As the spring semester draws to a close this week, I can safely say that I gained a lot from Loyola’s course in Public History and New Media. Although I began the class with some prior experience in both public history and digital media, this was my first sustained opportunity to explore how the two disciplines can support, enrich, and critique one another in combined projects. History’s emphasis on preserving and learning from the past offers a useful counterpoint to the valorization of the “new” in New Media, and vice versa, so that even as digital technologies provide novel ways to give meaning and share access to history, the methods of historians can help to better evaluate and preserve these new media projects.
Among the many helpful readings this semester, Gitelman and Pingree’s New Media: 1740-1915stood out for providing a historical perspective on new media. The essays in their collection helped show that while new media certainly encourage new ways of seeing and interacting with the world, our own much-hyped mobile world wide web is only the latest iteration in a centuries-long cycle of new inventions. From zograscopes and telegraphs to telephones and cinema, the media landscape has been constantly in flux since well before the digital era. Bryan Alexander’s book TheNew Digital Storytelling complemented these ideas by showing how digital technologies can utilize time-tested storytelling techniques to create meaningful narratives. As public historians, we can use these insights to approach the media innovations of today and tomorrow as new tools in an ever-shifting storytelling repertoire rather than as exaggerated panaceas or existential threats.
Our class readings and discussions of participatory media were also useful for detailing specific examples and technologies that support the public history concept of “shared authority.” As historians have worked to open opportunities for the public to share in interpreting and authoring history, Web 2.0 has offered many templates for projects where users become authors — whether in crafting personal profiles at a social media site, contributing to a global store of knowledge like Wikipedia, or collaboratively coding open source software at sites such as GitHub. Public Historians can learn from these successful participatory projects to build platforms and exhibits that don’t simply present our ideas to a passive audience, but give users authority to reuse, mix, share, and build upon historical resources while developing their own lasting skills at interpreting and analyzing history. Creating these platforms is no small endeavor, and I’d like to learn more about the usability studies and visitor analytics that can help make these projects useful and track their effectiveness.
Finally, class this semester also helped me build my own practical knowledge and gain experience working with new media tools. While I’ve used Omeka once before for an online collection, the class online exhibit project gave me the opportunity to learn to use plugins like Neatline that add a whole new interactive dimension to Omeka’s exhibits. Guest speaker Adam Strohm’s presentation helped showcase the possibilities of Neatline in IIT’s Building History exhibit while also giving a useful lesson in good metadata practices that are crucial to making a project sustainable and useful into the future. Similarly, speaker Lori Felker‘s introduction to some of the ins and outs of video production and editing was highly informative to me as I’ve done little work on my own involving video. I’m sure these lessons will stick with me and I look forward to working more with public history and new media in the future.
The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa coordinates an impressive and growing range of digital projects. In addition to hosting collections ranging from Historic Iowa Children’s Diaries in the Iowa Digital Library to records of Social Justice campaigns undergoing crowd-sourced transcription at DIY History, the studio also works to support students and faculty with their own digital humanities scholarship from project inception to ultimate publication or archiving. The studio’s websites generally have up-to-date interfaces, links, and aesthetics, and its blog posts monthly or bimonthly updates on its ongoing activity. Is all this work sustainable?
In a presentation last December, University of Iowa Library staff John Culshaw, Paul Soderdahl, and Tom Keegan described how the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio was formed in 2015 through the organizational merger of previously distinct digital projects on campus, building them into a sustainable program under the administration of the university library. Consolidation brought together a sufficient staff and budget to provide ongoing dedicated support to digital humanities work. According to the presenters, the studio:
gains long-term sustainability by cultivating inter-dependencies with other library operations and becomes woven into the fabric of the institution. Not having to obsess about re-upping for new funding annually, the Studio can focus on whatever strategic priorities are in the institution’s long-terms interests.
Iowa’s Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio exhibits several of the important sustainability factors identified in the 2013 report Searching For Sustainability by Ithaka S+R and the Association of Research Libraries. Some of these factors include “dedicated leadership,” “managing costs,” “aligning with the host institution’s missions,” “identifying diverse sources of funding,” and “relying on an established technical platform.” The consolidation of projects within a single unit of the University Library provides dedicated leadership to oversee the institution’s digital projects, while also helping to manage costs by reducing administrative duplication. As part of the library, the studio uses established technical platforms such as CONTENTdm and Omeka to host its online resources. Finally, the studio also helps student and faculty scholars identify diverse sources of funding for new initiatives, maintaining an online list of partner organizations and external funding opportunities that researchers at the studio can seek to support their projects. Only time will tell if the University of Iowa’s new digital studio maintains its sustainability in the years ahead, but the program’s current organization and strategy look primed for a promising future.
