Introduction

I am a high school history teacher in Prince William County, Virginia.  I’ve taught World and American histories, as well as American government.  I got my bachelors from Old Dominion University, and I earned my masters from George Mason University, both with concentrations in history.  I am currently in the Digital Public Humanities Graduate Certificate Program with George Mason University.  While I love teaching, I would really like to get into the museum world, working with artifacts and the stories that come along with them.  I was an intern at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in their aviation curator department, as part of my masters program, and I really loved being able to work with artifacts and the stories and how to share them with the public.

I hope to learn more strategies for using digital public history in both my classroom and potentially in museum work.  I’ve already learned so much about the digital tools that institutions have available to them, so I’m interested in hearing how they can continue helping in the education realm.  Having used Omeka the past two semesters has helped with creating digital exhibits about different events, so hopefully that can be used this semester in planning educational lessons for students of any age.

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Landscape and DPH

Digital Public History has allowed so many different collaborations between technology and history.  For example, with the advent of smart phones and portable technology, museums and public history projects can create applications to enhance the visitor experience.  They can create interactive exhibits with the technologies available.  A personal example of this is from the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I went to visit the art museum and they had borrowable iPods and headphones sets that visitors could take and enhance their visit.  There was no sound in the galleries, but if you had the iPod and headphones, you were able to listen to commentary from the curators on different pieces or you were able to listen to a video that would play on the wall silently.  It enhanced the individual experience, but it also kept the galleries very quiet for others to be able to enjoy the artwork without distraction.

Other techniques including building applications that are downloadable by individuals on their own pieces of technology, such as downloading an app on my iPhone.  I would download the app either before I arrived at the museum or shortly thereafter, and use the app as I walked through the exhibit.  Museum Victoria did just that in its World War I: Impact and Aftermath exhibit.  They created an interactive app/exhibition experience to complement each other.  You were able to walk through the exhibit without the technology, but if you had the technology, your world was opened to include a specific character you followed through the war, sounds that you wouldn’t hear otherwise, and you got more in-depth information by using the app.  They were able to do this using bluetooth beacons throughout the exhibition to help tell the stories as you walked through.  The beacon would “ping” your phone, and it would open up a new section based on your location.  That app had minimal information outside the museum, but once inside, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Cleveland Historical created a “walking tour” app that integrated oral history with location.  They wanted to heighten the senses.  They found it to be more powerful to see a location while they were hearing a story about a location or experience.  It better places the listener in a state of mind similar to the storyteller.

Building Histories of the National Mall created a walking guide to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  It was meant to show how much history has happened in that location that not everybody knows about.  Yes, everybody knows about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and that the President is inaugurated on the Capitol steps every four years in January, but what else happened on that Mall?  What did it look like 150 years ago?  Using geolocation technologies with application technologies, creating an app that shows you those things in real time while you’re standing in a specific spot is possible.

Complexities of digital public history that is location-based include the necessity of being in that physical location to get the full impact of the experience, technological bugs and errors, technological understanding (including a strong tech team to build and fix the app), and user-friendliness.  If an app is difficult or confusing to use, the general public is less likely to use it, much like any website that a DPH project chooses to use.  The same considerations need to be made for technology bugs and understanding as with websites, just in a different language.  Being in a physical location can be a drawback for users who just want to explore from the comfort of their own couch, especially if the application requires you to be standing in a specific spot to get specific information, like with the Museum Victoria.

DPH projects are now able to use technologies to their benefit, increasing visitor numbers while also increasing visitor engagement.  Technology has allowed DPH projects to reach out to the public instead of staying in their building with their artifacts and histories.  The collaboration with the public becomes much greater as the technologies increase.  Through social media and websites, museums and projects are able to interact with individuals throughout the world.  Museums and projects are able to add more history to their websites and social media profiles than can ever possibly be displayed in analog exhibits.  It opens up their museums and projects to a whole new type of visitor, not just the visitor that stumbled upon them as they were exploring a city.  As technology continues to grow, so will the conversation between institution and visitor.

