The heart and soul of an archive

lights

As we’ve already discovered this semester, the performing arts have a long history of documentation, so in this sense my project will be nothing new. But the readings we’ve had thus far have mostly covered how the performing arts deals with archiving works anchored in the temporal, not how it deals with the digital aspects of those temporal works.

My project this semester is going to focus on exploring avenues for archiving all the different production and design elements, the paperwork and properties that go into creating and running a theatre show. I am going to use a specific musical I worked on a few years ago as a case study. I picked this show because I was more involved in the design process than I usually am as a master electrician, since the load-in was especially complicated and I also ended up assisting by programming the show for the lighting designer, but I also recently discovered that the theatre company in question actually lost a good amount of their archival material on the musical while they were in the process of archiving their own copies, so it also serves as a good object lesson in what can be lost.

The production in question is a bit of an adaptation of an adaptation: the 1988 movie Big was adapted into a musical for Broadway in 1996, and this is the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) version. Yeah, this wouldn’t be my first choice for a TYA production either, but there’s also a TYA version of Avenue Q, so here we are. And the libretto isn’t really why we’re here, though we’ll archive that too. I’m interested in the more technical aspects.

Big was a bit of a game-changer for Adventure Theatre, since they had recently acquired a new lighting product, to be implemented on this show, and used in subsequent shows: flexible LED tape, that had red, blue, and green LEDs on it, allowing for near-infinite color mixing. This low-profile ‘tape’ could be attached directly to set pieces, so there was a high amount of coordination between the scenic designer and the lighting designer, and in fact reviewers often attributed the LED tape more to the scenic designer than the lighting designer. It also had the unintended consequence of making the lighting programming so complicated that we actually ran out of internal memory on the lighting console before we could finish building the show. The lighting console which was several generations out of date, ran on DOS, and only took floppy drives as external memory.

This was compounded (compounded!) by timeline issues: IMG_0187we had to find a board that would read the existing show file and execute it in the same manner as we didn’t have time to rewrite the whole thing, and the show was so fast-moving that there was no pause in the cue sequence long enough to swap disks during the run (the load process was estimated at 2 minutes, there wasn’t a single page on the script that didn’t have cues). The LED tape was being controlled by programming boxes made from scratch by the (amazing) technical director, so documentation was minimal and fixes were only accomplishable by that one individual, and I believe that to still be the case to this day (especially in terms of documentation). Other digital elements include the projections, the basic CAD files for the set and the ‘regular’ part of the lighting, and the sound cues, which were run entirely through a digital program. The sound designer and the lighting designer often worked together to time lighting cues or adjust the length of sound effects so they would complete together.

These are essential elements that were born digital and must stay digital in order to maintain their essential qualities. Focusing on the preservation of these elements and exploring what resources are out there to support them that are aimed at or affordable for the non-profit community would allow not only for better archiving of cultural history, but for sharing innovation as well — the digital equivalent of reaching over someone’s shoulder and typing in code from memory.

The stakeholders obviously include the theatre company, the designers and actors, but also potentially those interested in studying theatre on a variety of levels: the work, the design, or the designers. It also includes the general public.

The theatre company: Theatre companies will use items from past productions for many reasons: moving or still images can be used in advertisements for the theatre as a whole or in promotional or fund-seeking material for the company; the company may need the design elements if they want to stage a revival; certain set or props pieces may need to be re-worked for another show, or a tricky effect or certain board pre-sets may be re-used by a designer from an earlier show they worked on. Good records of a show and how it works are also important during the run — for example, if an actor is injured or the stage manager needs to be replaced (an actual emergency that happened mid-tech on this show).

Designers and actors: Portfolios are an integral part of a designer’s self-promotional arsenal, they act as visual supplements to a resume or CV. Photography is generally discourage during live theatre, both to prevent the actors from being distracted, and to ensure the design integrity. Promotional photography will usually be taken during one of the last few dress rehearsals, with set specific moments if called for afterwards. This guarantees that production stills will be of the best quality, and designers and actors alike can get professional images of their craft, to promote it to other talent-seekers. Designers will have their copy of the paperwork submitted to the company, but may also receive (if they desire) the plot work for the finished pieces, which account for any differences or adjustments that may have happened between basically the first draft and the finished product.

Researchers: Theatre research tends to be either script-based (studying a playwright’s oeuvre), or methodology-based (Stanislavski method, Alexander technique), but the history of the physical craft of theatre has its investigators as well. Available materials, techniques, and design influences can all be read longitudinally through a theatre company’s collective archive.

