“Done” (But I Still Love Submarines)

Well, my digital project experience immediately brings to mind Matthew Kirschenbaum’s question from back in Week 5: How do we know when we’re done with our project?  (cue the laugh track)  In my case, my website is more done than it was two weeks ago, and a lot less done than I want it to be, but also it may never really be “done” as my intent is to keep working on it long after our class is officially finished.  But here we are at the end of the semester, so for the moment at least, it’s done, and it’s time to take a step back and assess what I did and what I learned from it all.

First to refresh—what I originally sought to do was apply a PhilaPlace / HistoryPin geo-located model of storytelling to the maritime history of the lower Thames River, which forms the western border of my hometown of Groton, Connecticut, with the city of New London situated on the opposite shore.  I then (wisely, for various reasons) chose to limit my topic to the notion of Groton being known as the “Submarine Capital of the World,” which, as it turns out, is both far more interesting to me than the original topic and also still a pretty broad area of inquiry, at least in terms of producing something decent in the span of a couple months.  So here you have it in its current state of doneness: Submarine Capital of the World. (Note that I’ve had difficulty with the site using Chrome; IE and Firefox seem to be okay though.)

In looking back at my proposal, I definitely had ideas about what I wanted to have as features of my website.  I wanted an interactive map so that I could geo-locate as much of the content as possible.  I am a photo nerd, so I wanted to have a lot of photographs, but I also wanted the capability at least to also include other relevant items such as oral history recordings, video, and text documents too.  I definitely wanted to be able to organize these photos, videos, and whatnots into thematic collections or exhibits, and although I didn’t mention this in my proposal, I wanted to do an interactive timeline as well.  And in the spirit of trying to embrace the power of the crowd, which I think this class has definitely opened me up to a little bit, I thought there should be a way in which visitors could engage with the site content by having the ability to add comments and possibly even content such as their own photos.  While by no means perfect, I do think that I have been able to successfully incorporate all of these elements into my site.  And even though the look of it is not quite what I envisioned—the blue parts were supposed to be black and gray; I was *not* going for red, white, and blue—it’s growing on me and I generally like the layout.

A word to the wise to future students of this class—in my experience, it’s really important to narrow your focus as much as you can and to have a good plan to get something limited and doable to “done.”  Even with a small project, it’s going to require a lot more time and effort than whatever you envision, even if everything goes right for you.  I originally thought my topic was pretty narrow, but then I came up with a longish list of subtopics that “should” be on the site.  What I should have done was stuck to what I see as the five most important areas (which if you look on the key of my google map, you’ll see they’re on their own layer)—the Sub Base and Electric Boat are most important, followed by the NAUTILUS memorial, the World War II Submarine Veterans Memorial, and in my mind anyway, the Submarine Capital of the World sign.  Also possibly the USS GROTON.

I have apparently reached the end of the Internet.

Everything else, for the purposes of this semester at least, I should have treated as a distraction (but Jimmy Carter– so interesting!  My family lived near him back in the day….)

Again, for the purposes of getting “done” during the semester, I think it also helps to work on something local to you where you physically are.  I had to cram all of my archive research into three days over spring break, and I lost another hour or two upon discovering that my older scanner did not work with my newer Windows 8 computer, so I had to run to Staples to buy a whole new scanner.  Whoops.  Because of the time crunch, I only got to work at the Submarine Force Library and didn’t get to contact the town historian at all or see what he has in his extensive collection of town history that he donated to the public library.  I really wish I could’ve gone back to do more research and also that I could have done that work at a less-than-frenetic pace, but there was just no way I could get back up to Connecticut during the work week this semester.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this is that things are going to go wrong, or shall we say won’t go as you’d hoped or expected, even when you think you know what you’re doing.  After one false start using Omeka, I decided I’d be better off using the familiar enough to me WordPress to create my site.  Which turned out to be not quite as easy as I thought it was going to be.  I started with a free site, which was fine until I discovered that my embedded content and a widget I wanted to use weren’t working.  So then I bought a domain and had my friend set it up on his server, where I have an old WP site too.  There I ran into problems with my theme (not easily obtained for free-standing site, and when you do get it installed, the customization options are different than they are on wordpress.com).  Then I got my embeds to work and found a new plug in to do what I wanted the widget to do, but standalone images absolutely refused to upload to the site.  Gah!  The whole project would have been a complete disaster had my friend Patrick not been able to find a workaround for that issue.  Ah, technology….