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Oral History: Place in Public History

Oral tradition is the foundation for tracking history.  When people started coming together and sharing their stories, that was the beginning of oral tradition.  We can see the effects of oral tradition throughout history, but most notably with the sharing of religions and similarities between different oral versions, before writing became common.  Fast forward a few thousand years and we have rich histories, both oral and written.  Oral history still has a very strong place in public history.  Why do you think children (and even adults) still beg their parents or grandparents to tell them stories?  Because the stories are part of the human experience.  The same remains true for maintaining and preserving oral histories.

Digital technologies have enabled oral history to move from the cassette tape recordings of yesteryear to digital files that can be accessed from anywhere today.  Thanks to technology, we are able to share, edit, and catalog audio and video files that contain precious historical narratives.  Questions that arise with oral history projects include where to host, how to catalog, important terms, usability, design, cost, etc.  All of these questions can also be asked of an in-person archive as well.  Open source software has enabled many institutions to implement digital archives of oral histories for free.  This comes with its own necessities of IT and programming support, as well as strong documentation.  Problems that may arise are usability issues for the less-technologically-inclined individuals, but that could arise from any digital site.  As technologies keep improving, the future may hold automatic speech recognition and artificial intelligence, but for the time being, the current status of digital oral history is in a pretty good state.

As for my own history project, and how looking at digital oral histories has impacted it, I think I will try to include the interviews that I had compiled.  Up until this point, I wasn’t sure how I would host them and include metadata, but using OHMS was simple and fairly user-friendly.  I will test an interview with the software and see if I want to continue with further oral histories.  This would be incredibly helpful for contributors to my project, because they simply could include voice recordings of their own experiences within the project.

Challenges of Local or Community History

Local or community history examines a certain area through a focused lens.  For example, a local history museum looks at a geographical area and then decides how they want to portray that area.  It could be examining personal stories and anecdotes, or it could be focusing on a specific set of artifacts for an area.  Either way, local history has a narrow focus.  The same goes for community history.  It has a narrow focus on a specific community, like LGBTQ.  The focus is on the history of that community group within the greater picture of history, not as a subset of that history.  Resources could be lacking for a very focused local or community history project.  This can lead to a very specific story being told, without examining all sides.

Challenges that exist with local and community history on a digital platform abound.  Local and community history museums and projects have the majority of their attendance come from people who stumbled upon them.  It is much harder to stumble through the Internet.  Making a site that is relevant and engaging in order to better draw in visitors is difficult, especially with a very narrow focus.  The goal of collaboration between members of the public and academics becomes much harder too with such a narrow focus.  Interactivity between users is difficult on any digital history project, while the level of difficulty increases with the lesser known projects.  The problem also arises with funding.  Nicer websites are created with more resources and money.  The possibility for collaboration with technological people is much greater at a large institution, whereas a local project might not have the same network.  Usability of the website still maintains itself as an issue, whether it is a large institution’s site or a local site.  The same challenge of sharing authority between individuals and academics also arises with smaller, local or community based history projects.

Every project, whether digital or analog, will have its own issues.  If the project contributors can remember that, getting the information displayed will be a much simpler task.

In regards to my digital history project, this made me think about how much of a niche culture rowing is.  It is definitely not a sport well known in land-locked areas with small bodies of water.  It is much more known on the coasts and in more affluent areas.  This makes me think about the story I want to tell with the Olympic men’s 8+ and how they struggled to make themselves known as the contenders.  I need to make my site user-friendly, while also better plan my collaborative efforts.  The less user-friendly those things are, the more likely my users will get frustrated and give up on my site and ultimately miss out on good stories and resources.

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Rowing to Greatness: Project Proposal

Historical Context and Content

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in America. The pinnacle of rowing achievement is the Olympics. The 1936 United States Olympic men’s 8+ (type of rowing shell) overcame all odds as a collegiate team and went on to win gold at the Olympics in Berlin. These young men fought incredibly hard for the chance to compete, and that led them to winning. This project focuses on their journey to the Olympics. It examines their individual stories and struggles that led them to rowing. Rowers of all ages can relate to the stories of these young men and how they fought. Within this project, images, stories, videos, and audio clips will be shared with users desiring to learn more about this historic boat and rowing. Maps will also be used to show where these young men rowed, both in collegiate competition and in the Olympics.

