Georectification follow-up

Here’s the MBTA’s map of the T, georectified on the individual stations. If you want to overlay it onto a real map of Boston to get a sense of how that it maps onto the physical geography, you can explore it in QGIS.



But to share, you might want to put it on the web. Here’s a link to georectified version of the MBTA T map that you can pan around. When you installed QGIS, you got enough software to build something like this yourself; but if you want to see your file online, you can also just send me the .tif and .vrt files you get by exporting a map in QGIS and I’ll put it online. Instructions on just what you need to do are in the first paragraph here.



Multimedia In African History

My research interests are far from mainstream and easily accessible. Before reading our sources for this week, I was reading one of the blogs that I follow called Perspectives on Africa. One of the more recent posts was about a project “Anti-Apartheid in Exile: Alfred Hutchinson’s Road To Ghana”.

This interactive map includes a brief story, portions of an oral account of the journey as well as picture to help you follow the story while situating it geographically.

Another, both created by Vincent Hiribarren, is called ” What do the Names of African Countries Mean?” 

As I was interacting with the multimedia sources that were the readings for this week, I could not help but be less impressed with the Hutchinson Map as well as the Names of African Countries map in terms of their visual appeal. These are much smaller projects and are not nearly as visually stimulating as “Snow Fall” and “Pine Point”. After being somewhat disappointed that the digital history projects that are interesting to me are almost not worth mentioning in a digital history course, I began to question why. The Hutchinson Map is a historical project that has been researched and is presented in a medium that allows the use of oral history as well as geographic orientation of the story being told. The Names of African Countries project is not a story but the visual representation of this information makes the information more accessible and understandable. The historical value is clear to me, and yet the historical presentation and representation value cedes importance to the value of the appeal of some of these projects. I imagine that the funding given to these projects reflects the public interest that they receive. My critique of these kind of projects such as Snow Fall is that the focus rests primarily on the visual appeal and the ability to entertain rather than the historical significance. The influence of these sites have little, it seems to me, to do with the importance of the story being told as with the visual appeal that it has for its audience. 

Making Meaning

In “Invisible Australians”, Dr. Tim Sharratt addresses, in a blog post, the concern over lost context raised by the wall of faces, “…each portrait is linked back to the document it was derived from, and to the Archive’s own collection database. What is more important, I think, are the contexts that are gained”. With this explanation, Dr. Sharratt articulates what I found to be a valuable aspect of storytelling in new media: new meaning. The historical material forming the content of “Invisible Australians” still exists in the context of the National Archives, and the photos on the site are still even available in context of their documentation, and yet they have been recast to make an entirely new point. Opportunities for new perspectives not only come from the storytellers, but also from the audience.

Presenting stories in a textual, linear narrative implies that the creator is the authority. New media stories, especially factual narratives, engaging multimodal displays can make this implication fuzzier in a manner that doesn’t necessarily compromise the actual factual integrity. Effective stories can be told when users essentially make their own meaning and derive the narrative for themselves, though this is clearly presented to varying degrees. In many cases, derived meaning is an emotional response, such as a reaction to seeing the multitude of faces that were institutionally marginalized or to the town that doesn’t exist any more. Especially in the case of Pine Point, where the linearity is the most distorted, viewers are the most responsible for generating their own sense of coherency. This is less evident in “Snow Fall”, as a polished journalistic endeavor, but the invitation is still there. The embedded 911 calls, from which the John Branch extrapolated his own report, are there for readers to listen to, and have their own reaction to.

For obvious reasons, reading “Snow Fall” immediately reminded me of another project by the New York Times that came out about a month ago, “The Russia Left Behind”. Besides knowing very little about Russia and learning a fair amount, I actually found a greater thematic parallel between this and Pine Point – stories linked through their location, and the relationship of the “characters” to their location. The contrast, however, of reminiscence and journalistic exposition invites different degrees of engagement with the story and illustrates the range of perspectives that new media stories can accommodate.

The Multimedia is the Message?

