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.

Wikipedia: How does it work and why don’t we teach it?

Those of us who have been educated in the age of Wikipedia knew that our grade was at risk if we cited the website. This refrain resulted in my assuming that Wikipedia was inherently flawed, inevitably incorrect, and otherwise detrimental to my education. Still, if I needed a quick answer to a question, Google would lead me first to the Wikipedia page, and I was naively confident in its accuracy.

This practicum is intended to teach us how Wikipedia works, reconciling our teacher’s warnings with our own understandings of Wikipedia to better understand its strengths and weaknesses as a digital encyclopedia, available at our fingertips.

Wikipedia is a free, web-based encyclopedia— meaning that we don’t have to pay for the information we access when we click on any link starting nor are there restrictions on using their content in your own publication. Wikipedia is open-source software, meaning the source code is made available to and edited by the online community to contribute and make changes. The result is several million articles of information written by multiple, volunteer authors, available to anyone with access to the internet.

Wikipedia holds a nebulous position in the digital history field. Roy Rosenzweig describes the role of Wikipedia in the field in “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”.

In a few short years, it has become perhaps the largest work of online historical writing, the most widely read work of digital history, and the most important free historical resource on the World Wide Web. (119)

So how does it work? When we do a Google search, a Wikipedia page often lands somewhere near the top of the list. Search the word “museum” and select the Wikipedia search result. The following page opens.

The two links we’ll focus on are “Talk” and “View History”. Both of these pages are Wikipedia administrative pages where editing and quality control happen. On the “Talk” page, you’ll find reviews from the Editorial Team indicating that it is low in quality (C-Class). Other interesting features include a to-do list and conversations among the article’s editors.

Clicking “View History” leads us to a page detailing the history of revisions done on the article about museums. This page identifies who made the edits and when. We notice that this museum article is not often edited—twice in 2018 and only a handful of times in 2017—perhaps contributing to its low quality rating. To better understand the array of quality ratings and to find higher rated pages, I clicked next on “Louvre” where we immediately see that this page features a green plus to the far right, indicating that it is a “good article.”

You can follow the same steps to read the “Talk” and “View History” pages specifically relating to this article to see how the conversation is different on a higher quality page. In pursuit of another high-quality article to compare, I clicked to several pages until I found a “Featured Article” specifically about history and identified as being one of the best articles Wikipedia has to offer. “Middle Ages” was the winner, as both a featured and “semi-protected” article, meaning it is at risk of vandalism or otherwise having its quality diminished by further edits. Contributions to this page are more highly monitored and must be reviewed prior to publication.

The Middle Ages article is highly curated and carefully edited. The organization of the page makes logical sense, the history is more detailed, and while the writing is fact-based without being focused on creating a narrative, it is more pleasant and informative to read than the Museum article. The discussion on the “Talk” page is brief but more detail-oriented, and the volunteers appear to be frequent contributors to Wikipedia articles. There are also a significantly higher number of edits visible on the “View History” page, indicating that it is more carefully maintained than the Museum article.

Having learned a bit about Wikipedia, I am realizing the benefits of learning how to read Wikipedia pages’ quality and history. Roy Rosenzweig would agree with my high school English teacher that I can’t cite Wikipedia in a paper, but I would argue that instead of terrifying students into not using the website at all, we should be teaching students how articles are created, how to read Wikipedia, and how to understand the difference between articles and the quality levels. Having this information, I feel better informed and more able to use Wikipedia effectively.

While I am very new to digital history, I’m wondering: did anyone already know that these pages exist and that it’s possible to read Wikipedia this way? Did you ever seriously consider how Wikipedia articles are written and edited? If so, how did you learn about them and do you think we should be teaching students these skills?

Introducing Digital: Saving the Humanities & Solving the World’s Contemporary Problems?

As someone who is new to the world of digital history, diving into conversations in the field taught me that the world of digital history is, well— nice.

And accessible at that. While this perhaps should not be surprising, my impression of digital fields was that I am too lacking in knowledge to be a part of the conversation or that I would be unwelcome there because of my lack of experience and training. Instead, I’m finding that the digital history field strives to be approachable and welcoming. Take, for example, Lisa Spiro’s blog post answering questions about how to get started in the field. Spiro wrote this guide based on her experience presenting at a conference with an audience whose reaction was much like my own—eager but intimidated. Her blog post is full of resources for those of us who are just diving into the field, aware of the possibilities but unsure where to begin.

Many of us have lived the majority of our lives in the digital age. Most of us could probably take a guess at vaguely defining the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities.” But the definitions, particularly “digital humanities” are difficult to specify due to the enormity of the field and the variety of projects which are produced under these labels. Beyond defining the terms, could we dive in and do digital history? Many practitioners would likely argue yes. And that is a critical aspect of the field— the division between thinking and doing, between theory and practice.

Practitioners of digital humanities also appear to be overwhelmingly hopeful,optimistic that this new methodology has the potential to “save” the humanities. Sharon Leon pushed back on this perspective in a conversation with Melissa Dinsman, published in 2016. What digital history in particular can do, Leon argues, is reinforce analytical and inquiry skills already emphasized in universities and especially in history departments. Asking digital history to save the humanities creates a false crisis and puts pressure on these kinds of projects, digital and public, to do the heavy lifting of shifting how academia interacts with the public and with knowledge and practice.  Instead of saving the humanities—an enormous task for one methodology— Leon argues that the digital turn, much like public history, encourages scholarship to look to new methods and new audiences, creating a different kind of public platform.