Questions within the scope of this project will include:

  • What brought these young men to rowing for the University of Washington?
  • What were these young men’s lives like during the Great Depression?
  • Where did these men row? Are these still used courses today?
  • How has rowing changed since the 1930s?
  • What were the implications of the American men’s 8+ traveling to Germany and competing in the Berlin Olympics under the watchful eyes of Hitler?
  • How do we remember the 1936 Olympics?
  • What key lessons can we take away from the 1936 Olympics and its outcomes?

Digital Technologies

This project will be utilizing Omeka, and its various plugins to display the content. It will be utilizing the Geolocation plugin, to show the locations these young men rowed and lived. I also plan to use the plugins incorporating audio and video, once I can get them working. There will be commenting features, allowing for users to share their thoughts and ideas on the different items being exhibited. I am exploring different platforms for creating a forum for rowers to be able to communicate with one another, and share their own rowing stories for the community to see.

Target Audiences

Rowers fulfill my primary audience, both past and present.  Rowers all have a common struggle that they’ve lived through: 2000 meters of pure, unadulterated hell.  No breaks, no timeouts, no substitutions, just 2000 meters of non-stop sprinting to the finish line.  Every rower knows what it feels like to sit at a start line and sense the combination of nerves and excitement, much like a racehorse at the gate of a race.  I want to bring the rowing community together to learn more about that Olympic Men’s 8+, but also to share their stories.  I want to create a dialogue between rowers and the project, which will ultimately help strengthen the project.  In preparing for the project, doing user research is key, and in interviewing rowers, I’ve found that the same themes are there, but the details and the memories are different.  I want to merge the history with the heritage of rowing.  Not only were these men rowers, but also they were witnesses to history: the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, not to mention their own personal histories.  I want to bring the personal sense of rowing together with the history these men experienced.  As my project progresses, I’ll keep working with my target audience, so I can keep judging their engagement and their feelings of “author-ship” in the project.

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Target Audience Personas

Rebecca Holgate Crew
Name: Rachel Jones
Demographic: White, American female Mid-twenties Middle class Single, with no children Full-time Engineer, rows when able
Descriptive Title: Working Adult, Missing Rowing
Quote: Life can be pretty hectic at times. Rowing keeps me grounded.
A Day in a Life Narrative:

Rachel goes to work at her engineering firm every day. She works with water treatment plants to keep the water clean and safe. When she gets off work, she tries to go to the gym about five times a week, using an ergometer (rowing machine) to work on her cardio fitness. In her other free time, she enjoys exploring her city with her dog and friends.
End Goals:

Rachel would like to get back into rowing on the water, for physical and mental purposes.
William Swain Coaching
Name: William Smith
Demographic: White, American male Mid-twenties Middle class Single, with no children College student, part time job
Descriptive Title: High School Rowing Coach
Quote: Discipline. If my coach tells me to do something, you do it.
A Day in a Life Narrative:

William coaches six days a week (Monday-Saturday), and he tries to go rowing, himself, at least three times a week. Will goes to class in the early morning, work in the late morning and early afternoon, then goes to coach in the evening. He enjoys coaching young men in the evenings, and then being able to go rowing. On Saturdays in the spring, he gets to watch his rowers compete against other high school rowers.
End Goals:

William wants to row well and enjoy his time on the water. He wants to be able to have a hobby outside of work and school to help him de-stress. He enjoys coaching, and wants to help others improve their rowing skills. He also would like to stay physically fit through rowing. William enjoys the camaraderie of being part of a team, whether coaching or as a teammate himself.
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Engaging Audiences

In an age of increasing technology-use, public history projects absolutely need to utilize a digital component. Opening up a project to a digital format increases the opportunity for users to access the collections and decide how they want to interact with the history. Some projects allow users to be more interactive, while others simply allow for gallery viewing.

