Digital Public History

A Right to the City Digital Exhibit

Built using ArcGIS StoryMaps for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

I am excited to share that my internship work creating a digital exhibit using ArcGIS StoryMaps for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is finally live! Check out A Right to the City and learn about ordinary Washingtonians who shaped and reshaped their city in extraordinary ways.

Internship Post #7

After reading a variety of sources outlining the push and pull between those in academia doing “serious humanities” and those doing “serious digital analysis,” one of our first assignments in the program was to provide a definition of digital public humanities (DPH). I likened DPH to an estuary where the fresh and ocean water comingle to create a distinct ecosystem, one that is known for being one of the great nurseries of the natural world. Having worked on this internship for almost a year, the estuary analogy remains appropriate for my experience working at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and not simply because the Anacostia River, for which the neighborhood and museum are named is, in fact, an estuary.

Digital public humanities often blurs the lines for traditional methods of academic output that can be unfamiliar for those working in more classical modes of research and presentation.  However, it is a unique space that nurtures not only new methods of presentation, but also new tools made widely available to a growing body of users.

Initially, the desire of the museum staff was to create some lesson plans to go along with the exhibit that could be published on the museum web site.  When I first mentioned creating a digital exhibit both to serve as an educational platform and to preserve public access to A Right to the City, museum staff were concerned about the feasibility of creating a digital project while maintaining the high academic standards of the exhibit in a timely manner. 

In the introductory course, one of our final assignments was to consider how Digital Harlem was not meant to be a construct to present a conclusion akin to a dissertation but rather to be a tool to invite historical inquiry in a way that would not be possible using traditional methods.  Clearly, getting ARTTC into digital format and out to the public would require using the right tool, and I began to consider using StoryMaps

Though mapping is foundational to both Digital Harlem and StoryMaps, each uses that computational power for a different purpose – making them very different tools.  StoryMaps seemed like the right presentation tool to take ARTTC to the digital public, to enhance the exhibit content through its mapping capabilities and to deliver the project in a way that is manageable to museum and SI staff.

However, I did have some difficulties with StoryMaps as an academic presentation tool because it is limited in its ability to provide captions across all content blocks, something critical in designing a museum exhibit.  I created a work-around for it in my project; however, StoryMaps designers should build this functionality as a more intuitive feature to meet the needs of academia, especially for smaller museums like ACM that have limited resources in developing digital content. This highlights the push and pull between the various constituencies in DPH and the need for greater communication to address these issues. (Update as of June 2020: The StoryMaps team was and continues to be responsive to feedback, and these issues have been resolved. The development team is responsive to feedback as new features and capabilities are unrolled.)

Greater communication is a critical need in the DPH community.  The tools are out there, but many operating in more traditional methods are unaware of their existence.  For example, the concept of Digital Harlem might be of use to the work around urban history in Washington DC to reach new conclusions or to visualize DC history in a new way.

Looking ahead to the promise of digital public humanities, it is increasingly important to promote the availability of easy-to-use yet powerful tools like StoryMaps in order to place them into the hands of academicians. “Doing digital humanities” means making the tools more accessible to all – to museum professionals, to scientists (both computer and natural), to curriculum specialists, to educators and to students who have knowledge and ideas to share and information to gather. It is equally important to begin to talk about digital public humanities more broadly, inside academia and out, so that the public understands new possibilities of visualizing and presenting information, like the Digital Harlem project, in order to better engage and to better understand the communities and the world around us.

Internship Post #6

The course in Digital Public History has been particularly helpful in developing the educational plan for A Right to the City and the accompanying digital exhibit.  Early in the course, Dr. Whisnant encouraged each of us to consider our target audience before beginning any project.  Initially, the target audience for lesson plan development was students in the DC area.  After reviewing DCPS curriculum standards, teachers and students in 12th grade government classes emerged as the clear front runner for the target audience.  Some museum staff pushed for including charter schools in the mix as well, but eventually the interim museum director agreed that keeping the primary audience in sharp focus was best.  By homing in on DCPS Government classes, the education plan had the best chance for leveraging access to larger number of students with one targeted plan.  While working with charter schools is also a noble goal, the diversity of their curricular goals and learner ages would make it difficult to deliver a useful universal lesson plan for these schools.  The partnership with DCPS would also provide a clearer path toward publishing the educational materials through DCPS curriculum guides once the project is complete. This was also another focus of the course in Digital Public History – making sure to have a plan in place for promoting the project once it is produced.

