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.