Projects that look to include a lot of public input must gain the trust of the public. Individuals must feel that their opinions and their time are valuable. Several projects exist that look for user experiences, including personal stories, photographs, and videos. For example, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank asked people living and working in the Gulf Coast during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to share their personal experiences and histories. This included asking for their pictures, videos, audio, and written stories. The HDMB allowed users to offer their information privately, so that their stories may only be shared with researchers. The HDMB also allowed users to share their stories publicly, so others may learn from them and interact with those stories and images. Baltimore Uprising followed a very similar format, asking individuals who lived and worked in Baltimore during the uprisings to share their images, videos, and stories. These projects are not only seeking to preserve the history, but also to allow communities to come together and interact with one another in a digital space.

Another way to include the public in ownership of digital public history is the projects that ask for crowd-sourced information on tagging, commenting, transcribing, etc., of digitized collections. Flickr Commons and Citizen Archivist exemplify the major institutions of the world looking for the general public to help fill in some of the overwhelming metadata. These types of projects are much more broad in scope than HDMB and Baltimore Uprising, largely due to the large amount of different collections. HDMB and Baltimore Uprising are very focused projects on specific audiences.

A lesson to be learned from all of the digital public history projects is to always plan more time than you think is necessary. The projects all desired more time. The projects also suggested sticking to a common metadata standard, such as Dublin Core. Contributions interfaces should be simple to use and efficient, otherwise users will get frustrated and decide not to contribute or come back. Offering multiple options to users, including anonymity and public versus private submissions allows the users to feel much more comfortable in sharing their stories. Sharing the ownership with the users is key to getting them to participating. Also, projects need to be prepared that not everybody has technological access. In those cases, be prepared to have project members working in the physical world, collecting stories and interviews.

Potentially, for my project, Omeka can serve to have my target audience interact with the past. Using comment features would allow a forum to be created, of former and present rowers, as well as those interested in the history of rowing. They will be able to comment on artifacts and share their own personal stories. Currently, I have images from the Olympic men’s 8+ from 1936, which can start the conversation about this tremendously talented team. I have started adding some information on a few of the men involved in this 8+. I plan to expand more on their individual stories as this project progresses. Hopefully, my target audience will see a bit of themselves in each of the stories of these men, and then feel compelled to add their own stories and thoughts. There is an image I have of one of the men’s 8+’s as it is being built in George Pocock’s shop, which is enticing for current and former rowers. It demonstrates how much and how little rowing shells have changed over the last eighty years. I plan to continue adding stories and images for rowers to interact with and contribute.

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Audience, Dialogue, and Co-Creation

As historians, I’d like to say that the whole reason that projects are created is so that they can be shared with others.  I’m more realistic in saying that they are partially selfish creations, partially for the audiences.  Historians don’t create projects in which they don’t have a strong interest.  That’s just the initial stage, though.  Once a project idea is hatched, the next step is figuring out who would be interested in learning more about the project.  That’s where the audience comes into play.

When a public historian creates an exhibit, they need to have a specific audience in mind.  For example, for my project on the 1936 United States Olympic Men’s 8+, my primary audience is fulfilled by rowers, both past and present.  Rowers all have a common struggle that they’ve lived through: 2000 meters of pure, unadulterated hell.  No breaks, no timeouts, no substitutions, just 2000 meters of non-stop sprinting to the finish line.  Every rower knows what it feels like to sit at a start line and sense the combination of nerves and excitement, much like a race horse at the gate of a race.  I want to bring the rowing community together to learn more about that Olympic Men’s 8+, but also to share their stories.  I want to create a dialogue between rowers and the project, which will ultimately help strengthen the project.  In preparing for the project, doing user research is key, and in interviewing rowers, I’ve found that the same themes are there, but the details and the memories are different.  I want to merge the history with the heritage of rowing.  Not only were these men rowers, but they were witnesses to history: the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, not to mention their own personal histories.  I want to bring the personal sense of rowing together with the history these men experienced.  As my project progresses, I’ll keep working with my target audience, so I can keep judging their engagement and their feelings of “author-ship” in the project.

