“Nashville Sites” Project Proposal

Nashville Sites: Understanding Nashville’s Narrative using Public Historical Markers
Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County
Project Director:
Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D.
Grant Program:
Digital Projects for the Public: Prototyping Grants

In 1967, the newly-formed Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County (MHC) initiated a historical marker program to commemorate significant people, places, and events in the city’s past. With over 150 historical markers now in the county, this program is one of the most successful, and most public projects to date. There is quite an extensive process to erect a marker, but most importantly: “Every statement on a Metropolitan Historical Commission marker must satisfy two conditions: Is it significant? Is it accurate?” ( For this project, I will begin with these two historical questions and expand to include the following:

  1. How can marker content be complemented with other primary sources to convey a more engaging and important story.
  2. How can this digital history project combine individual entries for markers to create a broader historical narrative for downtown Nashville’s historical site markers.
  3. In what ways can I connect this project to other significant downtown sites  where there are not metro historical markers.
  4. How can I best engage audiences both local and visiting to participate in the walking tour, and how can I best use historical scholarship to support this project.
  5. Are there connections to the broader arts and humanities community that I can easily incorporate?

Omeka will be the primary format for “Nashville Sites” with an interface based on a modified version of “Histories of the National Mall.” This project, sponsored by an NEH grant and developed by George Mason University and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media leads the way in digital histories based on public history sites within a particular geographical area. “Nashville Sites” will follow a similar thematic layout based the following categories: maps, explorations, and places. In contrast to , this project will designate and create a walking tour based on existing, physical historical markers. The site for this project is and relevant primary documents will be available for each destination point. These primary sources include images, renderings, and other media files.

In addition to these project resources, digital technologies will enhance metadata available via public records. Curatescape will be used to provide latitude/longitude for geo-spatial mapping, Omeka exhibits will organize marker text and context, and there will also be additional outside links related to selected markers. Points to be included for this project range from the earliest known business to the Ryman Auditorium to historical churches to government buildings.

This format will effectively convey Nashville’s historical narrative based on a humanities-centered approach. Selected markers in the downtown core will be used as the prototype for a larger long-term project will ultimately include all existing markers managed by MHC. The Metropolitan Historical Commission is the steward of two commissions which guide historic preservation projects for metro Nashville. The MHC is funded by the citizens of Davidson County through tax revenues with an annually appropriated budget. In addition, MHC is supported by a separate 501(c)(3)—Metropolitan Historical Commission Foundation (MHCF). The MHCF solicits outside funding and donations for projects that exceed the commission’s budgetary scope. The MHCF has verbally committed to additional funding as this project develops, and the MHC staff is currently collaborating and providing data and sources related to “Nashville Sites.”

The timeline for the project, for this stage, is May 2017. However, it is my hope that funding from MHCF will continue this project until all 150 markers are part of the digital project. There are several targeted audiences: visitors (tourists), local residents, and students. Reaching these audiences will depend on whether or not the project is user-friendly, which is why I am using a web rather than an app-based platform. Evaluation of “Nashville Sites” will be determined, in large part, by the number of hits the site generates from month to month once fully functional.

Distribution and sustainability with specific public user groups will depend on continued support and funding through the MHCF, the development of a social media presence, and the promotion of via visible signage on the markers themselves and brochures (and the like) in local businesses and hotels.


Social Media Strategy


Social media is not just persuasive, it is pervasive in today’s world of constant online information, updates, and announcements. Moreover, growing numbers (particularly in the 18-34 demographic) get their news and information solely from mobile devices and many via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Social media is also useful because it is free, unlike television or print advertising.

The nature of my digital history final project is one that specifically targets a college-age demographic but also should (I hope) appeal to a larger audience interested in Nashville history, life, and culture. Thus my audience is three-fold: college students, scholars who specialize in southern history or urban studies, and residents of Davidson County.

My strategy aims to reach each of these groups through overlapping information using two social media platforms: Twitter and Facebook. Twitter will be used to generate interest, pose questions, and highlight parts of the digitized collection to drive internet traffic to my Omeka exhibit and related issues to Nashville’s in the news. Over 35% of all college students use Twitter, and in fact, I have already used it in classes that I teach. Facebook will be used to convey the same information but in greater detail.  In addition to a greater range of features, Facebook’s audience also spans a wider spectrum as evidenced by the chart below (source: Pew Center, 2015).


There are specific and broad messages that will be conveyed to my three audiences via Twitter and Facebook. New additions to the collection, new exhibits, and student work can be announced and introduced via Twitter and Facebook. Any events connected to the collection such as a Semester Showcase of student projects connected to the the study of Nashville can also be promoted. It is my hope that as this project develops and work is uploaded (born digital), social media can be used enhance the historical value of the work and attract “followers” who might also have contributions to make. At this time, there are no specific actions that I want potential audiences to take other than to observe and learn from the unique studies presented by my students as they investigate Nashville’s public transportation system, present original research, and explore the city’s downtown landmarks. I suppose that the digital project could inspire audiences (outside of class) to follow the designed walking tour of downtown for themselves.

