Online Musings of a Public Historian

Posts tagged ‘digital history’

Put a Pin on it: Resurrection City Reflections

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!

Communication, Documentation, and Collaboration

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?

Quantifying Culture? Culturomics and the Google Books Corpus

Can tracing linguistic changes over time reflect shifts in cultural trends?

According to Jean-Baptiste Michel and the other minds behind the culturomic analysis movement, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Working with the team responsible for the Google Books online collection, Michel and his fellow researchers constructed a corpus of almost 5.2 million digitized books.  Using this Google Books corpus, the team of scholars conducted a quantitative study analyzing the relationship between shifting linguistic and cultural changes over the period between 1800 and 2000.  Referring to this quantitative approach to measuring cultural trends as “culturomics,” Michel and company used their findings to produce the Google Ngram Viewer, an online tool of research through which everyday users can conduct their own studies within the Google Books dataset.  Users are instructed to simply enter a word or phrase (called an “ngram”) into the Viewer’s search bar, resulting in the creation of a line graph data chart chronicling that particular ngram’s level of usage within the corpus throughout the two-hundred year timeframe the study samples.

Sample Ngram Viewer study tracing the name "Abraham Lincoln"

Sample Ngram Viewer study tracing the name “Abraham Lincoln”

As seen in the sample Ngram Viewer study above, users can additionally use the data provided in the line graph to link particular peaks in ngram usage to significant historical events and/or cultural movements.  Using the name of one our nation’s more well-renowned leaders, “Abraham Lincoln,”  as an example, we can see that the initial spike in usage of his name in published works falls (predictably) within the period of his election, presidency, and duration of the Civil War.  Subsequent spikes occur in the years following World War I – a period of intense nationalism, during which Lincoln and other figures came to looked upon national heroes – and during the time surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, when associations with the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of slavery in the U.S. were strongly linked to the mid-20th century struggle for racial equality.

While the arguments laid out by Michel and company highlighting the benefits of using the qualitative methods associated with culturomics in gaining fuller insight into traditionally humanist topics certainly make a strong  point, it is clear that the field still has a long way to go.  Glancing at the Culturomics FAQ page set up by the project’s participants,  one can see that there are still several kinks to be worked out with this particular method of study, particularly in relation to the quality of data.

Despite the undoubtedly large size of the Google Books corpus, the 5.2 million digitized works still only make up for around four percent of all published materials.  Similarly, the study focuses primarily on the years between 1800 and 2000 (despite the presence of materials dating as far back to the 16th century), since the data originating in those periods has proven most reliable.

Do these constraints undermine the quality of data produced by the Ngram Viewer? What can be done to widen these parameters? What should we as historians bear in mind while using the culturomic approach in our own work?

Final Project Proposal: Resurrecting Resurrection City

1968 was a big year in American history.  In April, the assassination of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., rocked the country. Tragedy struck again in June, with another assailant taking the life of popular politician, Robert F. Kennedy.  That year, the war in Vietnam experienced several major developments, particularly in the form of the infamous Tet Offensive. With so many substantial events occurring within the space of that one year, it is not surprising that other issues of significance run the risk of becoming eclipsed in the broader scheme of the national historical narrative.

One such instance is that of the Poor People’s Campaign, the brainchild of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  intended as a “multiracial coalition of poor people who would confront Congress and the White House in…a nonviolent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol” (Terry Messman, “The Poor People’s Campaign: Nonviolent Insurrection for Economic Justice,” Race, Poverty and the Environment 14, no. 1, Spring 2007: 31).  Working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign as a second March on Washington of sorts, culminating with the construction of several “shantytowns near the White House, to make poverty visible” (Messman, 31).