While, digital history won’t save the humanities (if they need saving is left up to you), perhaps it will prove to make a lasting impact on the structure and tradition in universities. Men have historically dominated the academy and excluded women from participating in the production of knowledge. Leon demands that digital history work seek to reconfigure the systemic and structural forces which erase women from history and from historiography. Digital history has its origins in the 1980s and 1990s as Cohen and Rosenzweig point out. So why then, were women excluded from the historiography of digital history? Leon sought to answer these questions in an essay on her blog, “Returning Women to the History of Digital History,” making the argument that women were at the forefront of digital history but have been written out due to the structural forces of the academy and of cultural heritage institutions.

This article reveals some of the cracks in the nice-gilded facade of digital humanities. How does a field emphasizing the importance of collaboration and shared authority erase women from the historiography? Natalie Cecire sought to answer this question in a different way—with theory.

Natalia Cecire cites Tom Scheinfeldt’s commentary on the word nice to launch into a discussion of the virtues of public humanities. Scheinfeldt suggests that the generally nice attitude in the field is due to the focus on methodology rather than theory. She suggests that because there is a practical answer or end to most methodological debates, the debate is more likely to end in a productive answer or result. Cecire takes this argument a step further by questioning how this attitude shapes the field and by reading the language used to talk about digital humanities.

Despite being a field in which the feminization of labor is evident through its modular approach and breaks from traditions in the academy, Cecire points out that the language used to describe the digital humanities is distinctly masculine and industrial— hack, hands-on, build, and mine are just a few prominent examples. Cecire argues that because digital humanities is about doing and method rather than about thinking and theory, it makes an economic claim about the value of work and of knowledge. Cecire speculates, “The field might look very different if the dominant metaphors for “doing” digital humanities research included weaving, cooking, knitting, and raising or nurturing.” If digital humanities is now part of a debate about what kind of work is worth doing and what kind of knowledge is most valuable, then Cecire argues, it is a social and economic debate about our contemporary world.

While this theoretical essay is dense, it matters because Cecire is attempting to theorize a field which, she argues, has the potential to affect how we perceive work and knowledge. The root of this question could lay in the dissonance in the digital humanities between the language we use to describe it and the reality of how that work takes form—masculine verbiage versus feminization of labor. Why does this matter? Or does it at all? It matters because the digital humanities and digital history produce visible, clear products, often public-facing in nature, proving the validity of the work of the humanities both to the public and to universities.

But, as previously mentioned Leon argues, “I don’t think the humanities needs saving.” Instead, digital humanities is perhaps more suited to solve issues of contemporary life, as Guldi and Armitage argue, by contributing the tools necessary for a return to social long-termism by means of a return to the historical methods of the longue durée. They argue that history should act as arbiter for the past and the present and that digital history is a means, a method, of accomplishing that goal. While, it can still be argued that digital history and digital humanities also can not solve the contemporary world’s problems, those wielding its powers are not wrong in that it provides tools to bring humanists and perhaps the world a step closer. Displaying an unfailing optimism in the value of history, digital tools, and perhaps humanity.

Digital humanities and digital histories are optimistic and anticipatory fields, focused on the next tools and the methods which will innovate the field. So, what comes next in a field looking to the future by way of the past? Perhaps this semester we will begin to answer this question with some collaboration and a nice attitude.

Maren— Pronounced like Karen

Hi everyone, I’m Maren Orchard (pronounced like Karen but with an M and Orchard like apples). I was born, raised, and educated in Muncie, Indiana, a small city known in the academic world for being home to Ball State University and the 1920s Middletown Studies. In popular culture, Muncie is perhaps more likely known for its mention on the television show Parks and Rec and famous alumni David Letterman who called Ball State University the “Harvard of Muncie” in conversation with the Clooneys. Despite this illustrious reputation, after twenty-two years in Muncie, I decided it was time for a new experience, which brought me to American University and my first year of the Public History M.A. program.

After years of thinking I would be a high school history teacher like my father, I quickly decided not to— also thanks to my father who is eagerly retiring this year. But I wasn’t sure where to turn with my love of history and education. Luckily, I had an amazing mentor who knew what I needed long before I did, to steer me towards the undergrad Public History program at BSU. Ever since my first class in public history my freshman year of undergrad, I’ve known that this field best encapsulates my interests—even while my career path remains uncertain. I take a particular interest in oral histories, the audiences public history engages, and community engagement practices. I’ve been thrilled to be the fellow working with the Humanities Truck this year. This position gives me the opportunity to see how the truck can be used as a tool to change the narrative around who the humanities’ audience is. We also focus on taking history out of the museum and into underserved communities. My personal research interests tend to be in women’s activist history, particularly reproductive justice.

After being involved in two humanities projects with major digital components, I have grown weary of sitting in meetings during which my colleagues endlessly discuss the merits and features of the mysterious tools wordpress, omeka, and islandora, among others. Having learned to never attend these meetings without my laptop so I could surreptitiously Google all  the words I didn’t understand, I have at last surrendered to the inevitable— it is time to learn what digital history has to offer and to confront my ignorance by enrolling in History and New Media. After doing the readings for the first week of class in preparation for my blog post, I’m more excited for this class.

While I struggle with digital tools and the language used in the field, I love the collaborative and project-based nature of digital history as well as the importance of the visual. I am excited to talk more about how doing digital history impacts history as a field and what that impact looks like. I’m hoping that these theoretical interests will hold me over while I slog through any technical bits that are more difficult for me. I hope that by taking this course and learning more about digital history, I will soon find myself able to participate in conversations about digital projects rather than letting my mind wander in meetings while waiting for the conversation to make sense to me again. To any of you who are also worried that you lack the basic digital literacy necessary to succeed in this class, know that you are not alone, and we will find our way together!