Final Reflections

I came into this course with little understanding of what the term “digital history” is or means.  Reflecting on the course readings and discussions, I think digital history is, in some ways, the study of the way that technology is changing how we do history.  Just from looking at everyone’s course projects, it is clear that there are a plethora of new modes and methods of communicating history. 

From twitter to TikTok to blogs, there are more platforms available to present information and engage with the public than ever before.  Digital analysis tools like Voyant, the Time Magazine Corpus, and Google n-gram allow us to understand the past in a more sophisticated way.  Audacity, Omeka, and Storymaps provide still more ways to edit, collect, exhibit, and present digital objects in engaging ways.  Digital archives and collections have changed the way we conduct research.  Sites including Scalar, the Programming Historian, and MLA Core reflect the way the digital allows for the expansion of scholarly communication and community-building.  

But with new means also come new complications.   How do we preserve and sustain the digital?  What is a digital archive and what implications does it have on the research process?  How do we create respectful communities online? And why is the digital still not considered to be “scholarly” when print is not the only—or even the primary—means of publishing or disseminating information? I remember Professor Owens mentioning in one of our first classes that most history courses typically seem to pose more questions than answers.  I don’t necessarily know the answers to these questions, but I feel like I can at least engage in the debates. 

From my own project, I found that the Made By History blog was really interesting in its model—as a political history blog that publishes an unlimited stream of op-eds under the reputable Washington Post.   I feel like it is an intersection of so many things—the blog, op-eds, online newspapers, history, politics, etc.  From my interviews with six recent contributors, I came to a few conclusions including (1) contributors consider writing an op-ed when a current event directly relates to their own research; (2) contributors hope op-eds both demystify the role of the historian and provide readers with historical perspective that will inform their interpretation of the present; (3) contributors do not view this type of work as “scholarly,” but rather as a way to explain their scholarship to the public; and (4) writing clearly, concisely, and quickly—to keep up with the news cycle—is a skill that gives historians immediacy and flexibility as writers.  I am also so appreciative of all the participants who were willing to answer a random student’s questions!

Below you can find my final print project and my poster!

Here’s to another semester of zooming! Hope to see everyone in person in the fall! (fingers crossed)

In-Progress Report: Made By History Print Project Draft

As a quick refresher–I am doing an analysis of The Washington Post’s Made By History blog section.  The blog features pieces that connect current political events to their historical roots.  I separated my paper into three parts—exploring the blog’s content, analyzing recent contributor interview responses, and conclusions.

Part I: Exploring Made By History’s Content

In part I, I summarized and analyzed a recent piece in the Made By History section to showcase the kind of work and content the blog produces.  I chose a piece by Kyla Sommers called “The battle against D.C. statehood is rooted in anti-Black racism.”

Part II: Contributor Interviews

I sought out participants based on topic.  I chose three pressing political issues—DC statehood, voting rights, and immigration—and reached out to two contributors of each subject whose recent articles I found compelling. These are the participants:

Dr. Adam Arenson is a professor of history at Manhattan College in New York City.

Rebecca Brenner Graham is a PhD candidate in history at American University, an AU Public History Alum, and a history teacher at the Madeira School in McLean, VA.

Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University.

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz is the director of the Latina/o studies program and an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University.

Elliot Young is a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College.

Robinson Woodward-Burns is an assistant professor of political science at Howard University.

I asked each contributor a series of five questions.  I condensed them for the purposes of this post:

  1. What motivated you to contribute to the Made By History blog?  When do you consider writing an op-ed or blog post?
  2. How do you view your contribution to the Made By History section? 
  3. What is the significance of connecting the present to the past?  And why do you think this—showing the public the utility of history and the work historians do—is important right now?
  4. What are your tips for historians looking to write op-eds? What makes an engaging op-ed?
  5. How is the Made By History blog changing the nature of how historians engage with the public?  What does this digital resource say about the emerging possibilities for new forms of scholarship?

The responses were really interesting, and I was able to draw conclusions about the blog from participants’ professional backgrounds and from their responses. For example, most participants do not consider this kind of work “scholarly,” yet every participating contributor either holds a PhD or is a PhD candidate.