General Public: Some theatre archives, like the TOFT archive at the NYPL, require users to prove that they are in the industry, but not all film and tape archives have that requirement, and even then, if you are in the performance industry, or a student of it, you can still watch something just for entertainment. Also, having these archives available for designers to work from helps build a better production for audiences in the future to enjoy.

Brendan DeBonis as Billy and Greg Maheu as Josh in Big, The Musical TYA. Photos by Bruce DouglasThe ‘magic of theatre’ is, most of the time, just endless hours of manual labor and seat-of-your-pants improvisation to get the show up and running, and to keep it that way, especially amongst smaller theatres that don’t have the same budget as Broadway or the Kennedy Center or Disney World. But they still want to put on a good show. Big is about finding out you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and discovering what’s great about what you are. Discovering things you didn’t know you had the capacity to do is exactly the kind of goal theatre archives are here to serve.

Moving Still Art: Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming”

A traditional painting is static to the human eye, despite the imperceptable movements of the atoms or the refresh rate of the screen if it displayed or created digitally. The husband and wife duo, Rob and Nick Carter, artist collaborators, looked to challenge the notion of how static these pieces need to be as part of their series called “Transforming.” Delving into a new venture between 2009 and 2013, they worked with the English visual effects firm, Motion Picture Company (MPC), to create a series of computer based digital paintings in a reimagining of still paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art, Renaissance, and 18th century Germany.

Four of these works are presented as films on Mac screens or iPads with traditional portrait frames, each ranging from approximately two to three hours in length that loop and repeat again. Each piece, slowly and often imperceptibly, changes over the course of the playback, employing databases of insect movements and plant life cycles, algorithms, and traditional computer animation. The intentions of their pieces are to promote sustained engagement with the paintings in contrast to the six seconds on average that a museum goer looks at an artwork.

Transforming Vanitas Painting

Transforming Still Life Painting

Transforming Diptych

Transforming Nude Painting

Significance and Communities

Groups interested in the survival of these works are art scholars across various concentrations. To those studying the original works of inspiration, these new pieces serve as a vital link to understanding the impact and tracing their influence over time. Rob and Nick Carter’s work is also an important example of remixing or reuse and serve as important pieces to document the influence of the original artwork along with the new work itself. Ultimately, preservation of the digital paintings also means allowing for further transformation as the digital files and code are much easier to transform than their analog counterpart. Thus, these works are part of the social memory creation surrounding both the original works and the genres they represent.

Another group that would want these art pieces preserved are those studying new media art and its history. Kate Bryant of the Fine Art Society of London claims that these are the world’s first digitally rendered paintings (old paintings entirely recreated with a computer), making it an important to preserve as documentation of the establishment of a new genre or technique. While the approach of a modern day homage to earlier forms of art was innovative, I believe the work of Rob and Nick Carter is conservative compared to some new media art which can be quite jarring from traditional paintings.

The conventional elements may have made the work palatable to more traditional galleries such as The Frick Collection and The Mauritshuis which exhibited some of these works alongside centuries old still life paintings (in fact it is apparently the first digital work exhibited at The Frick). The works of “Transforming” are therefore important to understanding how the genre of still life is being adapted to contemporary society due to changes in technology and how new media is making its way into older traditions. I think the intersection of old and new is important to document and will be interesting to users in the future.

diptych

At the same time, their work is using cutting edge technology in animation, coding, and display, which will interest computer art and design historians. Additionally, since Rob and Nick Carter worked with a visual effects firm, the works also will interest those who want to understand how corporate entities are involved with art, especially those facilitating digital art for those who may not have the technical skills to realize their vision.

