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Analyzing Digital Narratives

In The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander defines digital storytelling as “narratives built from the stuff of cybercultur.”  For Alexander, these narratives can play out on myriad types of technologies, from podcasts to twitter feeds and Facebook pages.  Alexander argues that stories are important because they allow us to share our material, not conceal it.  For a historian, I think this is an incredibly important point.  Certainly, historical monographs tell stories (or often try to tell stories), but all too often they fall victim to criticisms that these narratives are only written for the 5-10 people in a sub-field.  Incorporating a digital narrative into a project allows for a historians work to be shared to a wider audience.  And for scholars more grounded in “traditional” history, this can be a useful tool.

While there are countless numbers of digital narratives available online, there are two in particular I want to share.  The first is the WWII Tweets from 1940 twitter feed.  This is a six-year project that “live tweets” the events of WWII on the day and time they actually occurred.  This is an inventive way to tell the story of WWII in short, digestible bits of information through an immensely popular social medium.  As Alexander notes, the strength of twitter as a place for digital storytelling is in it’s immediacy, which “lends itself to ‘live’ stories.”  As of today, the twitter feed has over 228,000 followers.  Twitter deservedly draws criticism for the bevy of inanities posted daily, but the WWII tweets provides an interesting way for history to reach a broader audience.  In addition to the main twitter feed, the WWII Tweets has a corresponding facebook page.  Additionally, this idea is dedicated to reaching the widest audience possible, as it has corresponding pages offering translations in Spanish, Russian, German, French, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Korean, Hebrew, Romanian, and Latin.

While it is commendable that the WWII Tweets from 1940 page endeavors to reach such a wide audience, twitter is still limited in terms of how interactive it can be as a medium for a digital narrative.  Others can read and retweet the feed, but their ability to contribute to the conservation is limited.  I’d be interested in seeing if the same people who ran this twitter feed could start a second one that would “interact” with the first in hopes of expanding the community.

A more useful way to engage the audience and offer them a forum to discuss the topics is through podcasts.  Podcasts tap into the “ancient” tradition of storytelling, making podcasts “deeply historical, even nostalgic.”  The advantage to podcasts is, as Alexander notes, that we can google key terms, look for maps and images of relevant topics, and follow along at our own pace using the internet to supplement the podcast.  Katrina Gulliver has shown the effectiveness of podcasts as a way to reach a wider audience with a historical narrative.  Her podcast, Cities in History, explores different aspects of urban history, from the contributions of the Chicago School of urban sociology to the history of Havana.  Each podcast is paired with a series of monographs to read to offer historiographical context.  One advantage to the podcasts over the WWI twitter feed is the ability to comment.  In theory, a provocative podcast could generate a healthy conversation in the comments section.  The ability for audience engagement gives this brand of digital narrative a powerful edge over twitter.

While these are just two of many types of digital narratives, I think they offer at least a brief glimpse into the possibilities for this particular type of digital history.  Personally, of the various types of digital media I’ve studied so far, I find narratives to be the most intriguing and promising for my own work.

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Working with Omeka

After a brief hiatus from this blog due to an unexpectedly eventful spring break, I return to post some thoughts on a project I’m working on for my digital media class.  This week and next week we will be putting together online exhibits using Omeka.  I’ve been experimenting with Omeka for about a week now, and I’ve come to some initial conclusions.  I find the use of Dublin Core both necessary and incredibly frustrating at the same time.

On one hand, I understand the need for uniformity across the board for all Omeka users.  Dublin Core has certainly developed enough descriptive categories that most users would be hard pressed not to have a way to properly label their uploaded items.  When designing a platform to accommodate so many different users, uploading such a disparate array of items, having a standardized form makes sense.

But at the same time, for a first-time user, it has been challenging.  I’ve been uploading runaway ads from the Pennsylvania Gazette, and sometimes I’ve been unsure of how to fill out the various categories.  For the creator, do I list the newspaper, the individual who placed the ad, or something else?  Similarly, if I convert a page into a PDF and upload it as an item, what do I do if there are more than one runaway ads on that particular page?  I’m hesitant to put too much text into the description, because an excessive wall of text seems counterproductive to the way in which Omeka is set up and the way it uses Dublin Core.  So I guess you could say I’m struggling between understanding the need for uniformity and the problems caused by the rigidity of the descriptive categories.  This also leads me to question just how much variety you have in terms of uploading items.  The categories seem to make it better suited for images than text-based documents, but that might just be due to my inexperience with Omeka.

