Tag Archives: Metropolitican Historical Commission

Connecting the Public to Public History

Nam-ho Park, “A Half-Day Walk through Hanoi,” CC license

There are many implementations and activities that can connect the public to public history using online digital collections. As Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly wrote in 2009, the digital humanities are comfortable with the “read-write web.” The Web 2.0 (or 1.5 as they call it) allows public historians to collect and share the stories and narratives of people through their direct participation. Digital history project also benefit from the volunteer efforts of people to identify and enhance their narratives, help to piece together the narratives of others, and provide valuable information and context.

A great example of this can be found in the project “Invisible Australians” that used a facial detection script, tagging, photos, and people to analyze the “White Australia Policy.” Other successful crowdsourcing and public history collaborations include Flickr Commons,  created as a “forum for institutions to share their rich photographic collections. . . and provide insights into how knowledge, skill, and abilities of librarians, archives, and museums can converge in the Web 2.0 environment to provide collection access to new. . . audiences,” (Smithsonian Team Flickr). The Smithsonian Institute’s collaboration is sharing its rich photo archive with Flickr Commons has created an amazing public-private partnership.

In this spirit, the following list includes the kinds of public history implementations and activities that having a basic digital collection enables. 

  1. Tagging, Identification
  2. Transcribing
  3. Exploration
  4. Social Media
  5. Contests
  6. Visual analysis
  7. Direct Collaboration
  8. Geo-spatial mapping (see image at top of post)
  9. Memory-making
  10. Storytelling

Omeka has emerged as the premier platform for open-source digital public history projects.  With a variety of templates, plug-ins, and customization options, most of the items on the above list can be achieved using Omeka’s open source web platform.  For my own project, I will be able to use information from and about historical markers in Nashville’s downtown core. This includes temporal and geographic locations, marker text, and related primary sources. These resources could ultimately be used to create explorations via walking tours, contests for users, storytelling via historical contextualization, direct user collaboration via tagging or identification, and social media. While many of these goals remain quite distant, the fluid nature of DH and the trajectory of rapidly advancing technology make these goals possible.

It remains important to consider several factors that remain critical to the long term usefulness, credibility, and sustainability of digital archives. First archival projects need to be clearly identified. There are many genres and meanings of the word “archive” as noted by Trevor Owen. Ranging from a records or storage management system to what some critics call “artificial collections,” properly defining the mission, scope, and function of an a digital archive is essential (What Do you Mean by Archive?). Likewise the issue of metadata is important. Metadata is not always exciting on its face, but it provides the foundation on which successful digital history projects depend. As the guide for “Describing Metadata” suggests: “Metadata is the glue which links information and data across the world wide web. It is the tool that helps people to discover, manage, describe, preserve and build relationships with and between digital resources” (Describing Metadata).

Coupled with high standards of historical scholarship, digital projects can produce and make available large collections that can be used to disseminate and distribute information to the greater public while also providing countless primary sources to current and future historians. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig emphasized in Digital History, “Collecting history through digital archives can be far cheaper, larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives. This democratization however, does not mean compromising the quality of the historical work.” (Why Collecting History Online is 1.5).

Works Cited:

Brennan, Sheila A., and T. Mills Kelly. “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. 2009.

JISC Digital Media. “Metadata: An Introduction.” (first section – “From Metadata: a definition” to “Metadata often reflects the community it has come from.”

Kalfatovic, Martin et al. “Smithsonian Team Flickr: a library, archives, and museums collaboration in web 2.0 space.” Archival Science (October 2009).

Owens, Trevor. “What Do You mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers.” The Signal: Digital Preservation (blog), February 27, 2014.

Sherratt, Tim. “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011).

User Research Findings

Nashville Skyline, 2009. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and in the Public Domain.