The second takeaway from the DPH course was the importance of story-boarding a project in advance of building it.  I have had more challenges with this aspect of project development because the digital exhibit I am creating was not initially designed with a digital presence in mind.  Furthermore, Storymaps has some unique constraints in terms of layout, especially in the BETA version, making the transformation complicated in some ways.  The museum staff seems to be pleased with Storymaps as a platform, and they have mentioned using it as the digital platform for future exhibits.  As such, my recommendation to them would be to take these considerations into mind when writing introduction texts and saving images in a Storymap friendly format from the beginning.

Finally, I have found that ESRI/ArcGIS seems to be much more of an industry standard when it comes to mapping.  I appreciate that platforms like CartoDB were open source at the time, but it would have been helpful to have more exposure to how mapping and layers and intellectual property standards in ESRI work.  Working with the Storymaps platform has been fairly intuitive, however, and I would recommend it as one of the digital platforms that is taught in the Digital Public Humanities program.  I can see it having real usefulness in early projects and as a powerful tool for teachers and students in the Education courses.

Internship Blog Post 1

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is committed to preserving the community history of the area that has become the federal district of Washington D.C.  The museum seeks to strengthen the DC metropolitan area by promoting a greater level of mutual understanding within this diverse community.

The museum values grass roots ideals in claiming the legacy of being “a museum of, for and by the people.” It seeks to empower the community to tell its own stories that “showcase the diversity of issues, people and places” that make up the Anacostia area.  The museum also values a high degree of civic engagement that promotes both a spirit of discovery and a legacy of service to the community.

The museum is forward thinking in using its assets and outreach potential to bring together both community stakeholders and outside collaborators in order to take an active role promoting critical thought about the issues that influence both the Anacostia area and society.

One of the ways that the museum is seeking to fulfill its mission is through a new exhibit called A Right to the City.  The exhibit explores six DC neighborhoods and the ways in which they have grown and changed since the 1950s.  My role in the organization is to develop a series of six lesson plans for middle and high school students around the themes presented in the exhibit such as urban renewal, community activism, desegregation/re-segregation and public transportation.

My role is to design a series of six lesson plans to complement the exhibit.  I am working with the museum to focus the primary audiences for these lessons and to determine if these lessons will be geared to non-visitors or as part of a pre/post-visit activity.  I am also working with the museum to determine the online accessibility of some of these items.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with “material culture” in a museum, albeit in a digital format.  My goal in beginning the program in Digital Humanities at George Mason University is to position myself to have a greater number of opportunities to do this type of work in a museum or educational setting.  I am looking forward to learning more about how to execute this type of work through a professional internship.

Looking Back at 30,794 Words

One of my final assignments is to reflect on what I’ve written over the course of the last ten months through my coursework in the Digital Public Humanities program at George Mason University.  I am proud to say that history and students are the two most commonly occurring terms in the corpus of my writing.

I am also proud to say that word analysis also showed a strong connection between history and learning and students.

Linkage Among Most Frequently Occurring Words

Taking Control of the Toolbox

In the first quarter of the 16th century, a revolution in social media was taking place.  Martin Luther and other agents of Church reform leveraged the power that the printed word, easily digestible by the populous in pamphlet sized doses written in the vernacular, could have on galvanizing support for their cause.  Though the story is slightly more complex than that, the fact remains that the technological revolution of the printing press had a significant impact in bringing about the Protestant Reformation.  And, as the Renaissance and Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, the printing press played an increasingly important role in the exchange of ideas ranging from physics to politics, ideas which gave way to the beginning of what we now call the Modern World. Mixed in with the ideas of Newton and Locke, other theories that we might call daft today certainly circulated in the mix.

The similarities between this earlier age and the Information Age in which we currently find ourselves are clear.  The differences are defined by the pace and scale and pervasiveness of the information and myriad outlets for it in today’s media driven world. But, one key difference is the way in which the problem Wineberg identifies may also contain the seed of its own solution.

