Digital Project Proposal: Family History Beyond For-Profit Genealogical Records Platforms

As someone who has often considered taking on the informal role of family historian, the resources I have found in my preliminary searches offer little in the way of guidance for aspiring family historians, especially those lacking formal academic training. Web services often prize genealogical research as the only form of family history, and seem more interested in selling DNA testing kits than teaching. While some of these sites offer access to digital records and some assistance in performing genealogical research, they are almost universally silent on the subject of conducting oral interviews with living family members, on creating ethical oral histories, and on the actual writing and structuring of a historical project.

Audience

 As mentioned above, the primary audience for this project is aspiring family historians with or without academic training. While I lack any real hard data about the size of such an audience there are a few indicators which suggest that people remain interested in learning and telling the stories of themselves and their families. Though the study itself is perhaps a bit dated in 2019, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen summed up their statistical findings in Presence of the Past as such: “Almost every American deeply engages with the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family.” Putting aside for a moment debates surrounding the ethics of commercial DNA testing and the fact that not every search or subscription to Ancestry.com leads to a detailed family history project, the level of interest expressed by internet users in such sites alone is equally telling.

The State of Digital Family History Tools

There are currently a number of websites and apps which market themselves as family-history tools, though what “family-history tool” means in practical terms is often record-searching platforms. Ancestry.com is perhaps the largest of such websites though competitors exist in familysearch.org, myheritage.com, and usa.gov. Two of these sites, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, are primarily geared towards building family trees rather than writing a history, and place an additional emphasis on their DNA testing services. USA.gov provides numerous helpful links to the government’s online resources for finding records and data, but is devoid of any helpful content on the actual performance of research and writing. From what I have gathered so far, none of these present any alternative paths to family history than traditional genealogical research which given their nature as businesses, is not necessarily surprising.

Currently the closest project I can find to that which I envision is familyhistorydaily.com. Family History Daily offers its users Beginner Guides to Genealogy, Tips and Tricks, and numerous articles regarding issues that family historians may encounter, online record resources they may not be aware of, and evaluations of existing resources like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. Though I have not had time to read through each and every post, I have been unable to find practical tutorials or guides regarding oral history, and I have only found a few that deal with writing history and organizing research.

The Project:

As I lack the technical skill to build a webpage from the ground up, this project would take the form of a webpage built through a service like Word Press. While I am still in the process of determining exactly what content would be most important to include on such a webpage I do have some ideas. One of the glaring issues present in existing tools is their insistence that genealogy is the only form of family history. As such, providing content regarding the nature and practice of Oral History would be crucial to helping address that gap. This content could take the form of blog posts about method and video tutorials on the various types of equipment used by oral historians. In the vein of David Kyvig and Myron Marty’s Nearby History posts about performing primary source research and the many ways that family and local history can be approached would be equally beneficial.

Outreach:

Aside from building a social media presence for the project I am not really sure how to go about outreach. Using WordPress’ own tagging system is the most direct form of outreach, but establishing a presence on Twitter (particularly within the colloquial “HistoryTwitter” or under #Twitterstorians) would be an additional step. On a more hypothetical level, reaching out to established professional associations within history and public history might be a fruitful way to spread awareness of the project, though I have my doubts about how far posts made by professional associations go into the non-academic side of social media. Hosting in-person workshops at public libraries could be another way to drum up interest in the project while also working towards its overarching mission. This is all assuming that I could get the project established to an extent that they would be willing to work with me.

Evaluation:

In an abstract sense, success for this project would be if people could visit and feel empowered to approach family history beyond building a family tree and away from bogus DNA testing kits. In a hypothetical world where I could actually build a sustainable online organization that had clout with real institutions, an Oral History or Family History workshop with more than 0 attendees would be an additional success.

In terms of what I could reasonably accomplish for this project by the end of the semester, I would say constructing a web-platform through WordPress, a handful of social media accounts, and some written content are the most realistic outcomes. I do not own any recording equipment so video tutorials on the practice of oral history are for the moment beyond my capacity.

On a more personal level, if this project could be the impetus I need to finally get around to starting my own family history efforts, I would count that as a success of its own kind.

