Final Digital Project: Beyond the Generals Tour

My final project is a HistoryPin tour entitled “Beyond the Generals: Civil War Memorials in D.C.” My goal was to dig into some of the lesser-known memorials and monuments around D.C. in order to draw out some more general trends in memorialization and how the way we publicly mark events changes over time. I chose to focus on Civil War memorials because there are so many, and to cut out all statues of generals as a way of narrowing down my selection. In order to trace larger trends in monumental architecture, I laid out the tour chronologically in the order in which the memorials were dedicated.

From the rough draft to this final version, I have made a handful of changes. All the tour text has been revised and cut down, so each tour stop comes in around 300 words. I wanted to strike a balance between creating a substantive narrative and keeping things short enough for a person to read while walking around the different tour stops. I also added one more stop: the John Ericsson Memorial. It makes for a significant detour if someone wants to walk this tour route in order, but I have made note of that in the tour and labeled it as an optional side trip.

One suggestion I received was to add another stop or two to round out the time frame, because the tour jumps from memorials dedicated in the 1920s up to one dedicated in 1997 with nothing in between. Unfortunately, it turns out that there were not a lot of Civil War monuments being built in those intervening seventy years, and I could not find anything to add. That said, I definitely think the absence of new memorials for such a long period is an equally important part of this story, and I have added to the tour text a bit to discuss that gap.

HistoryPin did end up presenting some minor technical challenges. The mobile site is not as robust as I had hoped. A few of the historic images I uploaded kept disappearing – hopefully they’re all visible to you now, but if not, there are at least links in the text to get back to the image sources and see how they are supposed to look. And on the subject of links, the final issue was embedded links. HistoryPin automatically creates embedded link cards when you paste in a URL, and there does not seem to be any option to disable them. They make the citations look a bit strange, but all the information is understandable. Overall, given that it is straightforward, easy to use, and free, HistoryPin was still probably the best tool for this tour.

My final poster is below, and I look forward to sharing more about this project with everyone in class!

Beyond the Generals Poster

Practicum: Innovative Scholarly Communication or Just the More of the Same?

This week’s practica are all about scholarly communication! We’ve talked a bit in this class about how the entrenchment of the traditional journal article or monograph format can be a hindrance for digital humanists trying to get their work recognized, so I was excited to take a look at some projects that might be disrupting that paradigm.

MLA Core

Unfortunately, MLA CORE disappointed me in some ways. The basic premise of the site is promising. It provides a repository where scholars in the humanities can share their work, whatever form that work might take. They can share articles and manuscripts, but also syllabi, works in progress, digital projects, and more. The goal here is twofold. First, it fosters collaboration by giving scholars a chance to work together and share what they are currently working on. Second, it provides a repository for works that might not easily get published in a traditional format, ensuring that those works are preserved and that scholars have a stable DOI to link to to share their work (and allow others to cite it properly).

On a given work, you can look at tags, topics, related work, and the number of downloads, which gives scholars a clear way to measure how widely access their work might be. You can also see related groups. MLA CORE was built on to the existing MLA Commons, a sort of social network for MLA members, so the groups and user profiles are drawn from there.

On a typical “deposit,” the information looks like this:

This concept sounded extremely promising, and there’s definitely a place for it, but unfortunately it does not seem to have attracted the type of innovative formats I was hoping to see. When you browse by item type, you can see that the overwhelming majority of deposits are book chapters, articles, conference papers, and essays – still the standard works you might expect to find in a print journal or library.

Here’s the full breakdown of deposits by category:

Still, this platform is only a few years old, and it does note that it’s a beta release that is looking for feedback, so perhaps that bias toward traditional forms will change over the next few years. Or maybe a platform like this has to come first for people to feel empowered to try new forms of scholarship.

The Programming Historian

If digital scholarship is going to grow, humanists need to learn how to use those new digital tools, and that’s where The Programming Historian comes in. This site offers “novice-friendly, peer-reviewed tutorials that help humanists learn a wide range of digital tools, techniques, and workflows to facilitate research and teaching.” The interface is simple, with three basic sections: Learn, Teach, and Contribute.

The “Teach” section does not offer much, just a space to give feedback on lessons if you use them for teaching in a class or workshop. So we’ll focus on the other two.

The “Learn” section of the website offers a wide range of lessons on a number of different types of digital humanities tools. Some of these will be familiar to our class, like the series of tutorials on Omeka – in fact, the “Up and Running with Omeka” lesson was assigned back in week 5. Others go deeper into less user-friendly tools, like text mining using Python. The length, complexity, and difficulty of the lessons varies, but they are all free, all contributed by volunteers, and all text-based. There are plenty of screenshots and commands in the lessons, but no videos as far as I could tell, which I did find surprising. It’s certainly a contrast with the ubiquitous Youtube tutorial, which has become a common way for many people to try to learn new digital tools.

