Online Musings of a Public Historian

Earlier this semester, I blogged about my group’s final project proposal on interpreting Resurrection City. As a means of narrowing the scope of our overall workload for the semester, Joanna, Kristen, and I planned to complete our History and New Media final project in conjunction with that of our Public History Practicum course.  Partnering with the National Park Service, our Practicum group worked to produce a webpage wireframe interpreting the events of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Resurrection City experience.  For our New Media portion, we initially intended to create a Resurrection City mobile application (or at least a mock-up of one) to supplement the interpretation presented on our Practicum webpage.  As the semester progressed, however, the group ultimately determined that going a different digital route might serve to interpret Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign in a better manner.

Bird's Eye View of Resurrection City, early summer 1968. (Billy E. Barnes Negative Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Bird’s Eye View of Resurrection City, early summer 1968. (Billy E. Barnes Negative Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Spending several class periods examining the various platforms available within the new media realm, we gained a clearer understanding of the potential pitfalls associated with mobile applications.  At the forefront of these concerns lay the shared acknowledgement between group members of a substantial lack in technical skills to produce an application at the high level of  quality required for a successful project. In looking at other project formatting options, Stephen Robertson’s article on spatial mapping in the digital age, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” particularly resonated with us.  Recounting his experience in using digital tools to present research findings on a study of everyday life in 1920s Harlem,  Robertson highlights the visual properties of such media as one of the “core properties” of digital history.  Traditionally, maps used for historical study have always provided a visual aspect to scholarly research.  With the onset of the digital age, the use of mapping technology in new media works allow for an increased level of interactivity with the scholarship.  Relationships and patterns revealed through spatial mapping, for Robertson’s project in particular, “prompted questions..and facilitated comparisons” that might otherwise not received consideration from the project’s researchers.  This in turn allowed for project developers to present to their audience “a new perspective” on Harlem’s past.

This focus on the visual and the opportunity to alter perceptions of the past made spatial mapping seem to us an ideal forum within which to work on our own project.  With a primarily audio-visual source base, and largely deemed within the existing historiography as a failure, Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign today form an oft-looked over piece of civil rights history.  Hoping to raise awareness of the 1968 demonstration and highlight the campaign’s more successful aspects,  we chose to focus our project on the themes of community and interpersonal relationships, movement and mobilization, & shared space and public dialogue.

HistoryPin homescreen

HistoryPin homescreen

Deciding that a spatial mapping project appeared the best option for the new media component of our project, we eventually settled on HistoryPin as an ideal platform through which to present our final product. A contributor-based site powered by spatial mapping technology in partnership with GoogleMaps, HistoryPin allows users to publicly upload images and “pin” them to specific points on an interactive global map. To share these images and the stories associated with them, users have the option to combine content to create and curate their own online tours and collections.  As mentioned on the site’s “About” page and introductory video, this capacity for interactivity and connectivity make HistoryPin

“a way for millions of people to come together, from across different generations, cultures and places, to share small glimpses of the past and to build up the huge story of human history.”

To take full advantage of HistoryPin’s offerings in presenting an in-depth interpretation of Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign, our group ended up splitting our project into two portions.  Joanna chose to focus on the community mobilization and movement of PPC participants as they marched from across the country towards Washington, D.C., creating a tour examining their various journeys.  Meanwhile, Kristen and I worked together to compile a collection of images depicting the Resurrection City encampment and demonstrations on the National Mall and surrounding areas.Emphasizing our “big idea” theme of community, we selected a series of photographs we believe best reflected the community spirit felt by Resurrection City residents along with how that communal bond shone through during the numerous marches and rallies held by demonstrators at the time.

