Local History Education and Digital Media in Historical Societies (or I haven’t come up with a catchier title yet)

Cultural institutions, archives, and museums have often incorporated educational initiatives into their mission statements and organizational activities. The dissemination of these resources in the teaching of history, however, has changed with the proliferation of technology and digital media.[1] More and more, these organizations are offering educators online lesson plans, access to digitized collections, and interactive exhibits and tours. Specifically, a strong focus has developed on providing interactive online resources and information for K-12 teachers and students. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig note that “online lesson plans have become so ubiquitous that no one has yet cataloged them.” While it is clear that digital teaching and learning tools are increasingly becoming standard for cultural institutions, it is less clear how these resources are aligning themselves with actual educator needs. How are online resources designed and to what extent are they serving local and national educational requirements?

For my print project I am interested in analyzing the educational resources of three particular institutions: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the New York Historical Society, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. I am interested in exploring how these three local state historical societies use digital media and educational resources to teach national history from a local perspective; and more particularly what each institutions’ goals are in teaching history through digital media. How are digital tools employed? Is the educational content of each site more often packaged lesson plans or interactive activities students can engage with?[2] What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? How are these different teaching tools changing history education? As Orville Burton asks “Will the partnership [between history education and digital technologies] revolutionize the ways in which history is taught and researched or will it simply offer additional tools to improve traditional practices?”[3]

I am also interested in analyzing each institutions’ view of educators (and their goals in meeting actual educator needs). Are these sites aligning their online educational content with required state social studies standards and frameworks? If so, how? Are they simply creating digital educational content to deliver further information about their own collections, or are they working instead to actively meet local and state education requirements? Are these societies providing easy to implement/packaged units or are they more basic resources that teachers can use themselves to create their own lesson plans, etc.?

I hope that through investigation of the digital educational resources at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the New York Historical Society, I will gain a better understanding of the ways in which digital content can effectively aid in the teaching of local and national history.


[1] Orville Vernon Burton notes in his article “American Digital History” that “U.S History and Computing have had a long history of partnership in teaching and research,” see, Burton, “American Digital History,” Social Science Computer Review 2 (Summer 2005): 206. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig dedicate a section of their book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, to teaching and learning. They note that “the web reaches unprecedented numbers of K-12 students and teachers” and “a very large percentage of websites, regardless of their primary focus, have incorporated teaching materials and advice.”

[2] Cohen and Rosenzweig note that “Most teaching websites offer resources (especially primary sources) and advice (for teachers on how to teach, for students on how to work with evidence). What has been talked about endlessly but has been much harder to achieve is interactive learning exercises.” See Cohen and Rosenzweig Teaching Digital History.

[3] Burton, “American Digital History,”abstract.

What TripAdvisor Says About America


Bizarre, contentious, and extremely popular, Mount Rushmore National Memorial has been etched into the U.S. identity since it’s construction in 1877. According to the official site, it “[symbolizes] the ideals of freedom and democracy.” The National Park Service’s page for the memorial features this quote from Rushmore’s architect Gutzon Borglum:

The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

“Colossal” couldn’t be more accurate. With 20-foot high Presidential faces carved with dynamite, this American landmark in the desert of South Dakota is a landmark so ambitious that even in the desert it sticks out. But Mount Rushmore’s history is as equally difficult to ignore , raising uncomfortable questions about it’s preeminent place in our culture. Borglum, himself, served as a member of the Klu Klux Klan , and the Rushmore property (which at one time had been willed to the Sioux Nation) was taken back by the government in 1874 when gold was discovered there. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the federal government in favor of the Lakota tribe, but the case remains unresolved.

This paper will analyze user’s reviews of Mount Rushmore on the social media site Tripadvisor to explore perceptions of the memorial as it relates to the United State’s national identity. With ten years of data, I will use visualization tools such as Voyant to analyze linguistic trends that rise to the surface, whether these trends change over time, and if certain words correlate to negative or positive reviews (only 219 of the 3,508 reviews were given an “average” or below rating). Some of the questions I hope to answer include: (1) Are visitor’s aware of the monument’s history, and if so, does it influence their rating? (2) What language correlates to negative and positive reviews? (3) Do linguistic trends change over the decade? (4)After analyzing these subsets, what can be concluded about how reviewers interpret their own national identity?