I’m also intrigued by the idea of user-generated data.  To me, this presents a similar challenge to the ability for users to tag pictures on flickr.  On one hand, allowing users to add their own data onto an exhibit item offers the ability to share authority, to connect to the visitors to the exhibit site, and, in some cases, to gain a greater, more in-depth description of a particular item.  But considering the specificity inherent in the Dublin Core classification, it seems to run contrary to the variance that could come from user-generated data.  Additionally, when you’re uploading something very specific, like a runaway ad, the terms and data can be precise.  I could see potential problems having individuals place their own terms on something like that.

I suppose this raises larger questions about who has the authority to classify these items.  Should it only be the professionals, who have the training and background necessary to input data, or are these artificial distinctions that limit the ability for historical exhibits to reach a wider audience because of some notion of a gate-keeper who holds authority?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Oh, the Memories…

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Many, many, many moons ago I frequented a particular message board.  Now, I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with message boards, aside from the fact that they often have a way of driving individuals to hyperbole.  In fact, I still visit some boards, particularly sports-related.  Anyway, the point is not to discuss my interest in boards, but rather to touch on a specific aspect of this one from my childhood.  For those familiar with boards, most posters have some sort of signature.  Oftentimes, this is an image at least tangentially related to the topic of the board.  Now let me say, some of the signatures created by fellow posters were quite inspiring.  All were done using photoshop.  Many of the posters had side-jobs using photoshop as graphic designers, posting their work on websites like deviantart, and generally impressing us with their skills.

I was so impressed that I even received a mini-photoshop lesson to learn the basics.  Sadly, that was years and years ago, and I’ve since lost any minor skills I once had.  So our assignment to create a composite image was both enjoyable and aggravating.  I came to two simple conclusions thanks to this project: that I will never be a graphic designer, and that I’m horribly boring.  Still, I did not let those facts deter me from trying to whip up a composite image!

 

I had several goals here.  First, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just framed against the white background.  That’s why I opted to pick courtyard image.  Not only does that add spice(!), but it would also give me a challenge in trying to blend the additional images to match the colors.  Second, I wanted text and images, though I suppose I could have added text anyway.  The third goal was to try and blend the images in a way that the particular backgrounds of the composites would fit with the courtyard image.  The “frame of government” image was fairly easy, as I just had to tinker with the opacity and some of the blending features until I found the right mix.  William Penn was harder, as I still didn’t succeed in actually getting it to fit.  You can still see some of the darker yellow coloring.  This certainly won’t win me any awards, but it was fun to play around in photoshop and certainly gave me memories of my younger years.  It might even inspire me to keep working on it.  Who knows?

Categories: HIST 479, Ramblings, Technology

What Makes a Good History Website?

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Almost every research archive and historical museum has a website nowadays. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all websites are created equal. Some make clear that the staff places great importance on maintaining an aesthetically appealing, easily navigable, informative site. Others seem less concerned with using the web to draw traffic and interest in their institution. So what makes a good website? According to Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, historical websites should address three things: usability, aesthetics, and accessibility. With that in mind, I’ve looked at four websites to address the extent to which they satisfy these three requirements: the Newberry Library, the Chicago History Museum, the Swedish American Museum, and the Edgewater Historical Society . Each website serves as a useful tool for examining the utility of usability, aesthetics, and accessibility as frameworks for constructing a site. Above all, when considering these three facets, one must remember that the goal of a website dedicated to some facet of history must “enable and inspire [the user] to think about the past” (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 111).

Usability

Usability, simply put, is the extent to which a website is user-friendly. The best way, I’ve found, to judge the usability of a website is to judge its homepage. The homepage is the first thing you see, and it sets the tone for how the rest of the site is constructed. The best websites are constructed in a way that everything you need can be accesses quickly from the main page. The Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum excel in this regard. Both sites rely on dynamic flash pages in the center of the homepage to draw attention to the most notable events, lectures, and exhibits featured at the institutions. The advantage to these flash pages is that it immediately offers the user a chance to find the most current events at the institution. The Newberry, for example, highlights an upcoming lecture, a recent short film on the Newberry’s collections, an update on a renovation project, and information about the newest exhibit.