I’m not exactly breaking any new ground with my website here; it is ultimately a curated collection of images with some history thrown in.  But I was hoping at least to present the images in a somewhat different way, and as such, I did enjoy using some new to me digital tools, some of which were easier than others to implement. Google my maps (sorry, the embed didn’t work in this site either) looks a little clunky to me, but it was pretty easy to set up, and it works well enough for what I wanted it to do.  I was not able to put HTML into the text box so no images or hyperlinks there, but that was not a fatal flaw.  Also some topics, like the USS GROTON, don’t necessarily lend themselves to being situated on the map.  The town currently is trying to obtain some pieces of the dismantled submarine though, so maybe there will be another sub site on the map in a few years.

I set up a flickr photo group (very easy) to allow people to share content and participate in the site without in my mind losing control over the endeavor.  I think it will be a very cool participatory feature once I get people to start submitting their own images, and I can start inviting people to do so with a simple search and a couple clicks of the mouse.  My hope is that the group eventually would provide some different photographic takes on the relationships between the subs and the submariners and the rest of the town that aren’t the standard subjects or perspectives and that probably would not have occurred to me.

I do recommend testing out any new tools that you intend to use very early on so that when it’s really go time, you have a good idea of what to expect or you have already found a suitable alternative if something isn’t working the way you want it to.  As I mentioned, I had intended to go with Omeka rather than WordPress to design the site, and I started using it I thought early enough, but after playing with it for a bit, I just didn’t feel like I had the time to invest in getting to understand the platform well enough to be able to wrestle my vision into their framework in the way that I wanted to.

The timelines posed their own challenges.  I originally went with a different timeline program called myHistro which I picked because it integrates events with google maps. What I eventually didn’t like though was that my image captions were buried under so much clicking and even once you find them, they appear as just a little caption beneath the image.  Also, multiple images for the same “event” were not readily visible.  Plus I decided it just wasn’t pretty.  Check it out here if you’d like:  (sorry, again embed isn’t working here)

So I switched to a platform called Capzles.  You can make Capzles very pretty if you want to and I thought it was easy to use, but it’s not perfect either.  The main flaw for me is that the embeds you put on your site do not allow the user to see your caption at all (the button for that is blurred out).  So you can see the pretty timeline on my site, but if you actually want to know what you’re looking at, you’ll need to view it on their site to see the captions.  Awkward.  Also, in my experience at least, the Capzles embeds are not playing nice with Chrome (Firefox and IE seem okay though).  [and guess who was using Chrome and tried to add the Capzles embed code?  d’oh.]

I am disappointed in my site and myself, because it is so not close to what my vision of “done for now anyway” is, never mind “wow, this is really cool and there’s so much there!”  There are so many little things that I wanted to work in somehow, and, well, Electric Boat, which is a pretty major piece of the story, is really not done and the Sub Base could use some additional post-World War II coverage.  But having said that, I do like what I have gotten done and I’m looking forward to continuing to work on this further, at a much more relaxed and thoughtful pace, so that I can really do a good job with it moving forward.  Once I’m in a bit better shape with this, I also need to start soliciting the opinions of other people, including those who I mentioned in my proposal, and invite people to share their images with the flickr group because my not very exciting photos are getting lonely in there (I really need to take some new photos next time I’m home).

The really cool thing about this project for me though is that I feel more connected with my hometown now.  I lived in Groton for 24 years while many of the events that I mention took place, yet the only submarine-related event that I recall attending was the christening of the USS COLUMBIA in 1995 (historic! Which I’ll have to write about on the site at some point!).  Now when I go home and see a sub on the river, I squee like a little kid.  From reading local history books for this project, I learned a lot about Groton history beyond submarines, the Navy, and shipbuilding, but I just don’t feel a strong connection with, say, Groton’s colonial past like I do with the submarines, possibly because my family had no connection to the area prior to World War II.  To me, the submarines and the people, places, and events connected to them are what make Groton truly unique from every other old New England town, or from anyplace else in the country really, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of that distinctiveness on the website in the coming months.  The hundredth anniversary of the first subs arriving to be stationed in Groton is less than six months away, and the centennial of the base’s official designation as a submarine base is just over a year off.  So what I’m saying is, this web site really needs to be “done” fairly soon.


There’s an App for That, But Why?

Stories from Main Street and The Will to Adorn are projects created by the Smithsonian Institution that are very different in subject matter and in execution but which share the element of encouraging members of particular marginalized groups to contribute their own stories to the endeavors. Both projects have websites and accompanying apps for mobile devices, and it is in these mobile apps where the two projects are most similar.

