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.
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.