Some of you may be familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” argument. Others might not. This post does not focus on McLuhan’s argument, but it is informed by it so I just wanted to provide a bit of context. In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argued that the medium, not the content, of a story or narrative (defined very broadly) is far more important in shaping what type of story a person tells.* The particular benefits and drawbacks influence your message or final product much more than the content of your story. For example, a movie, because of its ordered sequencing of events distorts story into a series of linear connections and order. Therefore, it is the abilities and restrictions of the medium that shapes the narrative, or message, of you movie far more than the content of the movie itself.

But when talking about multimedia projects such as Pine Point, Snow Fall, and Invisible Australians I cannot help but wonder what this does to the McLuhan’s idea of “message.” If the Multi-Media is the message then what does this mean? What do we look at to see this message? Do we look at the story as a whole? We could break down each individual “medium” in the multimedia story and search for individual messages. Maybe by finding the messages of each part of the story, we can gain a better understanding of the whole. But then do we not run the risk of missing out on the big picture of the story? We could also list out the multiple types of media used and see which one predominates the presentation, but then I think we sometimes miss out of the multi- part of the multimedia. What separates these multi- and new media stories from a monograph or movie is the various mediums utilized to tell the story. Consequently, although the various forms of media are vital in shaping the message of a new media story, I think the content in these stories are equally important as the forms of media in shaping the message. In order to understand the overall messages of Pine Point, Snow Fall, or the Invisible Australians one has to consider all these questions with an equal attention to the content. These multimedia stories are profoundly shaped by the individual types of media in them and the overall effect of these different forms of media. But they are also shaped by the connection that brings all these forms of media together, the content. Because there are so many different mediums at work, we must consult the content in order to better understand the message of multimedia.

Let’s take a look at Pine Point and attempt to uncover the “message.” Pine Point, is an exercise in memory, particularly the fleeting memory of a short-lived mining town. It focuses on images, short videos clips, audio clips, and short pieces of text to describe Pine Point. But it is not trying to form a cohesive story. It is a selection of experiences and memories of Pine Point. It does not follow a set chronological order, but instead jumps between the past and the present. The knowledge that this town does not exist any more is always present, even in the recollections. With the content in mind, we can better understand the organization and orientation of the new media story. Everything returns the eventual closing of Pine Point. Therefore, these clips, snapshots, digitized artifacts, and short text or audio blurbs, provide us with a scrapbooking effect. This presentation is a collection and display of memory much after events occurred, but it is also an account of the present. Like our own memories, this story serves as a necessarily imperfect recall of fleeting experiences. We cannot remember everything exactly as it occurred and our memories are constantly shaped by current knowledge and experience. And this multimedia presentation embraces that imperfect structure of memories, simultaneously highlighting important experiences and related them to the future fate of Pine Point and the current experiences of former Pine Point residents. And I think this is the message of the story, informed by both the elements (or mediums) that comprise it and the content of the narrative itself.

I will end this post with that look into Pine Point, but I think the same can be done for the Invisible Australians and the Snow Fall multimedia stories. Hopefully we can discuss this post in relation to them in class. I also wanted to direct you all to two similar “new media stories” that I have recently come across. The first is a Guardian piece, very similar to The New York Times’ Snow Fall story, on the NSA wiretapping scandal. The other is a Scalar project and a “born-digital multimodal article incorporating film, video, and audio clips that are integrated in, and central to, the argument” (Text taken from site) by Erin B. Mee, entitled “Hearing the Music of the Hemispheres.” Both are beautifully put together pieces that bring up many of the same issues brought up by our assigned projects/stories and the concepts I have brought up in this blog post.


*I am not saying that McLuhan’s argument is right or even generally accepted. I bring it up because I think it causes us to consider the effects of using different forms of media and makes us rethink how arguments, stories, and “messages” are constructed.

Types of Stories Told in New Media

This week’s assignment, Telling Stories in New Media, showed how by utilizing the many tools available online, cohesive stories are created and disseminated amongst wider populations. In the “Welcome to Pine Point” project, the creator notes that though they had originally planned a book they found that a website “…was unpretentious, honest, and represented a sentiment and perspective that we felt needed sharing. It could have been a book, but it probably makes more sense that it became this.” In all three projects we see how by telling stories in new media, they give voices to those who would perhaps go voiceless. If there was a book written about Pine Point, how many would buy it? An article about an avalanche is one thing, but hearing the stories from survivors and the families of victims, seeing the mountain and understanding the power of an avalanche via graphics is another. As for the “Invisible Australians” project, how many people know the important role of immigrants? By giving these people faces and voices, digital media allows their stories to have greater depth and meaning to the audience.