Those that came before
Using social media to analyze how the public defines and creates meaning has been an emerging field of scholarship that this study hopes to continue. In “My Tripadvisor: Mining Social Media for Visitor’s Perceptions of Museums vs. Attractions,” Elizabeth Mauer used Tripadvisor comments to analyze the expectations and perceptions of museum visitors in order to re-think how museums can better represent themselves. In “Trip Advisor Rates Einstein,” Trevor Owens shows that the creation of meaning through social media is recursive; a place to record reactions, while simultaneously providing a ‘frame’ that influences how new visitor’s interpret the statue. Bryan Routledge performs computational linguistics on social media to break open language trends and what they say about society. As an example, he and a team of researchers used Yelp reviews to show that expensive restaurants are most often described through metaphors of sex, while cheap restaurants were described through metaphors of drug abuse and addiction. These scholars have used an emerging corpus of data to make important statements about society and meaning-creation.


Methodology                                                                                           Unfortunately, Tripadvisor will not allow API access for academic research or data analysis, so I plan to sample 25-30% of the reviews for the purposes of this class. On the up side, Tripadvisor allows you to sort by date and reviewer ranking, so getting at the data from different angles will be relatively easy. Through the text-mining tool Ventura, you can search by specific words and also see overarching trends. I plan to use both methods on three different sample sets (negative reviews, positive reviews, and a span from 2004-2015), in order to answer my proposal questions.

It is my hope that this study benefits a cross-section of disciplines in the social sciences, contributes to emerging digital scholarship, and gives us insight into how we reconcile the sometimes contradictory narratives of a monument’s history and what it is supposed to represent.

Memory and Materiality: An Examination of Dear Photograph

On January 13, 2014, the Tumblr based blog, Dear Photograph reached 150,000 followers. Although the site has not been updated since last fall, its first three years of use provide a wealth of material I will use to examine how people interact with the past, form memories, and view materiality on the web. The blog of focus features digital photos taken by people of physical photos lined up with their original setting, with a caption beginning with “Dear photograph.” Meta right?

Here’s an example:


Dear Photograph,
Trafalgar Square 50 years ago and my Granny never looked happier! If my house was burning down, this would be the one possession I would be desperate to save. I miss so many things about my Granny but most of all I miss her beautiful smile.

This example combines a personal photograph and message and places it in a setting of historical significance.

Some of the other photos are inherently more personal, both in place and in subject:


Dear Photograph,
This is when I still had hair and my brother pooped himself.
We were happy, but we didn’t know it.

If you do a quick Google search for “dear photograph” you will find, beyond the actual site (and its manifestations on other social media platforms) a number of articles profiling the site and its owner/curator, Taylor Jones. None of these articles are very long or in depth. The articles focus on “New-age nostalgia” or “digital nostalgia” but few delve into the ideas of memory.

One of the few scholarly pieces that deals with memory, Dear Photograph, and that sets the frame for my study is “Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories” by Jason Kalin. This article briefly mentioned Dear Photograph as part of a larger set of websites involved in “rephotography,” or retaking the same photograph in the same place at a different time to show change. Kalin argues that the way we share digital photos on the web  and use rephotography changes the way we remember things. Its application in a digital social environment allows users to “follow in the footsteps of previous walkers while simultaneously making that walk their own, thus producing a collective text, a collective, public memory of place that responds to past, present, and future.” In essence, these images are not only a way of remembering the past but are a means to create new memories, in a dialogue more public than ever before. This study will build off Kalin’s ideas as well as the general literature about memory to examine how Dear Photograph in particular reveals the changing nature of memory in the digital environment.

