All posts by Century of America

The Impact of Digital History in Education

First, I have to say how proud I am of being a student here at Mary Washington because how much the institution embraces the digital age, while teaching the liberal arts.  After reading Sherman Dorn’s “Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument about the Past?” I realized how much success Dr. McClurken’s Adventures in Digital History class has achieved. Through the Century America project we have proven that undergrads can achieve the same success as any other scholar when it comes to digital history. We can move passed the traditional papers that make an just make an argument and create projects that have an argument while also providing interaction with a public audience to have the utmost amount of educational material.

However, after reading both Dorn’s article and Christopher Miller’s “Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia)” I realized that many institutions have failed to embrace the digital age. Some schools it seems have yet to admit that the internet exist or is at least a viable tool to use in an academic setting. The digital world is far from just the internet and involves many other tools scholars can use to help in their projects. We must continue to bring the liberal arts into the digital age if we wish for them to survive.

The Greatness that is Wikipedia

One of my favorite daily activities is actually to search through various historical Wikipedia pages and browse the content history. It is amazing to watch how a page truly transforms overtime and matures into a great resource for fast information. I easily use Wikipedia ten times a day, whether it be to look up historical information or what movies Morgan Freeman is currently working on, Wikipedia is a great source for such things. Though many educators will bar you from using Wikipedia do not doubt its great powers. It is the ultimate starting point for any project. You can see how much or how little there is on a topic. The less there is the more original your topic probably will be. Additionally, looking at the history and discussions on a Wikipedia page will allow you to see how the pages came about and who and why people are changing them on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis.

It will be interesting in the future to see a senior ten or twenties years from now do their thesis on how Wikipedia changed the way we gathered, collected, and shared information. We must remember that Wikipedia is not funded privately or through the government, but it is run by the public. People have come together for the greater good to collect and share free information for any eyes to gaze upon and learn from. When you come upon a discussion page on Wikipedia you can see the collectiveness of several individuals trying to make a page more accurate and usable for viewers. They collaborate everyday to find the best and most reliable resources for each page. This collaboration shows how Wikipedia depicts a culture of open information and sharing. Though the occasional troll comes along and ruins a page for a few minutes, there is always someone who responds and correctly fixes the information. These discussion and history pages show how we view information in our culture; it is vital and import to everyday life. Anytime you come across and go on a Wikipedia binge like I always do, I suggest taking a look at the discussions and history to see how that page came to life and how it transformed over time to provide you with the most adequate information.

Update on Research

So as my group members have posted recently we have found a tremendous amount of information for our project. Recently we have visited both the Masonic Lodge in Fredericksburg and the Heritage Center. Both had their ups and downs when it actually came to our research. Nonetheless we continue to find valuable material that will be vital to our website.

First, the Masonic Lodge was interesting to say the least. I have never really looked into the organization, but now I feel as if I am expert after spending an hour and half learning the ins and outs of the group. As for our research the lodge did not have anything that was truly worth putting in the project. However, the archivist for the lodge was not there when we visited, so hopefully when they return they can push us in the right direction if there is any material to work with. I have not fully given up on the lodge, but its beginning to look more like a dead end.

Second, the Heritage Center was almost a complete success. When I say almost I mean there was an exciting and overwhelming amount of material to work with, but there are a few issues with the center. For one its expensive: $2.00 for a digital copy, for example. Then after that if you want to publish any material from the center you must go back and gain permission first rather than placing an acknowledgement for the source. Instead we have resorted to the old school way of writing out all of our discoveries. One specific resource I worked with was a day to day diary from a family man in Fredericksburg throughout the war. He discusses everything from the birth of his children to war being fought in Europe. It was one of the best find we could possibly have because it can act as a great timeline for events throughout the war. I wish we could publish the diary on our site so individuals could flip through the diary themselves, but that would cost way to much money for the site. I have already created a basic timeline of the diary, but it is nothing compared to the original.

I beg UMW to purchase the archive so that history majors such as myself in the future can have access to endless amount of material from the area. I am a firm believer in open access and the Creative Commons and I wish we could have complete access to this information as students. I wish more people had faith in college students when it comes to undergraduate research. We are not coming to your archive to destroy, but to spread knowledge and information to the public and the education community.

Eastburn Diaries: Life in Fredericksburg, Va 1916-1917 Timeline

This timeline consist of the Eastburn family diaries. The diaries include global and local events. Eventually I would like to make a timeline from all the diaries, which include 1914 to 1917. I really like this timeline template. It’s very useful because its simplicity and it is easy to embed into a webpage or post. I think we will be able to use this template or some other timeline plug-in for the project. We have already kicked around a few ideas. We already have planned to make a massive timeline for the whole project, but we can use this timeline template for smaller periods of time or specific areas.

Digital History: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Is it possible to research, design, write and publish a successful digital history project? Yes and no. After reviewing several digital history projects I have come to the conclusion that some projects can have great success while other just fall flat. Most of the historical research is impeccable and useful, some of the sites lack a user friendly interface, while others are down right ugly and reminded me of Windows ’98 (for one reason or another). The three projects included the Emily Davis Diaries, The Valley of the Shadow, and the French Revolution. Each had a varying degree of usefulness, beauty, and horror.