Resurrection City HistoryPin Channel

Resurrection City HistoryPin Channel

To do this, we created a HistoryPin channel linking to our #historyAU Twitter accounts that served as a holding basin of sorts for all of our pinned content and through which we could build a collection from selected images. After uploading our images onto the channel, we added captions and interpretive labels to each one along with the appropriate source citation information.  Then, we pinned each of the photographs to the National Mall and surrounding locations on the Google-powered HistoryPin map.  After completing these basic steps we were able to combine all of our images into a single collection, through which users can view them as a group slideshow or on an individual level. Additionally, collection viewers can use the map function to examine Resurrection City’s location on the National Mall and are free to add comment and suggestions on the collection and content.

Resurrection City HistoryPin collection map.

Resurrection City HistoryPin collection map.

As a digital tool, HistoryPin proved relatively simple to learn and easy to use in creating our collection — although there were some slight hiccups along the way.  With the site’s provided bulk uploader intended for collections consisting of 200 images or higher, the task of individually uploading and pinning each of our 17 images manually ended up taking a significant chunk of time (around five hours to upload all of them in one sitting).  Additionally, HistoryPin offers an interesting “Streetview” feature which, when enabled, allows users to view pinned content with the older image overlaid onto a current view of the site through GoogleMaps satellite imaging.  While definitely nifty in theory, actually applying Streetview to pinned images proved incredibly difficult for a technologically challenged individual such as myself and my partners, requiring a level of skill and precision beyond our own.

Other than these small quibbles, however, incorporating HistoryPin into our Resurrection City experience definitely helped to enhance our final product with an interactive, digital component.  After completing the project and finishing the collection,  I can say with confidence that the new media methodologies and foundational principles of digital history acquired over the course of the semester certainly proved beneficial both in completing this project, but also the larger Practicum project as a whole.

Links & Stuff

Check out the entire Resurrection City HistoryPin collection here.

To see Joanna’s Poor People’s Campaign HistoryPin tour, click here.

For an bibliography of source material we used for the project, here’s our Zotero group library.

An Endnote

Thus ends the semester and, with it, my requirement to post on this blog every week. Thanks everyone for taking the time to read my ramblings, it’s been real.

Happy Summer and Happy Trails!

History in the Digital Age edited by Toni Weller.  New York: Routledge, 2013; 212 pp.

Nearly thirty years after the dawn of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, 21st century society is firmly rooted in the Digital Age.  With a steady stream of technological advances occurring in recent decades, digital history continues to rise in significance as a “recognized sub-discipline” within the field (Weller, 3). For many historians, however, digital materials and tools of research remain relatively foreign entities. Author Toni Weller directs her book, History in the Digital Age, primarily toward this latter group of historians living  and struggling in the Digital Age. Arguing that knowledge of digital resources – along with the ability to use them – does not require a specialization in digital history,  Weller aims to introduce readers to the many ways in which use of these resources prove advantageous when conducting any type of scholarly research, regardless of discipline or subject matter.

Front Cover, History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller.

Front Cover, History in the Digital Age by Toni Weller.

Presented as a compilation of essays authored by various scholars, History in the Digital Age includes four main sections: “Re-conceptualizing history in the digital age,” “Studying history in the digital age,” “Teaching history in the digital age,” and “the Future of history in the digital age.”  Each section houses a collection of essays addressing specific aspects of adapting traditional academic methodologies and perspectives to fit with an increasingly digitized world.

One particularly poignant piece, Jim Mussell’s “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice” (located in the “Studying” section, pp. 79-94), addresses the incorporation of digital source material, tools, and techniques into the research process. Specializing in nineteenth century media history — a field of study not overtly associated with the contemporary Digital Age — Mussell relates to the apprehension towards new media technologies felt by historians whose fields focus on the pre-digital world. Acknowledging this, Mussell demonstrates to readers the advantages of using digital media when conducting scholarly research, specifically highlighting the increased accessibility of primary source documents through digitization:

“The study of digital data does to take history away from primary sources, but rather provides a new context in which these sources might be encountered.” (Weller, 88.)