Virtual Reality as Exhibition—Historium Bruges and Digital Experience

When it comes to science fiction and fantasy media, I tend to have a relatively high tolerance for cliché and technobabble. Hyper-drives, plasma cores, ley-crystals, flux capacitors, weaves/quilts/threads/ponchos of magic—it doesn’t matter—you name it and I’ll buy into the idea that because you put those words together, a farmhand living an unacceptably normal life can suddenly fly a space-ship or throw a fireball at some goblins. One particular cliché/narrative trope that I enjoy is “character investigates X phenomenon through the use plot devices like virtual reality simulators, pocket dimensions, dream realms.” I’ve always felt that this trope provoked a number of interesting, though most times silly questions. Questions like “what’s the storage capacity on Dumbledore’s pensieve” or “how many hours has Picard spent pretending to be Detective Dixon Hill over the course of his career?”

In recent years however these questions have taken a more practical turn given that, while holodecks and pensieves remain pure fiction, virtual reality systems not only exist, but can be purchased for personal use. While I do not want to overstate VR’s current level of sophistication or prevalence in society at large and within the field of history, the fact remains that there are already historically-oriented virtual reality programs being published by historical institutions and private companies. As a public historian in training, I would like to propose a research project which investigates the presentation of history through this fledgling form of digital media.

History through a Headset?

Virtual reality currently exists in an extremely limited form. Headsets are too expensive for most people to purchase for personal use, practical concerns abound when it comes to how exactly to use them without tripping over your feet and into your coffee table, and designers are still experimenting with how to effectively link the wow factor of putting on a headset for the first time to engaging gameplay (for lack of a better word). Still, even in its current form, V.R. is an incredibly fascinating form of digital media. A cursory search through the virtual aisles of digital game and software platform Steam reveals more than 3,000 games/stories/simulations covering a wide variety of genres that are made for use with a virtual reality headset.

Beyond its uses as a medium of entertainment however, what is most interesting to me is the small number of V.R. programs dedicated to transporting the user into the past and presenting a historical narrative. Some, like VR Battleship YAMATO, offer users relatively fixed experiences within a single historical setting. The goal in the case of YAMATO is simply to offer a virtual tour through a WWII era battleship from the perspective of a crew member. Others, like the harrowing DeathTolls Experience created by research scientist and digital artist Ali Eslami, seek to humanize data on the casualties of “terrorist attacks in Europe, refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, and the human cost of the Syrian civil war” in an effort to provoke an emotional response from the user where traditional media has been unable to. For public historians, recent efforts by the Historium Bruges in Belgium to incorporate V.R. into their own programming offer a potentially interesting window into how new forms of digital media are being used in the field. The museum itself contains an on-site exhibit equipped with virtual reality headsets which guide visitors through a digital tour of medieval Bruges. In addition to its on-site programming, Historium Bruges has also released its own purchasable app for use at home, though I am not certain whether it is the same experience provided on-site.

Historium Bruges’ Trailer for their Virtual Reality Exhibit, which they established in 2016.

Though a nascent medium, virtual reality poses an interesting avenue for historical education and user experience. It is a medium of great potential, one which, like many other forms now considered mainstream, holds its fair share of practical and ethical concerns. What kinds of narratives are being told through V.R.? What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a presentation? How can historians employ this medium effectively and ethically? Can difficult history be approached in an ethical manner through virtual reality, or does the nature of the medium itself hold too great a risk of rendering such history into spectacle? Can it ever be more than an interesting gimmick if access to the medium is limited by the high price of owning a personal headset and computer capable of running published simulations/games? Are there any institutions that have incorporated V.R. as Historium Bruges has attempted to?

Screenshot from VR Battleship YAMATO (2017).

In terms of project structure, there are some obvious limitations and difficulties associated with investigating V.R. as a medium. As I do not own a headset, and as I can neither afford to buy one or travel to Bruges for a quick visit to the Historium, I would need to rely on what videos I can find to consume the content of a simulation/exhibit/game itself. Furthermore, I am unaware of any major historical scholarship dealing with the subject, though there has been a great deal of journalistic coverage of V.R. over the past few years. Given that the medium itself is still in its infancy and, at the moment, seems to be driven primarily in an entertainment oriented direction, the number of historically-oriented experiences for me to examine are also limited. In addition, those that do exist deal with a wide variety of historical subjects and periods on which I am far from an expert. In that sense my investigation would, by necessity, take more of a methodological/public history approach more concerned with practice and presentation than with the historical content itself.

I welcome any and all constructive criticism and suggestions!

