Reading the Collective from the Particular

The Everyday Life in Middletown project seeks to comment on the collective experience of the everyday through diaries about the particular. They are focused while also being sprawling. We ask diarists to “write about their day” with little to no prompt and the only guidance and examples they’re provided are the diaries which are easily accessible online.  

The EDLM diaries are consumed by the particular. A new song a diarist hears on the radio when arriving in Muncie. A diarist runs into a problem at the pharmacy. Diarists eating bagels for breakfast or ordering a salad at dinner. Working on my project, so far, has been about working with this corpus and trying new things to see what methods help me best understand the project using digital tools or working with the text in a visual way.

First, I worked on prepping my corpus, where I ran into several problems. I have access to all of the documents, both original and “scrubbed” (edited for anonymity) that the EDLM team uses. I cross-checked these against the website and had to fill in a couple holes and create one folder on my laptop before I could upload them to Voyant-Tools. Using Voyant, I’ve been working through some questions of method and theory while considering how to do a distance read of a corpus dependent on the particular. We’ve had a lot of these conversations throughout the different iterations of the project, so those conversations are informing my work now—weighing how to think about detail while also saying something about the experience of the everyday and of life in Muncie, Indiana.

My progress has been slow while I’ve tried to work with different configurations of stopwords, where I’m deciding what is and what isn’t important on a textual level to help more meaningful connections rise to the surface. In one approach, I used as few stopwords (20) as possible to see what emerged from that method. With that method, pronouns and words signaling the personal were the most common— my, her, she, he, I’m, etc. While this method did demonstrate how intimate and particular to the person these diaries, are, I wasn’t sure it was the most productive for moving from the personal to something more collective. What does “everyday life” look like? What is the “everyday?” How do people in Muncie, Indiana live their lives differently than in other places, in other cities both more urban and more rural.

I then tried using Voyant’s automatic stopwords, just adding a few to the list (00, like, etc.) based on what the generated word cloud revealed. This was the visual result and my starting point as I move forward.

I’ll be using the following words from the word cloud, both based on their frequency in the corpus and based on my research and familiarity with everyday life theory

  • My/ Me
  • Time
  • Work
  • Home
  • Day

I’ll be using this set and adding the term “Muncie” to hopefully create a few creative ways to look at the diaries based on these terms. Some of the most useful functions so far are the collocates, to see how people are talking about the same thing but in different ways. Using the collocate function and some of the visual tools on Voyant, which I’m still familiarizing myself with, I will write a corresponding blog post for each of these for EDLM to share, as they see fit. I hope to write three for their site and to include both aspects of the distance reading while also pointing readers to the diaries themselves and encouraging people to take a look at the website. EDLM made a recent effort to encourage community bloggers and encourage this work!

I’m a bit further behind than I hoped to be at this point, slowed down by trying to use Voyant and by wrestling my corpus into something useful. I’m hoping my work will inform future efforts EDLM makes in this endeavor!

Historypin & Museum on Main Street

In this blog post we’re looking at two entirely different public history initiatives which both have digital, storytelling, and spatial components: Historypin and Museum on Main Street.

HISTORYPIN

Historypin is a digital crowdsource project started in 2010. The concept is organized around the concept of a “pin” which is basically an identified location— either generally or a precise address. When you create a pin, you identify a location on a map with an uploaded image relating to that place. Pins can be organized into collections and tours. The interface seems fairly simple for creating pins, collections, and tours, but if you have any questions, their Getting Started page is great!

I made this profile to make a pin before realizing I don’t really have a historic photo to upload. But you can see the menu panel to the right of ways to get started!

Major organizations like BBC and Google as well as the National Archives and Library of Congress have partnered with historypin. For an example of an organization that was highly active but independently so (without much community interaction) a good example is San Francisco Public Library. SFPL joined in 2012, and it says their last pin was in 2016. They created:

  • 2603 pins
  • 10 collections
  • 8 tours

Because SFPL made some pretty long tours, I took a look at those to see how pins can be organized by this function. On a “tour” the user virtually walks through the city and from pin to pin. Wherever a pin has been dropped, you can see the associated photo on top of a street image from google maps. The slider at the top of the screen allows you to change the opacity of the image to see the streetview behind it.

