11. Lt. Dawes – What Have You Done? Public Historians and Shared Authority on the Web

Crowdsourcing the transcription of manuscripts is one of the many tools in the Digital History toolbox. Archives designate sites and provide a catalog of available manuscripts that registered users can transcribe for them. One of the challenges assigned to the Spring 2018 CCSU Digital History class was to experiment with a transcription task on the National Archives Citizen Archivist site.

Since I am fluent in mid-nineteenth century cursive writing, I sought out a handwritten records in the catalog and found “1869-Elliott, W L – File No. L385,” part of Record Group 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office 1762-1984, Series: Letters Received 1805-1889. Twenty-six of the 54 images in the file had already been transcribed. I first transcribed image 24 which I chose for its brevity (it being a description, used for filing purposes, of an inspection report of Fort Gratiot, MI July 26, 1869) to get a feel for how the process worked. Guided by both the Transcription Tips provided on the site but more by a review of transcriptions done on other images, it took very little time to complete the transcription including adding tags.

Since this first task wasn’t as daunting has I feared it would be, I went on to transcribe the previous image which was the last page of a report dated July 3, 1869 by Lt. Colonel W. E. Elliott to General L. H. Pelouze. And this was where the exercise became fun. This page of the report described the dereliction of duty of 1st Lieutenant William J. Dawes in leaving Fort Wilkins without “properly turning over the property of the Quarter Masters Dept.” Who was Lt. Dawes? I needed to know more about him.

Citizen Archivist project image 23 cropped
If there be any deficiencies in the account of Lieut. Dawes, they are chargeable to his neglect of duty.

A detour to Ancestry.com and Fold3 did not result in a huge amount of information but I did learn that William J. Dawes, a farmer in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, enlisted in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War and was mustered out at the rank of Captain of Company D. Unlike most of the citizen soldiers serving with state regiments during the War of the Rebellion, Dawes became “regular Army,” retiring to Milwaukee sometime before 1886.

Old Abe www.army.mil
“Old Abe”   Photo: http://www.army.mil

Although initially disappointed that the items available for transcription did not include records directly related to my own special interest in the Civil War, a further search of the 8th Wisconsin’s record revealed that they had as their mascot “Old Abe,” a bald eagle that served with them during the war and who had a more distinguished wartime service record than Capt. Dawes (read more about Old Abe at  the Heritage Section of the U. S. Army’s website).

Which then led me back home to Private Charles F. Taylor, a veteran from Co. B 8th Wisconsin who is one of “my” Hartford Civil War veterans.

From my brief encounter with the Citizen Archive, I would have to say that this project certainly contributes to the National Archives and Records Administration’s vision that “We will be known for cutting-edge access to extraordinary volumes of government information and unprecedented engagement to bring greater meaning to the American experience.” (emphasis mine)

It also proves Trevor Owens’ point that “crowdsourcing is better at digital collections than displaying digital collections.”

What crowdsourcing does, that most digital collection platforms fail to do, is offers an opportunity for someone to do something more than consume information. When done well, crowdsourcing offers us an opportunity to provide meaningful ways for individuals to engage with and contribute to public memory. Far from being an instrument which enables us to ultimately better deliver content to end users, crowdsourcing is the best way to actually engage our users in the fundamental reason that these digital collections exist in the first place.

I felt both of feeling of accomplishment and a sense of having meaningfully contributed to American history with this exercise. I hope to return to the Citizen Archivist project once this semester’s academic work is completed.

 

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10. Making History Resonate

I invite you to travel back in time to 1990 and let’s pretend that you’ve decided to buy a house. Your first step would be to look in your local newspaper, check out the local real estate ads and starting calling  each real estate company that has a property that looks appealing to you. And continue to do so until you found the right one.

Within a decade, this whole process was, dare I say, revolutionized by internet technology. In 1996, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) launched their public website Realtor.com which provided free information on properties for sale. By the year 2000, “connected” buyers went online first and started their home search on the World Wide Web.

When Realtor.com launched, a good number of the individual members of the NAR were less than pleased. Their greatest fear was that if all this information was “out there” for free, why would anyone need a realtor? But this fear proved unfounded as over 95% of the residential properties for sale in the United States are now available on Realtor.com and Realtors® are still very much a part of the buying and selling business.

