Digital Project Reflection: Kuh Diaries

Hello, everyone! My “finished” website can be found here and my conference poster is below.

I’ve had a great time working on my project! However, I only qualify it as “finished” because it is wrapped up as neatly as possible for the end of the semester, but still entails more work. When I decided to limit myself to something manageable, I thought an average of two posts per year–which has turned into 15 total posts–would be easily accomplished. What I did not take into consideration was the amount of time and research I needed for the contextualization. In those 15 posts, 48 people and good number of places are mentioned. While I managed to more or less contextualize the people in each post, I have only been able to research and create profile pages for nine of them. As for places, I haven’t even been able to identify them all and add them to the posts, let alone make more than two profiles pages for them.

I had hoped to be further along before publishing – I still want to hyperlink all the people and places in the posts, and I want to go over and edit all the photos to cite to the right places and make sure the image titles are all proper. I might still take the website down in a few days to finish wrapping it up as my perfectionist side demands before publishing it again.

Still, I have had a lot of fun conducting all this research and translating it into the website. I had to look into a lot of obscure sources to even find some of the information I was looking for – for example, shout out to press censor Norman Caney for only being identifiable because he was a forestry nerd and mentioned once in The Empire Forestry Journal. Finding even a scrap of information was simultaneously frustrating and satisfying. I have a newfound appreciation for international archives doing their best to digitize documents and make them accessible online. Some archives have reacted to COVID-19 really well – the UK National Archives has responded by making up to 50 digital documents a month free for users to download. Thanks to that, I was finally able to get my hands on Kuh’s MI5 file. Overall though, I think it was worth it to trawl through all this research to be able to contextualize the diary entries. The diary entries are definitely more engaging and interesting when you have an idea who Kuh is talking about and why.

Working on the site was an adventure as well – the free version of WordPress is absolutely amazing for not requiring any money from me, but there is so much I wish I could have done that would only be possible through an upgrade. Instead, I’ve had an interesting time working around the limitations and adapting the free features to best suit my vision for the site. I have some experience messing with HTML on websites, but no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get anything working on WordPress. I had to stick with adapting what the site already had, but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out so far.

I also want to keep working on the project! There’s a lot of material to go through, even without digitalizing the whole thing. I hope my project will be interesting for those just casually browsing the internet, but I also think it could act as a jumping off point for further research. I know I, personally, have gone down several research rabbit holes because of one-off comments Kuh made in his diary. Hopefully others will appreciate the project for what it is and pursue their own research as well!

Thank you all for a great semester! I had a great time learning with you all and keeping up with all of your amazing projects. I hope you’re all doing well and staying safe!

One last Baby Yoda for the road, practicing social distancing!

The Kuh Diaries – Project Update

Hi everyone! Hope you’re all doing well and staying safe.

I was planning to give you all the link to my site, but it looks like I can’t make it password protected like I thought (thanks, free WordPress plan!) and I’m not quite ready to make it public yet. Instead, I’ve taken screenshots that I hope will show where I’m at in the project.

As I said in my project proposal, my plan for this project is to digitalize and contextualize Frederick Kuh’s diaries on a WordPress site. I’ve hit some snags on implementing my original vision for it – a lot of the features I was hoping to include are only available with plugins, which you need a $300 business plan to use. But I’ve been adapting my plan and so far so good!

Here’s what the front page looks like so far:

The captions are a bit cheesy, so if you have suggestions for alternatives, please let me know!

The diary entries have all been adapted into posts, which can be found all together in the 1938-1944 link on the front page. They’re also categorized by year, and can be accessed through the menu bar. I found this to be easier than trying to make them all individual pages – the only downside is they’re organized with the most recent post on top, so I’ve had to heavily doctor the dates to keep it in order.

The issue with the categorization though is the full entries don’t show up, but I’m working on figuring that out if possible. There’s currently about two entries per year, and I’m hoping to keep adding on from there.

The entries so far look like this:

So there’s a picture of the original entry, then the transcription as close as possible to the original text, and then photos at the end to contextualize the content. Usually that means there are lots of people featured at the bottom, but I’ve been working on including places and trying to contextualize one-off references and remarks.

I haven’t tackled the “Places” page yet, but the “People” page will hopefully look something like this:

So that’s what I have so far!