The Stories from Main Street website and app are offshoots of the Smithsonian

Stories from Main Street Website
Stories from Main Street Website

Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program. MoMS works to bring the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions to cultural institutions serving the small towns (defined as having an average population of 8,000 people) of rural America. The Smithsonian staff envisions that their programs help to bring together the residents of such towns to share their stories with each other, fostering community pride. The MoMS website allows people from anywhere in the country to contribute photos, videos, audio recordings, and written stories pertaining to their experiences in rural America and to experience the content contributed by participants.

The Will to Adorn project, begun in 2010 by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress and adornment.” The project appears to have culminated with an exhibit, demonstrations, workshops, performances, hands-on visitor participation activities, and daily fashion shows at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The website seeks to provide an explanation of the questions and goals addressed by the project and provides some sample photo and video content, but it does not offer a means of exploring the full content of the project.

Will to Adorn Website
Will to Adorn Website

While both websites are rather celebratory in the sense of bringing to prominence topics that have generally been excluded from mainstream historical and cultural practice, the projects and websites are very different in tone. Unlike Stories from Main Street, Will to Adorn projects itself as a scholarly endeavor, with researchers actively seeking to distill meaning from the evidence that they gather through the project. Whereas I did not find any user participatory element on the Will to Adorn website, collecting user content and allowing site visitors to explore it is the raison d’etre for Stories from Main Street, which to me has a very haphazard feel to it. Specific geographic location at the level of the town is also an important aspect of the Stories from Main Street content whereas local geography does not appear to figure significantly into the Will to Adorn website.

Main Screens of Both Apps Compared
Main Screens of Both Apps Compared

Despite the stark differences between the two websites, the mobile apps for these projects are actually quite similar. Both apps allow the user to record their own stories related to the topic of the project and also to listen to stories that other people have contributed. Aside from imagery, presentation-wise, the apps are pretty much identical. The Stories from Main Street app was built using Roundware, which bills itself as “an open-source, participatory, location-aware audio platform” that does pretty much exactly what both of these apps do in term of recording audio, being able to add some metadata, uploading content, and being able to select, to a certain extent, the content that will be streamed to the listener. Will to Adorn most certainly was also built using Roundware, but I did not see a credit for it in the app.

Recording content to contribute is (theoretically) easy with these apps. Start by pressing the “Add a Story” button on the main page. On Stories from Main Street, you then have a choice of six general topics from which to choose- Life in Your Community, Sports – Hometown Teams, Music – New Harmonies, Food – Key Ingredients, Work – The Way We Worked, and Travel – Journey Stories. You then identify yourself as a man, woman, boy, or girl, and finally you are asked to choose one specific question (from a provided list of four to six questions) about the subject you selected. Doing so brings you to the recording page, where your question is displayed for you at the top. When you’re ready, press the record button (I recommend the large button at the bottom; I had trouble with the smaller buttons in the middle of the page) and there will be a three second countdown. Then you will have a minute and a half to discuss your chosen question. When you’re done, press stop, and you will then have the option of listening to what you recorded, rerecording it, and uploading it (or you can exit the recording section without posting by hitting the cancel button at the top of the screen, which takes you back out to the main menu).

Stories from Main Street - Screens to Add Story
Stories from Main Street – Screens to Add Story

I chickened out at the point of actually uploading content. I’m not from a small town, and although I did record an answer to one of the Travel section questions, I was afraid of sounding like I was an Easterner mocking something from Midwestern culture that I don’t understand. I gather that the app uses your phone’s GPS to attach location information to your recording when you upload it, which is curious, because geography is such an important part of the Stories from Main Street website and a person may be inspired to record something about their town while away from home or conversely may wish to talk about a small town they’ve visited before from the comfort of their own home, which means the content may have an inaccurate geolocation if it’s based solely on the location of the phone at the moment of recording. On the website, users are able to type in the appropriate location for their content.

Will to Adorn - Some Metadata Choices
Will to Adorn – Some Metadata Choices

Will to Adorn works similarly to Stories from Main Street, although the metadata Will to Adorn collects is a bit more nuanced. After pressing “Add a Story,” the app asks for your age (15-19, 60+, and then each decade in between). They ask for gender, but in addition to the expected male and female, there are also options for “trans” (with an asterisk that goes unexplained) and “other” (which could mean all sorts of things). You then select from one of six broad geographic areas (Alaska and Hawaii I guess have to content themselves with being from the West). Will to Adorn only gives you the choice of a total of five questions to answer. However, and this is kind of key, once I made all of these selections, the screen looked like it was going to send me to a recording screen similar to Stories from Main Street. Nope.