The other thing that sets The Programming Historian apart is that the lessons are all peer-reviewed, although not in a conventional way. In the final section, “Contribute,” users can propose, write, and submit new lessons. However, they are not just accepted or rejected like in a traditional journal. Instead, review is a collaborative process, a “thorough exchange with the lesson editor” to make revisions and ensure that the final product is the best and clearest it can be. This approach may actually be the most groundbreaking thing about the website, as it genuinely disrupts the standard academic review process.


What do you think of MLA CORE? Am I not giving them enough credit for taking an innovative approach in scholarly communication?

What about The Programming Historian? Would you use these tutorials to learn a new digital skill? Do you think video or other multimedia formats would be more effective than just text and screenshots?

Digital Project Draft – Beyond the Generals

My initial concept for this digital project was to create a tour that would get people to explore some of the lesser-known monuments and memorials around D.C. Since then, I’ve refined the project to focus specifically on Civil War-related monuments, since there are such an extensive number to work with. The final product is called “Beyond the Generals,” and it does exactly what it says on the tin: bypasses the statues of military commanders that litter the city to look at other approaches to commemorating the Civil War.

I wanted to use this project to examine how our national memorialization of this conflict has changed over time, especially once you take a lot of the great man narratives out of the equation. Therefore, I chose to lay it out chronologically, in the order these monuments were dedicated, and to discuss how the cultural context in which they were erected influence their content.

The basic structure of the tour is all in place, along with a rough draft of all the text. From here, my plan is to refine and edit the text and possibly add some additional or better historical photos, depending on what is available. The final stop (“The Dresser”) definitely needs a more professional photo, as the current one was just snapped on my phone as I was passing by. As I’m getting ready to make these refinements, I would love to get some feedback from all of you on my approach so far! I have a few bigger questions and a few little nitpicky ones.

Big questions:

  • Is the tour the right length, both in terms of number of stops and amount of content for each stop? Based on our class discussion I went for depth instead of breadth, but I could still expand.
  • Is it cohesive enough, and does the order make sense?

There are a few other stops I was considering adding if the consensus is that it should be longer, but they would require significant deviation from the current tour route, which is (mostly) linear even if you follow the chronological order I’ve laid out.

Little questions:

  • HistoryPin requires that you enter the year that each pin was created, so I’ve been including the years my photos were taken. I’m basing some of my discussion on the years the monuments were dedicated, though, which isn’t always the same as the photo year. Should I switch the years?
  • How formal should the citations be? Right now there are bibliography entries at the end of each pin, but they aren’t formally footnoted to specific parts of the text. And does anyone know how to fix those weird embedded link cards that are popping up?
  • Would it be useful for me to go out and take my own photos of each of these sites, or does having Google street view included accomplish the same thing?

The final element of my plan is to try to take a test run of this tour on the ground before I finalize it, so if anyone is interested in an afternoon of exploring some historically overlooked monumental architecture, do let me know!

Bots, Bugs, and Blogs: The Challenges of Preserving, Interpreting, and Sharing Digital Artifacts

This week we look at how digital technology is changing what we preserve and how we preserve it. How do we handle the preservation of digital formats? How can twitter bots create historical interpretation? And how does digital technology open those preservation and interpretation processes up to more people? This week’s readings attempt to grapple with those questions.

Social Memory and Preserving Digital Formats

In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart discuss the preservation of new media formats in the context of the art world. They focus especially on social memory, which they define as “how and what societies remember” (14). Museums, libraries, and archives have traditionally been key sites of this social memory, but they often do a poor job of handling digital formats. Ippolito and Rinehart argue that in order to handle these formats, institutions need to be more open to preservation techniques like emulation, migration, and reinterpretation, rather than solely storage. If a piece of art was created to display on a computer screen, what matters is usually not the exact computer or even the exact operating system, but the visual experience the viewer has. That experience should be the focus of the preservation, not the physical details. They heavily emphasize “variable media,” and the idea that the works that will survive best are those that don’t rely on a specific medium to function.

Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope provide a concrete case study of the challenges of collecting and preserving digital media in their article. They examine the Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of Planetary, an iPad app that visualizes the user’s music library as a series of solar systems and galaxies. It quickly ceased to be compatible with the current version of iOS, so the Cooper-Hewitt pursued a variety of measures to maintain it. They open sourced the code and encouraged derivative works to keep the program going and maintained an ongoing relationship with the donor to help evaluate those derivative works. They also collected earlier versions, change logs, and bug reports as part of the acquisition – with digital formats, a single “final version” often is not enough. It may not even exist.

Bots and Interpretation

New digital formats can also impact the way people and institutions create and perform historical interpretation. Steven Lubar and Mark Sample both delve into the world of Twitter bots. Lubar (whose work some of us remember from our History of Museums class) shares his appreciation for museum bots, which share random objects from a museum’s collection. They can call attention to how much is not on view and how museums make choices about what to display. Sample turns his attention to protest bots, which in some ways provide interpretation for our present historical moment. His examples are fascinating, but he imposes an extensive and strict set of criteria, and I wonder if he could end up excluding some interesting bot projects.

Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration,” cleverly presented as a series of text messages, goes a step further and examines not just how we interpret history with technology, but how we interpret the history of technology. It contrasts Google Zeitgeist, a visualization of searches made in different cities, with a tumblr project to share old Geocities pages. Both share the history of what we do with technology, but Zeitgeist has no real interpretive frame and doesn’t invite further exploration. The Geocities project, on the other hand, invites further user interpretation of these old pages. It makes the pages communicative again, which is exactly what they were designed for in the first place.

Inviting the Public In

If we shift gears and look at the Sheila Brennan article, that same idea of inviting the public to engage comes through. She focuses on digitally opening collections. By providing item-level information and metadata online, we can invite users to explore collections in greater depth than they ever could in person, and to engage with multiple perspectives. When collections are displayed in the almost-infinite digital space, rather than in the very finite physical gallery space, there’s room for more than one narrative.

This call to invite the public in brings us full circle, back to Re-Collection. Ippolito and Rinehart don’t just discuss social memory, they also break it down into formal and informal types. Formal social memory is carried out by museums, libraries, and other institutions, but there’s also room for the informal social memory of amateurs and the general public. In many cases, informal practitioners are more willing to embrace flexible forms of preservation, like migration and emulation, while formal institutions lag behind with their insistence on storing the original copy. If we want to preserve old websites, or video games, or other digital media, letting the public take part in the process is often useful and may even be necessary.


While they examine different aspects of the issue, all six of these texts fundamentally agree that the way we collect, preserve, display, and interpret history will have to change I response to the explosion of digital media. It’s a big topic, and I’d love to hear your overall thoughts on it, but here are few specific questions to get us started:

  • When looking at a digital artifact or project, is there such a thing as a single, definitive original? How do we define what’s important about the “original” version of something for the purposes of preservation?
  • How can institutions grapple with the additional resources and maintenance required to keep digital collections usable? Will this change funding structures, archival practices, and relationships with donors?
  • Espenschied mentions how the youngest viewers of the Geocities tumblr are sometimes confused by unfamiliar aspects of early-2000s technology. When exhibiting digital content, do we need to interpret and contextualize the medium as well as the content?

Digital Proposal: Alternative Monuments Tour

Washington, D.C. is a city steeped in history and blanketed in monuments, memorials, and public historical markers of all kinds. Thousands of locations across the District have been marked on HistoryPin, and dozens of tours have been created. It stands to reason that it has all pretty much been covered, right?

As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. While the Washington Monument has 16 pins, ranging from historical images to a 2005 family photo in front of the monument, lesser-known sites like the African American Civil War Memorial have no presence at all. My proposal is to remedy that situation by researching and creating a tour of historic D.C. monuments and memorials that are off the beaten path, providing some background about what they commemorate and the context in which they were created.

Since there are dozens if not hundreds of places in D.C. that fit this description, my tentative plan is to narrow the scope by limiting my tour to sites that are at or very close to metro stops. Tying the tour to the public transit system will give it some structure and also make it easier for users to navigate from site to site, or to just fund a single point of interest in an area where they will already be. So far, I have a handful of ideas for stops that would fit this concept, none of which currently appear on HistoryPin:

  • The African American Civil War Memorial (U Street station)
  • The GAR Monument and the Temperance Fountain (Archives station)
  • The Walt Whitman Civil War quote (Dupont Circle metro)

For each stop, I would give some background on what the monument or marker commemorates, when and why it was created, and ideally some historic photos to illustrate the point. Some would absolutely require deeper explanations than others because they have less contextual information on site. It’s pretty easy to tell what the African American Civil War Memorial is about just by reading the plaques and looking around, but that Whitman quote has no additional detail and I remember having to Google it when I first moved here to find out its fascinating backstory.

Ideally, this tour would reach an audience of tourists and locals alike. Because the focus is not on familiar tourist sites, it should have some crossover appeal between those two groups, or at least the subset of those two groups that is interested in history and knows about HistoryPin. There are already a number of D.C. tours on HistoryPin that have proven popular, ranging from a March on Washington collection with 19,000 views to a tour of the night Abraham Lincoln died with 600 views. The view count provides a convenient means to analyze the success of this project as well – it gives easy, tangible evidence of how many people are looking at this tour.

For outreach and publicity, social media will certainly play a key role. I’d like to make connections with local history groups to ask them to share the tour with their social media followings. There’s the Historical Society of Washington, of course, but also a number of smaller, neighborhood historical societies that might be easier to make initial connections with, especially if one of the stops on the tour is in their area.

Do you have a favorite monument that doesn’t get enough attention? Do you think I should scrap the metro stop idea and structure this another way? I would love to hear your thoughts!