A piece in the New Yorker demonstrates another side to Dear Photograph, saying that “the project is a powerful reminder that digital photos can’t ever quite duplicate how it feels to hold a timeworn, sun-bleached, wrinkled old family photo in your hand.” This sentence gets to the heart of ideas espoused by Matt Kirschenbaum in Mechanisms when he discusses how the digital is often associated as something inherently not physical. Dear Photograph represents a juxtaposition of the nostalgia for the materiality of analog photographs while putting these objects within the structure of the new media that replaced them. Looking at these ideas and those of memory outlined above, I question, do memory and materiality relate to one another? Is Dear Photograph an attempt to adapt the memories associated with tactile feel to the digital environment? Through the examination of the content of images and text in the posts of Dear Photograph, I hope to answer these questions and reveal how this platform relates to the way we form memories in the digital age.

Text analysis of the Diary of Jacob Engelbrecht

For the print project I propose to perform text analysis on the diary of Jacob Engelbrecht which is owned by the Historical Society of Frederick County.  I propose using MALLET, Voyant and WordSeer to discover which of these tools work best with the diary and to gather what information I can through analysis of the diary’s text.

Fun guy, huh?
Fun guy, huh?

Jacob Engelbrecht, born in 1797, was a local Renaissance man, who earned his living as a tailor in Fredericktown.  He was the son of a Hessian soldier from Bayreuth who had been imprisoned in Frederick in 1782 and later, when presented the opportunity, elected to stay and marry a local girl named Margaret Haux.

Engelbrecht’s diary provides valuable insight into life in 19th Century Frederick.  While several other published diaries exist that were recorded by Frederick residents, this one is unique in that Engelbrecht seemed to be capturing events for posterity.  His entries rarely recount personal events and exploits, instead Engelbrecht relates facts, lists of names, marriages, deaths and other events.  This diary also covers a much broader period of time than others in the Historical Society collection spanning from 1818, through Jacob’s death in 1878, and continues on, under the guidance of Engelbrecht’s son, until 1882.

The “diary” was originally 22 separate diaries of various sizes and conditions that were transcribed and compiled into a two-volume work published by the Historical Society of Frederick County.

Image of an image of Jacob Engelbrecht's handwriting, found in the inside cover of the published diary.
Image of an image of Jacob Engelbrecht’s handwriting, found in the inside cover of the published diary.

We have already discussed MALLET and Voyant and their capabilities in class.  WordSeer is a NEH grant funded project that helps users perform exploratory text analysis.  It allows visualizations, side by side comparisons, explore the contexts of specific words, and create and compare categories or thesauri.

I was inspired by Cameron Blevins’ blog post about topic modeling Martha Ballard’s diary and how successful the technique was.  The Engelbrecht diary like that of Martha Ballard, contains daily entries, but instead of covering 27 years, it covers more than 60.  No analysis has been done on the text of the Engelbrecht diary because the body of text is so large.  Although I have no idea how many entries were written in the diary, the transcribed edition that was subsequently digitized consists of 1,167 pages of text.

Currently the only way to really search the Engelbrecht diary is with a simple keyword search.  In her article “Doing More with Digitization,” Sharon Block discusses the limitations of performing keyword searches on electronic sources stating that “the results of keyword searches are quite often incomplete or full of ‘noise,’ irrelevant results that make it hard to find what you are looking for.”  She continues, maintaining that “for searching to be effective, access needs to be supplemented by analysis.”  My experience searching for information within the Engelbrecht diary has been largely unsuccessful or time consuming.  I look forward to exploring the different ways these three tools interact with the diary and the information that will be revealed through text analysis.

Crowdsourcing Culture and Implications for Professional Labor

The 2013 New Media Consortium Horizon Report, Museum Edition, identifies crowdsourcing as a digital topic on the near horizon, which the report defines as within a year or less of wide-scale adoption by a significant number of museums and cultural institutions. Indeed, 2013 appears to be the year that crowdsourcing really took off in the public history world, though the concept is by no means brand new. More and more museums and other cultural institutions are using crowdsourcing as a method to collect and process data, from the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” project, to the Smithsonian’s digital volunteers initiative to transcribe documents, to the Historypin web site and app, which is entirely based around crowdsourcing moments of historical memory around the world. Some institutions see crowdsourcing as supplemental, while other projects make the wisdom of the crowd their primary focus and mode of operation. However you look at it, this growing enthusiasm for crowdsourcing public history raises big questions for the field: is crowdsourcing an activity of labor or leisure? Does looking to volunteers to perform work for the institution devalue the labor of public history professionals? Perhaps most importantly, what is the role of historians in a crowdsourced field?