The Swedish American Museum doesn’t use flash pages, but it, too, has an easily accessible website that is very user-friendly. The museum uses a three-part page divide to offer the visitor information easily. The main portion of the page is devoted to the latest news, with the second panel offering links and upcoming events, and the third panel listing the museum information, visiting hours, and location.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Edgewater Historical Society does not have a user-friendly site. There is no information made readily available, such as upcoming exhibits, hours, or lecture series. These items must be accessed through a series of links on the left side of the page. This forces the user to stumble upon important information rather than find them quickly as soon as they visit the site. In an age with so many options on the web, the longer a visitor needs to spend on the site looking for the information they want, the less likely that user will return. Instead, it’s far too easy for them to simply move on to the next site.

Aesthetics

Cohen and Rosenzweig note four aspects of a good website design: contrast, proximity, alignment, and repeat designs (120-121). The Newberry and the Chicago History Museum excel in their aesthetic quality. These websites look almost like a magazine page. Thus the user is instantly viewing something familiar. Additionally, the dynamic flash pages are effective in enhancing the visual appeal of the website. They are able to add colorful and exciting images to the site to further draw in the visitor’s interest. These sites also rely on effective, drop down menus that load quickly and help prevent the page from unnecessary clutter. The Swedish American Museum also has an aesthetically appealing website. The Edgewater Historical Society, conversely, is designed with garish colors, a difficult-to-read font, and an awkward site design that evokes memories of old geocities pages.  This site has a series of information placed on the front page.  To read all this text, the user needs to continually scroll down.  This leads to a feeling or disorientation.  The Edgewater Historical Society could have made this more effective by breaking this information into digestible chunks.

Accessibility

Finally one must consider the role of accessibility. This is the ultimate goal of a website as a site is no good if it can’t draw traffic. Perhaps the most effective way to do so in this age is through the use of new media, specifically facebook and twitter. The drawback, however, to the use of new media is that an inactive twitter feed is counterproductive to the ultimate aims of increasing web traffic.

Both the Pritzker Military Library and the Swedish American Museum are great examples of the effective use of twitter. Not only are both feeds updated multiple times a day, but the tweets aren’t limited to links back to the website. The Pritzker twitter feed links to relevant articles about military history, offers up interest historical facts, and interacts with other twitter users rather than solely tweeting out information.  The Swedish American Museum feed often links users to exhibitions at the museum, but it points out interest cultural events germane to people of Swedish ancestry. This is a particularly effective way to increase traffic to the site and the actual museum. Cohen and Rosenzweig stress that an effective site bridges connections between the various communities that might be interested in the services of the museum.  Both sites skillfully market their holdings to interest as many different communities as possible.

Unfortunately, not all organizations fully embrace the power of new media. The Newberry Library uses twitter and blogs on their site, but neither appears to be particularly active. The twitter feed has one update posted in 2012. The previous tweet dates back to October 2011. For an archive as large as the Newberry, one would think they could update this more frequently. Similarly, the Center for Renaissance Studies has recently started a blog, though it only has two posts. This appears to be a recent addition for the Center, so it remains to be seen how effective this new media will be.

The Edgewater Historical Society employs no use of new media. For a smaller, more localized historical center, one must question how effective this site is in drawing interest. I would suspect that the absence of widespread marketing makes it difficult for the society to generate interest unless an individual is already familiar with the organization and its programs.

Conclusions

Ultimately, there’s no one way to design a website, but there are certainly some things that are more effective than others. For starters, if one of the main draws for your organization is exhibits and events, be sure to display these prominently, and make sure it’s easy for the user to access additional information.  Second, if you’re website caters to a small audience, be sure to develop a presence in social media to try and broaden the communities interested in your services.  Finally, make an effort to adopt a modern appearance to your website based on emergent technologies.  While the Edgewater Historical Society might offer strong services, the antiquated website sends the wrong message to its users.

Flicking through Flickr

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

My freshman year of college corresponded with what I am dubbing the “digital camera revolution.”  You could scarcely go anywhere on a weekend without seeing someone taking a picture with a digital camera.  At parties, during spring break, on trips to away games for football, and even before class, friends and colleagues were snapping away.  Now this “revolution” occurred in an age when Facebook had yet to develop the photo album feature, so friends flocked to websites to upload their pictures, get the link, and share them through their AIM profiles (wow, that makes me feel old).