My strategy of using Twitter and Facebook can be measured by the using the SMART strategy rubric:


  1. Specific (Who?):
    Participants (students) and audiences (college students, faculty, and those interested in Nashville history)
  2. Measurable (What?)
    To monitor project site visits through stat tracker and base social media posts via interest shown
  3. Attainable (How?)
    To post to Facebook twice per month, and Twitter weekly
  4. Realistic (How, Why important?)
    Posting once per month via FB and Twitter weekly is realistic and will keep the digital project relevant. Student in current courses can also help to promote the site by tagging or liking my posts.
  5. Time-bound (When?)
    Over the next academic year (at a minimum)

Crowdsourcing Reflection

When one thinks of the term crowdsourcing, practices related to business, marketing, and/or consumerism first come to mind. In academia, the idea of crowdsourcing seems most relevant to science disciplines or statistics. However, over the past few years the idea of crowdsourcing has been co-opted by the digital humanities.  In the digital humanities, the practice of crowdsourcing involves primary sources and an open call to the general public with an invitation to participate.

There are pros and cons to crowdsourcing DH-related projects. Certainly having the benefit of many people working on a common project that serves a greater good is a pro. In turn, the project gains more attention because of the traffic generated by people who feel invested and share the site with others. On the other hand, with many people participating there is more room for error and inconsistency. Another con is the supervision and site maintenance needed to answer contributor queries, correct errors, and manage a project that is constantly changing with new transcriptions and uploads.

The four projects analyzed for this module reflect a range of likely contributors, interfaces, and community building. For example, Trove, which crowdsources annotations and corrections to scanned newspaper text in the collections of the National Library of Australia, has around 75,000 users who have produced nearly 100 million lines of corrected text since 2008 (Source: Digital Humanities Network, University of Cambridge). Trove’s interface is user-friendly but the organization and number of sources are overwhelming.


A second project, the Papers of the War Department (PWD), uses MediaWiki and Scripto (open-source transcription tool), which work well and present a very finished and organized interface. PWD has over 45,000 documents and promotes the project as “a unique opportunity to capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm of users to improve the archive for everyone.” The PWD also calls its volunteers “Transcription Associates” which gives weight and credibility for their hard work.

Building Inspector is like a citywide scavenger hunt/game, and its interface is clean, clearly explains, engaging, and barrier to contribute are very minimal. In fact, it is designed for use on mobile devices and tablets. As stated on the project site: “[Once] information is organized and searchable [with the public’s help], we can ask new kinds of questions about history. It will allow our interfaces to drop pins accurately on digital maps when you search for a forgotten place. It will allow you to explore a city’s past on foot with your mobile device, ‘checking in’ to ghostly establishments. And it will allow us to link other historical documents to those places: archival records, old newspapers, business directories, photographs, restaurant menus, theater playbills etc., opening up new ways to research, learn, and discover the past.” Building Inspector has approximately 20 professionals on its staff connected either directly to the project or NYPL Labs.

Finally, Transcribe Bentham uses MediaWiki. It is sponsored by the University of London and funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation. It was previously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They also ask volunteers to encode their transcripts in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)-compliant XML; TEI is a de-facto standard for encoding electronic texts. It requires a bit more tech savvy, and its audience is likely smaller—fans, students, or enthusiasts of Jeremy Bentham and his writings.  As a contributor, I worried about “getting it wrong,” especially with such important primary texts. Due to the sources’ handwriting, alternative spellings, unfamiliar vocabulary, and an older, more formal version of English made this a daunting task for me. An additional benefit of this project is the ability of contributors to create tags. In sum, Transcribe Bentham has 35,366 articles and 72,017 pages in total. There have been 193,098 edits so far, and the site is 45% complete. There are 37,183 registered users including 8 administrators.

As noted by digital humanists on HIST680 video summaries, the bulk of the work is actually done by a small group of highly committed volunteers who see their designated project as a job. Another group that regularly contributes is composed of undergraduate and graduate students working within a project like Transcribe Bentham as a part of their coursework. A final group of volunteers are those who are willing to share their specialized knowledge with these research, museum, literary, or cultural heritage projects.

Crowdsourcing is an amazing tool that can be used to create a sense of community as well as to create a large body of digitized, accessible text. I think one major factor to remember when considering successful crowdsourcing DH projects is the sheer scope of the work from several standpoints: informational, tech infrastructure, institutional, managerial, public value, and funding. Successful crowdsourcing methods applied to DH-related digitization and transcription projects requires a dedicated, knowledgeable, well-funded, interdisciplinary team based within an established institution, whether that be an educational institution or government agency. In other words, it is an enormous (and enormously admirable and useful) undertaking. But for now, I will simply have to admire academic crowdsourcing as an advocate and user.