Finally, these pieces are part of the contemporary attempts of creators and producers to foster user engagement with media content. With the ever growing amount of exposure to media on a daily level, the public often devote only a small amount of time to the images that pass before their eyes. These artworks represent a response to this moment, a clear commentary on the need to focus, and how undivided attention can be rewarded. Therefore, documenting “Transforming” means documenting the cultural conversation around media consumption in the early 21st century.

bot-y of work: a statement of significance

Moth Generator (@mothgenerator) is an interactive, multi-faceted, collaborative digital artwork by Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt. The following statements illustrate its complexity and set the stage for an eventual preservation plan for this work:

Moth Generator is:

  • A Javascript drawing program that creates images of imaginary moths by translating text into numbers
  • A Twitter feed where moths are regularly published and @replies are used as moth-generating text
  • A collection of computer-generated moth images and names, including looping animations created from generated moths and reused for other purposes
  • An element of a complex virtual world project
  • A collaboration between a game designer and an artist whose work deals in large part with code and bots
  • A relatively well-known example of a Twitter bot
2 moths by @mothgenerator
“middle lacuna moth ortricidia ietivorella” via @mothgenerator

Continue reading “bot-y of work: a statement of significance”

HomestarRunner: Still DotCom

A Statement of Significance

Homestar Runner

Introduction

The story of homestarrunner.com and the story on homestarrunner.com are both delightfully innocent. The former is a charming tale of a couple of Georgia college buddies caught up in the 1996 Olympic fever, drawing kids books, and imitating local tv commercials before ever going near a computer that became about two brothers sticking to their guns. The latter, as encapsulated in the website’s intro, is the tale of an earnest, energetic, if often missing the mark hero in primary colors, and his sarcastic character foil. These would-be archetypes are surrounded by a supporting cast endearing in their eccentricities – loyalties and rivalries abound, speech impediments and character flaws.

 

The World of HomeStar

Strong Bad

The site featured cartoons with a regular cast: armless Homestar, his equally armless, guitar-playing sometimes girlfriend Marzipan, globular best friend PomPom, hip-hop loving Coach Z, concession stand-running Bubbs, the gluttonous King of Town, the exactly what it sounds like Poopsmith, and finally the aptly named Strong Sad, Strong Mad, and Strong Bad with his sidekick the Cheat.

The cartoons featured this main cast heavily and were generally stand alone. The site featured games and downloadable content like desktop wallpapers and sound effects to customize your AOL Instant Messenger. But, as the into pointed out, the site’s break away hit was the Strong Bad Emails. In this segment, fans could email the character and the character would pick emails to respond to – sort of. Early favorites like “Theme Party” had the sender asking for theme suggestions for a frat party and Strong Bad suggesting that the theme of the party be “Frat Party.” Part of the fun was how far off topic the email would diverge, how ludicrous it would become. From this meandering came Trogdor the Burninator (fun fact, Google Docs, corrected my misspelling of Burninator because Google knows what’s up), Strong Bad Techno, and Teen Girl Squad, which became an independent feature on the site. In addition to its own internal world of jokes, characters, and plot devices, the site heavily featured pop culture references from the 70s-90s, especially in the form of the annual Halloween costumes.

Halloween 2015 Back Row: PomPom, the Poopsmith, the King of Town, Strong Mad Middle Row: Bubbs, Strong Sad Front Row: Homsar, the Cheat, Strong Bad, Homestar, Marzipan, and Coach Z

The Intended

From 2000 to 2009, homestarrunner.com was a regulrary maintained website. The site never advertised, nor took in advertising; supporting itself through merchandise sales and expanding solely by word of mouth largely before the explosion of social media. The key audience was high school and college students ten years ago, the members of generation nostalgia;  group for whom the integration of the 70s-90s pop culture references would resonate most clearly with their own life experiences.  As with the preservation of other popular cultural icons, homestarrunner.com would be a valuable candidate for preservation because it spread so far without being dictated to the people who liked it by a network or publisher like other mass media. It was not created through a marketing machine, but by a couple of guys making what they thought was funny.

This is one of the great equalizers of the internet and the entire basis of YouTube – that anyone can put their content on the web for the whole world to enjoy, the best material will rise to the surface, the creators will be acknowledge and achieve fame and fortune. It is, in a sense, an easy version of the American dream (and it does ignore that there are now multiple television shows dedicated to making fun of the internet like @midnight on Comedy Central).

Nevertheless, the fans who supported the site, who bought enough merchandise to keep the project running for years, are the same fans who are making stained glass windows and keeping a subreddit active, editing a dedicated HR wiki, and following the Twitter feeds. Granted, many of the fans, like the creators, have gone on to focus on other things as their interests had developed, but like any beloved childhood accessory, what it meant at the time is fundamental to the shaping of who we are now.

Above all it is this first group for whom preservation is undertaken because it is for this group that the site was saved from the death of Flash, see more below, and for this group primarily that the site continues to be updated. No less arbitrators of cool than Rolling Stone magazine are on board, promoting the return of the ever innocent Homestar.

