Final reflections

My digital history project was an online archive for a collection of oral histories, including transcripts and photos, created on Omeka.net. I’ll be honest, the final product is not much what I had in mind. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I wish I would have tried it in WordPress instead of Omeka.

I understand the benefits of using Omeka. The metadata, no matter how much of a hassle, is very important and useful. Anything you could possibly want to know is right there. I also really liked the collections grouping. For me, it was very helpful to organize all the materials for one interviewee into one collection.

However, it was hard to make the site very personal. While I added an “About” page, I think a tag line after the site’s title would have been helpful to explain to first-time visitors what the site is all about. I wanted to add a photo to the “About” page, but there was no way to do that, except through HTML. (I’ll discuss that later.)

I also don’t know if the set-up that Omkea provides is the best for my audience – history enthusiasts, students, and the average Joe. When they click on an item to listen to an interview, they probably aren’t going to care so much about all the metadata, and might not go so far as to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the actual audio file. In this sense, all that information just clutters the page.

Would WordPress be a good alternative? I’m not sure. I would have to try out both and see what works best. My thinking is that there would be a way to reproduce what would be lost by switching from Omeka, mainly the metadata.

One thing I’m sure would have made this project easier and cleared up some of the issues I mentioned is better web skills. If anything, this project and class have taught me that just like journalism (my other major), history cannot ignore technology any longer. Historians need to learn the things we’ve been referring to this semester as “getting into the weeds.” There are pros and cons to everything going on the web, but it’s the way the world’s going and we need to adapt to stay relevant.

So here’s my final project, Closing Crucible. Again, it’s not much what I anticipated, but it has me thinking about possibilities for the future and things I still need to learn.

http://closingcrucible.omeka.net/

Show & Tell – Google Cultural Institute

This semester we’ve talked a lot about how putting history online and using different tools can help make sources and information more accessible for a larger audience. We’ve also talked a lot about Google in regards to tools – Google Books, Google Docs, Google N-Gram. Well, here’s something else to add to the list of Google: the Google Cultural Institute.

The Google Cultural Institute is probably best known for the Art Project. You can now peruse some of the world’s finest art galleries with a click of your mouse. (Now including the White House!) Two of its lesser known projects are with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

The Google Culture Institute digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Israel Museum. This still just blows my mind. The site went live in September and had a million visitors in three and a half days, according to the New York Times. The actual site is pretty amazing. The most complete scroll, the Great Isaiah Scroll, is transcribed so even if you don’t know Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, you can still read it. Visitors are able to zoom in on the images so closely, they can see the individual cracks in the parchment and papyrus.

For the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the Cultural Institute digitized the archives and helped create an online exhibition, including text, audio and photos. Again, the site is worth checking out.

Not everyone is exactly thrilled about Google’s involvement, and Google itself has even down-played its own involvement. It can only be found in the bottom corners of pages, or in the “About” page of the site. People are wary because they’re thinking, “Why is this for-profit company helping non-profit organizations at no cost?” There has to be a catch, right?

Steve Crossan, director of the Cultural Institute, told the New York Times that the company benefits from there being good content on the web. What do you think? Should historians and museum directors be wary of companies like Google? Or should they take a stance similar to crowd sourcing transcription – the more digitization happening, the more online archives and exhibits built, the better?

Graphs, Maps, Trees

Franco Moretti, a literature professor, wants scholars to start thinking about history in different forms – that is, graphs, maps and trees. Graphs, Maps, Trees looks at literary history through these three models, which Moretti argues open up a whole new way of looking at history.

Graphs 

The first chunk of the book looks at the rise and fall of the novel through graphs. Moretti writes that this history should be looked at as a whole, instead of parts – the rise and fall of literature as a discipline, instead of the rise and fall of individual pieces of literature. Moretti includes a variety of graphs to support his text, including the rise and fall of the novel in individual countries, dominant genres, and the persistence of genres.