Part III: Conclusions

I am waiting to hear back from Made By History co-editor Kathryn Brownell.  She is working on some questions that I sent her regarding the blog’s goals and to what extent she thinks they have been successful.  I currently have some very broad conclusions that I will hopefully be able to clarify more when Brownell gets back to me—hopefully by the end of the week.  I also found that I had a really hard time organizing this paper so any feedback on the structure would be much appreciated!

Opening and Expanding Forms of Scholarly Communication Practicum: The Programming Historian & MLA CORE

Hi guys! Hope everyone is getting through this stressful time of the academic year…

This week’s readings and practicums are about how digital technology has changed the possibilities for scholarly communication in the history profession.  I will be diving into two digital platforms—The Programming Historian and MLA CORE—that offer scholars a way to communicate, share work, and learn from one another outside of the academy and typical methods of sharing work (i.e. scholarly journals, monographs, etc.)

The Programming Historian is a tutorial-based “scholarly journal of methodology” designed to teach digital historians/humanists practical computer programming skills.  It is open access, peer reviewed, and impressively, has lessons published in four languages—English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.  The tutorials are very digestible, intended for “non-specialist” readers.  If you’re a historian or digital humanist looking to learn how to create an Omeka exhibit, or use digital maps, or even preserve your own research and data, The Programming Historian is a great way to get started.

The home page of The Programming Historian. It also features lessons in French and Portuguese!

When you choose a language portal (I chose English), there are three ways to engage with the site—Learn, Teach, and Contribute.  For the purposes of this practicum, I will focus on the learning aspect.  The site organizes its available lessons into topics and subtopics.  You can peruse lessons by the five phases of the typical research process—Acquire, Transform, Analyze, Present, and Sustain—or by several general subtopics—including data management, data manipulation, mapping, distant reading, and web publishing—to make navigating through the content easy.  The site also lists how many lessons are in each section and subsection.  For example, there are 84 total English lessons and 32 in the “Transform” section.  You can also sort the lessons by publication date or by difficulty/skill-level—low, medium, and high.

Lesson index and sorting method

To practice, I went to “Digital Publishing” and found a lesson called “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.”  The tutorial lists the contributors, the editor, the peer reviewer, the publish date, and the difficulty level and gives a helpful description of how to create a guided tour with your collected items on Omeka.

Example and abstract of a digital publishing lesson

Overall, The Programming Historian is a really great example of “a collaborative, productive, and sustainable effort for scholars to learn from one another.”  I honestly wish I knew about it sooner!

The last practicum of this week (and this semester!) is MLA CORE (Common Open Repository Exchange).  MLA CORE is MLA Common’s—the network for MLA members—digital scholarly repository funded by the National Endowment for Humanities.  MLA CORE “is a full-text, interdisciplinary, non-profit social repository designed to increase the impact of work in the humanities.”  It offers a space to share work, communicate with scholars, participate in groups, and ensure that your work is preserved and accessible.  To access CORE, you do have to be a member of MLA Commons.  You can either join the MLA—which costs $28 per year for graduate students—or create a free account through the Humanities Commons open network.  I made a free account through Humanities Commons which gives me partial access to CORE.

After creating an account, you can upload published journal articles, dissertations and theses, syllabi, in-progress papers, abstracts, data sets, etc. To upload/deposit scholarship, you click “Upload Your Work” on the CORE home page.  The process seems fairly easy.  After attaching a file and inserting some information about the upload, it is up!

Uploading scholarship to MLA CORE

To search for scholarship on MLA CORE, you click “Find Open Access Materials” on the home page.  Deposits are automatically sorted by date, starting with the most recent.  There are some premeditated deposit collections—The Library and Information Science Collection, The Syllabus Collection, and the American Literature Collection, to name a few. You can also browse by subject, item type, date, or by search.  I typed “cold war” into the search bar.  Only the first few results seemed related to my search, so it is important to note that the search function may not be optimal.

Searching deposits

CORE has some other community-building features as well.  You can build up your own profile, browse members’ personal websites, join groups, create groups, and facilitate discussions through the platform.  MLA CORE is an interesting way to share, browse, and preserve work and make connections with other scholars.  It’s almost like a scholarly Facebook! 

Have you ever used The Programming Historian or MLA CORE? What do these sites say about the possibilities for scholarly communications?

