Digital Archives: “Humanizing the Craft”

As we try to identify and define what exactly “digital archives” are, I believe that an important part of that process is looking into the role they play, both for professionals and the public.  By looking at how people view, and use, digital archives, we can develop a better understanding of what they can be.

“Digital archives” can mean many different things to many different people, so it is important to understand that this title is never going to apply to one specific thing.  What is even more significant to understand is that professionals and the public do not always view them the same way. Digital archives provide different opportunities and resources for these groups; however, they can also act as a bridge between the two.  

In their articles, Bergis Jules, Jarrett Drake, and Kimberly Christen highlight the importance of digital archives in the general public and give advice to professionals looking to create archives for those communities.  Why is this important? Why am I harping on the public’s experiences with digital archives so much? Well, that’s because this resource makes accessible to the public resources that were not always easy to get to. This is especially important for professionals to understand.  Even if they are not looking to collaborate with the public to develop a digital archive, it is still important to be aware of how communities outside archives view them.

Drake explains the public’s view of archives especially well in his article.  First, “traditional” archives are not always accessible. For example, if any of you have ever taken a trip to the National Archives’ research center, you will find that even getting a reading room card can pose a challenge.  They require a government issued ID that includes your photograph. If you have one, then you can get your card to do your research- but not everyone does. The National Archives are not the only ones requiring this, and Drake makes it a point to call out the fact that obstacles like this may not seem especially challenging; however, they do deter some of the public away.  More importantly, they can also contribute to a greater exclusion of certain communities from using archives.

This exclusion doesn’t only apply to whether or not someone can go into an archive, it also applies to the content being kept in the space as well. In his article, Drake calls for archivists to think about the following: “Before even thinking about whether to document the Black Lives Matter movement, look at your existing holdings and see whether or not black lives matter there. And while doing so, see whether all black lives matter there.” When a group’s history is also being excluded from an archive, what other options are there? How can archivists make their institution more inclusive and accessible?

This is where digital archives can play an important role.

Similar to Drake, Christen and Jules stress the importance of building a relationship with the public.  The digital archive can be an accessible space for collaboration. For Kimberly Christen, her experience in developing the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive led her to a close working relationship with the Warumungu community.  They wanted to make an accessible resource, and they wanted to do this with the community.  This partnership resulted in a digital archive constructed around community generated content and tailored to the wants and needs identified by the Warumungu community.  The Mukurtu Project is a significant example of how professionals in this field can work with the public to create digital archives.

There are many different ways to identify digital archives, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Being so undefinable results in different and unique ways to work with digital archives. Drake, Christen, and Jules show us how valuable these resources can be for the general public.  They also show us how digital archives can be a place where professionals work with communities to create a more accessible and personal resource. Professionals need to be aware of obstacles, value the archival work already being done in some communities, and appreciate the opportunities collaborating with the public can lead to.  Digital archives can be many different things, and one of the roles they can play is being a point of cooperation between humanities professionals and the general public.

Audacity: A Free Resource For All

In 2000 Roger Dannenberg and Dominic Mazzoni released Audacity, a free audio editor and recorder that is open-source and relatively easy-to-use.  By 2002, millions of people were using the program. Today, Audacity remains a popular tool used by many to create content.  The program’s development team of volunteers had started out as two, but has now grown to dozens of contributors from all over the world. At first glance, it may seem like any other editing software; however, Audacity’s team has also encouraged public participation in both the use and development of the program.

One of the most significant things about this program is that it is free and pretty accessible. This is especially important to a general public who might not have strong backgrounds in using this type of software.  Musicians, podcasters, educators, and other groups can find Audacity a useful tool and one that is easy to grasp.

How To Get Audacity

Users with Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux are able to download Audacity; however, this is not the only option.  Because Audacity is open-source, it also makes its source code available to any users looking to build the program themselves. In addition to these methods, anyone uncomfortable with either of these options can also get a copy of this software on a CD.  Audacity also offers different versions of the software that have been translated into multiple languages. It is evident that Audacity’s developers have put a lot of thought into the accessibility of this program, which helps it in reaching a broader audience.

What Does It Do?