When considering the graphs of the rise and fall of the novel, Moretti looks at when the fluctuations occurred and what could be the possible causes. But then he points out that only looking at the causes for the changes is looking at the individual pieces of literature instead of the whole field. “If they are parts of a pattern, then what we must explain is the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases,” he writes (13).

By looking at his graphs, Moretti observes that genres last for 25 to 30 years and then die off. He deducts that this pattern for a genre as a whole has to do with generations – people who read the genre died, so there was no one left to read the books (20-21). Not all quantification problems have easy solutions like this, though. “Because the asymmetry of a quantitative explanandum and a qualitative explanans leaves you often with a perfectly clear problem-and no idea of a solution,” Moretti writes, (26).

Not all graphs have an explanation, but it is better to look at history this way than to not look at it at all, Moretti seems to be saying. He writes how everyone thinks they discovered something unique in academia, but if they only plotted the information on a graph, they would see that isn’t something special, but just a reoccurrence, a part of the cycling pattern (27).

Maps 

“Maps” is illustrated with the example of Our Village, a collection of village stories by Mary Mitford. Moretti maps out Our Village, not on a conventional map, but in circles, with the village being the center.

One central part of Our Village is the character’s walks in the country, something that is quite frequent in all village stories. “But in order to see this pattern, we must first extract it from the narrative flow, and the only way to do so is with a map… it shows us that there is something that needs to be explained,” Moretti writes (39).

It is hard to come to definite conclusions when using maps, but they bring to light something the researcher might not have seen before. Moretti says they are a good way to begin analyzing texts and that they help researchers concentrate on only a few elements. Those few elements are presented a different way and reveal something new to the researcher, something not seen with only text in a novel, (53).

Trees

The last model Moretti advocates for is trees, which Darwin called “diagrams” when he used them to explain his theory of evolution. Trees look at the form of history, where elements diverged and converged.

Moretti’s main example is detective fiction and how the presence of clues was the deciding factor of whether a book was popular or not. Moretti finds that when writers tried something new, like making clues decodable for the reader, it decided their book’s fate. “In making writers branch out in every direction, then, the market also pushes them into all sorts of crazy blind alleys; and divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction,” he writes (77).

Moretti uses trees to chart the change of a genre, and how popular those changes were with the readership. If the changes were not popular, the book died off, giving literary historians a better explanation for why some books in a certain genre made it, and others did not.

Graphs, maps, trees. Did you find one model more more useful than the other? Do you think historians use these models enough, or is there room for improvement? Are there any disadvantages to using these models to support text?

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.

TIME Magazine Corpus of American English

TIME magazine is a treasure trove of information on American politics and culture since 1923. You want to write a paper on it, TIME probably has an article about it. While clicking on article after article on the magazine’s online archive will produce many historical facts and observations, TIME has one source that many people overlook: the actual words used in the articles.

This is where the TIME Magazine Corpus of American English comes in. Created in 2007 by Mark Davies, a linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, users can search the magazine for words from 1923 to 2006.

But first, what exactly is a corpus? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a collection of recorded utterances” that can be used to analyze a language. Instead of using audio to analyze American English in TIME, users look at the frequency of certain words or their context.

Were you overwhelmed looking at this? Next time, click the little question marks!

This is where the research starts. (If you were confused like I was as to what “KWIC” stands for or what a “POS List” is, the little question marks make a world of difference.) First, chose a display. “List” looks like a spreadsheet, with a column for each decade and a row for the number of times the word was mentioned. If you click on the number, you can actually see the word in context in the screen below and the date it was used.

“Chart” shows the same data in bar graph form, which is more useful for actually visualizing the information to see when the word was used the most. Again, if you click on one of the bars for a certain year, you can see the context each time it was used in the bottom window. This is actually called “Keyword in Context,” or KWIC, which is the third display option. All of the different colors and outline or no outline indicates parts of speech.

An example of KWIC

The last display option, “Compare,” allows you to compare nearby words for two different words.