In the short time I have been immersed in the academic history field and the study of Digital History, I have been wondering how many of the individual members of the scholarly history academy are facing the same fears that Realtors faced twenty years ago. If history is “free” and available to anyone, who needs historians?

I would argue that trained historians will continue to be needed but they have to come to terms with and embrace digital technology sooner rather than later if they want the profession and the academy to thrive. And to do so will require all historians to be, in some aspect, public historians.

In her 2013 Presidential Address to the American Journalism Historians Association, Kimberley Mangun challenged her colleagues to consider that it is the historian’s job to help the public find a passion for history. Knowing that history is relevant is not enough. History needs to resonate throughout the public, from student to senior, and people need to feel and embrace their connections with it. And reaching this audience, at this point in time, necessitates that the historians access the digital tools available. [1]

The audio transmission over the digital airwaves of podcast is one such digital tool that earbudshistorians can utilize. As an off-shoot of Apple’s iPod’s music downstreaming technology, podcasts are enjoying an impressive popularity that can be attributed, in part, to a decrease in screen time viewing and the rapidly increasing connectivity of audio devices in automobiles (as cars have essentially become computers on wheels). In parallel with the thriving industry of the audio book, podcasts provide a platform for historians to reach an audience with a vast array of demographics.

Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History is one example of how podcasting can be used to reach an extended history audience outside of the printed book and journal. Although having a focus on the scholarly, this podcast also has appeal to anyone with an interest in early American history. The podcast’s creator, millennial-historian Liz Covart (Ph. D. University of California-Davis 2011), is more eloquent than I on the need for history to broaden its reach:

I don’t think scholarship ends with you researching and writing your book and moving on to the next topic. I think it really ends with creating and cultivating public outreach with it, bringing your research to people outside the academy who are interested in it and then can use that information to learn about the past, figure out who they are, learn from the mistakes of the past and ultimately create a better future. [2]

Utilizing podcast technology need not be daunting to the historian especially in the university setting. Creating a podcast can be a great interdisciplinary effort , combining the skills and talents of the campus radio station (equipment) and schools of business (marketing your podcast) and performance (why not set your history to music? – it worked for Hamilton!). And when done successfully, podcasts can not only be monetized to cover production costs but can also bring in additional funding.

To be sure, getting history “out there” has barriers to overcome. When asked if podcasting was “real scholarship,” Liz Covart herself hesitated before answering in the affirmative. [3] And, ironically, her keynote address in January of this year to the American Historical Association “Is This Thing On? How History Podcasts Can, and Should, Change the Discipline” cannot be found in audio on internet.

Digital history should not be waiting for today’s students to take the lead. Historians need to broaden history’s audience today to insure that history still resonates in the future.

Notes:

[1] Kimberley Mangun, “Driving the Discussion from Relevance to Resonance: How Historians Can Inspire Passion for Place and People.” American Journanalism, 31, no. 1 (2014): 150-160.

[2] Liz Covart, interview with David Silkenat, American History Untucked, podcast audio, February 19, 2015, http://americanhistoryuntucked.blogspot.com/2015/02/american-history-untucked-015-liz-covart.html

[3] ibid.

9. Getting Heard in the Social Media Crowd

Media-Sosial-Pemasaran-Online
Photo: tulisbaca.com/

Social media offers both the most promising and the most challenging aspects of digital history. On the one hand, the proliferation of social sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, et al – supplies a seemingly limitless number of opportunities for historians to be heard. Instead of being limited to sending missives out from the “Ivory Tower” – be it monographs, articles in journals or conference presentations – the historian today can stand on a soapbox and shout his or her message into the crowd of social media users. And some of the crowd will stop to listen and some will retell the historian’s story to their friends and families (think Share and Retweet).

But here is the challenge. It isn’t just the one historian on one soapbox. At any given time there are millions of orators at the same place, at the same time trying to get their message heard. Some manage to be louder than the rest (@realDonaldTrump). But sometimes there are those in the crowd that look down the street, get a brief taste of the din and the cacophony and decide to take a different road to their destination.

Anyone using social media with a decided purpose, whether it be a politician, a business owner and an historian, needs to made a concerted effort to figure out who their best audience is going to be and on what social platform that audience is going to found at. Working in historic preservation in the Hartford area, I found a good outlet with Facebook working in tandem with my website. I’ve been able to cultivate a modest but growing following, especially after finding where my crowd was (Facebook Groups). And I’ve worked very hard to build me and my organization’s credibility with my online postings, especially concerning the facts surrounding Hartford’s architectural history. If you allow me a moment of self-congratulation, I’ve even been tagged in a few posts by people seeking out my opinion on a conversation.