For my next steps, I still want to:

  • Organize the “People” page and create profiles for all of them (this will be easier for some rather than others – for little-known people like press censor “Norman Caney,” I only have Kuh’s diary and one brief mention of him in a 1945 volume of the Empire Forestry Journal to go off of)
  • Add more diary entries (again, complicated as I have to choose which entries that I can adequately contextualize with my current resources)
  • Begin the “Places” page (the absence of period photos for a lot of the mentioned places has caused me trouble thus far, and I’m considering resorting to modern photos or Google Maps screenshots – and sometimes I can’t even pinpoint what place Kuh’s referencing)

All in all, I think I have kept as close as possible to my original proposal without spending money on the project. I did originally want the posts to include headlines from each country mentioned in the entries, but not all countries have newspaper archives digitalized and accessible to those who don’t speak the language. That’s lower on my priorities list, but if I have time (or if I continue this throughout the summer since it looks like I’ll have more time on my hands!) I plan to keep working on it.

Let me know what you guys think!

Histories of the National Mall

For those unacquainted with, Histories of the National Mall is dedicated to the history of D.C.’s National Mall. It provides a variety of interactive ways to learn about the history of the Mall, including the development of the space, the events that occurred there, and the people associated with it. The project is funded by the Roy Rosenzweig Institute for History and New Media and the National Endowment for Humanities

The site starts out with a very colorful, visually appealing homepage. The layout is simple and intuitive.

Despite its apparent simplicity though, there’s a significant amount of information available and organized in helpful ways. Not only are there the four initial options (Maps, Explorations, People, and Past Events) but the site also includes a search bar, so you can quickly find information on whatever interests you.

At the bottom of the homepage, there’s also a very helpful guide to using the site, and a featured article – this article is randomized every time you refresh the homepage, meaning users are exposed to different topics and information every time.

Clicking on “Using the Site” brings you directly to their “About” page. It provides detailed information about the information and content the site contains, and also information on how to use the site. They specifically include how to use the site while the user is on the Mall, encouraging users to connect this digital project even more to the physical space.

Let’s move on to the four categories the site provides!

If you click on Maps, you are, unsurprisingly, directed to a map of the Mall. The map allows you to move around, zoom in and out, and to get a look at the space. Featured on the map are a number of location markers, but there are also color coded circles with numbers. These indicate close groupings of location markers, and clicking on them zooms the map into that area.

However, this map is a lot more interactive than it first appears. If you click the filter setting at the top right corner, you find even more interesting features.

The map allows you to filter the different types of items, but it also lets you choose what era map you want to look at! This is definitely my favorite feature.

On the bottom right corner, it gives you the information on the cartographer and the year it was made.

Selecting a different era not only features a map from that time period, but it also changes the items you can select and take a look at. All of these items are available on the default “All Map Eras” map, so you aren’t missing content if you don’t flip through every map option.

Pivoting from the more interactive element, the site also offers articles on the Mall’s history through its “Exploration” section. These articles are presented in a FAQ-style form, answering popular questions asked about the Mall. There’s only 5 pages of results, so it’s not an inexhaustible wealth of information, but there is a significant amount.

The articles also support the information with images, videos, and oral history. The multimedia elements do give the articles a boost and makes the information more accessible to more audiovisual learners.

On the side, there are also links to related questions, prompting users to dig deeper into topics that interest them and to engage more with the site.

The last two categories, “People” and “Past Events,” are also worth a look.

The People section includes 89 profiles and mini biographies on people associated with the Mall, its development, and its going-ons.

Taking a look at Benjamin Banneker, who helped map out the boundaries of the D.C., we can see the site actually offers a lot of information on each person.

In addition to the information and metadata, you can also download the information in several different formats.

Not only do you get biographical information on the person, but you also get source and citation information, and the site lets you know what map coverage the person can be found on.

The Past Events section offers similar information.

Just like the Persons section, each event is associated with a photo. There’s a description of the event, a date, source and citation information, and different output formats. It also gives information on what map coverage it can be found on, and–for events featured on the interactive maps–it provides a geolocation as well, where the item can be found on the maps.

One question that comes to mind with this site though is communication and how users can ask questions and interact with the creators. The option to contact the site or ask questions is buried in the “About” page, which is only accessible through the homepage and not in the menu bar. At the very bottom, there’s a “Connect” section.

The “send feedback and questions” link directs the user to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media though, instead of a form dedicated to Histories of the National Mall, which could be confusing to some. The other options are to go through Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. It is worth pointing out that icons for these three social media pages are available at the bottom or side of each page, but they’re subtle and I know that not every user might notice them or think to follow those links.