This semester I’ve been working with my Loyola colleagues Amber and Kyle to develop an online exhibit about the life and death of Jean Lalime. Lalime is often billed as “Chicago’s First Murder Victim.” He was a French-Canadian trader who worked in early Chicago as an interpreter between U.S. Troops at Fort Dearborn and the Potawatomi Nation until 1812, when he was killed by rival trader John Kinzie. Later in the 19th century, Lalime’s bones were collected by the Chicago Historical Society, which still holds them today.
In our exhibit, we tell the story of both Lalime’s life and the persistent curiosity about his death that led to his body becoming a museum piece. After much discussion about themes that could unite the many uncertain strands of this story, we decided to emphasize the theme that Jean Lalime is a person who has not rested. Instead, his story is filled with motion, as Lalime traveled far in life and repeatedly in death as his body was buried, reburied, exhumed, and exhibited as a museum relic. During his life, Lalime not only moved from Quebec to Chicago and made long journeys as a fur trader, he also moved between cultures as an interpreter fluent in French, English, and Potawatomi. After his death, Lalime’s bones were moved about Chicago while interpretations of his death moved between claims of cold-blooded murder and Kinzie’s self-defense. By the end of our story, historians and collectors gradually moved to reconsider the display of human remains like Lalime’s bones in museums.
Our exhibit will illustrate the ways that Lalime has not rested using an interactive map that plots Lalime’s physical movement in life and death while relating his changing position in space to the cultural and intellectual movements that have surrounded him. Links will connect the map to significant primary source documents and images that shed further light on his story.
We hope that our exhibit will appeal to multiple audiences. For Chicagoans with a general interest in local history, Lalime’s murder remains not only a vivid tale from the city’s early past, but an example of the cultural tensions during the region’s transition from Potawatomi to United States control. The exhibit may also speak to our peers in public history by presenting a long case study of the changing attitudes toward the care and disposition of human remains in museums. Social media buttons for sharing, linking, or commenting on the exhibit may help promote the story and spark discussion about Lalime as the Chicago History Museum considers how to respectfully put his body to rest.
Videos enrich the modality of online exhibits by adding movement, tempo, and sound to accompany still images and text. The Culinary Curiosityexhibition website hosted by Kendall College in Chicago offers a good example of how videos can communicate knowledge that would be difficult to convey with still media alone. Launched in 2010, Culinary Curiosity showcases a range of historic culinary tools to tell the story of change in food processing technologies since the nineteenth century. Videos at the site demonstrate the use of old or obscure kitchen gadgets (like this universal mayonnaise mixer) whose inner workings could otherwise be difficult to recognize.
Although the videos at Culinary Curiosity are by no means big-budget productions, they use several techniques to convey information effectively. Most videos feature collection donor Mel Mickevic along with a representative of Kendall College or the exhibition curator, using an interview format slightly reminiscent of the popular television series Antiques Roadshow to generate dialog about each object’s history and function. Changing close up shots focus attention on the object elements and details that come up in conversation. Most crucially, videos show the culinary tools in motion, demonstrating how each piece is used and how its components interact. Finally, the videos are offered in short segments — usually just one to five minutes — allowing visitors to engage with the site at their own pace without needing to reserve time for a single long film.
Videos are not the only feature that makes Culinary Curiosity a successful online exhibition. Each object is also displayed with essential metadata, concise but well-written text descriptions, and zoom-able still images. The website provides users multiple ways to browse items, both by thematic display category and by culinary technique. The site even features a quiz allowing users to test their new knowledge after viewing the exhibition.
Despite its many effective elements, Culinary Curiosity does show its age in a few places and leave room for improvement in others. Although well designed for desktops and laptops, the site does not adjust responsively to fit mobile devices — a greater concern now than when it launched in 2010. A slightly larger font size would make text more readable throughout the site, especially on small screens. In addition, the home page consists of nothing but a slideshow of images that does little to guide users toward other parts of the site. It might be more useful to use the current View Exhibit page as the primary home page for the site.
The videos at Culinary Curiosity could also benefit from a few improvements. A few videos at the site feature multiple objects, such as one covering an asparagus cutter-buncher, a magic marmalade cutter, and a stringbean cutter. Videos like this could be cut into segments or at least linked to at different start times for each item, so that viewers can jump directly to each object. Unfortunately, the videos at the site require users to have a proprietary browser plugin, Adobe Flash, which is steadily approaching obsolescence and may make the clips inaccessible to users of certain mobile devices and operating systems. HTML5 video would provide a more modern, plugin-free video technology for current and forthcoming devices. Finally, adding subtitles or transcripts to the videos, while labor intensive, would make the site more accessible to users with disabilities and more easily searchable for researchers.