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User Research Findings

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in America. The pinnacle of rowing achievement is the Olympics. The 1936 United States Olympic men’s 8 (type of rowing shell) overcame all odds as a collegiate team and went on to win gold at the Olympics in Berlin. These young men fought tooth and nail for the chance to compete, and that led them to winning. This project would be a commemorative multi-platform campaign for the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Olympics, including an interactive map, showing where they trained, how they traveled, and where they competed; a forum for connecting the past struggle with current rowing struggles; and information on the men themselves that contributed to this historic event.

In doing my user research for my project, I have discovered the deep love rowers have for the sport of rowing.  Rowers love sharing their stories about their races, teammates, and their coaches.  There is a common thread of camaraderie in the struggles rowers have universally gone through, but differences in every story and rower.  For my project, this makes me want to shape the forum of discussion even more so that rowers are able to share their stories with one another, whether they are 90 or 15.  Even if a rower hasn’t touched an oar in years, the love and peace the sport brings them is still great.  I will still focus on the 80th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic Men’s 8+ from Berlin, but I also want individuals to contribute their stories to the overall discussion on rowing and how it brings people together.  I plan to continue getting user feedback on their experiences and what they would be interested in seeing out of the project.

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Evolution of Digital Public History

Digital Public History has evolved quite a bit over its history, starting in the 1990s with the advent of the Internet and moving through today with the rampant use of the Internet for, seemingly, every facet of life.  It began as simple websites, demonstrating text and some images of public history projects, but not allowing for much interactivity with the user.  As website design has evolved, so has the presentation of various projects.  They became much more flattering to look at and move through.  The evolution of the digital public history sites has also included the evolution of public history itself, which has moved into a much more collaborative field.  These digital history projects are not only the brainchildren of one institution or group of people, but now they are collaborations between multiple institutions.  They are also the combination of in-person exhibits and digital exhibits.  Some projects even are branching out to include the help of the everyday, general public to transcribe digitized documents for public consumption.  This further enforces the idea of every person can become an historian in their own right, and it is the job of the public historians to guide and help the public understand what they are learning from the artifacts.

At first, digital public history was simply conveying the information that was digitized for the public.  The sites were simpler, with less interactivity.  They slowly changed to include more interactivity with the public, as well as more interaction between institutions and public historians to present the information.  Today, they are representative of public and private institutions that collaborate on projects that are both in-person and online.  These projects allow for the public to be highly involved in the stories that are being crafted and presented to the public.  Digital public history will continue to evolve as technology continues to evolve, and it will be interesting to watch the collaboration between “trained” historians and the general public continue.

Quality digital public history work is demonstrated by solid resources, solid historiography, and the backing of legitimate institutions.  I wouldn’t trust a project that claims to have Holocaust resources but tries to present a narrative on the American Revolutionary War.  The correlation between the artifacts and the institution must be present.  The narrative must also not be too overtly biased, not allowing the public to come to their own opinions of the artifacts and the history being told.  Another good sign is the project linking to further resources, so that the readers can choose to continue their research, if they so please.  Including a section for educators, on how they can use the projects in assignments helps to further bring more people into the site and view the information.

Promising new directions in the field of digital public history include the collaborations between institutions, collaborations between historians and the general public, and further examples of in-person and digital exhibits.  As technology keeps changing, so does the field of digital public history.  Technology constantly adds more interactivity between users and the technology, and digital public history is working to join that.  That can be seen in projects that have applications for smart phones, which allow users to access a project in real-time, as they are accessing the real-life version.  That can also be seen in the projects that ask the public to help transcribe documents.  The field of public history is opening up from simply the academics of the past who shut themselves up in academia, and it is moving toward the idea that every man can become an historian, and it is the job of the public historians to help the public understand what they are seeing.

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