The print project will start by examining digital public history theory and scholarly works on crowdsourcing as a way of doing digital public history. Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital Public History, Rosenzweig’s essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Brabham’s paper “The Myth of Amateur Crowds,” and Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, a book of essays that focuses on instances and issues of crowdsourcing will provide a solid basis for discussing what crowdsourcing is and how it is used by cultural institutions. The project will also study crowdsourcing through a labor history lens and will discuss what labor is, the value of labor, and the implications of unpaid work on the idea of labor as a commodity. In exploring the philosophy of inherent value of labor, the project will also examine the history of public history, museums, and archives, and will attempt to determine the effects of class, education, and perceptions of history and memory on the individuals that make up the crowds that public history institutions tap.

Lastly, the project will analyze a handful of case studies, reports, and well-documented crowdsourced digital projects to determine present state of crowdsourcing in the public history field, and the effects of crowdsourcing on public history institutions and their users. These include Writing History in the Digital Age, University College – London’s Transcribe Bentham project and findings, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Lodz Ghetto project. By examining actual instances of crowdsourcing and the interactions between user groups and institutions, one may determine if the labor of public history professionals is devalued by the free labor of crowds, or if it is instead more valued due to the efforts and involvement of users in the institution’s day to day work.

Obsessive Nostalgia and the World Market: a project proposal

In this paper, I am going to examine the how a global marketplace of internet consignment retailers is redefining, manipulating, and exploiting the idea of “vintage.”

Fashion has long been a window into the values of an age (see Drew’s blog last week about the costumer) and the new niche market of internet consignment – especially in vintage fashion – is affecting every brand from the finest couturiers to Target’s house brands. And, like the gamut of haute couture to pret-a-porter, the various sites have their specific niches: some specializing in mid-range off the rack all the way up to hundred thousand dollar Birkin bags (on sale for only $75K).

Beginning with The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal argues that nostalgia is the perfect vacation because we already know all the bad things that can happen, we have “taken the measure of it” (4). We know how to secure happily ever after in the past because it’s already done. Especially, I think for women who have been working toward greater rights, it is safe to go back because we approve of the forward movement. The past become a theme park (371-372) and the trappings of the past – the Vintage – becomes dress-up.

To bring in Anthony Giddens and his work Runaway World, the argument is made that we are nostalgic because by controlling the past “we can shape history for our own purposes” (20). He brings up the fascinating argument that the Enlightenment has betrayed us: “the influences that were supposed to make life more certain and predictable for us, including the progress of science and technology, often have quite the opposite effect … Science and technology are inevitably involved in our attempts to counter such risks, but they have also contributed to creating them in the first place” (20-21).

Giddens continues with the argument that traditions are something we make up as we go along, that “the idea of tradition, then, is itself a creation of modernity” (57), a sentiment backed up by Ben Schmidt’s discussion of anachronistic speech in Downton Abbey: “historians know that the ‘invention of tradition was rampant in Victorian England; the practice of happily talking abuot ‘more traditional’ and ‘less traditional’ outcomes is even more recent.”

So where do these ideas leave “Vintage?” Is it, as Giddens would ask, “heritage or kitch” (62)? And what signs of manipulation and exploitation are evident in the many layers of internet vintage resale?



word cloud

The word cloud above, produced by Voyant, shows what happens if you search “Vintage” in Tradesy and then sort by price high to low (and remove some articles: by, listed, of, the, and). Want is the biggest word because it appears in every post because that’s how you the purchaser indicate your interest in something, by clicking the “want” button.