Overall, regardless of a few weaknesses showing the need for maintenance to keep up with evolving web technologies, Culinary Curiosity is an excellent example of how online history exhibits can utilize relatively simple video productions to add new dimensions of motion, demonstration, and meaning to otherwise static collections of objects.
In Chapter 9 of his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander considered the possibilities for mobile devices like smartphones, e-readers, and tablets as perhaps “the ultimate digital storytelling device.” Mobile phones, in particular, have become “the most popular computing platform in the world” (p139). Not only have phones made digital resources available to more people around the globe than larger more expensive computers, they’ve also made digital access a more constant part of everyday life for their owners. When creating or adapting stories for mobile devices, however, digital storytellers like historians need to make the most of the platform’s strengths and limitations.
The defining characteristics of mobile devices are their portability, facilitated by small size, and their wireless network connections. Together these attributes allow for “ubiquitous computing,” but they also necessitate a small screen and simplified user interface compared to a desktop or laptop. Rather than regarding these factors as obstacles to effective storytelling, Alexander argues that they make familiar digital stories, whether in the form of games, social media, or texts, “accelerated, amplified, and somewhat mutated” (p142). Mobile storytellers need to streamline visual design and menus to make the most of limited screen space while also considering how on-the-go use of mobile devices might require delivering stories in a more fast-paced or bite-sized format.
Alexander considered different means of packaging and delivering stories for mobile devices, either as apps or mobile-optimized websites. I find websites the more accessible delivery format. It is true that apps can allow advanced features or offline functionality that are hard to implement in a website, but they must also be installed before use, a barrier to casual on-the-go engagement. Furthermore, apps are platform-specific, so developers have to create multiple apps if they hope to reach users of many kinds of devices. Mobile-optimized websites, however, can be accessed immediately with the default browser on just about any computing platform and can provide much of the same storytelling capability of an app.
Metadata is critical for organizing archival and museum collections. It not only provides fundamental facts for researchers like the dates, dimensions, and creators of objects, but can also make resources more discoverable by providing search terms or multiple ways to sort and browse through items in an online database. The role of metadata as part of an interpretive exhibit is more ambiguous, however. While detailed metadata about exhibit items should be made available, incorporating it prominently into an exhibit can create large, crowded labels that distract from the exhibit narrative. Furthermore, whereas historical exhibits often select and juxtapose objects to reveal a shared theme or context, museum metadata consists of information about artifacts as solitary pieces, potentially disrupting an exhibit’s effort to emphasize context and relationships.
The online exhibits at Recollection Wisconsin achieve an ideal balance between making rich metadata available for those who want it without interrupting their exhibits’ narrative flow. The Exploring Effigy Mounds exhibit, for example, showcases photographs and documents about mounds from collections around Wisconsin while embedding them within a succinct narrative about the origins, destruction, and protection of the monumental earthworks built by indigenous people. A caption below each object gives its creator, date, and current owner in a concise format that does not distract from the primary exhibit text. Viewers can still access more detailed metadata, however, because each object is hyperlinked to its corresponding database page at the repository that owns the item. The database page provides full catalog metadata including dimensions, physical description, rights, and other information not included in the exhibit captions. Researchers can also search these databases individually or all together via Recollection Wisconsin’s unified search engine to find additional related objects not shown in the exhibit itself.
A potential downside to the exhibits at Recollection Wisconsin is that because the databases holding metadata are provided by many different repositories, they could conceivably provide data in inconsistent formats or with varied levels of description. In the Exploring Effigy Mounds exhibit, this is not really a problem, because each participating repository uses the same database system, ContentDM, and a mostly common set of metadata fields. An exhibit that showcased items from competing databases with multiple metadata standards like Dublin Core, CDWA, EAD, and MARC, however, might make it more difficult for researchers to compare specific details about the exhibit items. Another potential issue with linking to the metadata at another repository is that if that institution changes or updates its database system, it could potentially change the URL of the item description and break the exhibit’s hyperlinks, requiring vigilant maintenance by the exhibit host.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum’s online exhibits take a different approach to metadata that is adequate, if a bit less successful. Although the Wisconsin Historical Society hosts several collection databases with rich metadata — including many of the databases linked from Recollection Wisconsin — the Wisconsin Historical Museum does not link all of its own online exhibits to the society’s databases. Instead, in exhibits like From Shell to Symbol: Art of the Ethnic Easter Egg, basic metadata such as the date, creator, and object number is displayed only in captions. As at “Exploring Effigy Mounds,” these captions are an unobtrusive way to label items with their most important metadata. The “From Shell to Symbol” exhibit even succeeds at incorporating some of these basic facts in its exhibition narrative in a seamless, contextualized way. The drawback, however, is that no more detailed information is immediately available to researchers. Facts like dimensions, materials, and donors are unavailable unless they happen to be mentioned in the interpretive labels. Furthermore, the display of basic metadata in captions is not standardized — some pages of the Ethnic Easter Egg exhibit include the creator and date of objects in interpretive text but not individual captions, while others show this information in captions only after an image is clicked. These are minor issues, and the exhibit still provides visitors the most crucial metadata in one place or another, but linking the exhibit to database entries with fuller metadata for each item would provide a more consistent gateway for research — albeit perhaps at the expense of more staff time in entering data.