I have to say I don’t love how this tour interfaces? I felt like it was kind of clunky and confusing? There wasn’t much clear hierarchy, and I couldn’t figure out how to learn more about the pin or find comments.

From this screen, I thought I’d be able to see more details about and interact with the pin, but you actually have to click the link to the permanent pin to learn anymore. Once you’re visiting the pin’s actual page you can interact with the pin in the comment box. I rarely found any interaction in the comment boxes which was disappointing.

One of the more active collections Historypin prompted me to look at was People’s History of LGBT+ Life in Britian. On this page you can see there are more contributors, including community members who share their photos. I also found more comments in this collection. After poking around this collection and seeing more interaction and contribution, I wondered about the value of this kind of site for more active communities like the LGBT+ community. Working with the queer community seems like the right fit for this kind of digital history endeavor because you can see it growing a community which is otherwise not always visible or place-based. It made me think especially of Haley’s cool project. (Another fun collection to look at was People’s History of Pop. There’s also a collection called Green Book Travelers, but there aren’t many uploaded images for the pins. Rather, they’re just marking the locations, which is interesting in a different way while still being spatially-oriented.)

Critique: To be honest, I was getting a little bored while I tried to find good pages to share with the class until I found the LGBT+ collection. After reflecting on that experience, I think Historypin is a good exercise in thinking carefully about the most effective uses for these kind of digital history projects and about who the audiences and communities are. If it’s hard to find really good examples and really good collections, then what does the ratio look like of useful and highly-interacted-with collections to unviewed collections? How do you evaluate the usefulness of the site and its contribution to the field?

MUSEUM ON MAIN STREET

Museum on Main Street is part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services. Their mission is to “ provide access to the Smithsonian for small-town America. Museum on Main Street engages small-town audiences and brings attention to underserved rural communities.” What do they do, you wonder?

What does Museum on Main Street Do?
These tidbits provide good stats on why MoMS sends their exhibits into small towns.

I looked at the exhibition called Crossroads to learn a little more about what these exhibitions are really like. This page teaches you more about the exhibition, themes, the tour schedule, and further resources. The Exhibitor Resources page shows a bit of the backend of how MoMS is trying to create a network of resources for their exhibitions and for their partners.  

The concept for the exhibitions from Museum on Main Street is a fairly  top-down way to do this kind of local and community oriented history which presents an interesting model and an interesting dilemma about how to do this kind of history. The participatory storytelling component is considerably more community-based and still spatially oriented, but a little less so. I thought they might have really great social media that navigates some of my questions about how they work with and elevate the local communities they’re working with, but I was disappointed.

While I love this picture, I think that MoMS’s social media could really do some interesting work talking about the communities the exhibits are currently visiting and the programming around them. This could maybe provide a national platform for that discussion and their local partners. Instead they’re just showing off Bob and advertising for the exhibit which they don’t even mention the current location of (Florida).

The MoMS project also has a story collecting function which started in 2011. The Stories from Main Street initiative focuses on life in small-town America and is an effort to digitally collect stories, photos, text, and videos. Here is one example in which a woman named Jenna tells a story about encountering whales. It’s short and truly wholesome which I imagine is the point. The page includes a transcription of her story and a video of her telling her story. I wondered what kind of stories MoMS was looking for and what the end-game is when I found this vaguely informative and idealistic blurb:

A great story tells us about YOUR American experience. It could be a special memory from your childhood, an oral history from your grandparents, an anecdote about family life, or a story about a local gathering spot in your community. Help us uncover and celebrate what makes YOUR community unique by sharing your story today!

The site includes a fully searchable database, so I would assume you could use these stories for local and community-oriented research. I think this aspect of the MoMS project is rooted in some key topics for this class: storytelling, participatory projects, and it is both spatially- and community- based while providing access to “the museum” (in the broad/ vague/ institutional sense of the word).

