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The History of Digital Public History

1) How has the work of digital public history changed over time?

Digital Public History, as an emergent field, has dramatically evolved over its short twenty-year history. Here is a summary from each of the three periods explored as part of Module Two:

1998-2001
There is a great deal of experimentation in this phase. Examples include crowdsourcing, full-text, digitized images, zoom in/out functions, audio, apps, and a variety of organizational tools through which to view and present digitized historical materials. The scope of each of the three projects surveyed was different. Two focus on specific events, i.e. Chicago Fire and NYC blackouts, while the other focuses on a specific topic, i.e. Af. Am. pamphlets from turn of the twentieth century (Progress of a People). All three are appropriately narrow in scope, but each builds out and has updated (or not) differently. The NYC Blackout Project site looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1998 and the Chicago Fire & Web of Memory site perhaps needs to be reorganized completely after growing online for nearly twenty years.

2002-2009
A definite move to use java/flash was evident from 2002-2009 digital public history projects. Sources are presented in a more visual and interactive way, but formatting and navigation is intended for desktop users. These projects are based on larger events and seem to focus on the notion that we should “complicate” history. This is part of the larger effort to move beyond the typical characters studied in U.S. history and American culture. This trend to uncover troubling parts of our historical narrative are equally, if not more, important. Projects during this phase include: Slavery in New York, Raid on Deerfield, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S., and Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia.

2010-2015
More recent digital public history projects are less about presentation of a set or distinct group of materials with a somewhat prescribed lesson or learned outcome and more about engagement through contribution and feeling invested in the project. Formatting also move past java and flash and is friendlier for different sizes and types of screens. These project are much, much bigger — tackling millions of pages or sources rather than presenting a thematic “online” exhibit or digital project. This phase shows that digital projects are fluid rather than final. Examples include: Lincoln at 200, Bracero History Archive, Manifold Greatness: Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, and Operation War Diary.

2) What should qualities we be looking for as markers of good digital public history work?

The qualities of good digital public history are in many ways the qualities of two complementary goals of historians more generally: effective teaching using primary sources and student engagement leading to a deeper understanding of history. This involves the organization and presentation of primary source materials in a way that encourages students and the general public to become “detectives” and to think critically and historically about primary sources as well as context, subtext, and significance. For more see Sam Wineburg’s “Thinking Like a Historian” (TPS Quarterly).

3) What are promising new directions in this field?

Promising new directions in the field of Digital Public History include more clearly delineated categories for the projects themselves. Several categories have emerged and include: teaching resource, virtual tour or exhibit, archival body of sources, digitized sets of data, and blog/essay. Another promising development is the more reliable and sustainable use of open-source technology rather than plug-in or software based projects that can limit the user experience. Crowdsourcing projects or creating large digital  collections should be wary of data-entry inconsistencies and should clearly identify the purpose and potential use of the sources being digitized.  Conversely, digital projects aimed at K-12 learning  should be careful not to be too limited in scope. As a whole, Digital Public History remains a dynamic field, full of possibility, and intentionally wide-ranging.

 

Database Review

american-poetry

At first glance, American Poetry might not catch your eye or seem overly impressive. However, scratch beneath the surface of its simplistic homepage and users will find over 40,000 poems by more than 200 American poets from the colonial period to the early twentieth century. It is also connected to African American, Canadian, and British poetry and literature. The database is hosted and published by ProQuest by way of its humanities published imprint of Chadwyck-Healey. A digital publishing specialist, Chadwyck-Healey is “synonymous with innovation in electronic publishing since the release of the English Poetry Full-Text Database in 1992” (“About Chadwyck-Healey”).

The database American Poetry first debuted in 1996 and offers multiple search options, which include keyword, first line/title, and poet/author. For any of these options there is a metadata search index generated by the database that offers a list of searchable terms found within the collection. If one is researching a specific poet then there are additional search fields where results can be mined by gender, ethnicity, literary period, and years lived. Ethnicity and literary period also have indexes available to help users find and select appropriate terms recognized by the database. There are also collections linked on another page that are cross-searchable via the Literature Online interface. Some samples of these collections include African Writers Series, Twentieth-Century Drama, and an upgraded edition of the King James Bible online. The governance of this literature and poetry collection falls under a special selected editorial board. Board members advise on the selection of text and editions with the goals of comprehensiveness and inclusiveness.

After performing a search, using their easily navigable search options, and selecting an individual work, there is a great deal of information provided by American Poetry in regard to the literary period and author. For each poem or work of literature, there is a link with information about the author: gender, birth/death dates, ethnicity, nationality, and literary period. For the poem itself, there is full-text but it is transcribed right onto the webpage and the original is not viewable. While those seeking the text alone (and its legibility) will be satisfied, it leaves a bit to be desired for the historian or digital humanist who wonders what was lost through digitization. There is no exportable image, and searching full-text within the text can only be done using Contol+F as you can on any webpage. There are options for “Print View,” “Download Citation” and “Text Only.”

Surprisingly, the “Download Citation” option is clunky compared to the database’s overall streamlined organization and presentation format. The necessary information is there, but the export and formatting options required additional steps. Rather than go through this process, users would be better off typing up the citation the old-fashioned way—formatted and entered manually in a document. There is also a “Durable URL” option but it simply provides a link that can be saved or emailed. Emailing the link to someone who does not have access to the database will not be able to view your sent data without signing in with a user name and password. However, this feature can help to generate a quick link list for the researcher.

Chadwyck-Healey first began publishing in 1973, and has spent over £50 million over the last decade. Their bibliographic basis is the Bibliography of American Literature (Yale University Press, 1955-1991) and supplemented with additional poets recommended by the Editorial Board to “provide a thorough representation.” Text conversion was processed through four stages: selection of texts, encoding and indexing, re-keying and scanning, and preservation. The selection of text involved a consortium of scholars, research libraries, national libraries, and a publishing team. The encoding method was Standard Generalised Mark-Up Language (SGML). As stated, “SGML encoding of original texts allows works to be divided into content elements . . . and recognized accordingly that provides a route through vast amounts of data” (“Text Conversion”). The re-keying and scanning process took SGML and compared it to text generated by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Re-keying primarily rectifies spelling and punctuation discrepancies. During the digitization process, the entire text of each poem was included as well as any accompanying text “written by the poet and forming an integral part of the poem,” (“About American Poetry”). This allows for preservation of materials.

Access to the collection follows a strict subscription-only policy; however, it can be accessed remotely. While most databases are primarily operated remotely, this designation shows the age of the database a bit—harkening back to the days of library-only or on-campus databases. There are also some other options that show the age of the database including notes on how to navigate JavaScript, which internet browser to use (Internet Explorer listed), 18 different step-by-step sample searches, changing system color (for user preference), shortcut key to navigate the site “without using a mouse.” In today’s touchpad, cloud-based world many of these features are antiquated as students and faculty alike are more sophisticated and search-savvy.

American Poetry remains an early model of early digitized databases—designed with students and educators (and paid subscriptions) in mind. The publisher, Chadwyck-Healey, boasts that is it used by “specialist researchers to undergraduates alike” and that its full-text primary source materials “create fresh avenues for critical debate, scholarly dialogue, and serendipitous discovery.” While this claim may be a bit far-fetched, this digital collection does contribute and make available a vast amount of poetry and literature related to “America” and mother “Britain,” to the digital world. For this reason, American Poetry is still very much worth the price of an institutional subscription.