Digital Collections and the Quest for an Effective User Interface

Starships and User Interfaces

Some 300 years from now the great Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard will gaze out upon the star flecked void of space from the command bridge of the starship Enterprise, and remark, “Space: the final frontier…” in an accented tone that is as suave and confident as it is decidedly not French. Picard will have a mission of course, as any self-respecting space captain must–a mission to seek out and learn of new worlds, cultures, and beings. What the Enterprise and its crew will need more than anything else on this galaxy spanning investigatory mission, more than planet shattering firepower and high powered shields, is knowledge and an infrastructure for its rapid collection and recollection, deployment and redeployment. Medical staff, Engineers, Linguists, Historians, Tacticians, and so on–all the distinct elements of a Starfleet crew require access to an immense corpus of knowledge to further any task or situation which might arise, and they need to be able to access it quickly and efficiently. Which of course, they can, partly (mostly) because Gene Roddenberry and co. said they could, but theoretically because the systems on a hyper advanced starship would be more than capable of digitally storing information as well as an optimized interface for accessing that information. Nowadays, that they could possess such a system is probably one of the most mundanely believable elements of the fiction that is Star Trek because well, we can already do those things. We have digital archives, encyclopedias, databases, and more Star Trek fan-blogs than we can count without the assistance of computers (and we could digitally store their contents fairly easily).

While the age of holodeck simulators, jumpsuits, and wise-cracking androids is still too long a way away for us twenty-first century types to hold out hope for their help, many researchers, professional and amateur alike, can still sympathize with the need for an effective means of storing, organizing, and recalling vast amounts of information. We may not have the ability to traverse the void of space in search of knowledge and interplanetary cooperation, but hey, at least we have the internet right? As historians Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig have argued, digital media and the globe spanning network of the internet have provided us with an unprecedented ability to store, preserve, present, access, and interact with knowledge and data in its myriad forms. In order to get on with all the fun business of engaging and interacting with data however, a user must first be able to jump through a number of hoops and, given the mass of attractions and distractions the internet has to offer, the fewer hoops the user has to jump through to access content, the better. This is where an effective and efficient user interface comes in to play.

An effective UI enables users to quickly and effectively navigate the digital landscape, parsing out irrelevant information and features to get to the crux of the matter at hand. In the case of digital collections websites like that offered by institutions like the National Museum of American History, an effective UI allows users to start digging through data and building up a personal library of material relevant to themselves and their interests. An ineffective UI on the other hand takes everything that is great and useful about digital media, and then adds the elements of frustration, confusion, and discouragement into the mix. When information is hidden behind cryptic presentation methods, or what author and web designer Vincent Flanders has referred to as “Mystery Meat Navigation,” the entire purpose of digital preservation goes up in smoke, and ends with the user closing tabs with a more than usual amount of gusto.

For educational institutions like the Smithsonian, who seek to draw in a diverse and geographically scattered audience, maintaining an online presence is a great way to engage members of the public who may not be able to make the trip to Washington. The thing is, when it comes to the internet, the Smithsonian is up against stiff competition for users’ attention and time. People spend their time with thrift online, there’s always another Youtube video, another movie in your Netflix queue, a new track on Soundcloud that could just as easily occupy a user’s time as an online exhibit. Which is why effective UI is just as important as content. You can have the most fascinating story or artifact in the world, but if its tucked behind a plethora of sub-menus, archaic features, or requires an in-depth tutorial to use, you’re only going to lose viewers. Even something as simple as asking people to make an account can be a step too many You’d probably lose me at least. Which brings us to an interesting but flawed experiment in digital exhibit design published by the NMAH in the early days of the web, HistoryWired.

HistoryWired

HistoryWired was a digital exhibit created for the Smithsonian in 2001 and it began with a great idea; to create a platform that would allow internet users the opportunity to explore a portion of the NMAH’s collections. To accomplish this a sample of 450 items, each accompanied by text profiles and links for further reading, were organized roughly by category, forming a digital map. Each tile on this map represented an object and, according to New York Times writer Matthew Mirapaul, each tile’s size was determined by user vote. On the surface it was an interesting concept but, for users looking to hone in on specific topic, there were certain difficulties. The map itself bears no immediate indication as to its contents, forcing the user to remember which of the blank tiles contained objects of interest to them. Some help came in the form of thematic tabs and an adjustable date slider which could highlight groups of objects, but these served only to narrow down the number of opaque tiles the user would have to wade through to find what they were searching for. A search box presented another tool, but seems to have been limited to single term searches.