For my group’s project in Public History New Media at Loyola this semester, we’ll be using Omeka to build an online collection and exhibit. Omeka provides tools to create individual item pages with detailed metadata as well as narrative exhibits that showcase selected items together with interpretive text. As a result, we’ll be able to create exhibits that that link to items with detailed, consistent metadata hosted on our own site — allowing viewers to either follow the flow of the exhibit or click away to find detailed information and search for objects according to their own interests.
In Digital History, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig wrote that the growth of “the history web” has been driven as much by “grassroots historians” as by formal history institutions or credentialed professionals. Archive Team serves as an organizational website for some of this grassroots history, exposing both its promises and flaws. Describing itself as “a loose collective of rogue archivists, programmers, writers and loudmouths dedicated to saving our digital heritage,” the site provides advice, software tools, and coordination for crowd-based campaigns to archive born-digital history such as websites and social media communities that are threatened with deletion.
Archive Team was founded in January 2009 by Jason Scott in response to the closure of a number of commercial online communities like AOL Hometown that held irreplaceable user-contributed material. Scott later described creating the project “out of anger and a feeling of powerlessness, this feeling that we were letting companies decide for us what was going to survive and what was going to die.” Rather than host digital archives itself, Archive Team offers, in Scott’s words, “a really profane, rough and tumble version of a library sciences convention” comprising a wiki where volunteers can keep track of websites threatened with closure and coordinate efforts to download backups of these sites and their content before they disappear. The resulting backups are generally uploaded to the Internet Archive or other third-party repositories that make them available to the public.
Soon after Archive Team launched, Yahoo! announced in 2009 that it would be closing GeoCities and deleting the 38 million websites its users had created there since 1994. In response, Archive Team’s volunteers set out to download as many Geocities sites as possible and released them publicly on bittorrent, gaining significant publicity for the project. Since then, the growing team has also preserved parts of other shuttered or threatened sites including Friendster, Tabblo, Posterous, Google Reader, Genealogy.com, and many others.
Although Archive Team’s early projects preserved data with little standardization and demanded a fair amount of technical expertise and communication between volunteers, it has made major improvements on both counts. Volunteers today can contribute their internet bandwidth to preserve threatened websites just by downloading VirtualBox and the Archive Team Warrior, which takes care of automatically coordinating tasks with other users and downloading and processing data for Archive Team’s ongoing preservation projects. Archive Team also now uses the WARC format for its archival files, ensuring that metadata and provenance are recorded along with preserved digital files.
Despite its improved usability and data-standardization, Archive Team remains a visibly grassroots project driven by what Scott called its “three virtues: rage, paranoia, and kleptomania” toward commercial web providers who have sometimes been irresponsible stewards of their user-contributed content. The Archive Team wiki’s irreverent tone and somewhat disorganized structure may not be inviting to all volunteers. Furthermore, the group’s aggressive stance towards downloading copyrighted or private material without permission have sometimes caused backlash. On the other hand, the site’s willingness to work outside institutional norms have given it the agility to preserve material quickly in the rapidly shifting online landscape. The group’s success in preserving digital memories has garnered awards and praise from web users who would have otherwise lost their own family photos and online scrapbooks to website closures. As Scott explained, “this is why we do it: because these people had their history taken away.” Hopefully as the Archive Team matures it can better address issues of privacy and civility while continuing to empower communities to preserve their online heritage for current and future generations.
Digitization makes it easy to crop, combine, or touch up historic images before putting them on exhibit. There are many tools for this job, with Adobe Photoshop as the name brand professional choice. For my own projects, however, I usually prefer another app: GIMP (The GNU Image Manipulation Program), which is free, open source, and offers all the features I need even though it isn’t as powerful as Adobe’s product. Below I look at a couple examples of how either tool can be used to prepare images for exhibit.
