Digital Project Proposal: Everyday Life in Middletown, Digital Visualization

My hometown is famous amongst Parks & Recreation lovers as Jerry Gergich’s favorite vacation spot, but Muncie, Indiana is also known in some circles as Middletown— the city at the center of Helen and Robert Lynd’s 1920s study. The Lynds lived in Muncie, IN for a year in an effort to observe and record the average American city. Their study began nearly a century’s worth of research on this East Central Indiana, post-industrial city, home to 65,000 people. During my undergraduate degree, I participated in two projects called “Everyday Life in Middletown” (EDLM) which made contributions to the continuation of the Middletown studies. In 1937, the Mass Observation (MO) movement in England sought to “take the temperature” of the British people. Historians have since used this archive to understand the lives of average people in England prior to WWII. EDLM is inspired by the methodological approaches of MO and enlists Muncie residents to write day diaries, on particular days each year, recording their “everyday lives.” EDLM encourages diarists to participate in writing history as a democratizing practice.

Throughout both iterations of these projects, digital visualization components were emphasized in planning but never successfully implemented. During a semester long immersive-learning seminar, we created a documentary and a website, both efforts towards this goal. In the second iteration, we’ve streamlined the website to serve as a blog and digital archive for the long-term project, now operating under the Ball State University Center for Middletown Studies. The website so far unsuccessfully encourages participation and discourse on the common ground of everyday life. While the intent of the project has remained successful, the visually engaging, digital components have never been developed to their full potential.

Audience:There is an existing audience invested in the Everyday in Middletown project specifically and the Middletown studies generally. Most Muncie residents are aware of the significance of the Middletown studies, and the Center for Middletown Studies receives significant interest from academic audiences nationally and internationally. My argument is that creating engaging digital components to highlight the Everyday Life in Middletown diaries and their contents would encourage other Muncie residents to join the project. It would also encourage existing participants to be more active in the project, promoting EDLM locally.

Comparison with existing projects:Mass Observation has an existing online archive. During our early implementation of the EDLM project, we worked with MO, learning from their archive and from the direction they’d like to take their organization as it becomes increasingly digital. EDLM is inherently different from MO in that it is born-digital and should utilize more digital tools to educate and create interest in the project and its mission and objectives.

Description:I will try a variety of digital tools we’ve learned about this semester (historypin, voyant tools, etc/ suggestions welcome) to find interesting ways to look at the existing diaries in the EDLM archive. I know that the EDLM team has had these discussions before, so I can also find out how they are in-line with their current objectives. Once I’ve found an effective and visually compelling way to engage with the diaries, I will work with the EDLM team to integrate these visually-engaging ways of reading the diaries into their website.

Outreach and publicity: I will work with the director of the the Center for Middletown Studies to implement these tools and insights into the diaries and to integrate them into the existing website. EDLM has a fairly active social media presence to promote these new digital components.

Evaluation: There is currently low-engagement with the website. Any increase in traffic should be notable, and any online-conversation would indicate some success in reaching new audiences. An increase in volunteer diarists would also reflect success in gaining traction in the community.

One Reply to “Digital Project Proposal: Everyday Life in Middletown, Digital Visualization”

  1. This sounds like a great project! You’ve got a built in audience and the work that you have done previously around this work sets you up with a depth of knowledge about the issues at hand in the project and about already identified user needs.

    It’s not completely clear to me what the “it” is of the project at this point though. With that said, I think your concept of trying out a range of the tools that we have worked with in class with the existing content will be useful generative process to surface cool ideas. My primary suggestion at this point is to think about how you can do that kind of iterative exploration in a structured fashion and get into a cycle of sharing out the results.

    For example, you might want to try setting up a blog and getting into a rhythm of trying out one or two tools in a fixed period and then sharing out the results for that. As a first step, you could also get an inventory of the kinds of data you could work with. Then you could start to get a rhythm together of picking up a tool, trying something with it quick, sharing out the results and trying something else. My guess is that through that process you would end up relatively quickly landing on some ideas for the best potential fits between the things you want to try doing and the tools at hand.

    It’s great that you have the connection with the director of the Center for Middletown Studies. Having a stakeholder you can take your projects to and share them with for input is really essential. They can be a key voice for helping evaluate and give feedback on any o the results too.

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