One website that I discovered that was similar to the Pine Point story is the Hollow Documentary, an interactive web documentary about a county in West Virginia and its history and the uncertainty of its future. It’s different than Pine Point in that the town has not disappeared and so it is less a history of the town and more an introduction to the current conditions of the town’s residents. It serves as an example of how these web documentaries are much more engaging than the typical documentary, where instead of having images thrown at you, you become an active participant in how the story is told. What these projects all have in common is that they redefine the meanings of a space and place. By giving voices and faces to those who experienced a place, it no longer becomes a location on a map (or one that has been wiped off a map). These stories show that by letting go of the linear narrative of history by using new media, a much richer and meaningful experience is created for the audience.


Engaging Digital Collections

Clearly the scope and content of digital collections are taking advantage of the boundless space of the Internet, removed from the physicality of archival storage and public display. Projects that we have look at recently, such as the September 11th digital archive, “Our Marathon”, and American Memory, all display enormous collections available to explore and easily search (as long as you have a computer and internet). With this great degree of accessibility however, a great potential for utility is contingent upon the greater public to have a reason to engage in these collections. For events like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, this engagement is a direct part of community building and healing. But as absolutely wonderful as it is to have these material gathered in one place, what else can be done with them? Even though Internet connectivity facilitates the actual collecting phase of a digital collection (and in many cases is the source of much primary material), and makes available digital/digitized materials to geographically disparate locations, these vast stores also have much more potential due to vastly expanded nature of interaction on the Internet.

Digital collections that also move beyond just the “collecting” phase more fully utilize their accessibility and potential for community engagement. Consider this example of a digital collection of stories from New York City’s past. This City Lore project, City of Memory, is both a “repository for all of New York’s stories and experiences” and a curated exhibition of unique experiences particular to the city and its history. These two perspectives are combined into one project, one collection of stories, at once expansively inclusive and editorially selective. The fusion of these two perspectives is uniquely accomplished through its digital medium, both through the visualization of all the stories, uploaded and curated, on a single map, and through the opportunity viewers have to customize their experience. They can either be guided through the “tours” of the city that link stories together, or create their own experience using their own interest in a specific area or person. The creative interactions possible using digital collections (whether one is using Omeka, or has much more programming knowledge) then expands engagement with materials.

Themes of Historical Blog Entries?

This blog caught my attention recently. I think its content is a worthy point of reference in discussing some of the issues of the Digital Humanities that I’ve been discussing in my Digital History class. In this brief little excursion of a historical study, the author investigates a digitally annotated corpus of London trial records from the 1600s to the 1800s. He looks particularly at words that are closely associated with first names, concluding that most of the words used in context with first names that are not in dictionaries are likely last names. Referencing studies that have shown that justice in England during this time period was frequently informal, he concludes that a lot of the new last names in these records can be thought of as recent migrants into the London area. He then traces the appearance of these last names in the records in terms of wars, attempting to show effects of the dynamics of war and peace on migration.

To be sure, I found this blog entry lacking in certain respects. Considering the number of words he thought could be last names was astronomical (55,000), it was unclear how he went about identifying names that were “new” and how he could be sure that they were appearing for the first time. It seems reasonable to conclude, given what I know about the Digital Humanities, that he did not look over them word by word. Because he did not explicate his methods here, it made his theoretical foundations (for example, the assumption that most of the names belonged to recent immigrants) considerably shakier. Yet still, I think this was a thought provoking examination that is legitimate. As I have argued in class, Digital Humanities projects, just like historical narratives, should be approached critically. The people who read them should not accept them as mere fact; the point is to weigh the truthfulness of the claim and stimulate thought about society. And this blog does so just fine, in my opinion.