It is my intention to crawl through both the supporting literature that bridges the gap between The Past is a Foreign Country and Runaway World and then to crawl through three websites to track trends at all levels of the market. I have chosen Tradesy for couture and high end pret-a-porter, Threadflip for the middle of the range, and Ebay, where you can buy anything. In addition to dissecting how each platform works, I am going to use Voyant analytic tools, especially word clouds, as above, to show how they define and describe “vintage” merchandise, and how they brand themselves as part of the trip to the theme park, I am going to attempt to find a few items that appear on all three sites to compare and contrast the way the item is pitched to the buying public by playing on and redefining what vintage is.

My Print Proposal = Reviewing Ripped Apart: A Civil War Mystery

My print project proposal involves reviewing the new game Ripped Apart: A Civil War Mystery, in order to assess learning goals and outcomes by mainly using the rubric of learning principles as enumerated by James Paul Gee. Though Gee has thirty-six principles of learning that he applies to video games, I propose to use approximately a dozen in order to evaluate how a deeper and more engaged understanding of American history can be learned through the aforementioned game.RippedApartRippedApart


Ripped Apart is an Ipad app created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and produced with a grant from the Verizon foundation. It was released February 18, 2015 to the public, and so other reviews could be scant and participation could be hard to track. Though I am proposing to review the game in terms of learning goals, further considerations could include marketing, development, and usage statistics.

James Paul Gee lays out thirty-six learning principles in his 2007 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee stresses that literacy should encompass how to read not only text, but also images, symbols, graphs, diagrams, artifacts, and other visual symbols (17). Multi-modal texts (texts that mix words and images) that can be found in video games, Gee argues, can increase literacy creatively and pragmatically.

The link between playing video games and learning a broader application of literacy can be applied productively to assess Ripped Apart. In his book, Gee states and elaborates on learning principles “equally relevant to learning in video games and learning in content areas in classrooms” (41). So, how does this museum video game app address some of those learning principles?


Ripped Apart asks the player to become an intern at the museum to help a curator complete some very important research on American History. By matching carte de visits with historical documents the player can then identify the owner of certain photo albums and let those owners’ spirits rest. There is an element of other worldliness to the game in two senses: you learn about a different time period through historical documents and the spirits of some of these historical people are lingering down in the office / storage space where the player’s work desk is located. The spirits guide the player and so does the curator that the player is working for.

Because the player is working with different types of historical documents and artifacts (photographs, illustrations, letters, newspaper clippings, maps, clothing, and more), the most salient learning principle that can be applied would be the multimodal principle. This principle states that “meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words” (224). The game supplies players with a reference index where they can learn more about the documents and artifact they find at their desk that they takes notes about, and then connect to a selection of portraits to help determine the owner of an album. The diverse portraits include famous people of the period as well unknown people of the time. Political, economic, and geographic clues are also included in the artifact box.

Ron Morris also writes about how video games about American history, specifically the Civil War, can aid classroom curriculum by extending learning into a place where the student can engage with history and make decisions. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=3546

The extension of learning is an important and complex aspect that would be elaborated on in terms of assessing how the museum, the historians, and the teachers present and debrief video game experiences.

Communicating Design, Or this Post Would Be More Visually Appealing With Some Images

As historians, when doing research, don’t we just yearn for some sort of source material that will explain why someone made a particular choice or help us understand why an event unfolded as it did? Documentation in the form of various deliverables is the historical source material that helps us understand the design choices that were made when creating a website. In the first edition of Communicating Design, Dan M. Brown offers a handbook for producing useful documentation to guide a project team through the design or redesign of a website. While the book does seem to be aimed at people designing websites for corporate clientele, there is much of value here for historians looking to create a digital history web project.

Brown discusses ten forms of deliverables, which he breaks out into three broad categories of documentation—user needs, strategy, and design. User needs documents (personas, usability test plans, and usability test results) describe what we think we know or hope to learn about our audience members. The strategy documents (concept models, content inventories, and competitive analyses) flesh out the concepts and ideas behind what will ultimately become the web design. Finally, the design documentation (site map, flow charts, wireframes, and screen design) illustrates how the site will look to and behave for the users. As varied as websites are, it should not be surprising that these documents generally have no set length or form. The information within them can be communicated in different ways (text, images, graphical representations, spreadsheets, etc.) and presented in differing levels of detail. But together, the deliverables help to ensure that the members of the project team are all on the same page in terms of decisions that have been made about the design direction and the assumptions behind those decisions.

