Retrospective, the digital version



If I knew what I know now at the beginning of class, I would have gone in a different direction. I remember leaving the first day of class and only being able to think of map related projects. I am not sure if it was because I have also been taking a mapping class this semester, or if it was because one of the first site we looked at was the Mapping Titian art site, which focused heavily on maps. Whatever it was, I knew I did not want to work with maps. I struggled to find a topic until I had an awakening moment about “the box above my desk.” While it is a great concept, over the semester I was left filling in a lot of weeks with data that was not related to my project, leaving me with extra work and not as much of a finished project as some of my classmates.

Being involved with a historical foundation has shown me people want to donate their personal artifacts, but just do not know how, and often they only want to lend them. The solution was obvious, an open site where anyone could upload their personal letters. Letters Home was born
When I first envisioned my site, I saw a project where all items could be uploaded, edited and searched by anyone. Quickly I realized a project of that magnitude was over my head, especially within the time frame of one semester. By limited the scope to letters written during World War II, I think the project is more manageable.

Writing this final reflection, I looked at the subjects for each week and criteria for the grant proposal, reflected on my project, process and the criteria. I decided the best way to break the reflection down is to write about each week and then the grant.

Week 1 was our crash course into digital history. I remember being terrified reading the syllabus. I am was the person who has to go running to the I.T. guy every few hours because I clicked too much and crashed the computer. I had no clue how I was going to manage setting up my own domain, much less configure my blog to suit my personality. After struggling to get my domain transferred from another host, I was up and running. Easier than I thought, it was still a few weeks before I realized I could have set up sub-domains for the two blogs I needed for the semester, but categorizing worked. My RSS feed still gives me trouble, but I blame that more on the reader than my lack of knowledge. As long as I refresh it twice after I open, I can see all the blogs.

Week 2 was the debate over digital history as a field or a method. I wish I had an answer, but I am not sure if there will ever be a definitive answer.

Week 3 brought us design tools, of all the weeks I have been using this one the most. At work, in class, and at home. Trying to configure digital exhibits and physical exhibits is much easier using paper and post it notes. I will admit that occasionally I go paper free and move things around in illustrator using different colored boxes, but the methodology is still there. This week was one of the few I wish I had more content as opposed to being public driven. It was hard to organize content that I don’t have. I am also contained by what Omeka and the plug ins can do. I wish I could make items easier to move between exhibits for contributors, unfortunately until I learn to build plug ins myself, I can not.

Week 4 was a lesson in archiving for the digital historian. I love metadata. I love how organized it can be, my project once again, let me down because of lack of content. I uploaded some of my letters from “the box on top of my desk” but they still needed to the transcribed, which meant I needed to do more work than just pulling data facts. Had I known how much more we would be using the data, I would have either picked a different project or found ways to pull more data from the letters I had available.
Week 5 was the most influential week for my project. Because I knew I wanted to reach a large range of people, with different backgrounds, creating personas helped me think about what elements my website would need to make it easy for everyone to use. The biggest part of my website was creating documentation/instructions for users. Having the personas (fictional as they were) helped me think about how detailed the instructions might need to be. I also had to think about different ways users of different skill levels could contribute. I decided in some cases it might be best to have someone mail in their letters for “the team” to digitize rather than try and explain scanning procedures. I also had to think of ways to say “Ask your grandkids for help” without saying it just like that. My final word choice leaned toward trying to get younger generations involved in preserving family history.

Weeks 7 & 9 were weeks of regret for me. Had I had more items of my own, I would have had more metadata and would have gotten more time to play with the tools instead of creating data to try and play with the tools. I would have had a chance to create more exciting word clouds and network visualizations. I did wind up using Gephi (now available for Mac) over thanksgiving with my two best friends to create a chart of who knows the most people at our annual friends giving dinner. The bigger your circle, the further you got to sit away from the kids table. I clearly use my education for important things sometimes. As far as my project, because of the letters I already had were from one family and to and from one address my data points for network graphs were not too exciting.