Like Mussell, the book’s other contributing authors gear their writings towards an audience with scholarly backgrounds, yet lacking experience in new media methodologies.  For new media beginners, such as myself, History in the Digital Age serves as an excellent guidebook to the digital realm.  The essays featured within offer sound advice and solid insight into the seemingly complicated world of new media technology, making solid arguments as to the benefits such resources present throughout the research process.  Published in 2013, History in the Digital Age remains a relatively recent text, however with the rapid speed at which technological changes are advancing, this does raise a slight question of its prolonged relevancy — an issue easily fixed by the release of updated editions in the future.

On the whole, History in the Digital Age is a smooth, informative, and satisfying work offering readers an introductory break-down of the inner workings of the digital realm, along with the effects of digital resources on the traditional research process.

“There’s an app for that!”

How many times have we heard that phrase?

The now-common saying originated as the catchphrase for a 2009 commercial advertising Apple’s iPhone 3G:

Five years and several iPhone generations later, the concept of a mobile application for “just about anything” is more than just a snappy advertising gimmick.  As of October 2013, at least one million applications are available for download in Apple’s App Store while competitor Google Play reached its own million app mark earlier that year. Through mobile applications, smartphone users need only swipe their touchscreens for a plethora of possibilities ranging from social media and gaming to online banking or food delivery.

With public dependence on smartphones and mobile media only growing as we progress further into the 21st century,  museums and other cultural institutions are working to establish an increased presence in the digital realm. Whereas social media pages, official websites, and online access to collections allow such institutions to connect with outside audiences, mobile applications bring the digital inside museum walls.

So what goes into the development of mobile applications for cultural institutions?

Reading through the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis’ “Smartphone Services for Smithsonian Visitors” report one element in the app development process stands out more than others — and it’s not the technology. As reinforced in Nancy Proctor’s podcast, “Evaluation-led Mobile Experiences,” the audience — and their experience –matters most.

In developing the Smithsonian Mobile App, its creators relied heavily on audience feedback.  Through on-site interviews, social media surveys, and visitor testing of application prototypes, project members assessed audience needs and adapted the product’s content accordingly. Similarly, Proctor’s podcast emphasizes the importance of audience evaluation in the research process, discussing methodologies for conducting such studies digitally.

The idea of encouraging smartphone use within a museum setting certainly raises several questions.  At the forefront lies the issue of whether or not such applications pose a risk of distracting or eclipsing from the physical resources.

While this notion poses a valid concern, the heavy reliance of app development on audience feedback proves a poignant reminder of the important role audience evaluation plays in the research process.  Regardless of project format — whether the end product is digital or more traditional — the end goal of a positive audience experience remains the same.

After all, you can’t do public history without – you know – the public.


Museums & Social Media

At times, social media feels pretty inescapable.  It’s everywhere, permeating nearly every aspect of our daily lives from the comforting privacy of home to more public spaces such as the workplace and classroom. Whether Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr (or any of the myriad other platforms out there),  the use of social media is a defining characteristic of 21st century society.

NMAH Facebook Page

NMAH Facebook Page

Despite its name, however, social media is no longer a purely social phenomenon used for individual communications between friends and loved ones. As a growing number of  corporate organizations and cultural institutions build and maintain an online presence through such platforms, social media takes on a new role as a professional and academic tool.

The question of whether or not to embrace this social media phenomenon – and to what extent – remains a point of continuous debate amongst historians, particularly within the museum world. In recent years, several cultural institutions have taken the plunge into the digital realm, hoping to use the tools provided within social media as a means of connecting to a broader audience.

NMAH Twitter Profile

NMAH Twitter Profile


In their article, “Small Towns and Big Cities: How Museums Foster Community On-line,” Dana Allen-Greil and Matthew MacArthur examine the manner in which the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH)uses social media to engage with online users and visitors to the museum alike.  The NMAH uses a variety of platforms to facilitate audience connections online, offering topics ranging from general information (such as that found on their

Facebook and Twitter pages) to specific projects, like their Julia Child Recipe Series on Tumblr. The museum additionally offers visitors the opportunity to engage digitally while physically visiting the museum, with interactive web exhibits and holding events such as the “tweet-ups” described in Erin Blasco’s article “Presidential Hair is a Twitter Winner.”