Whether it be editing a podcast, making music, or recording a lesson for students, Audacity includes a number of features to help users create their content. They can record audio right to the program, or upload it. Users can do some basic edits to the clip such as reducing its length, cutting out certain parts of it, changing its pitch, or altering its volume. There are also special effects available like filters to change the way a clip sounds. If users want to upload their own effects, there is also an option to do that. Audacity’s features have resulted in a relatively basic, but flexible, resource that can be used in many different ways.

Audacity 2.2.0 in default Light theme running on Windows 10

For anyone just getting started with Audacity, the good news is that there are many tutorials on YouTube, and a community of helpful users willing to answer any of your questions on Audacity’s forum. Because Audacity has been around for about eighteen years now, it benefits from an active foundation of users, some of whom I’m sure have been using the software since the beginning. This has made the forum not only a space to answer questions, but to also exchange ideas. There is a section of the forum page dedicated to “special interest groups.” These groups include educators, musicians, podcasters, and those using the software to create audiobooks. This has made Audacity a more interactive resource than expected.

Audacity Forum Homepage

How Can This Benefit Digital History?

The most beneficial thing about Audacity is that it is free and relatively easy-to-use.  It isn’t too hard to understand, and even when users are having a difficult time, there are plenty of resources available to help them.  Because of this, I see Audacity as a useful tool for those of us working in digital and public history. For example, let’s say a small, nonprofit neighborhood historical society wants to collect oral histories from its community.  They probably do not have the money available to hire professionals to do this, or to purchase expensive equipment or editing software either. They will need to record and edit these histories themselves, and they can do this for free with Audacity. Having access to programs like this can help groups with audio-based projects, regardless of their funding.

Audacity is a program with a long history that still continues to benefit the general public it was made for. The software’s developers wanted to make a resource that could be used by just about anyone, and since 2000 they have achieved that goal.

Digital Project Proposal: Mapping the History of DC’s Alley Dwellings

Alley dwellings between Pierce Street, L Street, First Street and North Capitol Street. Washington, D.C. (1935). Source: Library of Congress

Washington, D.C. is home to an abundance of historic alleyways and alley dwellings that are evidence of a rich urban and social history.  In 2014 the D.C. Historic Preservation Office (HPO) completed a survey of the city’s alleys to get a better picture of their history and current conditions. For three years, HPO staff members and volunteers traversed the city’s historic districts to study and document these historic alleys and the buildings within them.  What they created was an in-depth report that described their findings, including recommendations to help protect and revitalize these sites. One of these recommendations was the idea of creating virtual tours to help educate the public and encourage them to learn more about this often overlooked history- and that is what I will be doing for this digital history project.  

By learning about these alley dwellings, users will explore the physical and cultural landscapes of the city’s built environment. To accomplish this, I will create a tour using HistoryPin to not only identify where alley dwellings can be found in D.C., but to present a more in-depth story about this important history. This tour will also encourage users to compare what these alleys looked like in the past and how they appear today using historical images. The Library of Congress has a collection of city insurance maps and photographs taken of these dwellings and the communities that lived in them. By including these visuals in this tour, users will be able to see how much the city and its community has changed over time.

The Audience

The potential audience for this project would be Washingtonians, or anyone else interested in learning more about the history of the city’s community.  This project might also attract the attention of preservationists in offices like HPO or in neighborhood historical societies, like the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (where many of these alleys are). I am hoping that this project can be a useful educational tool for anyone looking to learn more about this local history.

Comparison to Existing Projects

There are quite a few examples of public history projects creating geo location-based content to tell stories about the past.  For example Curatescape and Omeka host quite a few public history projects for organizations across the country. For D.C. specifically, the DC Preservation League runs a website called DC Historic Sites that allows users to explore the history of the city’s built environment.  I was unable to find a project that deals with alleyways specifically, but the projects mentioned above are resources that I am finding very helpful. I have also been exploring tours that users on HistoryPin have created. These existing projects are good models for what I plan to create.

Outreach and Publicity

In order to get the word out about this project, I will use different social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.  I will also try to reach out to local historical societies in the city to talk to them about my project, which will hopefully lead them to advertise this tour on their social media accounts as well. In addition to that, I will also try and get into contact with HPO, considering they were responsible for the survey on alley dwellings in the city.