Week 8 was mapping. Truthfully I learned a lot in map class, but again the two locations of the letters I had access to already made it boring in relation to my project. I tried to incorporate work maps, but I struggled with that as well. I have left this week rethinking my final project. If I had it to again, I would chronicle post routes using maps. CartoDB would be great for a project like that. Story map has failed me over and over again. I finally broke down and emailed them. It turns out google drive is not supported the way it once was, had I had room on my dropbox for the huge gigapixel file, maybe I could have gotten it to work. I have tried so many times I am just annoyed and done with it. Honestly, this was the week I almost changed topics, gave up and did zip code maps. I started to realize all the things I wish I could do in mapping class could be done in this class, I just could not justify how my zip code maps could contribute to the humanities. Opening new primary sources seemed more noble of a cause.

Week 10 related directly to my project, open source history. I am beyond thankful for this week. It really refocused me back to my project. There are so many things to consider when making an open source site and all of our readings touched on issues I had been, and sometimes still do struggle with in regards to my project. it was also an eye opening week for me in regards to Wikipedia. My former belief that someone was monitoring and making corrections all day was dispelled, making me call wiki into question even more. I am curious to see what would happen if I had changed a topic specific wiki, if the community that is focused on one topic would change it faster. Maybe that is something I will try over winter break.

Week 11 was near and dear to my heart as it allowed me to revisit my undergrad readings and syllabi. Again, it was hard to relate this week to my project. The one point that was related was the risk of plagiarism or forgeries, especially in open source work. Josh’s idea of having someone vet the submissions for his open source site might control it more than my fully open site, but I think it is important to make it as easy as possible for people to submit a letter. I have been thinking about it a lot over the week. If this was a fully funded site with a staff it might be a little bit more plausible, but for the time being it is a one woman show, and the idea of double checking all the submissions myself seems daunting. This week also made me think of ways to engage students, which added the “History Helpers” portion of the site.

I will refrain from commenting on week 14 since I missed it, but I will say my trip gave me a lot to think about in regards to money/funding and history. The things billion dollar businesses can do knocked my socks off. It is a shame historians have to live in a world of under funding, fighting for grants instead of charging $100 a day for admission and $9 for a hot dog.

When I look back at my grant proposal, I feel my site has accomplished what it set out to do. Of course without real staff it is hard to say if it will run the way I hope. I have no marketing team, no one to monitor and no webmaster to help explain scanning. The most important thing I learned from my grant proposal feedback is I need to explain things thoroughly, but without being redundant or boring. This is not an easy task. How does this translate to the real world? If I were to be a professor, I would want my students to easily navigate and understand how to access the information they are given digitally. As someone who works in public history I have figured out it is a fine balance between being engaging and explaining. On some levels I think the best approach might be to have 2 pages for people to choose, “I am familiar with computers” or “I am worried I need more help.” Without having the ability to create a feedback form, or watch someone try and use the site, I am having a hard time figuring out what to add or fix. I know what I want it to do, so I know how to make it do it. The people I have asked to engage with the site have given me some suggestions, but again, I am usually standing right there to “help.” I am also limited a lot by what Omkea can do, or rather what I can do to make Omeka what I want it to be. Hopefully in Clio II, I am able to learn a little more code and create a site that looks the way I want it to in my head. The small amount of code I had to deal with to move the edit feature reminded me of the first week fears. I had no clue what I was doing but I am surprised at how easily I was able to go in and edit to make it say and appear how I wanted it.

I would like to revisit some of the techniques we learned in class if/when I have more letters which would allow me to make better visualizations. I have visions of word clouds and network maps, but without additional letters from contributors it is just can not happen. I had a thought of using BuddyPress to create a social network for contributors, but I am not sure how I could interface it with registered users from Omkea. I think that would be something interesting to do. For now, I have to hope more people call the foundation looking to leave another box of WWII letters on top of my desk.



Have a great holiday season everyone and enjoy the break!