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

NMAH Julia Child Recipe Series Tumbler Page

Of course, allowing visitors a higher level of interactivity with the museum entails additionally conceding to the public greater authority in the curation and interpretation of its collections.  This leads to the question of how much public authority is too much, with some arguing that this diminishes a curator’s position while others contend that it increases the curator’s responsibilities in regulating not only collections but also public interactions with them.


On the whole, however, the integration of social media and digital technology into cultural institutions seems to add a higher level of interactivity, enables more opportunities for connection, and enhances the overall visitor experience.



As I’m sure you all remember, I’m not the most adept when it comes to handling technology. Now more than halfway through the semester, this History and New Media experience continues to excite, surprise, and confuse me.  Thanks to the readings, class discussions, and skills building assignments completed so far, my once “pre-beginner” level digital skills have certainly improved.  At times, however, I still find myself helplessly confused about the task at hand and how to maneuver my way through this new digital world.

That’s why I’m glad that Dan M. Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning came along for this week’s reading.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 6.18.43 PM

Cover art for Dan M. Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning.

For someone as deeply technologically illiterate as myself, Communicating Design is a welcome – if slightly dry – read.  Focusing on the ins and outs of project-planning and teamwork in the digital realm, Communicating Design proves an insightful introductory text to recognizing and using new media research tools.

Brown is most successful in connecting with entry-level readers through his emphasis on the basic.  Split into two parts,  “Design Diagrams” and “Design Deliverables,” Communicating Design aims to acquaint readers with the key elements of the web design process.  Discussing various concepts and models, such as that of the “persona” (a project’s target audience), Brown highlights the importance of documentation in web design, citing “consistency of vision,” “insight,” and “traceability and accountability” as some of the advantages such documentation brings to a project. Additionally, Brown draws attention to the value of communication and collaboration within a team project. Following the general guidelines laid out by Brown, clear communication between team members along with a solid design outline allow for better quality “deliverables” — essentially a project’s final, public product.

As stated by Brown in the book’s introduction, Communicating Design aims to provide

“starting points and guidelines, ready for you to shape them with your own needs, your own circumstances, and your own experiences.”

Does his emphasis on the basic and focus on the importance of team communication and collaborate succeed in conveying this point? How can we as historians apply the ideas of Communicating Design to our own projects?

For centuries, maps have been consistently viewed as valuable resources in performing historic studies.  Moving beyond the more traditional functions of tracing boundaries and locating specific sites or landmarks, practitioners of spatial history use maps and the information presented within them not as supplemental source material, but as a means of adding additional perspective in examining the past.

In his essay on Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, Richard White describes the basic premise of spatial history as

“the sense that changing spatial patterns…best explain the pattern of changes [within a given space] over time.”

This mindset regarding the study of history through examining the power of place has long existed within academia,  as illustrated by the works of 19th century engineer Charles Minard, particularly his map tracing the progress (and deterioration) of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1861:

Charles Minard's Carte Figurative of Napoloeon's 1861 March on Russia

Charles Minard’s Carte Figurative of Napoloeon’s 1861 March on Russia.

In recent decades, technological advances and the increasing availability of digital tools have assisted in expanding the field’s capabilities.  Imaging software, GPS services, and countless other innovations allow spatial historians to examine a variety of sources, from the geography of the moon to the spread of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the United States.

Study of colors present on the moon's surface

Study of colors present on the moon’s surface.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald's.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

Spatial history certainly adds unique perspective to our understanding of the relationship between space and time.  Through studying maps, whether contemporary or historic, digital or traditional, we can gain incredible insight into the attitudes prominent in a given time period and the manner in which humans view and measure their surroundings.  Of course, spatial tools of study( (like all source materials) inevitably have their flaw, particularly  their potential for manipulation and inaccuracy.  As such, while clearly a useful and continuously advancing methodology, spatial studies are at their most effective when used in conjunction with other tools.