The article in this week’s assignment on Instagram was inspiring. In using social media and digital platforms, it is easy to become hyper focused on measuring your success by how many followers you can gather up. The Columbus Museum of Art’s use of Instagram to turn users into exhibition contributors is nothing short of brilliant. Thinking in terms of the architectural walking tours I develop and lead, wouldn’t it be fun to somehow be able to put a virtual walking tour together and have self-guided participants post their experience on some social media platform?

Maybe there is a way for the social media crowd to come looking for me.

8. Digitization and Preservation

Reflect on this week’s readings.  What elements do you consider important for making a website attractive and functional?  Give examples of model websites.

Our History 511 readings this week from Cohen and Rozenweig’s Digital History  presented a mind-boggling array of topics and concerns and several concepts and ideas resonated with me.

In their chapter Collecting History Online, the recurring (and might I say historical) friction between the “old guard” and “new guard” insights and methods comes to light. Change is hard. It strikes me as ironic that some historians on one hand will lament the paucity of first person narratives for primary sources and then others criticize the “stream of consciousness” narratives deposited in on-line collection websites. Challenges and problems give rise to opportunities. With the foresight of history, historians would do well to curate the “average” man or woman’s contribution to the historic narrative in a way that will be of use to future scholars and do the work now to develop methods and scholarship that will enhance its future use.

Throughout my readings of Digital History, I have, time and again, taken the information presented and used it with my own work as the Web Goddess for the Hartford Preservation Alliance’s website. And, I might add, the timing of this course and its readings couldn’t be better given that I am in the midst of writing a technology grant for the organization. Our readings to date will certainly make this course’s students at least familiar with some important overall concepts of digitizing history and, as a result, better able to navigate the digital world in the future. My fellow students may end up working in large institutions were the day-to-day care and feeding of its digital presence is handled by specialized technicians. But having a core or even limited knowledge of the concepts involved will serve us well in guiding future work on a digital platform.

Regarding how much information to capture and have available in your digital collection or on your website, I have come across a problem with my own current work that is not addressed by Cohen and Rosenzweig. Their perspective is driven from a “more is better” position. And this is quite understandable, especially if the discussion revolves around curating a digital collection in its purest sense. But oftentimes, in the “real world,” digital collections are nested within a website that needs to provide different resources to many users. And in the case of the Hartford Preservation Alliance (HPA), having an easily accessible collection of information on a topic can lead to mission drift and a diversion of resources.

In the care and feeding of the HPA website, I systematically review the Google analytics for the site, including tracking what search words and topics most frequently bring visitors to our site. This data is then used to guide how and where our resources (essentially my time) are best utilized. If, for example, users are searching with some frequency for information regarding a specific building, I may make sure the information we are offering is robust and see if links from this page to other pages on our site could be added to lengthen the average users time spent (making the website “sticky”).

Consistently landing in the top ten list of search words is “Coltsville.” Indeed, when you search “Coltsville Hartford” on Google today, an HPA page comes in third in the search result.

Coltsville Google search

I should be quite pleased with myself anytime our website ends up that far up in a Google search return. Unfortunately, this success has also created a problem. While HPA was a leading voice in advocating for the creation of the Coltsville Historic National Park , we are not involved with the running of the park nor do we run any of its programs. And when the weather is warm (and particularly after the park receives attention in the local media), we end up spending time fielding questions from the public about visiting the park, including the dates and times of walking tours. And while we are always pleased when one of Hartford’s national landmark sites garners attention, we, as a non-profit, need to be mindful of how our limited resources are allocated.

As to the second part of our assignment –  what elements to you consider important for making a website attractive and functional?  – I must regret to inform that I have, at my advanced age, become a cross between a princess and a curmudgeon when using and analyzing websites. I want what I want when I want it (princess) and become annoyed when what I’m searching for doesn’t appear instantly in the place I expect to find it (curmudgeon). And this may relate back to my relative (if limited) expertise in utilizing SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I’ll take functional over attractive any day (pretty is as pretty does). First and foremost, I don’t want information I’m searching for – which, in my usage, inevitably involves something that is core to the mission of the organization whose website I am visiting – to be buried in categories or on pages whose labels or tags are seemingly unrelated.