Evaluating the Project

HistoryPin includes two features that are important when gauging public reception on their site. First, there is a simple counter on each collection’s page that allows anyone to see how many views they have. This feature is beneficial when trying to see how many people a tour has reached. The second feature I find important is the ability for users to leave comments. I’m a big proponent of public historians engaging in conversations with the public to discuss what they have learned. I am hoping to not only present this history to the public, but to continue a conversation with them after they have finished the tour as well. By using the commenting feature, users and I will be able to continue a discussion about this topic.

Print Project: “Virtual Landscapes: Exploring America Through Video Games”

While visiting the National Museum of American History (NMAH) you might find yourself in some of the newly opened exhibits in 3 West and as the museum fatigue sets in, you find a couch to take a break on. While you’re sitting, you look across the room at the flat screen televisions lining the wall. As you watch them, you might become confused as to why a museum is showing a video of a Minecraft version of the famous “Oregon Trail” video game. Next on the screen is a dystopain adaption of Washington, D.C. (Fall Out 3), then a detective walking the streets of a post-World War II Los Angeles (L.A. Noire), then a hooded figure wandering the streets of New York City during the Revolutionary War (Assassin’s Creed III). The point is- you might not have expected to see video game footage down the hall from the Ruby Slippers.

A dystopian view of D.C. from a couch

While I sat there to see what other games were included, I also took the time to observe visitor reactions towards the display. For some, they excitedly pointed out to their group that they played the games shown, others were understandably confused, and in the case of an older married couple sitting next to me- while they never played L.A. Noire, they pointed at a theater being shown in the game that they actually visited.

What we were all looking at was an effort made by NMAH that encourages visitors to explore how video games visually re-imagine American landscapes:

Next to the televisions is a touch screen tablet that gives more background about this display and each video game being shown.

So- why is this important? Why should video games be given attention like this by national museums, or emerging public historians like myself? In our discussion about Schmidt’s examination of the historical accuracy of language used in Downton Abbey, some in our class brought up the importance of examining the presentation of history in popular culture. This doesn’t mean as historians we’re obligated to pick apart every episode of a show or a cutscene in a video game to point out its inaccuracies. Instead, seeing digital mediums like video games as tools for historical learning can lead us to important opportunities when engaging with the public.

Minecraft: Education Edition offers teachers pre-made, educational maps that they can use as interactive learning activities in class, like the Oregon Trail map seen above.

Video games are not entirely accurate to the period they are depicting; however historians have been known to work with developers in creating this content. For example, Assassin’s Creed III employed the help of professional historians in the recreation of Revolutionary America. Whether they are completely accurate or not, video games are popular, and some of the most successful games in recent years have been games with historical themes. This is important to understand as historians, especially public historians, because a lot of people are constructing their knowledge about history by playing these games (or engaging with other forms of pop culture).

The goal of this project, then, would be to 1.) examine how the public engages with historical video games; 2.) how historians participate in the development of such games; and 3.) discover how museums or other institutions, groups, organizations can use these resources in their interpretation of history.

Assassin’s Creed III

Introducing Melyssa

Hi everyone!

My name is Melyssa Laureano, I’m a first-year Public History MA student. I’m from Kingston, Pennsylvania (near Scranton, PA for all you Office fans). In undergrad I attended Wilkes University for history and secondary education, with a Minor in women’s and gender studies. For a while I was sure I would become a high school teacher- I love history and I love teaching it, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in a classroom to do that. Luckily, I was able to get an internship at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) after graduating and worked with their Experience Design team to present educational programs to visitors. It was during that time when I first heard about “public history” and after learning more about this field, I realized it was a perfect fit for me!

I have some experience with digital history, but I want to learn everything I can about it. So far, my fellowship with the DC Preservation League has given me a lot of great learning opportunities. I help maintain their app, DC Historic Sites, and have written some posts for their Facebook page. I also attended a vocational high school, where I majored in audio-visual communications and got experience in film production, photography, and graphic design; however, since then I haven’t been using these skills as much as I would like to, so I also want to find out how I can put these skills to good use as a public historian.

I really love the collaborative and accessible nature of digital history. I love talking to visitors at NMAH, but I also want to find out how I can reach people who aren’t physically at the museum. I’m excited about this course because I believe digital history offers a lot of great opportunities for more inclusive and active interactions with a broader public.