What do you think? What can we learn from maps that we cannot from solely looking at text? Does spatial history assist us in gaining a more accurate understanding of the past?

A few posts ago, we examined the concept of culturomic analysis and explored the Google Ngram Viewer, a digital research tool that uses a document’s text patterns to link various lingual trends with specific historical periods.  Not the only word-based tool in the shed (so to speak), the Google Ngram Viewer is one among several similar culturomic platforms available on the web.

One such alternate tool is Wordle, a “word-cloud” generator derived from the input of text, giving “greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.” Whereas the Google Ngram tool matching lingual patterns in written documents with historical events and trends, Wordle serves more as a means of determining a specific document’s major themes and features.

To test the generator’s efficacy, I uploaded an old research paper of mine discussing the circumstances surrounding England’s 1605 “Gunpowder Plot” and subsequent annual Bonfire Night celebrations commemorating the event.

Behold, the visually-appealing result:


Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.20.22 AM

“Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot”
via Wordle.

On the whole, Wordle proved relatively successful in conveying the document’s key themes. Looking at the generated word cloud, we can get a general grasp on the individuals involved, with the two most prominently associated with the plot (Sir Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes) whose significance is accurately reflected through their placement as the two largest (most frequent) words. The plot’s religious connotations (along with those surrounding the ensuing holiday celebrations) are similarly highlighted.  Surprisingly absent, however, are any references to the Bonfire Night celebrations following the events of the plot, on which a significant portion of the document focuses.

Additionally, several very common words (“although,” “new,” “well”) are given precedence within the cloud, along with a fair number of common names (“Robert,” “Elizabeth,” “John”) and word variations (“Plot” vs. “plot,” “Catholics” vs. “Catholic“).

Despite these nuances, Wordle still serves as an effective means of tracking a document’s language patterns and highlighting its primary themes.  The platform’s personalization features add to its appeal, and include numerous options regarding font, cloud layout, and color scheme.

On the whole, the Wordle cloud-generator offers users an entertaining, personalized experience in obtaining a general representation of a document’s contents and main ideas. The application works best as more of a starting point in the research process, however, with users seeking a more in-depth analysis better served doing supplementary studies elsewhere.


Over the past few decades, various technological advances have allowed for significant expansion within the digital world in terms of both scope and accessibility.  Today, a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a touchscreen offer users access to an abundance of digital content ranging from the intellectual to the bizarre.  In academia, the innovations brought about through this rising “Digital Age” continue to transform the research process as we know it with the introduction of new tools, methodologies, and platforms.  The advent of the online database, for example, revolutionized the traditional research process through storing and making widely available countless resources in various formats.  This increased accessibility of resource materials allows database users to locate in a matter of minutes information that traditionally required several days’ worth of planning (if not longer) a trip to an archive or institution.  Online databases additionally provide resource access to countless users of varying backgrounds and levels of academic experience, colossally widening the scope of research to reach multiple levels of society.

Today, numerous cultural institutions across the world curate their own online research databases.  One of the largest and most visited of these database sites is the Digital Collections and Services page hosted by the Library of Congress:

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage.

Created in 1994, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers users access to

“a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as ‘born digital’ materials such as Web sites.”

These materials are categorized into eight “featured collections,” each covering  a specific medium (such as the Chronicling America historic newspaper database) and/or research topic (like the Veterans History Project), allowing database users to easily navigate their research efforts within the appropriate collection.  Hunting for relevant research sources becomes an increasingly simple task with the subdivision of several collections into specific categories and the ability to use a search tool to locate specific materials, as seen with the American Memory collection page:

American Memory from the Library of Congress

American Memory from the Library of Congress.