An unexpected wrench was thrown into preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign march, however, upon King’s assassination on April 4th, 1968. Following the appointment of Ralph Abernathy as leader of the SCLC in the aftermath of King’s death,  plans for the Poor People’s Campaign and its occupation of Washington resumed at a heightened pace.  The first protestors arrived in Washington a little over a month following the King assassination, and within a week a shantytown consisting of “tents made of plywood and yellow tarp [was] constructed on a sixteen acre site near the Lincoln Memorial” on the grounds of the National Mall (Robert Houston and Aaron Bryant, “Most Daring Dream: Robert Houston Photography & the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” Callaloo 31, no. 4, Fall 2008: 1273). Popularly referred to as “Resurrection City”, this encampment grew to house thousands of people through the campaign’s duration.  Featuring its own zip code and mayored by Jesse Jackson, Resurrection City quickly became its own community, with an identity separate from that of the city on whose grounds it stood (John Kelly, “Before Occupy D.C., there was Resurrection City,” The Washington Post, December 3rd, 2011).

Jill Freedman, Resurrection City, 1968. Higher Pictures.

Jill Freedman, Resurrection City, 1968. Higher Pictures.

Unfortunately, Resurrection City was not devoid of the “riots, protests, and violent repression that had followed King’s assassination” throughout the country (Messman, 32). One particularly nasty encounter on the evening of June 20th, a few days before the camp’s land use permit was set to expire, included the deployment of a Molotov cocktail within the vicinity (whether it was thrown at or by Poor People’s Campaign members remains a matter of debate to this day) and culminated with D.C. police officers “fir[ing] more than a dozen tear-gas canisters into the encampment (Kelly).  Four days later, on June 24th, the permit authorizing the Resurrection City encampment expired and the site was deconstructed and cleared.

Today, there are no traces of the Poor People’s Campaign tent city that once sprawled across the Mall’s grounds near the Lincoln Memorial.  The site once occupied by Resurrection City now houses a portion of Korean War Veterans’ Memorial, completed in 1995. Recognizing that it would be a shame for the memory of the physical embodiment of one of  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final efforts toward universal equality to fade into obscurity, the National Park Service — the agency with jurisdiction over the National Mall and its associated monuments — hopes to commemorate the Poor People’s Campaign and the ideals represented by the Resurrection City demonstrators.

For our final project, myself, Kristen Horning, and Joanna Capps are partnering with the National Park Service to create a digital forum through which the Resurrection City experience can be interpreted to the public.  We hope to create a webpage to be featured in the “History and Culture” section of the National Mall’s public website.  Additionally, we aim to increase the opportunity for interpretive connection through the development of a mobile phone application featuring a walking tour following the layout of the original Resurrection City tonight in conjunction with photographs and interpretive texts and/or audio recordings providing additional information.  In conducting the research necessary to complete this project, we will be collecting data through a number of different sources, from utilizing the collections of the National Archives, Library of Congress, and other public cultural institutions, as well as conducting oral interviews with individuals who experienced Resurrection City firsthand, whether as active participants in the Poor People’s Campaign, or as locals living in the area at the time.

Ultimately, we imagine the finished product will serve as a digital means of connecting audiences to the cultural resource embodied in the key issues, beliefs, and values associated with Resurrection City and the Poor People’s Campaign.  A final goal for this project is the hope that the issues raised in our digital discussion of Resurrection City will resonate with modern audiences and encourage a deeper appreciation not only for the equal rights movements of the past, but also what more can be done to assist those facing similar struggles in today’s society.

Image Manipulation: Friend or Foe?

Photo manipulation: we all do it. Whether it’s choosing the perfect filter for your Instagram, resizing images to crop out visual clutter, or cosmetic touches, ours is a generation of posed perfection.  These actions are commonplace, so routine that we engage in them on an almost subconscious level, barely recognizing that we are actively altering an image from its original state. I mean, what’s the harm, right? It’s the final product that matters, the one you put on display for all to see. With those small changes, that final product simply turns out looking better, carries a message more effectively.  If the end goal is to have a memorable picture that attracts attention, and manual adjustments help to do that, what’s the big deal?