In the earlier age, it would be very difficult to fully vet a popular source.  Information ran easily along trade networks, but wide ranging individual mobility was far more difficult and time-consuming.  In today’s digital age, information often runs along algorithmic networks and daft theories abound, but our ability to step outside those networks and to vet daft theories has probably never been greater.  The key difference is that in order to do so, consumers of information, students and adults alike, must be aware of the tools they are using and how to place themselves in control of the tool instead of letting the tool control them.

I applaud Wineberg’s two-handed approach to vetting information through and  Understanding how to easily learn who owns the website is probably a much easier “verification” for my students than going through my “long” list of five CRAAP Test questions. I am still a bit unsure about how Wineberg used the site to discover the “digital pack” that links to the website he was trying to vet.  But, I understand his point that sticking to one or two disciplinary habits may be more effective than teaching a more complex set of tools that nobody remembers.

The key here is to have the conversation – with students and with adults (myself included) who have already come of age without the benefit of the exchanges that are beginning to happen around this topic within the educational world. Perhaps in addition to ongoing dialogues in education, outlets of public history might create some PSAs to promote awareness of historical thinking skills as they relate to vetting digital sources. As Wineberg makes abundantly clear, our democracy hangs in the balance.

Introduction to Digital History in Education

I am @thehistoryhead and my name is Kathy Carroll.  I have been teaching both English and history at the middle and high school level in a variety of public and independent schools in Dallas, Texas, since 1993.  I hold a Master of Humanities from the University of Dallas.



Currently, I teach at St. John’s Episcopal School and serve as social studies vertical team chair.  Along with my colleague, Tom Parr, I use the creative and connective power of digital technology to help students to become historians themselves through the medium of documentary film.  Students spend a year collecting an original oral history as well as additional primary source materials in order to research, script, edit and produce a short documentary film shown at the St. John’s Documentary Film Festival.  In fact, today is the final day of presentations for students who have been working on individual projects throughout the year.

Through my coursework in Digital Public Humanities at George Mason University, I have developed a digital archive and exhibit space that will eventually house the entire collection of films and provide guidance for other educators who want to embark on a similar project with their own students.

I am also a contributor to two digital history education collaborations developed in association with RRCHNM at George Mason.  Working on the first project in 2015-16 helped me to understand the transformative power of teaching history in the digital age.  This summer I will travel to France on a second project to develop curricular materials inspired by the lives of two World War I veterans.  One died two weeks before the war’s end and is memorialized at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France; the other went on to live a full life as an actor in films of cultural significance and is buried at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.

My learning goals for this course are to continue to hone my critical understanding of best practices and tools of historical pedagogy in the digital age, especially how secondary history education needs to adapt to meet changing digital scholarship opportunities in the 21st century.  In many ways, I think that progressive thinking about reinventing education coming out of places like the New Tech Network and the Buck Institute has a great deal to offer the field of digital humanities.

My ultimate professional goal is to remain in education as a teacher equipped with the digital and pedagogical skills necessary to guide students on journeys that develop historical thinking skills.  My goal is to provide opportunities for students to practice those skills using digital tools to explore and analyze primary source information.  I would also enjoy the opportunity to work more directly in developing digital education projects using primary source content for a museum or other cultural institution.

Final Process Blog

It’s been an immense journey these last two semesters on this project.  When I began, I had a naive understanding of what it meant “to make an archive.”  I had no idea of the process of organizing the materials, working with file sizes and types of files, creating metadata or planning a structure for the site. There was creating contextual information and adding supporting materials to round out the collection.  By the end of semester one, I had a better understanding of what all “making an archive” entailed and found myself and my project to be incredibly lacking.

I was glad to be able to rework my project and to plan it out with more understanding of what I didn’t know.  I appreciated Dr. Whisnant encouraging me to “dream big” even if I couldn’t fully execute it.  While what I dreamed isn’t completely executed, it is closer to what I had envisioned than I thought I’d be able to accomplish.  By letting go of forcing the project into Omeka, I was able to take a chance on discovering Scalar.  The more I work with it, the more I see ways in which it can be more and more the tool I was looking for.  If I hadn’t allowed myself to sketch out my vision, I never would have made the attempt with Scalar.  Had I done so, the project would have looked far different.