Whining over.

The Collaborative Web: Wikipedia

Analyze three related Wikipedia pages (they can be on WWI or a subject of your choice).  Discuss the debates that are raised in their “talk” sections. Optional: experiment with editing or creating a Wikipedia entry.

lafayette-statue-lafayette-circle.jpg
Lafayette Statue (Photo: Mary A. Falvey)

The original plan for this post was to create a Wikipedia article on the Paul Weyland Bartlett statue of the Marquis de Lafayette located across from the south entrance of the Connecticut Capitol Building in Hartford. Easier said than done. Contributors  must pass through  a rite of passage  – have an account that is four days old and make at least ten edits – to create full articles (as opposed to draft articles)  for the Wikipedia store of knowledge.

On to Plan B.

Since my HIST 511 Digital History project will be centered on the theme of  women in World War I, I searched for articles related to this topic and more specifically, to subjects that are planned for my digital collection. From a wide array of articles, I culled from my search the subjects of knitting, the Hello Girls, and the general subject of Women in World War I.

Although thousands of women, men and children were engaged in knitting articles of clothing for the troops during World War I, the only mention of this topic is a brief, three sentence section within the History of Knitting article. Although it provides a vast body of knowledge, everything you need to know about everything is not located in Wikepedia.

5105 French Hello Girls in Hartford Training for Overseas Service RG 69 2 Crocker Collection Folder French Telephone Girls compressed
French Hello Girls in Hartford Training for Overseas Service (Photo: Connecticut State Library RG 69:2 Crocker Collection, Folder: French Telephone Girls)

Searching for an article about the Hello Girls (formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit) yielded more satisfying results. While certainly not an exhaustive entry on the topic, this article provides a good, albeit brief, overview of the subject with credible footnotes and a reference to further reading. Since created on January 23, 2010 it has received relatively few edits and only two contributions to the Talk section, both involving requests for a review of edits.

Women in World War I, although biased towards the perspective of the United Kingdom, contains links to articles for many but not all of the combatant countries.  Interestingly, this article was recommended for deletion within six weeks of its creation. The debate over whether to keep or delete the article brought forth two interesting aspects of the Wikipedia culture.

In the first place, the procedure to be followed for an article’s deletion demonstrates the importance of the community collaborative in the world of Wikipedia. Debates to keep or delete are open for a week and the majority opinion prevails.

Secondly, the Wikipedia editing policy that Wikipedia is a work in progress: perfection is not required (WP:Imperfect) was emphasized during the discussion (although not a policy embraced by all the debate participants). The topic itself was deemed worthy of inclusion and preservation, and the hope was expressed that it would, at some later date, be added to and improved upon (which it was).  Those debating the accuracy and veracity of Wikipedia articles need to be cognizant of this as do the end users.

And who knows? If I do someday create an account, an expanded history of knitting during the First World War or the history of the Hartford Lafayette statue may join the Wikipedia.

 

Words & Music: A Comparative Review of Two Omeka Sites

 

The Lomax Kentucky Recording and Stark & Subtle Division: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston are two websites built on Omeka platforms and featured on omeka.net’s Showcase page. Both sites make good use of some of Omeka’s core offerings including the ability to access the sites from different devices (desktop/laptop, smart phone, tablet), search functions, the ability to browse exhibits and collections from different subject groups (such as viewing content by collection or by items), and the invitation to contribute content. Both also illustrate an important function that digital history can provide – the ability to present and display objects (whether they be documents, images, audio or film) to a broad audience who may never have the chance to view or experience them. Unlike exhibits displayed in bricks and mortar sites, these collections have the potential of being permanently (and perpetually) on display and continuously expanded.

Lomax Kentucky Recording provides an excellent demonstration of how digital history platforms and technologies can be utilized to create collaborations between institutions and archives to create exhibits. Created by the Berea College Special Collections & Archives, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and the Association for Cultural Equity, it showcases the folk song recordings made during the 1930’s by John A. Lomax, his son Alan and his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, a collaborator of John Lomax. The ability to offer digitized recordings over the internet makes collections such as these available to international audiences. The advancement of digital technology has fulfilled Alan Lomax’s desire that “folksongs should not be buried in libraries as they are in Washington and in universities over the country.” [1]

The Lomax Kentucky Recording site could offer several things to make the user experience more rewarding. More links embedded within the site would allow the collection visitor more flexibility and ease to following a particular line of interest. For example, links from the biographical page on Aunt Molly Jackson to references about her in the site’s Annotated Bibliography would be a good cross reference.