This brings to mind a reading by Gibbs and Owens, The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, that my class covered earlier in the semester. The blog entry, to me, seems like a good medium, much more so than the monograph, to explain digital methodologies in historical inquiry, due to its form as a short but substantial digestible chunk of information, as opposed to an exasperating long winded text full of facts, interpretation and methodology.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the blog entry seems well suited to displaying and discussing Digital Humanities research for this very reason (though certainly historical blog entries need not be limited to research in the Digital Humanities). It seemed to me also, that the scope of this project was rather limited compared to that of a traditional monograph. Yet in spite of this, as I have argued, I found it to be thought provoking and therefore worthy of publication. In another reading from earlier in the semester, the historian Robert Darnton discusses some of the issues surrounding digital publication and consideration for tenure. Perhaps, I hope, by thinking of historical blog entries in terms of the breadth of their focus and how much this actually diminishes the value of the study behind them, maybe historians can tackle some of the issues surrounding the legitimacy of digital publication.

Reflections of an Omeka User

I just want to start by saying that Omeka is a great installation. It is useful, relatively user-friendly, and allows humanities student to create and style robust digital collections and exhibits with relatively little coding experience necessary. However, in my experience on the Our Marathon project, I have come to understand a few limitations(or perhaps cautions) of Omeka:

  1. Customization: Omeka is a great installation because it does a finite range of tasks very well. You can build exhibits, catalog items, add metadata, feature items, and even play around with some geographic referencing and timelining (via Neatline). But like the often-used idiom, Omeka is easy to use but very difficult to master. Omeka is organized so that it can fit the largest variety of projects. But as each digital project is unique, the needs of those projects will be different from others. This is where customization comes in. It requires a higher level of coding experience to make any major overhauls to the Omeka site. I see this as both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because (depending on your coding experience or budget to hire someone with coding experience) you can usually find change your site so that it serves your exact purpose. But it also represents a weakness because one of the best features about Omeka is its active and productive forums and support staff. The more you customize your Omeka site, the less helpful these online forums and support staff will be.  The customization is great, but I just want to caution going overboard on the customizations.
  2. Is Omeka really for you?: I’ve run into this problem a few times already talking to people who were considering using Omeka only because they felt a lot of others were using it successfully. Before jumping into a platform, make sure you understand the scope, content, and purpose of your projects. I’ve seen many projects stall or need to start over because Omeka was not the proper platform for their project. When considering a digital project, you need to find the platform that exactly fits your project’s needs. Before jumping right into Omeka, consider other online platforms such as Scalar, WordPress, Drupal, or maybe even a combination of a few platforms. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but it is important to research them thoroughly before committing to a specific platform.
  3. Plugins are great, 100 plugins might not be!: One of the great aspects to Omeka is the number of incredible “plugins” that allow further customization and functionality for your Omeka site. But as I was saying in the first section, be careful. These plugins are great, but these plugins often need some tweaking to get it to function properly, or more efficiently, with your Omeka installation and your collection. Each time you tweak the code to get one plugin to fit, you might be changing something that is a vital part of the functionality of a different plugin. So, in my experience, the more plugins you have, the more likely subsequent plugins might not work. To avoid this, be smart about what plugins you install and which ones you use. Prioritize tasks or functions you absolutely want your Omeka installation to perform and try to stick to doing those tasks or functions really well.


Digital Literacy through Omeka

One of the major problems confronting digital history is the lack of understanding and knowledge among historians on how to create digital products. Cohen and Rosenzweig write in our first week’s reading, “We think that it is a mistake for historians to confine themselves purely to history (narrowly defined) and then turn their digital projects over to “experts.” In this new medium, new and creative work will only come out of equal collaborations among partners with different perspectives and skills.” In watching the tutorials and seeing the different ways that Omeka can be used, it seems to me that this is a great way to get historians more involved in the creation of digital works. Because it is free and open sourced, Omeka seems as though it would be fairly simple to use. Also, in looking at the different ways in which archives, libraries, museums, universities, and non-profits have applied it, it appears to be incredibly versatile.