The second main group of people interested in the conservation of homestar runner would be internet historians who would be interested in tracking the growth and spread of a social phenomenon before social media. In addition to the site, however, conservation efforts would need to include materials relating to the site’s popularity and spread through the zeitgeist – mentions on mainstream television shows, appearances in other works, and as an early success in internet memes. The meme, the spreadable idea, is more what the site is becoming remembered for already, the snippets that haven’t quite died away – Trogdor especially.

Homestar began its ascent before social media and continued more or less independently of the craze. Those scholars would perhaps be interested in tracking the decline of homestar runner against the social media explosion looking for a corollary between the two; to determine if such word-of-mouth sites were no longer truly sustainable in a post-Facebook world when they should have been infinitely more accessible.

The Cheat. The Cheat is the Best.

The third group of people who would be interested in the preservation of the site would be computer and internet technical preservationists who would be interested in the mechanics of how the site was built and maintained in the Flash animation environment and the subsequent transition away from Flash. The site dealt with the Flash transition in it’s own way, not ignoring that it was dealing with a significant problem and humorously dropping lines of broken code from the sky onto the main characters as the ever-frustrated Strong Bad attempted to explain the horror of the situation of the death of Flash in an entirely Flash-based world to the optimistically-oblivious Homestar. Both tech news outlets the Verge.com and Geek.com ran entire stories on HomestarRunner and the death of Flash.

The final group of people who would be especially interested in the preservation of homestarrunner would be cartoon and television historians who, because of the later work of the creators, the Brother Chaps, on other popular children’s shows such as the highly regarded Gravity Falls and Yo Gabba Gabba. Historians of popular media would be especially interested in capturing this early work to contextualize the later work of two prominent auteurs, however out of the mainstream the early career-making work might have been. 

All the cast that there might have ever been…

History Unmade: Physical Space Reimagined in Washington D.C.

Historians place emphasis on revealing a part of the past by showing not only what was, but also what could have been. In particular, many focus on how different groups had agency in their situations and the possibility to shape outcomes very different than what actually occurred. What if we bring this notion of agency to the history of the built environment? Few people realize how different the world around them could have been had one building design been chosen over another. These decisions are often contested battlegrounds and the history of Washington, D.C.’s design is no different.

A Very Different Capital City

The designers of D.C. itself made it as a monumental city to represent America to the world. The decisions made about where and what was built were each scrutinized tremendously and the structures that came out of these decisions have become the iconic symbols associated with this country. Notwithstanding their current greatness, wouldn’t it be cool if this was the Lincoln Memorial sitting at the end of the mall?

03704_2011_001_PR
John Russell Pope’s Competition Proposal for a Pyramid with Porticoes Style Monument to Abraham Lincoln. Credit: National Archives

The Library of Congress has highlighted some of these designs and their history in the book, Capital Drawings: Architectural Designs for Washington, D.C., from the Library of Congress. While this book does a good job of explaining the context of these drawings in history, I think that placing them in the context of the space they would have occupied through the visualization on a map is much more powerful. The Center for History and New Media has created a great interactive map site called Histories of the National Mall where users can interact and learn the history of the mall as they walk around. While this site is excellent for actual histories that have taken place, it still leaves room for the histories of the imagined spaces on the mall that never were.

Deliverable

Similar to HistoryPin and PhilaPlace,  by using the Google My Maps application, I will create an interactive map, placing designs never built into the landscape, using images from the Library of Congress, National Archives, Maryland Historical Society, among others. I will start with the monuments and public buildings surrounding the national mall, and expanding to other locations should time and resources permit. Building off the map, I will create an exhibit site for this topic using the Omeka content management system and embed the map on it. The images used on the map will be placed on this site as well, making them browsable and usable in online exhibits on each building. Through the exhibit pages, I will provide the context of each design’s history, found in Capital Drawings and other books on the subject.

Histun
Current Status of Omeka Site

Audience

So there will be a map and website, but who will use it? This idea percolated in my mind for a while and oddly enough, at the beginning of February, the History Channel website posted an article called The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs. This article received 24,000 likes and 8,500 recommends on Facebook. Clearly, there is a sizable audience for this topic in the wider community of amateur history buffs, local Washington, D.C. residents, or even the general populace that has grown up with the iconic monuments. Scholars of architecture, historic preservation, and history would also be interested in examining and learning about the possibilities of a cityscape that does not exist in reality today.