Critique: I did a little digging to see if there was any discussion of MoMS in The Public Historian and there was one article, “Creating Teaching Opportunities and Building Capacity Through the Museum on Main Street Program,” by Ann E McCleary which pointed out how the program helps build the capacity of state and local institutions and to “raise the quality” of the public history endeavors. McCleary argues that MoMS intentionally avoids top-down organizing by making sure the local institution has ownership over the final product. She also points out that exhibitions tend towards celebratory and safe topics but that there is room for nuanced discussion within that topic through the details. I wouldn’t really expect much more from the Smithsonian and from a project seeking a nation-wide audience, but there is definitely room for improvement. (For example, I wonder if the “Water/Ways” exhibit or programming is talking about the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan while the exhibit is on display a half hour drive away from the city?)

Anyway, while that is a bit off topic, at the root of that argument is that “place” matters! For both Historypin and Museum on Main Street, as digital history folks, we can think about how these projects fit into the field and how they are maybe not the best solutions, tools, and programs but lead us to ask questions about what a better solution, tool, or program would look like. What do you think about these projects? Particularly those of you map-lovers making maps for your digital projects— do you think Historypin looks useful for you?

Works Cited

Ann E. McCleary, “Creating Teaching Opportunities and Building Capacity Through the Museum on Main Street Program,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 1, 2014): 71, https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.71.

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.

Print Project Proposal: “The Changing Language of Reproductive Justice”

The language used to talk about reproductive rights is changing. Last semester I studied the historiography of reproductive justice to understand how it has emerged from studies of reproductive rights and reproductive politics to the more inclusive and activist-oriented term “reproductive justice.” As a field of historical study, reproductive justice is closely related to activism which makes it a particularly interesting and fast-changing area of study.

A major aspect of this field is understanding how language is used when talking about women’s reproductive rights. Oftentimes, reproductive rights is framed only through the lenses of abortion or the falsely framed pro-life versus pro-choice debate. Reproductive justice activists advocate for a more inclusive approach to women’s reproductive rights by thinking about the entire matrix of issues affecting a woman’s right to autonomy over her body and ability to make choices relating to her reproductive health. Historians like Laura Briggs have followed this lead by studying, for example How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. Demonstrating how historical scholarship can parallel and inform women’s reproductive rights advocates, collectively shifting towards a reproductive justice framework to better encompass women’s experiences through an intersectional lens.

Briggs’ history built upon early works done by leading historians of reproductive rights who have long understood the relationships between reproductive rights and other politics, many of them approaching the study with an intersectional approach which accommodates women’s variety of reproductive experiences and concerns. It makes sense then that, overtime, historical scholarship has joined with reproductive justice activists to identify and name a historical field of study: Reproductive Justice. Historian of reproductive politics, Rickie Solinger, teamed up with human rights and reproductive rights activist Loretta Ross to publish Reproductive Justice: An Introduction in 2017, indicating a shift in the relationship between scholarship and activism in this area of study. With that publication, they kicked off a series published through the University of California Press: Reproductive Justice: A New Vision for the Twenty-First Century.

So, with all of that, you may be wondering what my project is! To be honest, I am struggling with how to use these digital tools productively, so in the spirit collaboration I’ve been finding in the digital history field, I am looking forward to feedback on this project idea in terms of digital tools to use and feasibility. I know that it is worthwhile and probably could work for this project, but the nuts and bolts are harder to wrap my head around. My pitch is something along these lines:

Using digital tools, perhaps the TIME Magazine corpus and Google Ngram, I will look for trends in how the language around reproductive rights and politics through activist and scholarly lenses have shifted towards the social justice framework up to the culmination of “reproductive justice” as the new vision for activism and then historiography.

What’s important about these trends is the language we use as activists, scholars, and as people who generally talk about women’s reproductive rights and how that affects policy and more importantly women’s lives. I hope this idea will work for this project because I think we can all benefit from understanding why we use the terms we use to talk about these issues.