Today, it seems most pictures are taken with smartphones and immediately uploaded to Facebook.  But while this seems the norm, some websites still offer individuals and organizations a place to upload and share their photos.  One such site is flickr.  I’ll admit, I haven’t used flickr before, so I was on a bit of a learning curve this week as I browsed the site.  I did dislike the fact that it’s linked to yahoo, and that I would need a yahoo account and a separate flickr name to post and comment on pictures.  I already have far too many screen names and passwords.  And as someone who always needs an obnoxiously long password, it was a bit frustrating to need to write down yet another one.

I found the flexibility of flickr very refreshing.  The fact that images are tagged really makes it easy to find what you’re looking for (for the most part).  I remember old picture sites were all organized by user.  While you can search user images here, it’s nice to be able to streamline the search process by looking for specific tags.  My search for “sleeping pugs,” for example, yielded dozens and dozens of results.  It really takes some of the best aspects of these new technologies, the connectedness, and applies it to images.

At the same time, it’s nice that you can search by group, too.  My search for “history” yielded a jumbled mass when I just searched for the same term by group or person it was more manageable and led me to what I wanted faster.  This was generally the tactic I used to find historical groups and specific archives.  Though I did accidentally luck my way into finding the Smithsonian’s various collections of images.

Still, it isn’t a perfect site.  I don’t quite know why a baseball field showed up when I searched for “gilded age,” but I suppose no search feature is without its faults.  So I think you’re always going to get some extra images you weren’t really looking for in each search.  I’m particularly intrigued by the interconnectedness promoted by flickr.  I think it’s great that historical societies and museums can use tags to help organize images, and that informed users can add comments to help fill in information about a given image.  I can see how this might be especially helpful for someone doing research into genealogy, for example.

I do wonder what the future could hold for flickr.  It certainly has perks, but it’s still limited in its complete application.  With museums and archives moving towards digitized formats, I wonder if the tagging and comment feature could be used for other archival material, not just pictures.  There are pictures of everything from historic photos to animals on flickr.  So could you upload an image of a manuscript to flickr?  I think that might be problematic as far as copyright issues are concerned.

I don’t know if flickr is something a historian should use to any great extent.  The more modern history you’re doing the more useful you will most likely find the website.  There were few images, that I found, of early Pennsylvania.  But if I was researching 1950s Chicago, I’d find flickr much more useful as a research aid or place to get started.  Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile website.  Certainly, the best of any I’ve found that allows you to upload images.  And with the work various historical groups have put into using flickr, I can definitely see a role for historians.

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479

Digital vs. Analog

February 1, 2012 7 comments

This is a post for HIST 479 addressing tensions between digital and analog exhibits in museums.  This blog is a reflection on three readings: Andrea Witcomb’s “The Materiality of Virtual Technology: A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” Fiona Cameron’s “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,” and Deidre Brown’s “Te Ahua Hiko: Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments.”

Throughout these three readings, all of which are well outside my “comfort zone,” I found myself returning to something familiar: the idea of Kuhn’s paradigm shift.  It seems that the rise of digital multimedia exhibits in museums has elicited significant tension between those who prefer analog exhibits and those who see the utility in multimedia presentations.  In a sense, I find this to be a paradigm shift.

It seems to me that there is a series of fundamental questions underlying the incorporation of digital exhibits into museums.  First, does the incorporation of digital representations of historical objects undermine, or lessen, the values of the objects themselves.  Cameron points to theorists who argue that digital exhibits eliminate the auric, iconic, and ritualistic qualities of the actual object.  Second, are digital objects capable of conveying the cultural importance of the actual object.  Brown’s article touches on this extensively.  Brown points to the role of digital objects in the efforts by Maori to understand their cultural heritage.  Brown argues that digital objects do transfer the culture found in the original object.  Finally, are digital exhibits capable of evoking the same emotional responses that “real” exhibits are capable of doing.  For Witcomb, not only do digital exhibits allow for a powerful emotional response, but in much more democratic way than traditional museum exhibits.  Witcomb notes that:

“The result is the ability to empower the museum visitor to undergo a process of alteration, just as much as it is an attempt to tell history from a different point of view.  However, because affective responses are embodied and not abstract, the process of coming to know is not framed by a didactic top-down approach characteristic of conventional museological interpretations of the material world, but rather it is more open to the process of dialogue and interactivity.  In a sense, multimedia installations, if seen alongside objects and not as their other, can bring a new understanding of the way in which virtual media can have both physical expressions and material efforts.”  (Witcomb, 47)

To me, the above quote embodies the fundamental benefit of digital exhibits.  In an increasingly global and pluralistic world, digital exhibits enhance the ability for a museum, or piece of public history, to reach a wider audience.  Multimedia exhibits fit within the wider trend of new media emboldening increased democratization.  Witcomb and Cameron, in particular, address the fact that multimedia exhibits are less confined by the institutional control of a museum.  Cameron emphasizes that objects and their reproductions are part of a specific form of knowledge and institutionalized claims of authority.  The rise of multimedia and digital exhibits reflects the cultural turn of history and new social history, helping free these objects from such confined hierarchy.  Above all, each author makes a strong case for the legitimacy of the digital object as an object in its own right, not just a representation of something “real” or tangible.