Understanding Digital Content: Kirschenbaum

Is digital content ephemeral? Matthew G. Kirschenbaum challenges this assumption in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination to prove the materiality of digital media content.  In his interdisciplinary study of new media—grounded in comparative media, bibliography, textual studies, book studies, and computer science, specifically computer forensics—Kirschenbaum  delves into the “ephemeral nature of memory and media” arguing that digital media content is physical, durable, and individualized rather than ephemeral, unstable, and identical (15). A lot of the more technical aspects of this book were over my head, but I will do my best to explain some of the key concepts presented in Mechanisms.

Screen Essentialism, Medial Ideology, and Computer Forensics

Nick Montfort’s notion of “screen essentialism” refers to the “prevailing bias in new media studies toward display technologies that would have been unknown to most computer users before the mid-1970s” (31).  While most new media studies focus on the “phenomenological manifestation of the application or digital event on the screen,” Kirschenbaum argues that “we must be able to identify and retrieve all its digital components”—the code, hardware, storage devices, etc. (4).  Similarly, Kirschenbaum discusses Lev Manovich’s argument that new media is “characterized by a ‘database paradigm’ manifested in the modular nature of a digital production’s constituent objects and the lack of an essential narrative or sequential structure for how those objects are accessed and manipulated” (77).  In short, we must “follow the bits all the way down to the metal” to truly grasp the nature of digital content (xiv).  Going hand-in-hand with screen essentialism, Kirschenbaum’s “medial ideology” “substitutes popular representations of a medium…for a more comprehensive treatment of the material particulars of a given technology” (36).  

Mechanisms is distinct in its application of computer forensics to new media.  Applying computer forensics to electronic textual studies challenges the “supposed ephemerality, fungibility, and homogeneity” of new media (19). A forensic approach reveals concepts that provide new ways of approaching electronic textuality—trace evidence and individualization. These concepts reveal that electronic data assumes visible and material form through processes of instrumentation that suggest phenomena we call virtual are in fact physical phenomena lacking the appropriate mediation to supplement wave-length optics; that is, the naked eye” (19).

Storage and the Hard Drive

A significant portion of Mechanisms is dedicated to storage.  Storage media takes various forms including MP3s and iPods, floppy disks, CDs, USB drives, and the hard drive.  Kirschenbaum urges the reader to think of “storage media as a kind of writing machine” ( 19).  He calls for a “machine reading” of the hard drive in which the “object is not the text but a mechanism or device” (88).  Kirschenbaum stresses the importance of understanding the function of the hard drive and recognizing it as a physical phenomenon rather than an abstraction: “Absent are the range of small, localized glitches of characteristic of other media—the typo in the newspaper, the scratch on the vinyl record, snow on the TV channel—that remind us of their mundane materiality” (135).

What is Materiality in an Electronic Environment? Forensic and Formal Materiality

Kirschenbaum’s theory of electronic materiality distinguishes between “forensic materiality” and “formal materiality.”  Forensic materiality is grounded in the principle of individualization—“the idea that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike” (10).  Examples of forensic materiality include digital inscription, computation, and storage media. 

Formal materiality, a more abstract concept, refers to the “imposition of multiple relational computational states on a data set or digital object” (12).  Essentially, formal materiality can be understood as the manipulation of data and symbols in the digital environment.  Although data and symbols—Kirschenbaum uses an example of an atom versus a bit—are not physical in terms of having mass, we should still see them as having a material presence.  Furthermore, the process of setting and resetting symbols creates “layers” that are both “relative” and “self-contained” (12).

It is important to note that Kirschenbaum warns against associating forensic and formal materiality with hardware and software respectively.  Rather, “forensic and formal materiality are perhaps better brought to rest on the twin textual and technological bases of inscription (storage) and transmission (or multiplication)” that shed light on the “duality of a mechanism as both a product and a process” (15).

Kirschenbaum demonstrates the relationship between forensic and formal materiality in his “walk-through” using a hex editor to view the Mystery House ROM. 

Allographic and Autographic Computation

Properties of digital computation are what account for the “immaterial nature of digital expression” (137).  Nelson Goodman claims that “allographic objects, such as written texts, fulfill their ontology in reproduction, while autographic objects, such as a painting, betray their ontology in reproduction” (133).  Kirschenbaum illustrates this concept by comparing a copy of the Mona Lisa to a copy of the book Frankenstein—while the former is a “copy of an acknowledged original” [autographic] the latter is “a perfectly valid way of experiencing the work” [allographic] (133-134).

