Digital Project Reflection: Exploring the History of Capitol Hill’s Alleys

Project Poster

Project Goals: Taking the Road Less Traveled

I discovered DC’s unique alleys on my first walk to Giant after moving to the city. I veered off course immediately to check them out and was fascinated by the alley homes I discovered. I didn’t really give them any more thought afterwards, until I became more involved in historic preservation this past year. When this course started I was really excited to create a digital project, but struggled to decide on a topic. My supervisor kept bringing up a survey on alleys completed by DC’s Historic Preservation Office. I decided to look at it to see what she was talking about and became instantly hooked by the story of alleys outlined in the survey. From that point, I decided to create a digital project about the history of alley communities in DC.

The ultimate goal for this project is to have the public find and explore overlooked histories in the world around them. I want them to reevaluate and reinterpret their environment to find stories of the past that often go unnoticed.

My (more focused) goal is to also have them look at DC and its history differently. Washington, DC is the nation’s capital and an epicenter of tourist sites, monuments, and popular museums.  These aren’t bad things and they are important when it comes to teaching history; however there is a local history in this city that’s deep-rooted and unnoticed by most people who aren’t native Washingtonians.  DC is often seen as a place full of transient residents who don’t stick around and that are quick to leave, but this isn’t true.

HistoryPin, Mobile Media, and Interpreting “Space”

For this project I used HistoryPin. I wanted to work with this platform because of it’s ability to overlay the past on top of the present. This essentially means that users can put a historical image on top of a present-day site and be able to explore how places have changed over time. This idea of understanding how the environment has evolved is vital to my project, because alleys have experienced both physical and social changes over time. HistoryPin’s tour capabilities were also important to my work. I knew I wanted to create a tour early on and for the most part, HistoryPin is easy to navigate. I didn’t have any major problems inputting my tour’s information onto the site. I also liked the aesthetic style of their tours.

I was a bit disappointed to learn that their app is no longer available, but it looks fine when accessing in on the web while using a phone. I will keep my eye out to see if the app makes a reappearance in the future though.

Overall, I feel that this project relates well to our class discussion about mobile media.  A few of the articles we read (and that I specifically reported on) dealt with using digital tools, such as apps, to explore spaces and their history differently. I think that making this tour available digitally is very useful for users, and it allowed me to be more creative in how I approached this subject. I also included prompts throughout the tour, and some of the questions deal with re-imagining “space” in alleyways.

What I Have Learned From My Experience

One of the most important things that I have learned while creating this project, is that digital tools can really change the way public historians teach and share history. They can also offer the public different ways to explore and learn about the past. I am especially amazed by the role cellphones can play in all this. While conceptualizing and developing this tour I often thought about how anyone can take their cellphone, open the tour, and almost instantly have the chance to explore the past in a meaningful and interactive way.

This was very much true for a lot of the things I learned in this course throughout the semester. Digital tools can really open new doors in our understanding of history. They also help people connect with one another on a much larger scale. For example, my tour is on the internet, and because of that it has the potential of being used by a wide audience. We can also hold a discussion about the content of this tour using the digital tool it is published on.

I had a great experience creating this project and look forward to continuing my exploration of digital history in the future!

The Tour!

Digital Project Update: Mapping DC’s Alley History

My original goal with this project was to create a tour for the history of Washington DC’s alleyways, and this goal hasn’t changed; however, I have narrowed down my tour’s focus on Capitol Hill. I am still using HistoryPin for my tour (as originally planned) and it’s been interesting to experiment with this platform. In addition to using historical images, I’m also including other sources such as newspapers and insurance maps. I think giving users the chance to look at a variety of sources and images will create a more compelling tour experience.

Overall, I have gathered a lot of great information from my research and have been able to collect some great visuals to use on this tour. What I am in the process of doing now is getting it on HistoryPin and organizing it in a way that benefits the narrative of my tour.

What’s Next?

Continue to research what every day life was like for the communities who lived in these alley homes. I have some good resources I’m using for this part of my tour; however, I haven’t found sources left behind from the people who lived in these communities. Part of my tour will address this, because I think it’s important to recognize who is included and who is absent in our history.

Finalize the tour’s path and the alleys I want to focus on. I am still in the process of deciding what alleys to include on the tour. I have a few essential ones that are already on HistoryPin, but they are quite a distance away from one another, so I’m trying to set a path between them that makes sense.

Decide on how long I want each tour entry to be. I don’t want to bog down my users with really long entries to read, so this is something else that I am working on. I like the length I have now for the entries I have put up already and think that I’ll continue with this amount of text. I have a section in the tour’s about page that includes resources I am using, so I will most likely encourage my users to check those out if they are interested in learning more.

The Jamestown Online Adventure

Before you start reading, I highly encourage you to play the game yourself. Reading about it can be interesting, but I think you should also experience it for yourself!

The Jamestown Online Adventure was created in 2002 by Bob Dunn, a native Virginian and “lifelong lover of history.”  It’s a choice-driven game where the player acts as the leader of the newly settled Jamestown Colony in 1606 Virginia. Players are tasked with deciding what they think is best for the colonists and are faced with a series of scenarios.  There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, but there are four factors that get scored at the end of the game: Food, Health, Wealth, Morale.  The scoring for these can range from “poor” to “good.” If the player does particularly well, they’ll even be promoted to governor of Jamestown (I wasn’t my first time playing…).