Say you heard about the Kermit the Frog Puppet that NMAH holds: Could you find it on this map? As the Arts category has been selected, Kermit is currently highlighted.
Here it is! Since Kermit is a fairly distinct word you could probably just use the search box to find him, but what about other items? What if you had not heard that Kermit was an item contained within the collection?

Certainly it could be said that HistoryWired, as a digital exhibit, was never meant to serve the same function as a digital archive and existed for an entirely different purpose. To my knowledge the Smithsonian never claimed it as anything more than an experimental exhibit meant to show off a sampling of their collections to internet users. With that said, even if the intent was simply to provide web visitors with an avenue to look at some of the museum’s collections, the visual format and user interface employed by HistoryWired does little to actually help the user spend their time efficiently and effectively. Rather than providing users with an actual tool through which to dig into these collections, HistoryWired seems more like a digital curiosity one passes by, clicks on a few squares, and then moves on to the next link.

The web exhibit was ultimately retired in 2016 and in its place stands the NMAH’s Online Collections page which, while perhaps not a poster child for trendy cutting edge web-design concepts, is a far more effective tool for examining the site’s collections. Users can browse by Subject or Object Group, and once a selection has been made, they can narrow their search through a number of more advanced filters in the sidebar. Overall there are more options available to the user (though the search bar still lacks an advanced search option and the filter options are somewhat limited), and those options are for the most part presented with greater clarity to the user.

An Introduction to Sean

Hey all!

My name is Sean O’Malley and I’m a first year Public History M.A student. I’ve held numerous prestigious positions in my life, from “Dishwasher” to “coffee-guy” to “hey can you get the garlic knots for Table 12?,” but upon finishing my History undergrad at AU I felt like it was time for a change. Now you might be wondering, “how can he give up a life in the fast lane? How can he walk away from a life of plain-black polo shirts and Eaux d’Ail for a life spent in archives or museums?” The answer is fairly straightforward, as it all essentially boils down to Enrico Fermi’s lesser known “Time Spent Smelling Like Old Garlic Bread—Time Spent Enjoying History” Principle. Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I love garlic as much as anyone, but all the same I came one day to the realization that I simply enjoyed studying history more. Over the course of my life I have enjoyed reading, talking, and writing about history more than I enjoyed reading, talking, and writing about garlic bread. And so, here I am.

On a more serious note I was drawn to Public History for a few reasons. As much as I enjoy talking to people about history and as much as I believe in the necessity of historical education, I don’t feel that teaching in an academic setting is the right path for me. My reluctance to pursue a career in the classroom has done little to change the fact that I cannot envision a life for myself in which history plays no part, and it was this feeling which eventually led me to American’s Public History program! While my precise career path is admittedly still a work in progress, I currently hope to work my way into museum education.

In terms of what I hope to learn from this course, I am very interested to learn more about digital projects and platforms like Omeka and of the challenges/difficulties in attempting to create digital archives. These are two subjects about which I know very little, so I am excited to fill those gaps! I am also particularly excited to read Critical Play and learn more about games as, for better or worse, means of disseminating a historical narrative. Video-games were actually the first form of media with a historical bent that really captured my attention as a kid, so I feel a personal connection to the topic. It is odd to consider this now, but as I think of it, I probably would not be writing this post if not for Age of Empires II.

Anyway, a wise sage I just made up once said “the best way to end an introductory blog post is to list your most ridiculous, yet still fervently held beliefs,” so here are just a few of mine.

  1. Everyone should play Dungeons and Dragons, or some form of Pen and Paper RPG at least once but ideally with some degree of regularity.
  2. People who play a Druid and insist on summoning 8 Wolves every time combat begins are not to be trusted nor is their behavior to be condoned.
  3. There is no difference between stirring your fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt up with a spoon and shaking it before opening. Both methods are completely normal and I should not be attacked about this belief as often as I am.
  4. Swamp Thing is cooler than Superman because the former is a spooky earth elemental and the latter is a pair of pleated khakis given sentience.
  5. Etrigan the Rhyming Demon is a great character, but one that cannot function without a talented writer behind him and as such, it is better to have a story line without him than with him if no such writer is available.
  6. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are best when spooky, but cheesy and ridiculous is also an acceptable tone.

With that out of the way, I look forward to meeting and spending the semester learning with you all!