In other terms, allographic does not demand perfect—only success within a given range of variation.  With autographic, however, there is one condition for success and no tolerance for variation (136).  Kirschenbaum uses the example of placing tokens within the same square versus on the exact same spot on a chessboard.


“…computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality…” (135).

All of this is to say that digital media is complex.  It is both a product and a process.  It is ephemeral in nature yet material in practice.  It is stable yet volatile.  It is kind of imaginary yet locatable and measurable.  Behind every piece of digital media is an intricate material matrix.  And we must have “awareness of the mechanism” to fully understand the physicality, nature, and significance of digital content (88).

What did you think of Mechanisms?  Why is understanding the materiality of digital content important? What are the implications of viewing new media as ephemeral? How do you think these concepts relate to our work as historians and public historians? —for example, new media being actively stored in archives and museums?  Thanks for reading!

Segregated Swimming Pools, the Privatization of Recreation, Leisure, & Sport and its Legacy

When most people think of swimming pools, they think of fun, summer, or vacation—probably not of protest, fear, and exclusion. Recreational segregation in the U.S. intensified in the twentieth century as the number of public swimming pools and local amusement parks significantly increased.  African Americans were excluded from these sites of recreation and leisure in order to maintain “public order”—based on discriminatory “sanitary myths,” an intense fear of racial mixing, and stereotypical notions of sexual danger.  

NYT article from August 2018. Image of the Monson Motor Lodge protest.

In 1964, Martin Luther King was arrested at Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. A group of Black and white protesters jumped into the motel’s “white only” pool to protest his arrest and segregated recreation.  The motel manager, in an effort to scare protesters off, poured a bottle of muriatic acid into the pool. Beginning in the late 1940s, public swimming pools became sites of protest. “Swim-ins” or “wade-ins” took place at public pools across the country—in St Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.  Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, however, many public pools were closed as the rapid growth of gated communities and homeowners associations led to the privatization of recreation.  Wealthier families built private pools in their backyards and public pools established membership programs that charged fees and created barriers. The legacy of historically limited access to swimming pools is visible today in the racial disparities in leisurely and competitive swimming and drowning.

Graphic posted on Instagram account of Diversity in Aquatics

I propose developing a digital resource—most likely a series of blog posts on a WordPress—that outlines the history and legacy of segregated swimming pools.  I’m currently thinking that I would dedicate individual posts to 1) contextualization/general background of the history of recreational segregation at swimming pools, 2) swimming pool protests—including the Anacostia Pool Protest and the St. Augustine “wade-ins,” 3) privatization of swimming pools, and recreation and sport more broadly, 4) the legacy of historically limited access to swimming pools—racial drowning disparity and the lack of diversity and inclusion in the sport of swimming, and 5) current vie for representation and reform within organizations like USA Swimming, the emergence of nonprofits dedicated to eliminating the drowning disparity among historically underrepresented populations by educating, promoting, and supporting water safety/aquatics—work done by Diversity in Aquatics and the Michael Phelps Foundation, for example—and activist movements on social media—hashtags such as #AfroSwimmer.

Message from Noelle F. Singleton, founder of Afroswimmers, on diversity and inclusion in swimming

I am leaning towards a series of blog posts, rather than mapping or even doing this as a print project because I think the most compelling way to capture this history is through a mix of text, images, and mapping.  A blog format will allow me to put forward the message and text I think is necessary while also allowing me to incorporate powerful photographs or even a map of the protests. Additionally, some interesting potential secondary sources include Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, and Victoria Wolcott’s Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America

Example of activism on social media–this was reposted by Olympians such as Simone Manuel

In terms of other projects, I was drawn to this idea because I have recently seen numerous articles—in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, NPR, USA TODAY Sports, and the Washington Post—related to this topic.  I think it is a less documented component of the Civil Rights Movement and presenting this history and information in a more comprehensive manner could be beneficial.  Some relevant projects include Prologue D.C.’s Mapping Segregation initiative—an ongoing digital public history project that involves mapping segregation in housing, school, playgrounds, etc. in Washington D.C.  There are also various blogs, annotated google maps, or heritage tours that involve mapping protests and the Civil Rights Movement.  Lastly, the audience could be vast—historians, activists, hobbyists, those interested in the Civil Rights Movement, or athletics.  There is also potential to draw in the larger swimming community.