The Jamestown Online Adventure homepage

How To Play

The game is pretty easy to play and doesn’t take a long time to finish (It took me less than ten minutes). It’s also not content heavy, with most of the history presented at the end of the game when players get their results; however, there was a primary document from 1606 I was able to refer to when making my decisions. It was an instructional guide actually used by the real Jamestown colonists to help them when they firs arrived in North America.  It was interesting to read and definitely a great learning experience for players to become familiar with primary sources; however, I also think the document’s language could be difficult for some users. It might be helpful if there was a brief summary outlining the major points in the charter.

Instruction for finding a place to settle in charter

In addition to the charter, players can also ask colonists and Natives already living in North America for advice. Some of the decisions they help out with include: Where the colony should settle (Inland? Right along the coast? On an island?), how should the colony interact with Native Americans (ignore, attack, or trade with them?), how should the town be built (An open village, a wooden fort, or a castle?), and what should the colony plant (corn, wheat, tobacco?).

Example of a decision from the game

If a player wants to ignore the charter and not consult anyone before making a decision, they can do that to. The flexibility to play however you want was a definite strength of the game. There are multiple decisions that result in many different outcomes, so player experiences can differ from one another. I played a few times and got different results each time. At the end of the game, players get their results. It describes how they scored for each factor and how their decisions effected the new colony.

Results from my play through

After going through their results, players can select “Now we know…”. This page compares what the player chose to what the actual colonists of Jamestown did. I believe that this is one of the most important parts of the game because it provides players with more history about Jamestown and gives them a better understanding of how the decisions they just made were real dilemmas early colonists experienced. Dunn also describes this section as “making history” on the game’s homepage. The game may seem simple, and in certain ways it is, but its users can still experience a better and more personal connection to the past, especially since they’re playing this game in the shoes of an early colonist.

Comparison to the real Jamestown colonists

Final Thoughts

A game like this can offer players some great learning opportunities. I can see The Jamestown Online Adventure being used as a beneficial and interactive learning tool in classroom lessons (and I’m sure it already is). Not every student is interested in online games, and not every schools has the resources to give students a chance always play them. If a teacher is able to use this in their classroom, it can add some more depth to their lessons while giving their students the opportunity to learn history in a new way.

Representing Place Using Mobile Media

In Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media, Jason Farman states, “Our representation of place using mobile media demonstrate the ways that mobile interfaces are transforming the information landscape around us.”  Farman came to this conclusion in his chapter about mapping technologies and how the representation of space is influenced by those technologies. As a professor, Farman assigned graduate students a project to digitally map every surveillance camera on the University of Maryland campus.  Farman and his students were surprised by the amount of cameras they located and pinned on to their digital map. It changed their perception of the campus, and some of his students began to see the environment of their university as a “surveillance space.” I found the idea of this changing perception of space, influenced by the use of mobile media and other technologies, interesting and very important.  To Farman, the growing use of mobile devices is influencing the ways in which we experience, represent, and interpret the physical world around us.

“We have thus moved beyond the theorization of our mobile devices as a type of prosthetic to our bodies- an extension of ourselves out into the material world- but instead have to conceive of our devices as absolutely integral to the very foundations of embodied space in the digital age.” – Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (p. 46)

Mark Tebeau’s article about Cleveland Historical is a significant example of representing place using mobile media. Cleveland Historical is a (free) mobile application that allows its users to explore the city’s history. Tebeau argues that this project actively reinterprets and “transforms the landscape into a living museum.” Using geolocation, Cleveland Historical pinpoints multiple historic sites across the city. Each site has its own page that includes its background information, photographs, documents, videos, and oral histories. Sites are also grouped together to create thematic tours (ex. Sports, Cultural Gardens, Underground Railroad, Immigration). A major goal of Cleveland Historical was to combine the physical landscape with digital media to create a better understanding of place. If a user was visiting a historic site included on the app, they would not only read about it in a short summary- they could listen to an oral history from someone with personal connections to the site, they could examine historic photos depicting it, or they could hear music associated with the location. By exploring their environment with Cleveland Historical, a user’s mobile app can become a window that allows them to re-imagine landscapes in a new perspective.


Media included on the Cozad-Bates House’s page

Also important is that Cleveland Historical actively collaborates with the Cleveland community. Tebeau argues that working to create content for the app helps the public in the construction of their community identity and their own “understanding of place.” Sam Collins and Matthew Durington’s piece on the Chongno Alleys mobile application voiced a similar appreciation for collaborating with the public. This tour was developed by members of the community, including neighborhood residents. The goal of the app was to get tourists visiting Seoul to explore places in the city often overlooked. Collins used the app during a visit to Seoul and did end up experiencing the city and its community from a new perspective. Collins and Durington explored Chongno Alleys from a position as anthropology professionals, and encouraged others in the field to utilize mobile applications more in their work. They argued that it would result in a more engaged and active public audience, especially if that audience was able to participate in creating apps.

This got me thinking- Quite a few of use (including me) are creating map-based digital projects this semester. Before this week’s readings- have any of you thought about how your project might be reinterpreting “place”? Also- if you can- have you reached out to any communities who might have an interest in what you are creating? After going through these readings, I am approaching my digital project with these questions in mind.

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.