All in all, Histories of the National Mall is a cool site! There’s a lot to look through, but not an overwhelming amount. I think the interactive map and FAQ-style exploration pages are the highlights of the project, but the People and Past Events also provide a lot of interesting information. The site is useful for those casually looking through the Mall’s history, but could also be a good diving off point for researchers.

Preserving digital culture

We all know that what’s on the internet usually stays on the internet. But what about obsolete sites? Systems rendered inaccessible as technology changes? Parts of the internet that once played a huge role in the internet’s evolution, but have since fallen into obscurity? People are out there collecting it (let’s hear it for the Wayback Machine), but the question falls on preservation. How to collect, preserve, and make accessible this digital culture and history?

Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope’s paper “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” written for the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, addresses how museums should preserve and acquire in the day and age where born digital artifacts are quickly becoming the norm.

Chan and Cope start by covering MOMA acquiring the “@” symbol – how that works, what the logistics are behind it, the decision-making process. They move on to a few different design museums, leading up to a focus on the Cooper-Hewitt museum. There, they quote the museums’ founders expressing a wish to pass on an “artistic tradition” more than just a collection of objects.

Chan and Cope focus the rest of the paper on this interaction between “original” artifacts and the propagation of design and intent – specifically in a world where those artifacts are born digital. As they are focused on the museum approach, they discuss the issues behind acquisitions, legal rights, sources codes, and preservation.

To do this, they use the example of a program called Planetary.

Planetary was a system made by a now defunct company called Bloom in 2011. Planetary would transform users’ music libraries into solar systems and galaxies by categorizing planets and orbits along factors like artists, albums, and track lengths.

How it works
Planetary in action

In preserving Planetary, Chan and Cope state the preservation strategy was to open source the code with a Berkeley Software Distribution license, so that anyone anywhere could access and use the code without permission. Not only is the code open sourced, but the code’s history and all its bugs and tweaks are also made available – so people can not only use the code but also understand how it came to be. They host the code on Github, so they’re able to keep an “original” code while users download and modify alternate copies.

Putting the code out there as a preservation strategy allows a focus on “design and intent,” as Chan and Cope put it. Derivative works are a way to preserve Planetary. After all, if the original company were still around, it’s possible Planetary would have gone through a number of evolutions at this point. Because technology evolves, does that mean best preservation is allowing that evolution in the spirit of the project?

Chan and Cope end on the note that there is more and more an issue of “inaccessible history,” quoting Ben Fino-Radin from Rhizmo’s Artbase. As technology changes and renders some digital history inaccessible, they believe the responsibility falls to the creators to maintain projects and ensure longevity. This might not be an unfair assessment – but as the number of creators willing to assume such responsibility remains low, the role of museums in collection and preservation of digital history becomes more complex.

Speaking of Rhizmo, Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration” digs further into Artbase. As an employee of Rhizmo, Espenschied has published a mix of their manuscript and transcript of their keynote/closing lecture at the 2014 Digital Preservation conference on the Rhizmo site. In this lecture, Espenschied digs deeper into Artbase.

The presentation and format of the paper might come across as obnoxious at first to those who don’t expect it, and might not seem to contribute much at first beyond showing where the laugh breaks were.

Do the emojis quantify the level of laughter? Or is this a representation of how the speaker interpreted the response?

But one thing the form does do is put the audience into the conversation. The emojis might not be entirely fulfilling, but Espenschied also includes tweets audience members who tagged the talk.

A tweet from the aforementioned Ben Fino-Radin, also a Rhizmo employee.

This means that Espenschied’s lecture followed the age-old saying, “Show, don’t tell.”

Of course, since it’s a lecture, Espenschied also tells. But it supports one of the lecture’s primary tenants: Users must be included.

Espenschied focuses his lecture on digital culture, and the question of how to historicize by focusing on Artbase, founded in 1999 as a “collection of born digital artifacts in a user generated archive.” What particularly interested him though, was how Artbase went from a base platform where people uploaded art, into a static archive – the connection between the archive, the user, and usability.

Espenschied brings up two examples when talking about the necessary link in digital culture and history between performance and activity.

First, he shows an example of how Google decided to present popular 2014 New Years Searches: a globe that lists the popular searches according to major city. He spins the globe to show the features to the audience, but concludes the globe is just bad.

The issue with the globe is: there’s no relevance.

The globe uses user activity to support the database designer, but there’s no interaction, no method to prompt more user activity. As Espenschied puts it, it’s an endpoint. Relevance, for digital history, is making it an entry point.