Will to Adorn Recording Screen - Um... Do not get your eyes checked.  The screen is indeed all black.
Will to Adorn Recording Screen – Um… Do not get your eyes checked. The screen is indeed all black.

Black empty screen of doom. I have to presume that the app was tested before it was released, so maybe it’s just not compatible with my iPhone 6, because not being able to record on an app whose whole purpose is to be able to record is rather a problem. And I was more willing to answer and submit to this site (“What are you wearing?” seems like a mostly harmless question). At any rate, images on the Will to Adorn website show recording pages nearly identical to those in the Stories from Main Street app, although you may get up to two minutes to discuss your clothing choices. Website text also indicates that you can attach photos to your story submission too, but the app does not show user images anywhere, and I did not see on the website either the archive of user submissions or a way to record and upload stories so I cannot verify this aspect of the app’s functionality.

In terms of the listening aspect of these apps, after pressing the “Listen” button on the main page and waiting for what seemed like a rather long period of time in both apps for content to load, the app will start playing recordings from the collection. Stories from Main Street defaults to the recordings in the “Life In Your Community” section. Users can flag the content, like it, or if you’re inspired to record your own story, there’s a record button there too.

Listening Screens - Both Apps
Listening Screens – Both Apps

The user does have the option to choose to a certain extent which stories they will hear on the app. On Stories from Main Street, the “Modify” button at the top of the screen allows you to select one of the six content areas and to further narrow down by what specific question(s) you want to hear about. The “Refine” button in the same spot on Will to Adorn allows the user to narrow by age, gender, region, and specific question. No audio played for the first two questions that I selected to listen to on Stories from Main Street, so perhaps no one has actually contributed stories related to those particular topics, but I did have success on my third try. Interestingly enough, on the sports section, there were more question options to listen to than there were to record on your own. And in the Travel section, the “favorite journey” answers were mostly about going to a large city rather than a small town.

I’m not sure that anyone’s actively curating the user responses. There was a recording on the Stories from Main Street app that I heard where some kids were messing around doing a recording and one of them used a slur. In another one, a young man discussed how he and his friends as teenagers would go to the river, drink moonshine, get high, and watch alligators. One snippet was simply “[town name] sucks.” And a recording I heard on Will to Adorn started out as a heartfelt commentary about a certain style of dress but then suddenly turned into a profanity-laden tirade on the subject. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of not wanting to censor what people say or if the Smithsonian is just relying on the community to use that flag button to police the content. There also doesn’t actually appear to be very much content to curate on either site. According to the Stories from Main Street website, there are 519 contributions in the archive. Will to Adorn appears to have far fewer stories than that, as I heard much of the content at least twice while listening to the stories.

While some of the stories contained in the Stories from Main Street and Will to Adorn archives are genuinely interesting, honestly, I really don’t get the point with either of these apps. The stories are snippets of two minutes or less that are for the most part divorced of context. Neither app displays any metadata about the audio that’s playing, so if particular facts are known about the contributor of a recording, the listener won’t have that information. And the contributors don’t always give you much information in their recordings. For example, if a person opens up their recording in Stories from Main Street with “In my town…,” well, which town? How would I know that if the subject doesn’t actually say it in their recording? Assuming the geolocation attached to the recording is correct (an issue with Stories from Main Street that I discussed earlier), the listener doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t have a great way of determining if the speaker is talking about life in Boise, Birmingham, or Burlington (and Wikipedia tells me that there is a Burlington in 24 of the U.S. states!).  Maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees, but I’m a details kind of person.

Many of the recordings on Will to Adorn sound like they were made at the Folklife Festival, and the participants there were generally asked by volunteers about their name, age, and location and were sometimes asked to elaborate on their responses. But the following is the extent of one non-Folklife Festival story on Will to Adorn: “How I feel when I have it on—it makes me feel beautiful.” Have WHAT on? Disembodied from all context, this particular snippet doesn’t seem to me to add much to the conversation about creating meaning and forging identity through one’s attire.

Another interesting context issue with Will to Adorn concerns race. The project as explained on the Will to Adorn website specifically concerns how African Americans express themselves through dress and other adornment. The app invites anyone to contribute their story, which is perfectly fine. But the app does not provide a way to self-identify by race or ethnic/cultural background unless you choose to speak to that issue in your recording. So I guess I don’t understand how any user contributions added to the project’s database from the app could be marshaled as evidence for the original conception of the project.