Collaging and Layering 2D Images for Display
For my class project this semester, I have the opportunity to use Photoshop in the campus computer lab while preparing a new web exhibit on early Chicago history. Most or all of the materials for this exhibit will be two dimensional historic images or documents, many of which are black and white or grayscale, like the following images that my classmate Kyle Mathers uncovered.
One way to liven up these gray images while also situating them in more historical context might be to create a collage layering them over a more colorful background, like this painting of Kinize’s House and Fort Dearborn as they might have looked around 1812.
Using just a few quick steps in Photoshop, for instance — selecting image excerpts with the “Magnetic Lasso” and “Magic Wand” tools, resizing and layering them into place, and adding a slight drop shadow — I was able to create a collage-like scene that put Kinzie’s portrait and signature into the scenery of early Chicago. The result certainly has more color and depth than the portrait alone, but the collage effect is a bit tacky for my tastes. What do you think? Is the more immersive image worth losing the integrity of the original items? What role might collage serve for history exhibits?
Making 3D Artifacts Stand Out in 2D Photographs
Another challenge of web exhibits is that two dimensional screen images can never fully capture the depth and texture of three dimensional museum objects. I don’t know yet if I’ll use any 3D artifacts for my exhibit this semester, but in my role as curatorial assistant to the Crossings & Dwellings Exhibition at LUMA in 2014, I took photos of several exhibit objects and used GIMP to try to pull these artifacts to the foreground of flat images. The effect is deliberately much more subtle than the collage above — I wanted the photos to remain naturalistic while spotlighting their primary subjects.
Simply by blurring the background a bit, adjusting the contrast, and using semi-transparient gradients to focus the lighting, I was able to make artifacts like a Gold Dalmatic acquired for Holy Family Parish in Chicago in the 1870s and a funeral cope at the Shrine of St. Ferdinand made by St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in about 1840 stand out more their from busy, colorful backgrounds.
Distributed social networks are not well-known, but their tumultuous history offers a range of opportunities and challenges to public historians on the web. Distributed networks, such as GNU Social, Diaspora*, or Friendica, exist as an alternatives to more popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, which are centralized networks. Each centralized network exists on a single website, owned and controlled by a single business with whom all users of the network must register accounts. Distributed social networks, by contrast, run on free community-built software that can power any number of different access points. This allows users to join the network from their choice of sign-on providers, or even to access the network by creating a server of their own, without relying on a single centralized authority.
Public historians can learn from both the aspirations and failures of distributed social networks. For historians who aim to collect digital history, these fragmented, privacy-conscious networks pose a dilemma about how to preserve online communications while respecting user privacy. For museums and cultural institutions who aim to build sociability into online exhibits and collections, distributed networks offer an ethical model for open development, interoperability, and privacy protection — as well as case studies in the difficulty of attracting engaged users.
History of Distributed Networks: GNU Social, Diaspora*, Friendica
Distributed social networks began to appear around 2008-2010 in response to fears that centralized networks threatened their users’ privacy and autonomy. The companies that own centralized networks like Facebook or Twitter dictate lengthy terms of service that can change at any time, freely utilize users’ data to sell advertising, and create a single point of failure giving users little recourse if the company suspends an account, merges into another company, or goes out of business. Distributed networks promise to give users the ability to access a network without being locked into a single company’s product — just as a telephone user with AT&T can call someone with Verizon, or a Yahoo! Mail user can send a letter to a friend at Gmail. This empowers distributed network users to choose the provider whose terms they like best, to switch providers while still being able to socialize with the same contacts, and even to set up their own service for fine-grained control over their personal data.
Online exhibitions and digitized collections provide many new ways to collect, author, and share history. Planning these digital projects involves many considerations, some new, but most familiar. Digital history is still history, after all, and I would argue the best digital projects follow many of the same planning procedures as analog ones, even if specifics vary.
Putting Mission First
The first step for any public history project, even before considering technology, should be to determine the project’s purpose and set out its intended audiences and outcomes. What is the theme of an exhibition? Is digitization intended for preservation, accessibility, research, or to provide resources for educational materials? How does the project fit with the institutional mission?
These are basic questions, but it is vital that digital history projects stay focused on real human outcomes. When museums and archives rush toward a new technology without having a clear idea of how it furthers their mission, the “gee whiz” impact of new media and the dictates of the platform can distract from these institutions’ core historical materials and programs. Technology should be a tool to support the institutional mission and project goals, not an objective in itself.