The Good: The Emilie Davis Diaries 

One of the better projects I looked at was Villanova University collection of diaries written by Emilie Davis. The site consist of all the diary entries of Emilie Davis, who was an African American woman living in Philadelphia during the Civil War. Each diary entry is transcribed for viewers to read easier than her normal handwriting. The organization of the website is built thoroughly with each diary entry placed in chronological order making it easy for users to go through the diary on a day to day basis. Additionally, users can search for key words throughout the website making for even easier user capability.  One cool and useful aspect about the project is a keyword and most used word bank at the bottom of the webpage. Along with the transcribed diary is a digital copy of the original diary on every page.  However, one of the best features of the project are the individual annotations on each page of the diary. This feature would work great for the project we are currently working on and is something we should all look into.

Besides just the usability of the website, the aesthetics and design are above par when looking at other historical websites. There is not too little nor too much information on each and it has a very clean cut look. Continuity is key and the project is completely successful at not changing the site layout on each page. Most websites tend to diverge from their layout once you continue on through their sites.

Overall the site serves its intended purpose and does not leave users horrified in what could have been a disaster. Instead the team at Villanova did an excellent job at bringing history to the web and giving access to those interested in the Emilie Davis diaries plenty to work with.

The Bad: The Valley of the Shadow

Though not wretched The Valley of the Shadow is nothing in comparison to the Emily Davies Diaries. The project consist of an online archive of material such as newspapers and court documents from two cities (one north and one south) during the Civil War. From the homepage users are greeted with a very creative interface. The developers actually brought the archive to the web. What I mean is that the designers gave each category and time frame its own individual “room”. Though this method is very cool and original the website lacks continuity and navigation. Once you begin diving into the actual material it is very easy to get lost in the archive and there is no way for you to navigate your way back.  The site goes from one theme to another and changes the user interface. However, this problem is no easy task when it comes to websites that host such large amounts of material. I absolutely love the idea of bringing the “archive” to the web, but the site itself is not very helpful.

One of the major components missing in this site is a main menu. The lack of menu makes users have to press the back button constantly to navigate back and forth between pages and the home page. However, the site does attempt to help users navigate their way through the conundrum by offering a “how to” page.

This project by far is not your standard website. The Valley of the Shadow only needs a few new components and a different layout in some areas to be a new creative site for historical research. It basically needs a revamp with a little bit of old school. Creativity with a site can set you apart from others, but you cannot skimp out on vital components of a website.

The Ugly: The French Revolution 

When I first went to this site created by George Mason University and the City University of New York I immediately wanted to leave the site. I lost all hope for the site when I saw them using three or four different font styles and colors on the homepage. Why is everything aligned on the left side of the page?  The menu is scattered about the small canvas making it difficult for users to even find a beginning. I do not believe I have attempted to navigate a more difficult website in my life. You are instantly thrown into a maze of French Revolutionary history. These type of sites is why so many are against the digital age and bringing history to the web. I do understand that the site is relatively old and more than likely has not been updated in a very very long time. Nonetheless, as an online archive this site should be continuously upgraded for its users so they don’t instantly give up on their research when they first come to your site. Lastly out of all the sites I looked at this is the only one I can remember that offers some type of merchandise for sale.

I can not possibly imagine how anyone could use this website for research. You are better off going to an actual archive than navigating this site. I will more than likely not take away anything from this website to place in my other than seeing what not to do when it comes to a digital history.

Conclusion:

All in all as we continue on into the future digital history seems to get better and more creative as we go on. For the digital past it is best if we leave some projects in dust and learned from what we lost. Project such as the Emilie Davis Diaries allow other historians and students great ideas for great historical project. The do’s and don’ts are all there in these three project and there is enough to take away to begin building our own sites.

Why I am Taking Digital History

First and for most I decided early on to take this class because it acts as a capstone for my digital studies minor. Secondly, because Dr. McClurken asked me to take part in the Century of America project. Thirdly, because I absolutely love the digital humanities. Mixing digital technology with a liberal arts education is vital in today’s world. Out with old and in with the new I say. Additionally, having any experience with digital technology will potentially help land a job after graduation. For anyone studying history or humanities digital technology is going to be a vital component of the future and it is there job to learn how to use the technology. I took this course to help continue to fine tune my digital and history skills. More or less this course is going to be a win win situation for myself. I am looking forward to the rest of the semester and working with my group to get the project done.

Archival Research

Two of us went to UMW’s archives in the library yesterday and successfully found a ton of material and information. There are several student scrapbooks from that time with various pictures of students, teachers, and various members of the armed forces from that time period. These scrapbooks additionally had several pages that stated “War Times”. Catalogs from the university also held a ton of information and actually on from 1917 titled “Patriotism Through Local History Conservation in War Time Reorganization of English School Activities.” This catalog was most exciting because it was written by the the schools president and several professors of the time explaining how to conserve during wartime. We are still trying to find out if UMW’s curriculum changed, but have not looked through all of the catalogs. By the end of the week hopefully we will be able to finish our archival research.