Context for these stories aside, I also just don’t understand not why “there’s an app for that” but rather why the public would download either of these apps and use them over and over again. Sure, one’s smartphone provides a really convenient way to record very short stories, but I don’t really see much of a reason for an individual to do this more than once or twice. There is no essential tie to a physical place for either of these apps that would prompt a user to open up the app and learn something about that location through the project’s content. There could have been on Stories from Main Street, but there’s no way on the app to search for a particular location to find content related to a place where you happen to be or might be interested in knowing more about. Stories from Main Street does provide a link to the project’s website on the main page (Will to Adorn does not) where visitors can search for audio on a map. Similarly, given the limited amount of content in these collections, I’m not sure why anyone would use the listen function on either app more than a couple times, particularly on Will to Adorn. I’m not saying that the effort to collect and share people’s thoughts on these apps is uninteresting and completely devoid of value, I’m just struggling to see why someone might keep these apps on their phones and use them more than a very few times.

What do you think? How might these apps be improved to increase their current interest and/or enduring value? Without a great deal of context, what can we learn about the subject matter of the projects by listening to these recording snippets?



Perhaps I Need to Rethink My Day Job Transcribing Oral History….

In the HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Analysis and Scholarship) grant proposal, the authors express the hope that participants in their program “will understand better how to ‘imagine what they don’t know.’” The readings for this week make clear that the practice of oral history could be and probably should be so much more than it has been heretofore envisioned and practiced, where, at least in my conception of the subject, a historian interviews a bunch of people about a particular topic, has their tapes transcribed, produces a book or a documentary using some of the material in the recordings, and then files the tapes away in a box (possibly in an archive and maybe even with some cataloging) that is likely never to see the light of day again.

In terms of “doing” oral history, the two most conventional readings in this regard are Doug Boyd’s “Designing an Oral History Project” and Kara Van Malssen’s “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History.” Boyd points out that there’s a lot for the historian to think about beyond just the questions that will be asked of a subject when designing an oral history project, and both authors urge the practitioner to think holistically about the project ahead of time, to include not only pre-production and the point of capture, but also considering the entire lifecycle of the project, including editing, archival storage, and future access. “Early choices you make in a project will affect later opportunities,” notes Boyd. “Decisions have consequences.”

While Van Malssen’s discussion of video formats looks forward towards the future and considers issues of preservation of recordings, Jonathan Sterne instead looks backwards at the history of the currently ubiquitous MP3 audio format to examine how decisions going back at least 100 years have had implications for the specifications of this particular format, which reference, sometimes for no better reason than this is how it’s done now so let’s stick with it, specifications from other earlier formats. Stern argues that “encoded in every MP3 are whole worlds of possible and impossible sound and whole histories of sonic practices.” (2)

Particularly important in Sterne’s work is the notion of “format theory,” which I think boils down to the choice of format is not benign because “Format denotes a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium. It also names a set of rules according to which a technology can operate.” (7) The assumptions and specifications engendered in each format affect the user’s/listener’s experience of and relationship with the media, and thus in Sterne’s view, it is important to understand how the format mediates the material.

In “Oral History and the Digital Revolution,” Michael Frisch offers an example that I think illustrates the idea of format theory and provides a basis for redefining what we even think oral history is. Frisch’s work illustrates that the audio and videocassette format of oral history recordings have had a profound effect on accessing these resources and understanding the content of these tapes as well. An assumption of oral history practice is that linear analog tapes are a pain to work with and therefore transcoding if you will the content of the recordings from audio or video to text by means of transcription is the best and fastest way for a researcher to access and engage with the content of a recording, to the point that transcription is viewed as an essential procedure. Frisch argues, however, that a great deal of meaning is lost in the translation of sound into text. “Meaning inheres in context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in expression, in pauses, in performed skills and movements. To the extent we are restricted to text and transcription, we will never locate such moments and meaning, much less have the chance to study, reflect on, learn from, and share them.” (2)

Digital formats, however, offer new possibilities for oral historians. Using timecodes, annotation, and other metadata linked to content, it is easy to quickly dive into digitized materials directly at any point of particular interest in the recording. Thus the recording itself rather than the inherently different experience of a transcript of it becomes the object of study and in Frisch’s words “put[s] the oral back in oral history.” By studying the recording directly, the researcher can engage in what Nancy Davenport, cited in the HiPSTAS proposal, refers to as “deep listening” or “listening for content, in note, performance, mood, texture, and technology.” This additional information beyond the content of the recording in its strict, text-based sense may allow the researcher to gain new insight into the meaning of what has been recorded.