This versatility is partially because of the various plug-ins and themes that they provide. In fact, the DIYHistory webpage I use for transcribing historic cookbooks uses Omeka as a platform using Scripto, CSV Import, Dropbox, Dublin Core Extended as plug-ins. It is the Scripto plug-in that is used in the transcribing of the documents from the Iowa Digital Library. This website was extremely helpful in explaining how to use Scripto with Omeka, and provides examples of documents and audio that one can practice transcribing. Some of the websites created on Omeka are more complicated and use more plug-ins, while some are simply used as parts of other websites.

Omeka not only provides links to the plug-ins but also extended information on how each can be used. In seeing the “Exhibit Builder” one listed in several of the Omeka websites, I decided to read up on it further. This plug-in claims that “users can build complex pages without any programming knowledge.” It appears to me that by using Omeka, historians can take control of their digitized archives and exhibits without having to pass them over in their entirety to experts who are better versed in digital language. Another plug-in that I found that relates to the mapping section of our course is Neatline, which you can find here.  In the demos on this website, neatline shows how visual mapping can use a combination of the written word and physical space to create a story. In this case, mapping Civil War battles using letters written by soldiers. All of these tools are available to historians in their creation of digital exhibits, and all come with instructions that are fairly easy to understand.

While there are plenty of problems with historians and the academy becoming more digitally literate, Omeka offers an opportunity to experiment with a web archive or exhibit. Also, I could see where there is a learning curve that would help historians and others not directly involved in the computer programming field would be able to create more sophisticated webpages using the tutorials and other informative videos. There is  a forum as well as a twitter account that are useful in getting more information and help troubleshooting websites. By becoming more digitally literate, we can hope that there would be more general acceptance among those in the academy to accept these works as scholarship for tenure and other purposes.

Reflections on the “Our Marathon” Project

At the beginning of the semester, I recall, we were a bit critical of crowdsourced digital collections. In particular, I’m thinking of the September 11th digital archive. I remember we were skeptical as to its usefulness as a source of historical data. This week our class took a look at Northeastern University’s “Our Marathon” project, which is similarly constructed. After looking at this, my feeling is that these sites do have some usefulness.

To be sure, it doesn’t seem like a historian could interpret the bombing in terms of its meaning to the history of the country as a whole or Boston from this source. The project focuses on the stories of everyday people, such as those who were near where the bomb went off, describing how they remembered the events of that day as they transpired, and police officers involved in the immediate aftermath. There isn’t much about how the federal government responded in terms of policy or how the national mood changed, for instance, that would lend toward an interpretation of the bigger picture.

While providing an interpretation of historical events may be one of the (if not the) central tasks of the historian, this is not all that is involved in the historian’s line of work. Sometimes it helps to describe historical events in detail, so that there is a deeper connection to the historian’s overall interpretation. And this website provides the historian a tool that can be used to “tell the story,” if not to interpret it.

I should emphasize that a big part of why I think this site works is because the event is both so recent and so specific.  The memories are still fresh in the contributor’s minds, and how they felt that day is very evident in their descriptions. It would be more difficult, for example, to try to crowdsource an archive of memories of “McCarthyism.” What all would that label encompass? Would we so easily be able to identify common threads amongst the contributors? Would their memory of how they felt still be as clear sixty years later?

The fact that this event is recent and (relatively) clearly demarcated means we can worry less about the accuracy and consistency of focus in responses and identify reoccurring elements that could help the historian of modern America tell the story of that day in rich, interesting detail, even while trying to keep the focus on a group of people instead of a few individuals. I noticed, for example, many people, in their initial reaction to the first explosion, thought that an accident had happened (such as a ceremonial cannon accidentally going off or a truck hitting a building). It wasn’t actually until the second explosion shortly after that mass hysteria started to spread rapidly. Another aspect of the project I was interested in was its preservation of “memes,” short slogans and icons that were meant to capture a collective feeling, in this case, the resilience and pride of the Boston community; unswayed by the malicious intent of the bombers. I thought this was a powerful visual element that captured both the feelings involved that day and the way those feelings are expressed in our increasingly digital world.

To summarize my point, these examples, I think, prove the effectiveness of crowdsourced digital collections in contributing to the storytelling aspect of the Historian’s craft, if not the hermeneutical aspect.