To that effect, Espenschied brings up a project he’d been co-leading on collecting and preserving Geocities.

He shows how they were staging contextualized screenshots of Geocities pages and posting them on Tumblr. Uploading them on a blog platform with younger users, Espenschied argues, means that digital culture and history becomes an entry point. Users can share and upload the screenshots to other platforms. It becomes a conversation starter, and leads to further user activity.

Both articles by Chan and Cope and Epenschied bring up interesting questions on how to collect and preserve born digital artifacts. Clearly, the approaches differ based on the institution and background, whether a museum or media company is making the decisions, whether the individual is inclined to follow more academic or artistic methodology.

I do think a really interesting question is about responsibility – does the creator have the responsibility to ensure their digital projects are preserved? If not, who does? Or should? And if creators aren’t willing to assume that responsibility, does that mean it’s effectively death of the creator and open sourcing codes is the next step?

Digital Preservation in Practice and in Theory

When you do oral history interviews, one of your first steps is usually deciding how to record them. Although transcripts are useful in their own way, they are unique based on the transcriber and often do not and cannot embody the same tone and emotions as audio or even visual digital records. But when you decide to audio or video record interviews, you also have to think of how to archive them and ensure they are preserved as technology advances and makes some formats obsolete.

Remember these?

There are two facets of digital preservation we should cover: the practical and the theoretical. 

Let’s start with the practical. Anyone getting started with oral history and wanting to take a serious approach to preservation can find a solid guide in Kara Malssen’s article, Digital Video Preservation and Oral History. Malssen provides a very in-depth and hands on guide to creating and preserving digital video. She starts from the very beginning and makes it clear from the get-go that decisions made when creating files have long-lasting effects and consequences.

Malssen does helpfully list and define some important terms: wrapping and encoding formats, bit rate, resolution, and file size. She emphasizes how the file format (ex: .mov, .avi, .mpg) and codec (ex: H.264, DV, MPEG-4) are important for the format’s lifespan and accessibility, whereas the bit rate and resolution are tied to quality and file size. Using all this information, she goes through the main steps: choosing a recording device with the rights specs, determining how and where to retain and store files (in three forms: the original as a preservation master, a mezzanine copy for new edits, and a proxy copy for redistributing), then figuring out technical and preservation metadata. Throughout all this, Malssen makes sure to remind us to keep up on best formatting to keep the file preserved and accessible as time goes on.

Although Malssen’s article is step-by-step and incredibly helpful, it is chock full of technical terms that aren’t always defined and so not exactly accessible to a wider audience. Oral historians and dedicated people (like us!) will certainly find use in the article, but more casual hobbyists might choose instead to find a simpler explanation.

Moving on to the theoretical side of digital preservation, Jonathan Sterne’s book MP3 includes a foreword style chapter entitled “Format Theory.” Sterne talks about audio files instead of video, so we see another side of the story.

For Sterne, telephony is the basis of everything to do with audio recording today. Not only was it the first step, but it also shaped our notions of what “hearing” is. Sterne ties this all to the question of audio quality – as technology progresses, he points out, we continue to use MP3s despite the ability to do better, despite them being even lower quality than CDs or records. For this, Sterne questions what he calls “the dream of verisimilitude” – in other words, the idea that progress means technology just getting closer and closer to representing reality. Sterne links this back instead to the “history of compression.” We’ve been compressing as long as we’ve been making advances, so we don’t always mind discrepancies in our audio. It’s often just part of the experience!

Now we come to where theory comes in more directly; since we already have media theory, why not format theory as well? In backing up his argument, Sterne gets into specifics which involve a lot of numbers and some diagrams, so let’s focus on the question instead. Why not focus on the hardware of format as well as the software of mediality? It would lead to different, interesting approaches to research and the history of formats.

Sterne continues by laying out to outline of his book, following a chronological approach to format theory, going from a new hearing research in the 1910s to the rise of MP3 and file-sharing. He ends the chapter on the note that–despite our ability to do better and its proprietary nature–MP3 is a significant cultural touchstone, not just because of its popularity, but because it represents a time in history where the dream of verisimilitude came in to question.

Both of the readings here speak a lot to digital preservation. Malssen’s is a go-to guide for preserving oral histories, but mainly for those who already have a pretty good foundation or the time to do the necessary research. Sterne’s book promises an interesting and fairly important background into audio formatting and digital preservation, especially for those in relevant fields. Overall, I found the two texts interesting and definitely important, but they do have their specific audiences.