Ethnographer Wendy Hsu seeks to move away from the digital text as object of study paradigm however and “shift the focus of the digital from a subject to a method of research” by combining various quantitative, data-oriented computational analysis techniques with traditional qualitative ethnographic methods including direct observation and interviews to identify, document, and consider the meaning of patterns and processes related to her subject matter, which is musicians of the Asian diaspora. The data-generated patterns uncovered by the quantitative means inform questions that can be further explored qualitatively. Some of the methods she has employed in her work include mapping the geographic locations of bands’ fans by scraping location information from the bands’ MySpace friends’ pages, analyzing non-song sounds in song recordings to learn about the context of the creation of the recording, and using spectrograms to visually analyze stylistic qualities of music.

So how might historians apply similar “doing digital” techniques to their own work with audio and video artifacts? That is very much an open question and one that I’m not sure the readings answered very well. However, one of the stated aims of the HiPSTAS project is to bring together archivists/librarians, scholars, and computer scientists in an effort to create new tools to facilitate the study of sound recordings by means such as clustering, classification, and visualization. Archives are already storing quite a bit of oral history recordings that go unlistened to or unwatched, a valuable resource that Frisch notes goes “largely untapped.” And the HiPSTAS team makes a pretty good point that if researchers don’t start using existing audio collections, then repositories won’t have much incentive to keep storing the old recordings, let alone augment their collections with new materials, so it really is imperative for history scholars to find means to unlock the potential of these audio resources.

There was really a lot going on in these readings and I feel like I barely scratched the surface here of the many issues that the various authors raised. Returning to where I began this though, the readings did really challenge my perception of what exactly oral history is. It isn’t just about interviews or even necessarily the spoken word. A wide variety of preserved audio such as musical performances, ambient sound, speeches, poetry readings, and the telling of stories that have been passed through generations by way of oral tradition can reveal valuable information about the past (or present-day) life and culture. All sorts of sound-based documents could serve as potential primary source material given useful means of incorporating the information they provide or could reveal into one’s historical analyses. This may well be a bit of a “duh” to everyone else, but I guess that’s something that I just had never really considered before. Now I’m trying to imagine what else I don’t know.

What other issues did this week’s readings raise for you regarding the possibilities and potentials brought about by digital means and methods as applied to oral or audio history?


A Tale of Two Cities (Or Maybe Just One, and a Small Part of It At That), Or… PhilaPlace the Thames River

In the mid-17th century, English colonists began to settle the region around the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut, and the river has played an important role in the development and history of the area ever since.

Lower Thames River
Lower Thames River, from Google Maps (which wouldn’t embed properly for some reason).

Beginning in the city of Norwich at the confluence of two other rivers, the Thames runs approximately 15 miles south through New London County and empties into Long Island Sound. On the banks of this lower portion of the river are the city of New London on the west and the town of Groton on the east. New London is known as the Whaling City due to that port’s prominence in the whaling industry during the 19th century. While New London’s whaling days have long since passed, today large container vessels and even cruise ships regularly call at State Pier, and the city is also the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy. Across the river, Groton proclaims itself as the Submarine Capital of the World as it is home to both an important U.S. naval submarine base as well as the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics, which has built many of the Navy’s submarines since 1899. The USS NAUTILUS, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine and a product of the EB shipyard, is the star attraction at the Submarine Force Museum, located right outside of the Sub Base’s main gate. The Thames is a natural resource that has shaped the opportunities and the fortunes of these two towns significantly.

My initial idea for my digital project was to create an interactive website that explores how the Thames River has influenced life on its shores over time in Groton and New London, the two communities located at the mouth of the river. However, in the course of doing background research on the topic, I discovered that a local group is working to develop a heritage park around basically this same theme, with several key sites linked together by water taxis. Full disclosure: Groton is my hometown, and while I do recall an experiment with water taxis in the not-too-distant past, I was not aware of plans to develop a heritage park. The fact that this group is currently active in trying to bring their idea to fruition and that it will at some point include a website makes me question whether I should go ahead and do my website as I had originally envisioned the scope of it.

Submarine Capital of the World Sign
Submarine Capital of the World Sign next to I-95. Photo by the author.

What I perhaps could do instead is narrow my scope (ba-dum-bum), focusing on the idea of Groton as the “Submarine Capital of the World.” This version of the website could still get into Groton’s shipbuilding origins, how the Navy comes to town and how the base becomes a sub base (at least for these parts I’m assuming I could find material that could be used on the website). There’s the submarine heyday in town from World War II through perhaps the late 1980s. And then there’s the question of the future, because the significance of the base to the Navy seems to be waning, and EB certainly has seen a decline in submarine building. The idea of Groton as Submarine Capital of the World seems to be becoming a reference more to the town’s history than to its present and future.


