Understanding Appalachia Through the Web

How has a population that is often regarded as primitive, stuck in the past, and backward been portrayed on the web? Not only are the above terms outwardly false, but they are also a very problematic form of stereotyping.

Image result for appalachia
Why doesn’t this image pop into a person’s mind when Appalachia is mentioned?

Recent elections and political promises from both major parties have shown a clear misunderstanding of the Appalachian region and what issues are important to the residents. Like most every issue, this ignorance is not limited to the walls of federal buildings, they permeate throughout popular culture, news reports, and the general public’s “understanding” of what Appalachia is. Anthony Harkins Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon ( 2004) is the main inspiration for this written project. In Hillbilly, Harkins seeks to uncover how the hillbilly identity was created and became inseparably linked with the people (mostly men) of Appalachia. Harkins evaluates how hillbillies were portrayed in cartoons, music, movies, and TV shows throughout the twentieth century.

I hope to pick up where Harkins left off, and examine how Appalachia, and the people within, have been portrayed by popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This will require cross-examination of a variety of digital resources, including Wikipedia, Google ngram, google images, political campaign ads, Times Magazine Corpus, and major university collections. Additionally, non-traditional sources – social media, spotify, youtube – will provide insight into what imagery is associated with the region. These resources will allow me to understand how people – looking from the outside in – describe Appalachia.

Why are #hillbilly #southern #rednecks #deliverance listed next to Appalachia?

Not only do I plan to cross-examine how external resources portray Appalachia, I feel as though I need to compare those findings with how Appalachians define and identify with Appalachia on the internet. In addition to the same non-traditional sources above, songs, blogs, websites, oral histories, and scholarly repositories will serve as my main sources. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this examination is through a text analysis software that will allow me to track the major differences between verbiage and themes discussed. Hopefully, the addition of this evaluation (when compared to the work of Harkins) will not only allow me to identify how Appalachia is described and portrayed in popular culture, but also point out how incorrect (and sometimes accurate) those perceptions are.

There are countless works on Appalachian history that will no doubt be extremely influential in this study, but the works from our syllabus will help me frame the scope and perspective that my paper takes. Briefly, some of the works that seem to be the most helpful are: “Snapshots of History,” “Digital History and Argument,” and “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” (all of these can be found on our syllabus page)

Overall, this project can take many shapes, and there will no doubt be a lot of cross-examinations (which is why I think I used that word 14,000 times), but I think the tedious work will be well worth it. My goal for the project is to understand how (not why) Appalachia is portrayed by the public and why (not how) there seems to be such a discrepancy between popular perception and Appalachian perception.

Communicating Design and the Documents that Help us do it

Although Dan Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning may not be as thrilling as the other Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it serves as a great tool for historians interested in understanding what goes into designing a successful website.

Brown’s book, much like the author, is not focused on history. Brown is writing this book as a website designer interested in documenting how and when aspects of a website come together. Although this knowledge may not be necessary for the traditional historian, using his suggestions may help get history in front of more people in a more digestible way. Brown focuses on design documents rather than the design process, as he believes these documents are important to create a consistent vision, provide visual insight, and allow for the accountability of a team/project.

Deliverables, according to Brown, are documents that allow help to push the website narrative forward by communicating the design, explaining the ideas, and orienting the content in the larger project. These deliverables allow for a unified vision to be permeated throughout the website so all participants (team, company, client, user, etc.) will have a fruitful experience. By breaking deliverables down further, Brown dissects the purpose behind each document, something he argues is crucial to the success of that deliverable.

One of those dissections leads to a discussion about personas. Personas are fictional people that “express what users need and what they expect” from the website. Although personas are an aggregation of users, Brown suggests that designers think of the personas as real individual people who will use the web site – give them real names, describe them, analyze their behaviors. Using these personas as a tool to better understand how users will interact with the site will inevitably lead to more successful documents.

These personas, though fairly controversial in the web developer sphere, are perhaps the most significant takeaway for a public historian. Public history, simply put, is history made for the benefit of the public, often with the public. Websites, unlike brick and mortar history outlets, have an almost infinite community that they have to tailor their work to. Personas allow a public historian to literally put names and descriptions to people who may stumble upon their work in order to create a website that is useful for them. When used correctly, personas can be used as a way of involving the public in the creation of a historical website, though a team or individual needs to be aware of biases they may have.

The equally important (for designers, maybe not public historians) are the more design-oriented documents. These documents are akin to the work done by historians in between the research but before writing a large paper – deadlines, outlines, timelines (the holy trinity of ‘lines). They are meant to create a layout all of the components of the website, determine a hierarchy of ideas, and structure the creation process. Considering no two users will interact with a website the same way, these documents help ensure that all pages are evoking a similar purpose.

The third, and perhaps the most boring, type of document are the reviews and reports. These documents analyze how successful the website is at doing what is indented to do through determining how usable it is and comparing it to other websites. I would venture to guess that these are the most neglected documents in the process, but they could be the most helpful. They point to the gaps in the systems, show how developers can make the website more useful, and demonstrate how others solved the same problem. Like many projects, the developer may be eager to launch the website and move on to the next thing, but these documents hold developers accountable to making sure the website is as effective as possible.