New York Times columnist Errol Morris tackles this issue of photographic manipulation and its effects on public perception and the historic record in his thought-provoking opinion piece, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?.” In this series of three articles, Morris examines a pair of hotly-debated images taken by British photographer Roger Fenton in the midst of the Crimean War. Depicting the same stretch of road in a particularly battle-riddled area, the presence of fallen cannonballs off the side of the road in one picture and their seemingly-subsequent placement on the road in the other lie at the center of the controversy:

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of the Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Were the cannonballs placed on the road by Fenton and his assistant in the hopes of achieving a more dramatic image? Or were they moved off the road and harvested by British soldiers  to be fired again at the next battle? Seeking to definitively determine the photographs’ ordering, Morris travels to the modern-day Crimea to investigate.  Through personal examination of the valley’s terrain along with the consultation of experts from various fields from museum curators to forensic photography analysts, Morris ultimately draws the conclusion that the cannonballs were, in fact, placed on the road after the photograph of the cleared road was taken.  The second image was, in a sense, staged.

Do we know Fenton’s reasoning behind staging the second photograph? Not definitively.  From viewing the two images, the “cannonballs-on” one certainly carries a more dramatic impact than its cleared-road counterpart.  The possibility that Fenton was aiming primarily for an emotional impact, sending a specific message to his viewers, is very real.

Does the knowledge that Fenton staged this image affect its credibility as a resource? Perhaps not entirely.  Despite its artificial origins, the image itself remains an evocative piece, depicting the grimmer aspects of a war-plagued landscape.

So how do historians deal with altered or staged images? Do we write them off as “fake” and thus cast them aside? In a separate article, “Photography as a Weapon,” Morris argues that we actually stand to benefit from further examination of such photos. Studying these images, according to Morris, offers a prime opportunity to investigate a photographer’s motivations, audience reactions, and the relationship between photography’s dual roles as an artistic and social medium, and as a purported purveyor of historic truth.

Do you agree? Can historians stand to learn as much from an altered image than from an untouched one?  What does the present commonplace nature of photographic manipulation tell us about today’s society?

Defining Digital History & Some Thoughts on Interactivity

When it comes to navigating my way through the digital world, I tend to fall squarely in the “technologically challenged” category.  Sure, I have a basic understanding of search engines, research databases, and some social media platforms (although I’m still struggling to learn the ropes with this whole Twitter thing). Give me anything more complex than a Facebook page or JSTOR search, however, and I am utterly lost.  As such, I’m hoping my experience in the History and New Media class will help to combat this ineptitude, in addition to broadening my understanding of digital history as a practice.

To do this, however, we’re going to have start with the basics:

What, exactly, IS “Digital History?”

In The Journal of American History’s “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” William G. Thomas defines digital history as “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems.”  He goes on to describe digital history as serving two functions, one as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication,” and the other as “a methodological approach…to create a framework…through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow.”

This emphasis on the interactive value of digital history is reinforced in Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s online handbook, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. In their introduction, “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” Cohen and Rosenzweig highlight interactivity as one of digital history’s “additive advantages,” enabling multiple forms of historical dialogue to occur all at once.

Such a high level of interactivity, while undoubtedly useful in the collaboration on and production of scholarly material on the web, does not come without its pitfalls.  In their discussion of the “perils” associated with digital history, Cohen and Rosenzweig warn that what may be originally intended as a two-way medium through which users can connect with the experiences of others runs the risk of becoming a one-way channel. In so doing, a feature initially meant to be interactive can instead devolve into a passive state, “only permit[ting] us to experience more of ourselves.”

With this in mind, what can we as historians do to combat this risk of passivity? Is it inevitable? How can we enrich the interactive experiences of ourselves and others?

Certainly, interactivity is not the only key feature of digital history.  There are several other defining characteristics to be aware of, such as the capacity, accessibility, and diversity of available tools and technologies.  Similarly, there also exist a number of disadvantages associated with the practice in addition to that of passivity.  These include issues of quality/authenticity, readability, and inaccessibility.

Does the good of digital history outweigh the bad? (I like to think so!) Do you think, like some of the authors in the JAH discussion mention, that some of these disadvantages may eventually disappear with the advent of new technologies?