhibit. Here are some “things to consider” when contemplating whether to take on the endeavor of beginning a digital project: Read more

Tweeting Public History: Successes and Pitfalls

This course has brought me into the world of Twitter for the first time. Though I’ve carefully avoided Twitter for years, as soon as I started following some of my favorite museums and public history institutions, I grew impressed as I scrolled through their feeds, learning about the institutions and what they have to share. I had a negative preconception that Twitter created a messy, disjointed feed of news, opinions, images, and information that was difficult for anyone without context, or knowledge of twitter abbreviations and hashtag lingo, to comprehend, but I found that many of the institutions feeds were concise, clear, clean, and easy to follow. As I looked at the feeds, I made some observations about the best practices and shortcomings of using Twitter for public history. Here are some of my takeaways that I would give as advice for public history institutions to make the most of their Twitter presence: Read more