While websites are a relatively new means of communicating information and engaging with audiences for historians, particularly those from the academic realm, the intellectual work of creating a website actually has a lot in common with producing a more traditional textual work, such as a monograph or journal article. Brown sometimes refers to this process as “situational analysis,” where you determine the purpose of your endeavor, situate the project in a larger context, and understand your audience in order to ascertain what information to include in your finished product.

Over and over again, Brown stressed that effective communication begins with knowing your purpose. With a paper, you’d start out with your research question. What issue will you investigate in your research? Similarly with a website, what do you hope to accomplish? What experience do you want your site users to have? What problem are you trying to solve? What do you need the website to be able to do?

The audience for your project will in part dictate the requirements of your presentation.  This point is perhaps taken for granted in the academic world that we are used to, as we are trained to write for one particular audience, which is presented as the historical method rather than as a single way of writing about history. In academia, you’re writing for the scholarly community, which has a set of conventions shaping what your final product will look like, such as explaining your methodology and evidence, engaging with a body of historiography, and extensive use of citations in a prescribed format. Your professor may impose other requirements—double spaced, Times New Roman 12, one inch margins, page numbers at the bottom center, word length expectations, etc. All of these requirements affect not only the content of your work, but also how your finished product ultimately looks. No professor or journal editor is going to read your single-spaced essay printed in 8-point Comic Sans on hot pink paper no matter how amazing the content is.

With a web project, however, your audience’s expectations won’t be set out so clearly in a style guide or syllabus. You will really need to think about who it is you are trying to reach and what their needs are. This will involve some research on your part, the results of which are captured in what Brown calls “personas.” Personas are a set of representations of the various users of your site, including who they are, their motivations for using your site, and what they hope to gain from their interaction with the site and with your organization. By examining the personas for commonalities, you can identify content priorities and make decisions regarding what to include in your website and what might best be left out.

The contextual strategy activities described by Brown also have analogous elements to producing an academic research paper. Brown suggests, for example, conducting and documenting a competitive analysis to see how other websites in your general area do things similarly and differently and to identify any gaps in what is covered or in actions that can be performed on the sites. The competitive analysis would be akin to the historical literature review to see how other historians have approached the same or similar problem before so that you can contribute something new to the discussion. For a digital history project, it would be worthwhile to check out some existing digital history sites as we have been doing in this class to explore various ways that people have brought history to the Internet, evaluate new tools for analyzing or presenting your content, see what has been successful, and perhaps find some inspiration or think about ways to break new ground.

Continuing with the implementation of strategy, Brown’s discussion of content inventories seems to apply more to existing websites, but basically a content inventory or audit is researching and identifying your source material. Keeping in mind that all of it won’t be used in the final implementation, what is the content that you have that could be used in your website? As you progress with your research/strategizing, you can employ concept models, in which you write out your ideas for your paper or website and explore the relationships among them, often by writing your ideas or key points in boxes or bubbles and drawing lines to connect them together as appropriate. Concept models will help you to develop the underlying direction and structure of your project as it begins to take shape as a tangible work product.

The information gleaned from learning about your intended audience, your resources, and the competitive landscape provides the context for the choices that you make and implement in the creation of your final product. This is where the academic paper vs. web project comparison most significantly differs. For a research paper, you would probably write out an outline, including however much detail you would need to be able to translate that document into an actual manuscript. Brown cites four documents that constitute the “outline” of the website: the site map depicts the overall structure of the website; flowcharts illustrate points where users interact with the website and have various choices to make; wireframes show the basic structure of the individual pages of the site; and screen designs represent how the site will look and feel when it is completed. All of these documents are graphic and non-linear by nature, which may be a bit foreign to historians, but basically the rules of effective communication apply—illustrate your main points clearly and eliminate any extraneous details.