Publicity

To gain interest in the project, I will contact the repositories whose collections I am utilizing, in hopes that they would advertise it on their website, social media, and to patrons. Furthermore, the Center of History and New Media is a good partner to spread the word, as their Histories of the National Mall Site is closely connected and they know the constituents who would be interested in this type of project. Beyond these routes, I will contact local media outlets and use personal social media accounts to publicize.

Evaluation

Once the site is active, I will solicit feedback from users on the user experience and content of the site. Suggestions for future places would be useful to both have new material to post as well as tailoring the website to what the users want. Ultimately, there is no way to know if the users learn from the site, only that it has reached them through usage numbers. Hopefully, this site will give users an understanding that the space they inhabit is not static and encourage them to imagine what can be.

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.

Audience

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.

Outreach/Publicity

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?

 

 

Memory and Materiality: An Examination of Dear Photograph

On January 13, 2014, the Tumblr based blog, Dear Photograph reached 150,000 followers. Although the site has not been updated since last fall, its first three years of use provide a wealth of material I will use to examine how people interact with the past, form memories, and view materiality on the web. The blog of focus features digital photos taken by people of physical photos lined up with their original setting, with a caption beginning with “Dear photograph.” Meta right?

Here’s an example:

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Dear Photograph,
Trafalgar Square 50 years ago and my Granny never looked happier! If my house was burning down, this would be the one possession I would be desperate to save. I miss so many things about my Granny but most of all I miss her beautiful smile.
Clare

This example combines a personal photograph and message and places it in a setting of historical significance.

Some of the other photos are inherently more personal, both in place and in subject:

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Dear Photograph,
This is when I still had hair and my brother pooped himself.
We were happy, but we didn’t know it.
Domenico

If you do a quick Google search for “dear photograph” you will find, beyond the actual site (and its manifestations on other social media platforms) a number of articles profiling the site and its owner/curator, Taylor Jones. None of these articles are very long or in depth. The articles focus on “New-age nostalgia” or “digital nostalgia” but few delve into the ideas of memory.

One of the few scholarly pieces that deals with memory, Dear Photograph, and that sets the frame for my study is “Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories” by Jason Kalin. This article briefly mentioned Dear Photograph as part of a larger set of websites involved in “rephotography,” or retaking the same photograph in the same place at a different time to show change. Kalin argues that the way we share digital photos on the web  and use rephotography changes the way we remember things. Its application in a digital social environment allows users to “follow in the footsteps of previous walkers while simultaneously making that walk their own, thus producing a collective text, a collective, public memory of place that responds to past, present, and future.” In essence, these images are not only a way of remembering the past but are a means to create new memories, in a dialogue more public than ever before. This study will build off Kalin’s ideas as well as the general literature about memory to examine how Dear Photograph in particular reveals the changing nature of memory in the digital environment.

A piece in the New Yorker demonstrates another side to Dear Photograph, saying that “the project is a powerful reminder that digital photos can’t ever quite duplicate how it feels to hold a timeworn, sun-bleached, wrinkled old family photo in your hand.” This sentence gets to the heart of ideas espoused by Matt Kirschenbaum in Mechanisms when he discusses how the digital is often associated as something inherently not physical. Dear Photograph represents a juxtaposition of the nostalgia for the materiality of analog photographs while putting these objects within the structure of the new media that replaced them. Looking at these ideas and those of memory outlined above, I question, do memory and materiality relate to one another? Is Dear Photograph an attempt to adapt the memories associated with tactile feel to the digital environment? Through the examination of the content of images and text in the posts of Dear Photograph, I hope to answer these questions and reveal how this platform relates to the way we form memories in the digital age.

Digital Project Proposal

I live in the community of Silver Spring, Maryland. It is a community that has a unique history, from its founding as an estate of the Blair family in the 1820s, growing as part of the explosion of suburban development in the early to mid twentieth century, to more recently experiencing the demographic and economic changes that are becoming more common in an increasingly diversifying United States. While Silver Spring has a local historical society (Silver Spring Historical Society), it has yet to present much of its collection in a digital format. For my digital project, I would like to create a platform for presenting some of Silver Spring’s history online.