The audience for the Submarine Capital of the World site I imagine would consist of:

  • people interested in the local history of Groton and/or southeastern Connecticut
  • people with an interest in U.S. naval history, particularly relating to the submarine force
  • current and former submariners and their families, particularly those who have been stationed in Groton
  • people interested in or with a personal connection to the work of Electric Boat

The audience for the wider Thames River project would include the above but also be a bit broader, to include those interested in maritime/nautical history more generally especially those interested in the Era of Sail, and people with an interest in or a connection to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Comparison to Existing Projects

My original inspiration for this project was our exploration of PhilaPlace. The website from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania seeks to “connect stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods” by pinning photos, audio, video, and documents to maps of the city and including interpretive text for the pinned locations. So take what PhilaPlace does for neighborhoods and apply it to the Thames River instead.

HistoryPin would seem to be the simplified way to make one’s own PhilaPlace-ish exhibit, but I find it infuriating that it really only seems to be possible to search HistoryPin by geographic location. The only way that I saw to search through the collections or tours was to “browse all,” and then the site fails to tell the user how many pages they would potentially be scrolling through. If I put in the effort to make a tour or collection, I sure would like for people to be able to find it if it’s a topic they’re interested in. (Maybe if you’re a member of the site you get to do a better search???) Consequently, HistoryPin definitely will not be the platform for my project.

WordPress is one alternate option to HistoryPin. Delaware’s Industrial Brandywine is a river-related historical website that uses WordPress as its platform. A product of the Hagley Museum and Library, this website seeks to “document businesses that benefited from the unique geography of the Brandywine River along its eight-mile stretch in Delaware.” It offers historical profiles of more than 100 businesses located on the river from the 17th through 20th centuries which can be accessed via an interactive map or through the categories of people, industry type, or date range. Site users have the opportunity to comment upon individual entries with additional information.

Southeastern Virginia Historical Markers also uses WordPress to good effect. A student project for an undergraduate digital history class at the University of Mary Washington, this website provides photos of roadside historical markers in three Tidewater Virginia counties along with additional information about the person, place, or event described. Markers can be searched by county, category, or century as well as via map. They have also included a tag cloud and a timeline in their presentation.

Omeka provides another potential platform for my website. The Highway 89 Collection uses Omeka to create “an online aggregator and exhibition that brings together the stories of US 89, as it travels through the state of Utah.” As such, the emphasis of the site at least for now is not on interpretation but in bringing together images, documents, and audio and then situating them on their interactive map and timeline. Users can also search by tags, or browse through several exhibits organized around broad themes.

Planned Website

My planned website would be similar in function and general feel to the examples cited above. I have to give more thought to whether it would be better to use Omeka or WordPress to create my site. My sense is that Omeka (which I recall describing as WordPress for online exhibits) might be the more robust choice, but WordPress does have the advantage that I am at least familiar with how to use it.

Whichever way my platform and topic selections actually go, I would like to incorporate an interactive map feature. Nothing fancy, Google MyMaps should be enough to pin digital assets to their physical location. Having a map that could change by time period I would think would be more important for the broader project than the submarine-oriented one. I like the idea of an interactive timeline, but I need to explore the options in terms of what plug-ins and such are available for each platform.

I want the site to be heavy on images such as photographs, postcards, artwork and such. I would love to be able to put oral histories on there, with links to audio or video as well as the transcripts. And I’m not opposed to adding other relevant text-based documents to the site as well. I like the idea of being able to organize these objects into thematic collections or exhibits. The site should also allow users to make comments on individual objects or on the site itself, and it should also have a mechanism for allowing users to contribute their own content.


To spread the word about my website, I would use a mixture of traditional and modern methods. Since this is a local history project, I would send a press release out to the area’s primary newspaper, The Day, to see if they might publish some info about it. I would also contact the submarine base’s newspaper, The Dolphin. I would probably also contact local libraries, school principals, and relevant museums and historical organizations to spread the word. Social media of course is the modern way to garner publicity, so I envision posting on Facebook pages that are relevant to my prospective audiences and maybe also establishing a Twitter account for the project and perhaps posting an image weekly and providing links to pertinent news items as they arise.