The design deliverables are used by the site engineers to create the actual website, but the design work isn’t complete yet. Ultimately everything points back to the users’ experience, and therefore some usability testing is in order once a website prototype is available. Design adjustments may be in order once you receive feedback from your intended audience. Ultimately, the basis of good design is meeting user need in Brown’s view.

While the book format necessitates that Brown present his ten deliverables in an orderly, linear manner, the process of website design does not happen quite so neatly, as Brown often admits. The first step is always to know your purpose, and the actual design phase doesn’t normally begin until at least some of the contextual work has taken place, but otherwise many of the activities Brown describes happen concurrently and are often presented in the same deliverable. As with writing a paper, revision is the rule. Hence the importance of having good documentation, to record the history of the thought process that went into design choices at various stages of your website project. Wouldn’t it be nice if good documentation existed for everything that we want to understand more about?

Getting to knOmeka

Omeka is both a web publishing and digital asset management system created in 2006 by none other than the Roy Rozenwig Center for History and New Media. Although they say that no expertise is required, it seems to be designed for cultural institution-type folks because of its heavy emphasis on metadata and an assumed knowledge of item-record-collection-exhibit hierarchy.

Click here for a short video.

The system is tiered, so you can do a free basic plan, or commit to paying anywhere from $50- $1,000 annually. The benefits of paying include greater storage, plugins, pages for your site, and design themes. As you may remember, I’m using Omeka for my final digital project in this class, so I was a little nervous about my options with the free plan. It turns out I can do a surprising amount, BUT I have asked the museum I’m working with to sponsor me for the SILVER plan $99 (still very affordable!) because it includes the “contribution” plugin necessary for people to be able to submit their own oral histories, as well as 2 GBs of storage.

As an archivist with little to no web design experience, I found Omeka easy to use. You have a dashboard in the vein of WordPress through which you can create items, collections, simple web pages, and exhibits.









There are a list of plugins that you can configure or uninstall at will, and they have a lot of documentation, as well as a “Showcase”  of existing Omeka projects which I will demo in class.

Their metadata schema is based on Dublin Core, which is very easy to use and also has clear documentation.


When creating item records, you can upload multiple files in a variety of formats – audio, video, pdf, jpeg, etc. I loved this because it helped me create connections rather easily between the oral history recordings and transcripts, appearing right next to each other within the same item record.

I also love the settings that you can create for different types of users. In my case, I’ll be adding museum staff as “Supers,” which means that they have full permissions for everything on the site, but I’ll also be creating separate customized profiles for contributors (those that can upload but not publish), and for the public (such as hiding some of the metadata).

Improvements: Omeka is GREAT (thanks Roy!) I just met with museum staff yesterday to show what I’d created and discuss the possibilities for the site. The fact that it’s both approachable and professional made it an easy sell, and I am very comfortable committing to this platform for long-range projects.

That being said, I do have several suggestions for improved usability.
1. Uploaded files should appear at the top of the record. Metadata is scary to some users and if what they want is the item, then it should not require scrolling to get to.

2. Same point, but for the tags. The tags are useful, connecting a user to anything else within your site that has a similar tag, so why are they all the way at the bottom of the page?
3. I wish I had more control over the layout/design of the home page under the basic plan. You can upload a banner and header, and pick a pre-fab design, but my site is painfully plain without taking the time to teach myself PHP.


A specific example of this are the set icon images for item types. I would really like to have a picture of each storyteller to represent the item, but because they are oral histories, Omeka assigns them a rather unengaging gray-scale megaphone. I have seen other sites in the Showcase that use photos as item thumbnails, but I’ve found no way to do this (I’ve been asking myself this a lot- why do other people’s websites look so much better than mine?! grumblegrumble).

Small quibbles aside, Omeka is fantastic. With over 100 websites launched so far for organizations both big and small, Omeka is one of the most competitive choices on the market for an affordable content management system or exhibit space that balances professional best practices with affordability.


Make it Innovative, Make it Intelligible, Make it Accessible: Designing Successful Digital Projects

This week we’re learning all about digital projects, particularly how to design, develop, and implement web projects that engage with and benefit the humanities. This is a rather daunting task. Organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), however, which award annual grants to support digital humanities projects, provide simplified directions for project proposal format.


