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.