Now for the search string. If you want to get really advanced, the question mark next to  “Word(s)” shows all the symbols needed to make a simple search more exact. For example, searching [=bright] would give you all the synonyms for “bright.”

The collocates box allows you to search in the surrounding context of the word, and you determine how “far away” the search should take place. The “POS List” allows you to chose the part of speech (POS) you’re searching for.

In “Sections,” you are able to chose the range of dates you want the corpus to search, by individual years or by decades. Finally, in “Sorting and Limits,” you can chose how to sort out the information (frequency, relevancy and alphabetically) and the minimum number of times a word must show up to appear in the results. Choosing “mutual info” for “minimum” will take out common words like “a” and “the.”

It’s a lot to sort through, (and I’m sure there’s something I missed) but all the different options allow you to refine your search, which I’m sure is great if you’re a linguist. If you played around with the corpus enough, you might have noticed that after 10 to 15 searches, you have to register for an account. It’s free and it saves all your past searches, which is really useful.

It’s obvious how linguists can use this site, but what about historians? The words linguists use to track the change of languages can be used by historians to track the change of American society. Take the word “web,” for example. It’s interesting to see where the word changes from being an intricate pattern to the World Wide Web.

Looking at these changes can help us ask new questions. I searched “groovy,” (my dad’s suggestion) and found that the word made a come-back in the 2000s from the 1960s. Why was “groovy” reappearing in TIME magazine? What does that say about our culture in the 2000s compared to the 1960s? What other similarities might there be between the two decades?

Search results for "groovy"

What other ways can historians utilize the corpus? Is it a more effective tool when you know what you’re looking for, like my example of “web?” Can you think of any search tools that would make the site more useful for historians? Did you discover anything interesting when playing around with the site?

Closing Crucible

Midland is a small town an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, Pa., five minutes from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border and right on the Ohio River. Its 12 blocks are now relatively quiet, but 50 years ago, it was a bustling town with frequent traffic jams. What caused the change?

A steel mill closed.

I am currently working on an oral history project for my senior thesis on the closing of the Crucible steel mill and its effects on the communities of Midland, Ohioville and Industry. The interviews look at what the area was like in Crucible’s heyday, in the early 1980s when layoffs started and the mill shut down, and the present. Interviewees include/will include mill workers, church-goers, school board members, business owners and every-day residents.

I’d like to create a website, most likely on Omeka, to present these oral histories. The transcripts and recordings are going into the archives of the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation, where I’m sure they will receive little attention. Creating a site for the oral histories makes them accessible to a broad range of people. This includes not only history enthusiasts and researchers, but also educators and students.

The site will hopefully include audio files of the interviews, transcripts, photos  of the area during the heyday and shut down, as well as some recent photos. The BCHRLF also has some great photos of the mill being built in 1905 that could possibly be digitized and added to the site to give historical context.

Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area has a site with oral histories on steel workers in the Pittsburgh area, but there is only one interview about Crucible. The entire interview and the transcript were not available online, or at least I couldn’t find them. Youngstown State University has a section of Crucible oral histories in its online library catalogue, but only the transcripts are available and they’re rather dated – from the late 1980s. All of these oral histories are focused on actually working in the mill instead of the community surrounding the mill.

This site will increase knowledge on local history, make it more accessible, and hopefully encourage teachers to use the material in the classroom. A lot of my interest for this project comes from the fact that growing up in Ohioville, I never really knew about Crucible. I heard a few stories about my uncle blowing black soot from his nose when he came home from work because he worked in the blast furnace, but that was it. I never knew that my school district was created because of the mill and that its enrollment has been decreasing because the mill closed. When my high school history teachers talked about steel mills they talked about Pittsburgh, but never mentioned the fact that there was another steel mill 10 minutes away from our school and that we all probably knew someone who worked there. But with this online archive of oral histories, that could all change. Just because Crucible closed doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.