The NEH awards two types of grants for digital-based projects. Level I grants—awarded for small brainstorming sessions, workshops, and projects in the early stages of development—range from $5,000 to $30,000. Level II grants—awarded for more advanced projects in the implementation stage—range from $30,001 to $60,000. In the NEH guidelines for Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants specific details are provided regarding how grant proposals should be written. These guidelines outline the kinds of projects most desired by the NEH and the application information required. Within the Narrative Section, Part IV, applicants must clearly explain their project and the questions it addresses; describe its value to scholars, students, and general humanities audiences; conduct an environmental scan to situate their work within the field and provide evidence for original contribution; explain the history of the project; detail a work plan, staff participation, data management, letters of commitment, and budgets; and describe the final product and dissemination.   Above all, NEH stresses that projects should be innovative, free, and easily understood and accessible by the public.

In their push for transparency and accessibility, NEH also provides samples of successful grant applications. For example, Georgia Tech’s application for their project, TOME: Interactive TOpic Model and MEtadata Visualization, effectively follows the guidelines established by NEH.   The application clearly lays out the goals of the project, the questions it addresses, its innovative interventions into the field, and its contribution to the humanities. The narrative explains the need for computational analysis of digital archival collections and proposes a new web-based tool, TOME, which will allow for “the visual exploration of the themes that recur across an archive, based on the text-analysis technique of topic modeling.”   This tool will “enable humanities scholars to trace the evolution and circulation of these themes across social networks and over time” (TOME 4). The applicants explain that TOME’s interface will be the first to allow users to visually explore relationships among textual content and related metadata. Focusing on a specific set of digitized nineteenth-century abolitionist newspapers, TOME will allow scholars to address the main themes within the collection—and their historical chronology, the authors and subjects associated with those themes, and the spread of those themes and ideas within the community. The application then goes on to include in more detail an environmental scan, which discusses other websites that provide interactive interfaces for exploring topic modeling, and details the ways in which TOME will allow for different, and more nuanced, interpretations. This section also explains how this tool will allow for new understandings of antislavery and abolitionist history, specifically by highlighting new evidence of women’s roles within the movement. A project description is also included, which more specifically explains the TOME interface and how it will function. This is followed by a project history statement, staff bios, a work plan, and goals for the final product and dissemination (a publicly-available interactive web application hosted by Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, goals for published reports and conference presentations, and a white paper on findings and issues). A detailed budget, data management plan, and letters of support are also included. All these sections follow the guidelines clearly, and succinctly explain how and why this project is important, what it will do, and how it will be accomplished.

After reading the basic NEH guidelines and this example for TOME it’s clear that digital project proposals require immense preparation and research. Above all though successful applications and projects foster collaboration, promote innovation, and provide content that is free and intelligible. The multiple references in the NEH guidelines to “free access” and “innovation and excellence” made me picture flashy laser-show filled websites advertising FREE and INNOVATIVE in large letters. I also found myself picturing that Oprah show where she gave her entire audience free cars—remember that?


But I’m getting off track.  Bottom line, the best digital humanities projects take risks.  They allow a variety of users to easily explore and understand subjects in new and exciting ways.  This is how NEH defines success in the digital humanities, but how do we actually measure success when it comes to digital projects?  Are innovative ideas and proposals, followed by project development and white paper conclusions enough?  And more particularly, are digital projects ever finished/should they be? Matt Kirschenbaum presents these questions more directly when he asks: “What does it mean to “finish” a piece of digital work?” “What is the measure of “completeness” in a medium where the prevailing wisdom is to celebrate the incomplete, the open-ended, and the extensible?” (2009).  Additionally, what are the ways in which we can actually measure use and accessibility of these projects?  With so many new digital humanities projects appearing, there is no doubt they are contributing to the field and changing historical research and exploration, but have we/will we see the tangible results of this immediately or will we have to wait for future historical publications, etc.?  Is there a way to truly review the ways in which these projects are “changing” the study of history?  More to the point I guess, does this even matter or are the creation of functional digital projects “enough”?