Using blogs for history education: MappingWIMS

When I conceptualized this digital project, ‘MappingWIMS’, I didn’t necessarily realize how challenging building an educational blog could be. The world of blogging- or even just using the blog format- seems to be unstructured and idiot-proof yet requires great attention to detail and know-how. My project was inspired by using personalized mapping tools such as My Maps by Google. The original idea was to have a personalized map which displayed something of a visual trip log of the civil rights project “Wednesdays in Mississippi” (WIMS) which took place during the 1964 ‘Freedom Summer.’ Since the foundation of this historical project was traveling from the North to the South, I thought that a map, with accompanying contextual information would be a great educational tool.

As I began piecing together this project, I weighed using WordPress.com against WordPress.org or Omeka.net. Simplicity and accessibility won out here. Omeka ruled out first because I needed something more quick and dirty. I didn’t have the time or vested interest to learn one my own how to navigate and optimize Omeka. Then I considered WordPress.org, which is obviously similar to WordPress.com, but requires you to download the program. That was simple enough, but when it came to adding plugins and manually managing the blog from my hard drive- I just didn’t have the patience or savvy (or admin power on my work computer!) to make WordPress.org work for me. So that left me with WordPress.com. Also, I wasn’t willing to pay for hosting for a more premium site like WordPress.org since I didn’t yet know how to use it well. So, since I was already familiar with the basic functions of WP.com because of using the online format for class and the blog I run for my interns, I defaulted to that one. Then I really just needed to explore how to make WP.com work for “MappingWIMS”.

I was somewhat surprised to find that WordPress.com did not have a map plugin and had blocked <iframe> embedding (which is how Google Maps are written). So what I thought would be a seamless, single site project turned into a kind of dual featured thing. All I managed to do was link the screenshot image of my maps to then navigate to my Google map. The idea was to keep the blog as its own little self-contained, themed experience so that you could reference the other posts and information while moving about this map. For obvious reasons, I was a disappointed with this issue. Perhaps if I had tried an alternative mapping tool, I could have avoided this, but like I said, I’m a dilettante.

I feel that I also allowed the content on my blog become inconsistent. In my head, I had imagined it taking much less work to include all the content and context needed to get the whole picture of what WIMS was. Since there’s next to nothing available about WIMS as far as secondary sources go, I found myself trying to throw up primary sources to legitimize the maps/historical accuracy, but then having to narrate and interpret all of the posts became more of a research project than anything else. As Dennis mentioned with his History Comps website- this is a lot of research and manual labor! The way my blog exists now is not my ideal and I think I might continue to improve upon it just for my peace of mind.

Further, I mentioned during my presentation that I was worried about almost ‘spilling’ about WIMS. I had had a little brush with the daughter of a WIMS team leader which put me on the defense a bit. Then after working with a doctoral student who has been writing her dissertation on WIMS for over five years, I began to feel a little sheepish about so casually using this information like people’s names, former addresses, etc. In the bigger scheme of things, what this predicament indicated to me is that ‘getting published’ at this day in age is as simple as opening a blog account. As we discussed early on in this class, print journalism is no longer restricted to newsprint and official sites. Whether I’m a seasoned, globetrotting, investigative journalist or some random employee at a tiny archive, if I have control over publishing some of the only information about a particular subject on the web- then people will read it, and probably believe it!

Using my privileged access to primary source information and translating it directly to the web and intermixing it with preexisting web sources, rather than writing a full length book, feels like I’ve transgressed some sacred ritual. Even with the advent of WikiLeaks, breaking news by way of Twitter, and the temporal life of Facebook… I’m not sure that a blog like MappingWIMS, as some of the first evidence on a historical topic, is the right way to go about ‘it’. Conversely, perhaps the fundamental idea behind this class is to inform new scholars that all is fair in web and technology?