Admittedly, I lack a strong theoretical understanding of the practices of public history, but several questions remained after reading these essays.  I must wonder if those debating the relative merits of digital and analog exhibits are missing a fundamental point.  If museums and other pieces of public history are meant as a way to reach wider audiences, does it really matter how something is conveyed?  If authority rests both with the curator and the audience, then the audience is still free to interpret the object whether it is digital or analog.  Getting bogged down in theoretical debates about the “realness” of the object pushes the debate away from the ability for the audience to interpret and react in their own right.

Going back to my point about a paradigm shift, I must also wonder if established members of museum hierarchies feel somewhat threatened by the democratizing effects of digital representations.  Do multimedia exhibits threaten the institutionalized hierarchy of knowledge in a museum?  As Witcomb states, digital exhibits shift the role of curator from the holder of knowledge to a facilitator of knowledge.  I don’t imagine it a stretch to question if some of the resistance to digital exhibits has something to do with this change.

Finally, I must question the rise of digitized objects as it pertains to more “traditional” historical research.  I’m sure I am not alone in hearing stories of historians sifting through manuscripts and archival materials only to discover a misfiled document that provides great insight into their monograph.  But as more archives are becoming available online, historians are increasingly able to research from the comfort of their couch.  If one of the major debates about digital vs. analog has to do with the “realness” of the objects, what does that mean for the historian looking at the digital manuscript as opposed to traveling to the archives?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479, Museums

The Usefulness of Twitter

February 1, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the second “official” post for HIST 479.

I begin this blog with a confession: when I first learned of twitter, my initial reaction was hardly positive.  I believe my first response was something along the lines of “why in the world should I sign up for something that is just a bunch of facebook status updates?”  Twitter seemed like one more frivolity that would serve only to eat up my time.  In many ways, I was right.  One only needs to follow a handful of celebrities to discover a bevy of tweets asking “what should I eat?” or “going to the party!”  But at the same time, I severely underestimated the usefulness of historians

Networking

Twitter has a number of uses for scholars, the first of which is networking.  Through twitter, historians from around the globe are able to communicate with other scholars they might not necessarily know through the usual route of job interviews, conferences, etc.  The History News Network has a list of historians who tweet.  Even a cursory glance of the list will bring you into contact with a number of historians in your field.  While the internet has facilitated conversation between scholars, twitter has made that communication even faster.

Live-Tweeting

As the AHA notes, live tweeting of conferences introduces new ways to experience a conference.  Certainly, many of the tweets could be construed as redundant for those attending the conference, as they might also be attending a live-tweeted panel, it allows those not at the conference to see what sorts of ideas are being promoted at the talk.  Several historians tweeted information from the New Faculty meeting earlier this week.  Because of twitter, I was able to follow the conversation even though I wasn’t attending.  While nothing can replace actual attendance, live-tweeting certainly allows you to stay better informed about key ideas and arguments being presented.

#Twitterstorians

I probably could lump this into another category, but I decided to make it a separate one.  The #twitterstorian hashtag offers many ways to use twitter for scholarly communication.  Before my first semester teaching, I made a comment on twitter about how I felt nervous.  Within a few minutes, numerous twitterstorians responded with suggestions and advice to weather the storm.  I’ve seen people try to arrange conference panels using this hashtag, note exiting articles or useful tidbits of information, or start general conversations about the discipline or the profession.

These are just three ways in which twitter can be useful for a scholar.  While I certainly think there are limits to what twitter can provide, I think it’s a worthwhile tool to use if you approach it with the right frame of mine.  Undoubtedly, many people use twitter as one more way to present random comments are tidbits about their daily activities.  140 characters can only offer up so much space to offer your ideas.  But in the end, it isn’t a completely useless tool.

In what ways have you guys use twitter?  Do you think it has merit?

Categories: Full Post, HIST 479