I have also learned how much work goes into planning and maintaining a site.  I feel like I haven’t done as good of a job on this as I might have, but now that I have the prototype in place, I can spend more time thinking of how to manage it before it grows larger in content.  I appreciate the suggestions I’ve received along the way for different strategies to accomplish that end.

I have come to understand more and more how teaching is a form of public history. Teaching students to learn to engage with and create their historical content can happen in a classroom just as well as in a museum, a Parks Service project or local history site. In many ways, it lays the foundation for the historical thinking skills the public will develop and practice throughout their lives and in whatever public spaces they might encounter.

Project Post Module 9

Working in Scalar

This week I have had the opportunity to really dig in and figure out Scalar, an open source digital publishing platform developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture.  Dr. Whisnant encouraged me to not limit my vision for the project by what was possible in any particular tool.  Though it is a drawback that each book is published within Scalar’s platform and not through an independent install on a URL of my choosing, I am happy to report that Scalar seems to be the right tool for the vision.

Once one registers for a Scalar account, it is possible to create multiple books on Scalar’s platform.  One can begin a book by uploading content from local files.  Scalar is also able to import digital files from partner archives such as the Getty Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as from affiliated Omeka sites, SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo. Each imported item receives its own page with accompanying Metadata intact.  Each page may be tagged (non-linear) by term(s), or it can be designated as a path (linear).

With these tags and paths in place, the author can create a new page that uses Scalar’s variety of layouts and visualization tools to draw upon these paths and tags.  I have chosen to use Scalar’s Structured Media Gallery to create exhibit pages around certain “threads” in the Weaving Our Story archive such as 1968, the Vietnam War, and World War II.  Scalar uses a “generous visual interface” by arranging thumbnails for each item in the exhibit on the main page.  Users can explore the individual items in the exhibit and follow the “path” to the next item in the exhibit; however, each page is also tagged so that one could explore the connection between one item that is housed in two different exhibits.  In this way, the reader is able to explore the complexities of histories presented and see the rich connections between and among the content.

Each exhibit page also exists as its own item and can become paths as well so that the exhibit pages appear on a separate launch page.  Viewers can choose an exhibit path initially and then move along the exhibit path or explore connections.

I am excited by the possibilities Scalar offers me and how the Omeka site and the Scalar site work together.  While Omeka can house the entire archive, the Scalar site is a more curated virtual museum exhibit.  Not everything in a museum’s collection necessarily makes it into the exhibit.

The challenge to this is keeping up with the collection.  I find myself wanting to add more and more outside resources to round out the exhibitions, but I realize that I may need to focus on the structure and format first.  The global history of the 20th century is a vast topic to say the least, and I need to be realistic about what is possible by the end of the semester.

My goals for this week are to work on supplying textual content to the exhibits I’ve built.  I also need to work on creating some content around the blog site for teachers by polishing some existing materials and creating new ones.  I need to continue to work on permissions forms as well.

Project Progress Post Module 8

I was finally able to migrate all of the Omeka items from the first version of the archive to the new version that is tied to the Scalar project and WordPress blog.  Earlier in the semester, I conducted extensive research on finding other themes in Omeka that would allow me to customize the look of the archive without having to do a lot of backend coding work.  I found the Customeka theme to be exactly what I needed in order to adapt the look of the project to mirror Scalar’s layout, which offers fewer options to adapt the aesthetics of the site.

This all worked well in theory until I began migrating the items from one archive to the other.  While the landing page that I had designed looked like I wanted, the items page was a jumble of text.  In order to customize the landing page to look as I wished, it changed the scale of the font in the items and collections pages.  There was no way to change one without the other.  Apparently, Customeka isn’t as customized as it seems.  I had to go back to the drawing board.

I began playing around with other themes that are offered in the standard Omeka install and settled on the Thanks, Roy theme.  The theme did not meet my needs when I originally designed the first version of the archive, but apparently, RRCHNM released a new version in February that makes it easier to customize colors and type styles.  Coupled with a greater understanding of Omeka myself, I was able to manipulate the standard Omeka theme to meet my aesthetic needs.

I like how Omeka is working for me as an archival repository and feel I’ve made progress as a user and designer within my modest level of expertise using the tool.