This timing of this module was serendipitous. I have a great-aunt and great-uncle (Jean and Ben) who are in town for the next two days, and I was able to interview them tonight at dinner. They did not come to Nashville to visit me, but rather asked me to dinner because they were here. This perhaps made the small talk easier, but I was surprised by some of their answers. Ironically I learned quite a bit about both of them during the process of the interview as the subject and purpose of the questions were unrelated to family. I have lived in Nashville for several years, but I had no idea that they attended college at Belmont University (then Belmont College) in the 1960s. They said they have always loved Nashville and feel connected to Belmont, but the reason they come to visit is based on the music and cultural scene of the city. They like country music, but are not part of the “honky tonk crowd” per their description. They are both retired teachers who grew up and have lived most of their lives in northeast Georgia. Ben and Jean love to come to Nashville every 1-2 years as a “getaway” and prefer it to Atlanta because of the downtown district, museums, good restaurants, and its walkability. Their plans included a Valentine’s Day concert featuring Frankie Valli and the Nashville Symphony, which plays in the amazing, yet often overlooked, Schermerhorn Symphony Hall located in the heart of downtown.

My great-aunt and great-uncle both like history, and particularly southern history, but their knowledge of Nashville history is fairly basic. For example, they knew Andrew Jackson lived in Nashville and that Fisk University played a role in the Civil Rights movement, but did not know that James Polk was from Tennessee or that Nashville was largely occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. Jean and Ben love music of all genres and are nostalgic about blue grass and the Grand Ole Opry in particular. They thought that my project sounded great and both would be interested in using it as a walking-tour guide of important historical sites. Even though they are staying in a hotel downtown and have walked around the downtown area, they described it as “wandering around” with no real sense of purpose or geographical pattern. Their question for me, and one that I did not include in my original interview, is important if this project is to succeed. They asked, “How would we find out about this website and project?” This is something that I am going to have to consider. One option is involving the Chamber of Commerce and local hotels. Another option, which I have discussed with the Metropolitan Historical Commission (which manages the historical markers) is to add some kind of brief leader line, info, the web address to the physical historical markers themselves. This could perhaps be added to the back of the markers but would require MHC and Metro Council approval since it is public, tax-funded property.

The second potential-user interview was completed retrospectively. A friend of mine recently hosted a couple who traveled to Nashville from Vermont for vacation. My friend asked if they would mind being interviewed and they agreed. I called and interviewed John and Pat Buttrick this week, following their recent visit. They were drawn to Nashville because they have never visited and, in their words, “kept hearing about how great it was.” Both of them are middle-aged working class Caucasians who save up and take a one-week vacation each year. The Buttricks knew very little about Nashville’s history other than the fact that there were Civil War sites. They were drawn primarily to “see the sights” and visited the Johnny Cash Museum, Ryman Auditorium, spent time in records shops and honky tonk bars. They reminded me that “Yankees like country music too.” I asked if they saw any of the historical markers downtown and they said they read several as they walked around downtown. Pat commented that they took a picture with one entitled “Birthplace of Bluegrass” that is positioned in front of Ryman Auditorium. They also visited the Hermitage (approximately 15 minutes from downtown) and rented a car to visit Mammoth Caves, a vast system of underground caverns that is approximately an hour from Nashville. They said that they chose not to do a trolley tour because it was too expensive and took too much time, but a project such as mine would be very appealing to them.  When I asked what would make nashvillesites.org useful for tourists, they said, “It would be great if you added good restaurants near each location and the prices/hours of museums.” Both John and Pat noted that they also came to Nashville for the food, and in particular, “barbeque.” While this may be beyond my scope and purpose – particularly for a project sponsored by local government, I could perhaps provide links that already exist for food, museums, etc.

I learned several things from both my initial interview protocol as well as potential user interviews. My research has validated the need and usefulness of nashvillesites.org as an engaging tool for visitors, whether they are in Nashville for the first time or are frequent guests with a prior connection. I found that many of my original interview questions were not very effective because they assume, to an extent, that the average visitor to Nashville knows little about the subjects of my questions. Prior historical knowledge about Nashville, and the context of Nashville’s history when compared to other southern cities and U.S. urban areas is minimal and largely generalized. From my research and interviews I was able to determine what people are interested in knowing about Nashville. Albeit with my prompts, all those interviewed were curious about Nashville’s role in, for example, the Civil War or Civil Rights movement once I gave them basic bullet points. Another subject of great interest is music, and so the historical markers related to historic events or sites of music history will be important to the project’s success.

The interviews also provided me with new challenges. For example, how can I design the project so that people can and will use it? How can I market it so that visitors or residents know that it exists? Can I make it educational and engaging in a way that complements the physical historical markers? And finally, how do I navigate an independent project within the constraints of local government rules and regulations?