All in all, Brown’s book on Communicating Design can be a great resource for public historians interested in engaging with the online world. I think the greatest strength about his book is the “choose your adventure” feel, where practitioners from all fields can read the standalone chapters to get the direction that they need. For instance, when working on in a team, it may be more important for a public historian to read the chapters on personas and leave the usability reports to their analytical teammate. But, when the public historian is on their own, those usability reports may be the best tool to supplement their deficiencies.

Virtual Volunteers: Crowdsourcing Transcriptions

In fall 2018, the Library of Congress announced its initiative “By the People,” a crowdsourcing initiative named after the closing line in the Gettysburg Address. This initiative allows virtual volunteers to engage directly with the Library of Congress’s archives in a fresh, meaningful, and interactive way.

Users, new and old, are encouraged to try their hand at transcribing, tagging, and reviewing documents in the LOC’s predetermined “campaigns.” Each campaign is thematic, whether it focuses on a certain person or event, and they allow users to find their niche and stay engaged. The twelve campaigns are very expansive and need our help! Follow me along as I learn how to interact with this website, so the LOC can be accessible to all!

Above is the landing page of the crowd.loc.gov website, which houses the By the People initiative. On this page, users can get an idea of the different ongoing projects, and learn more about how they can help. Although there are options to login and register, the LOC doesn’t require users to make an account to volunteer. Regardless, I will be doing so, as it opens up more ways to interact with the site.

After making an account (which I think we all know how to do), I was brought back to the landing page, where the LOC promoted some ongoing projects that need my help. I decided to work on the Alan Lomax Collection, as I have long been inspired by his work. Thanks to the By the People initiative, I am able to interact with Alan Lomax’s incredible work directly, while making it more accessible for future historians, folklorists, fans…students…etc. You can see that this page is in progress and they need MY help completing it. Well alright, LOC, I’ll help ya – and I’ll even do it using your new interface, which you can see below!

To be honest…this document was already completely transcribed when I opened it up. I am assuming this means somebody finished without hitting submit for review, which is a side effect of using the crow-sourcing method. Nonetheless, their algorithm promoted this page for me, so I read through the written text side-by-side with the transcription, approved the work, and submitted it for review. A job well done, now on to the next one!

After looking through the other campaigns, I find myself in the uncompleted section of the Clara Barton papers. After consulting the “How to Transcribe” page, I try my hand at deciphering Clara Barton’s handwriting.

I did it! I transcribed a part of the collection, and it was a very engaging piece of text that may make some want to try their hand and the next page…and the next…and the next.

In addition to transcribing and reviewing, there is also the option to add tags to the document. For instance, in the example above, Clara Barton is writing about how you would not pardon somebody for a crime they did not commit because that implies that they ever committed the crime. Rather, you should publicly vindicate that person. Personally, I think an appropriate tag for this page might be something like “pardon” or “criminal justice.” Adding this meta-data allows for the information to more easily accessible and get in front of people who may find this particular excerpt interesting, such as a criminology major.

The Library of Congress’s “By the People” initiative is a very interesting and engaging way to encourage history education through technology. Because users are not required to do anything (aside from giving their best effort at transcribing accurately), the initiative is truly geared towards anybody who has an interest in one of their collections. Whether you are on your lunch break, or researching a topic that has yet to be archived, the By the People page might be the best place for you to spend your time as a virtual volunteer!

Hi, I’m Luke!

Hello there! I am a first year Public History MA student here at AU. I grew up with 5,000 of my best friends in a small town in northern Jersey. In addition to learning how to think critically about breakfast sandwiches and pizza, growing up in NJ got me interested in American Revolutionary War history.

I graduated in May 2019 from Virginia Tech as a History major with minors in Leadership/Social Change, War & Society, and Political Science. I didn’t really have a specific focus while in undergrad, though I was mostly interested in anything US-based. Since the powers at large tell me I have to be more specific with my study, I have been (fortunately) forced to find my niche topic. Since coming to AU I have found a deeper passion for Appalachian labor/folk/music studies.

Most of my professional work has taken place at the White House Historical Association, where I am a fellow. I worked at WHHA in the summer of 2018, summer of 2019, and since I began my studies at AU in August. My highlights at WHHA include: helping plan the 2018 and 2020 Presidential Sites Summits, creating an app video that played at an Amazon Web Services conference, writing an interpretive script that will be broadcasted on C-SPAN, and sourcing objects to create a mini-exhibit. My first summer at WHHA convinced me to delay my ambitions to become a teacher, and rather focus on non-conventional ways to engage people in history, which is why I am here!

Aside from history, my true passion is designing and building custom wood furniture and objects. My dream job would allow me to combine history, woodworking, and teaching all on a widely accessible platform. Basically, I want to be a mixture of Norm Abram, Ken Burns, and (for a little razzle-dazzle) Bill Nye.

Go Hokies!