Is it Straightforward?

“The hardest part of design isn’t doing the design. It’s working with everyone else without wanting to run screaming for the hills.” –Dan Brown

Luckily, while he suggests that collaboration is the most difficult task when doing design, or for our purposes working on any digital project, Brown has answers. Rather than providing suggestions for how to engage in interpersonal relationships, Brown describes how to create documentation—a historian’s dream— to keep a record of the project and to help team members communicate more effectively.

Dan Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning is a how-to book. His intention is to teach his readers how to create and present deliverables efficiently and effectively. He defines a deliverable as a document created during the course of a web design project to facilitate communications, capture decisions, and stimulate innovation. These documents are able to capture ideas, innovation, theory, and concepts at a moment in time, and there are three primary reasons for their production:

  • Consistency of vision
  • Accountability
  • Traceability

The entire team being on the same page—the creators, users, and approvers from the design team to the clients and stakeholders— contribute to the success of the project.

There is evidently theory in the preface and sprinkled throughout the text, but because this book primarily relies on practical advice, the depth of the theory behind this analysis is hidden by the simplicity of the layout and organization. Brown also argues that it can be used with any methodology and utilizing the reader’s choice of tools, making it appear universally applicable. He analyzes ten deliverables in an order based on a standard project timeline. He sorts the deliverables into three categories, corresponding to the divisions of the book into parts. He further organizes his content by dedicating each chapter to a particular deliverable:

  • User Need Documents
    • Personas
    • Usability test plan
    • Usability report
  • Strategy Documents
    • Competitive analysis
    • Concept model
    • Content inventory
  • Design Documents
    • Site maps
    • Flow charts
    • Wireframes
    • Screen designs

That Brown can manage to make these deliverables sound simple to me—a person with no real design experience, particularly any web-based design experience— is a testament to his successful explanation of these principles. The structure of each chapter is identical which is an intentional effort to give the same advice for each deliverable, making the book easy to follow. Each chapter starts with an introduction including a definition. He follows this section with an overview, challenges, the process of creation, presenting the deliverable, and putting it in context. The organization is formulaic and effective.

A particular strength of the book, is Brown’s close attention to personas, referring to the system’s intended users. Brown encourages projects to treat these personas as actual people, featuring profiles and detailed scenarios. This chapter emphasizes, from a design-standpoint, the importance of recognizing audience and who will be interacting with our products. While this might seem obvious to those of us with a public focus to our work, it’s evident that most traditional scholarly work isn’t created with a close eye on “users.” Those which do have a wide-public appeal are lauded as rare beasts. As Public Historians, we do much more of this kind of work, and Brown contributes a useful model for a practice many of us have seen when learning about working with the public on the museum floor or as an interpreter. Taking this experience to the web and making it digital complicates our understanding of the user, and that’s why User-Centered Design is so important—which we hear more about this week from Sara’s blog post.  

As a Public Historian, or any historian interested in doing collaborative work—which digital history often is— Communicating Design reminded me of every major scholarly project I’ve contributed to, particularly of the process of keeping records and sorting documents. In the preface, he emphasizes how the field of web design is particularly guilty of lacking good documentation, and honestly, most projects are. His point is well-taken because it proves difficult to track group decisions and to recognize how those decisions impact the eventual product or outcome without a dedicated effort to this end. These documentation efforts are like the footnotes of a traditional scholarly work. We need to leave a trace of how we came to create a project or future projects will be unable to build on our experiences. By tracking these efforts and creating clear deliverables along the way, a project is better able to defend choices, methodology, and the theory informing their product, and future projects and scholarship will benefit from this endeavor.

This book is straightforward, as a how-to guide should be. The creativity, as we know, is the product of actively doing the work and wading into an actual tool like Omeka, which we see several of our classmates attempting here and here or from Emily’s blog post, checking out digital projects seeking grants. It’s only when we start creating that things start getting messy, but with the structure and methods laid out by Dan Brown’s Communicating Design, maybe our own projects will look a little more straightforward.