Secondly, the lack of transcriptions of lyrics limits the experience of the listener. A combination of poor sound quality and diction and the local dialect and accents of the artists renders prevents a true appreciation of the poetry and significance of many of these recordings. The myriad of stories which this site is capable of making available is lost without the ability to know and comprehend the words.

Stark & Subtle Divisions: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston provides the visitor with collections based on written essays with selected images and primary documents about the history of segregation in Boston. It provides embedded links that let the end user travel with ease to other reference points within the site. It is an example of how digital platforms can be used to present the collaborative work of a team of individuals (in this case, the students of a “Transforming Archives in a Digital Age” class at UMass Boston).

There are a couple of technical points that prevent a richer and more satisfying view of the exhibits. The relatively small font display for the exhibit essays may deter some visitors (although this problem is not present when viewing on a smart phone where the font is made larger). Another problem is presenting multi-page documents as individual, high resolution Joint Photographic Experts Group (jpeg) files. A sampling of images was slow to download which can cause frustration for the viewer and possibly lead to them exiting the site. Forcing the reader to go back and forth to load individual pages can also be frustrating.  Formatting that allows the user to read the documents in toto (such as creating a Portable Document Format file) can improve the site’s user experience thereby encouraging more items to be viewed (and read) and most likely resulting in a longer visitor stay on the site.

Sources:

[1] http://lomaxky.omeka.net/about accessed February 12 2018

Digital Collections, Copyright, and Intellectual Property

Reflections on the week’s materials. In particular consider the question raised by Roy Rosenzweig about whether scholarship should be free.

Our readings for this week provided a good primer on copyright, public domain and fair use. It was fun to learn that Connecticut passed the first copyright law in 1783 – thank you, Daniel Webster, for another Connecticut first. And how opportune that the lyrics of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was just placed into the public domain.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/581343567/581343568

Cohen & Rosenzweig’s straight forward chart provides a useful reference for researchers. For historians worried about violating copyright laws, the authors read this week seem to advise that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission – and to boldly go where other historians have not to broaden the realm of fair use.

Roy Rosenzweig, in his Perspectives on History article “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” advocates for a non-commercial “Creative Commons” of knowledge. This same position is also forwarded in his Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (with co-author Daniel J. Cohen), and Paul S. Piper’s “The Library’s Future Is Digital.”

Piper obliquely touches on the concern for sustainability when introducing his description and discussion of the HathiTrust and the Digital Public Library of America. The non-profit and private institutions that would be the logical partners for creating freely accessible open libraries operate on finite monetary resources. Foundation grants are relatively easy to obtain for start-up costs for increasing capacity and beginning new programs. These same sources of support are usually less inclined to support on-going operational costs. Given that these institutions will always have a finite amount of funds at their disposal, the addition of another program to operate might necessitate a reduction in programs or services in other areas or the scaling back of the original project.

Rosenzweig in “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” poses the argument that students and avocational historians “pick up ‘junk’ on the Internet but they don’t adequately consider that the best online scholarship is often only available to paying subscribers.” To use this argument to justify developing new, universally accessible libraries requires further study on at least several points. Firstly, do a sufficient number of students and/or amateur historians lack access to scholarly resources to justify the expense of creating new open libraries? And who would quantify ‘sufficient’? In Connecticut, for example, students and anyone in possession of a library card issued from a Connecticut library has access to researchIT CT, an online gateway to a myriad of databases and resources. If such a service already exists and students and the public are still deferring to the “dreaded” Wikipedia, how will a different online resource become known and used?

Secondly, can or will the search capabilities of an alternative, public commons be engineered to take into account the skill set of the user? Will the typical student preparing a History Day project – one of the potential users highlighted by Rosenzweig as a reason for such a new library – be able to sift through all the results of a search to find scholarly articles and books that not only directly apply to their topic but are understandable and digestible at a primary, middle and high school level? Or will the search results so overwhelm the user that they retreat back to “junk?”