Plan for Evaluation

Once I have the basics of the website going, I would actively solicit feedback from members of my target audiences as to their experience of the website, what they liked and didn’t, what else they might like to see the site add, etc. Another measure of success would be the extent to which members of the public either commented upon the site or perhaps more importantly sought to contribute relevant content themselves.


Print Project: Text Analysis of Earl Shaffer’s Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike Journals

Every spring between early March and mid-April, a couple thousand intrepid hikers laden with backpacking equipment hiking poles and venture to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, varying in characteristics such as age, nationality, motivation, and physical ability, but all possessed with a common goal—to walk the entire distance of the 2000-plus mile Appalachian Trail. A “thru-hike” of the trail, which runs through the mountains of the eastern United States all the way to Katahdin Mountain in remote central Maine, typically involves putting one often sore and blistered foot in front of the other over sometimes steep or rugged terrain through all sorts of weather while also carrying 40 to 50 pounds of gear nearly every day for six months. For most who begin the journey with the intent of making it to a triumphant finish atop Katahdin, the goal remains an elusive dream. The physical and mental challenges of the endeavor sooner or later prove to be too much for all but about 25% of those who originally set out to complete the entire trail each season.

Earl Shaffer on his 1948 thru-hike. Photo from the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Earl Shaffer on his 1948 thru-hike. Photo from the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Earl Shaffer is the first person known to have completed a thru-hike of the AT, a feat he first accomplished in 1948. A veteran of World War II, Shaffer decided to attempt the hike as a means of dealing with war-related stress, which included the death of his good friend and hiking partner in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Shaffer’s successful AT thru-hike demonstrated that it was in fact possible to hike the entire trail in one trip, and as a result, interest in the trail grew. Shaffer completed a second thru-hike in 1965, traveling southbound this time. And in 1998 at the age of 79, Shaffer marked the 50th anniversary of his initial thru-hike by achieving the feat a third and final time. Shaffer kept trail journals during all three of his thru-hikes, and these journals are all now part of the archival collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. For my digital history print project, I propose to perform a textual analysis of Shaffer’s thru-hike journals in order to examine the themes and patterns present in his on-trail writings to assess how he ascribed meaning to his trail experiences.

Specific subject matter aside, the project appeals to me for two reasons. First, while I was quite wary of the class readings concerning computational analysis, I actually found Cameron Blevins’ use of Mallet to analyze the diary of Martha Ballard (familiar to many students of history from Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale) to be quite intriguing (“Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary”). Robert K. Nelson has also used Mallet to study the political and social history of Civil War-era Richmond by topic modeling that city’s Daily Dispatch newspaper from 1860 through 1865 (“Mining the Dispatch). I think that it would be useful to do a similar analysis of Shaffer’s diaries (collectively and perhaps individually as well) to see how his topics varied over time both within a specific hike and between the different hikes. I thought it might also be interesting to examine how his themes varied from state to state as well since each state offers hikers a different experience in terms of terrain, flora, fauna, and people encountered along the trail. The journals might be analyzed through Voyant as well to discern additional textual patterns that provide further indication of what Shaffer found to be important while on his journeys.

All three of Shaffer’s thru hike diaries (as well as two out of three of his other AT hike logs in the Smithsonian collection, which could also possibly be included in the analysis) have been digitized and transcribed, thus making it far easier to run the text through analysis tools like Mallet and Voyant. The second draw of this project for me is that these transcriptions are the product of voluntary crowdsourced labor. The Smithsonian is a relatively new yet heavyweight player in the trend of crowdsourcing the transcription of historical documents, launching their initiative in July 2013. As someone who actually pays the rent right now by transcribing oral histories, I’m somewhat ambivalent about this kind of crowdsourcing. Yet the Smithsonian now has (by my count) roughly 360 completed transcription projects because of this effort, with another 30-something in progress, which as a history/archive-y person strikes me as a good thing. So my project in part could help demonstrate the value and benefits of the crowdsourced transcription process.

Shaffer was a pioneer in a long-distance hiking movement that has exploded in popularity since the 1970s. The thru-hike in a sense is a form of escapism—what would possess a person to leave the relative comforts of home and society to embark upon and complete a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness?—and the trail diaries bring us as close as we can get to understanding his raw experience of the trail as it unfolded. In the 50 years between Shaffer’s first thru-hike and his last, American society changed greatly, as did attitudes regarding nature and conservation. What do Earl Shaffer’s Appalachian Trail thru hike journals have to say to us about the roles of nature and of the physical journey in helping him to make sense of his contemporary world, and how do his perceptions change through the individual journeys as well as over the longer course of time?