I am interested in presenting the history of Silver Spring in a geographic format such as a virtual tour of Silver Spring. I would strive to make my project as interactive as possible; I like the approach of allowing the public to manipulate the digital content. I am interested in potentially using two tools. I think Viewshare would be suitable to creating a collection of what will likely be mostly photographs and placing them on a map. I like how Viewshare has the capability of integrating a variety of historical materials into a collection.  I am also interested in using the site Historypin. I like how this website uses the Google Street Views to overlay historical photographs with what is currently there. Also, Historypin has a mobile app component which I believe would help increase the visibility and dissemination of the project. While creating a virtual tour of a community has been done before, I think the history of Silver Spring could offer unique opportunities. I envision including this project in my U.S. History high school class I teach when we study suburbanization as a way of making our local history relevant.  

I hope my project could be publicized through the historical society if up to standard. Hopefully if the public is aware, more people could contribute any historical materials they may possess to the site or collection so it could continue to grow. I would like the audience for the project to be as broad as possible, from local historians in the Washington D.C. area to potentially tourists who visit our region. I would evaluate the project from the feedback I receive from users and the level of interest it produces. Ultimately, I feel getting historical material online is always positive, and I hope that presenting the local history of Silver Spring, Maryland digitally will have broad appeal.

Cruisin’ Route 20…with History!

Have you ever been driving in what seems like the middle of nowhere and passed by a placard, statue, or house that looked important, but did not quite see the historic significance of this place as the car zoomed by?  Haven’t you wished that you could quickly look somewhere that would explain to you the significance of that place?  For many busy historic roads, there are definitely places where you can find this information. But for the lesser known highways in America, this information is hard to come by. You really are in the middle of nowhere.

For my digital project, I hope to rescue New York’s Route 20–my local, hometown highway– from this oblivion and create an interactive map that denotes and explains the historical significance of certain sites along this route. This site will allow people to engage in the travel and learning experience while driving.  Maybe drivers will even stop at some places along the way for a longer gaze, or even visit a local museum that is situated along the route. This site will transform driving along Route 20, which many regard as just driving through cornfield after cornfield, and will rescue this route from historical oblivion.

New York’s Route 20, formerly known as the Cherry Valley Turnpike, is host to a plethora of historical sites, including the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the William Seward House in Auburn, and the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.  Route 20 enthusiasts have set up their own websites about the route, including the Route 20 Association of New York State and an amateur’s site titled “Historic U.S. Route 20: The Main Street of Upstate New York.”  These two sites, however, do not offer much historical interpretation, the former more concerned with tourism and the latter lacking scholarly methodology. These sites also do not include an interactive map where drivers can quickly locate sites or where travelers can research the map before they head out on their drive. All in all, the current options on learning more about Route 20 are limited.

I will use Viewshare, Flickr, or Historypin to create an interactive map that marks different sites along the highway.  California Route 66 Preservation Foundation runs a website that includes an interactive map. My Route 20 map will link to descriptions of the historical significance of different sites along the road and will display different photos (historical and current) of these sites.  For my digital project, I will start with the three historic sites mentioned above: baseball in Cooperstown, William Seward House, and Seneca Falls convention.  I will follow Dan Brown’s suggestion, in Communicating Design, and create personas that will guide my design decisions.[1] My website will cater to three different personas: spectators (who just want a quick description of what they are passing), enthusiasts (who can read the whole story on the site), and tourists (who want the full story and might even want to stop and visit the site).  I hope to cater to these different personas by using a similar format as Philaplace where the spectators get a few lines on  the historical significance, enthusiasts click more to get the whole story, and tourists can scroll down to see recommendations for books to do further research or recommendations for local museums to visit.

Since New York’s Route 20 does not have nearly the renown as Route 66, outreach will be vital to this project.  My main audience is interested tourists and so I will link my site to travel review sites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Route 20 already has a page on TripAdvisor.  In addition, I will inform local preservation and history organizations, such as the Route 20 Association of New York State and “Tour Auburn,” of my site.

For the evaluation of my project, I will have different users test the site. As Brown emphasizes, planning for usability tests are as important as gaining feedback from the results of these tests.[2] I will create usability tests for someone who is driving the route as well as for someone who is interested in the route and planning to travel the highway in the near future.  Hopefully, these people find this site easy to use and easy to understand. More importantly, I hope this site will further interest in the local history of upstate New York. Instead of driving through the middle of nowhere, travelers (and even just web browsers) will gain an appreciation of the rich history of the area and realize its important place in history.


[1] Daniel M. Brown, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning (Berkely, CA: New Riders, 2007), 18.

[2] Brown, Communicating Design, 51.