Additionally, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers the opportunity for users to increase their knowledge on the cultural significance of digital preservation through the inclusion of a page providing links providing further information regarding the preservation process and other online collection projects:

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Unlike other leading research databases, such as JSTOR and EBSCO, which offer access to their materials only through paid membership or use through an academic institution, the Library of Congress Digital Collections site allows all members of the public to peruse the site, free of charge.  This high level of accessibility, coupled with the site’s easy-to-navigate format and educational features, makes the Library of Congress Digital Collections database an ideal starting point to gather  materials for use in the research process.

While undoubtedly a substantial tool of research, the Library of Congress Digital Collections system is not without limitations.  This is most clearly seen in regards to the collection’s overall size, which – while admittedly plentiful – does not completely encompass the Library of Congress’ holdings in their entirety.  As a result, a planned visit to the physical facility is often still a necessity, particularly for projects focusing on slightly more historically obscure topics.

That being said, the database is still an ongoing project with newly-digitzed materials regularly added to it.  As such, the database’s scope continues to expand, with the hopes that eventually the vast majority of the Library of Congress’ archival holdings will be available online.  Until that point, and even after, the Digital Collections and Services serves as a commendable, easy-to-use tool of research for historians at any level, both on its own and as a supplement to a more in-depth visit to the Library of Congress’ archival research facility itself.

Growing up a short distance from Washington, D.C., my relationship with the iconic sites and structures of the nation’s capitol is markedly different than that experienced by the thousands of tourists who frequently flock there. For me, places like the Smithsonian museums and the monuments of the National Mall aren’t simply destinations on a travel itinerary. They are familiar figures, featuring prominently throughout each stage of my life so far.

I first became acquainted with D.C.’s heritage sites and cultural institutions in childhood, from a combination of school field trips and obligatory family outings whenever an out-of-town relative paid a visit. In high school, navigating the Metro system and venturing into the city without parental supervision was a common rite of passage.  The National Mall became not just an intellectual but a social destination, serving as the backdrop for prom pictures, first dates, and after-school outings with friends.

One of my first "grown up" group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

One of my first “grown up” group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

Reading Trevor Owens’ article on “using the social web to unpack the public meanings of cultural heritage site[s],” the different layers of meaning the D.C. sites hold for me instantly came to mind. Using TripAdvisor reviews of the commemorative statue of Albert Einsten (located in Washington, at the National Academy Sciences building) as an example, Owens examines the interpretive value of online social commentary in studying public relationships with cultural sites and institutions.

Undoubtedly, “traditional” source materials are necessary components of any research project. Knowledge of a site’s background — the motivations behind it, the message it conveys, its purpose in existing at all — is necessary for an accurate understanding of how (and why) the public interacts with that site. These can be found in any number of primary or secondary sources relating to a site, both online and off.

"History and Culture" page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website

“History and Culture” page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website.

While these materials certainly help historians in figuring out the why of a site, they only provide so much detail on how the public connects with it.  For this, Owens argues, we should look to the social web for assistance.  Visitor reviews, such as those featured on TripAdvisor, and social media posts can be incredibly helpful not only in discerning how the public views cultural heritage sites, but also in determining the types of interactions people engage in.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

Some believe that sources drawn from the social web are not as “legitimate” as those taken from more traditional avenues.  Others feel that the experiences individuals describe via social media, such as the use of the National Mall  as a venue for prom pictures, are “disrespectful” or “irrelevant.”

Reflecting on my own experiences, both formal and informal, with the cultural sites of Washington, D.C., I feel that Owens’ piece makes a valid argument.  Part of the entire premise behind public history is an understanding of how the public connects with the past.  Whatever their nature, posts made on social platforms offer valuable insight into how people create these connections through interacting with such sites.

Cultural heritage sites carry a number of different meanings. Visiting these sites and interacting with them — whatever the context — allows people to develop their own relationships for them.  In doing so, these places become a part of their lives.

What could be a better asset in this digital age than an online platform where you can store all your research information in one place?! Zotero allows users to create an online library for both individual and group projects, where they can upload pdf documents, URL links, and all sorts of citation information.  Check out our group’s Zotero Library for our Resurrection City project here!