This semester was one of the harder ones in my academic career. However, I’d like to think that I’ve made progress, not only on my project but on learning the ins and outs of digital public history. I’ve learned that creating a website means nothing if no one is visiting it–especially if no one is visiting it. You have to look inward to see whether what you’re doing appeals to the public–otherwise, it’s essentially just shouting into the void. Last semester, I was scared of people seeing what was on my website/blog/project, but now I’ve realized that I can’t learn any more if I’m not receiving any feedback.
This update is pretty lackluster, but I’m just working on all the same things that I wrote about for my second project update. The bulk of my project rests on the Plainville history, and so I’m focusing on that. I’m also looking forward, thinking about what would entail a user-friendly experience on my webpage. I feel limited by what the Omeka layout can do, but I’ve settled on a good layout now, one with text that’s easily readable and links that are more visible.
Okay, I’ve been rethinking this whole project. I’ve nixed the idea of including Plainville history–it distracts from Gordon–and my main focus is going to be on uploading all the photos that I have of his artwork. Then, I’m going to start an Instagram account to showcase his art to as many people as possible. This feels like the correct path to correctly pay homage to Gordon. One of my main goals now is designing a logo based on his signature.
Public history tied to a place makes more sense than ever, given the ubiquity of apps and Google Maps. It’s a great way to engage a visitor with a space: the best example is apps tied to museums. Especially if there’s an audio component, it’s easier than ever to plug in your earbuds and take a solo tour of a museum.
However, mobile websites about places encourage a visitor to look down at her phone more than at the surroundings. I find that distressing, since part of the beauty of visiting a location is exploring the space organically. I find this less problematic with the museum apps because there are usually markers indicating where you are supposed to read/listen. With an open space and a mobile website not explicitly affiliated with the location, there is no guide. And if you’re a tourist, you don’t know when to read/listen, so you’re stuck on your phone. This could easily be taken care of if there were signs or plaques encouraging you.
Digital public history can easily be overwhelmed with ambition. Given that the vast digital world is at your fingertips, you can easily say you want to tackle ALL OF HISTORY. In fact, it’s always better to narrow your scope. Location-based public history forces a creator to do that, and I appreciate it for its limitations. But the limitations also mean that there is little interest unless you are visiting/have visited that site, which drastically limits the audience.
Given that I live in DC, I thought it would be appropriate to try out Histories of the National Mall on, well, the National Mall. I’ve done a lot of reading on the project for class, and I’ve explored the website on my laptop in my apartment, but I’ve never tried it out while walking the National Mall.
Although I initially thought it strange that Histories of the National Mall didn’t have an app, I was glad when I reached the Mall–it’s so much easier to pull up a website than to download an app. The mobile version of mallhistory.org was very user-friendly, even the mobile version of the map of the Mall.
I mostly clicked on the pins on the map as I covered the some of the sites of the Mall: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the DC War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial. Most of the information was useful–when each memorial was built, the circumstances behind their creations, etc.–but there wasn’t anything really interesting or unique: no “Did You Know?” facts I was hoping for. Of course, some of the pins on the map were more along those lines–my favorite was the Mall Weddings pin by the DC War Memorial.
Perhaps because I’ve seen most of the sites on this map at least once before, I had more fun afterwards just clicking on pins at my leisure, not near any of the sites themselves. I personally find it kind of stressful to remember to open the website before I leave a site: I much prefer scouting an area on the map to see if it’s worth heading over. For instance, I finally found out the story behind that Japanese Lantern I always drive by and why exactly there’s a George Mason Memorial (especially important since I now attend GMU). In general, the lesser-known sites had more interesting information: you didn’t really learn anything new about the famous sites, at least from the map.
However, the Explorations page contained all the trivia I was dying for. While I found the Scavenger Hunts (especially the World War II Memorial one) a bit lacking–they featured only around three items, and they weren’t things that were particularly hard to find–I found the general questions fascinating, like “Has anyone ever lived on the Mall?” Some were questions I’ve wondered about before (“How are large objects displayed in the museums?“), and some were things that never even occurred to me (“What were the neighborhoods around the Mall like int he 1800s?“). I also liked that these questions were tagged into categories, so you could read more about the categories that interested you.
I wish there were more connections between the Maps page and the Explorations page, for instance, putting a link to the Korean War Memorial Scavenger Hunt page within the general page about the Korean War Memorial. Most of the pages under the Explorations tab can’t easily be translated into pins on the Map, but it would’ve been nice to include links to the overt ones, like when a question is specifically about the Lincoln Memorial.
I found the People and Past Events pages intimidating, even for someone who likes reading about the minute details. There were so many entries, and I found the idea of looking through even some of them overwhelming. These pages didn’t draw you in like the Map and the Explorations pages.
I like the idea of Histories of the National Mall as a complement to walking the Mall, but sometimes that’s just too hard. The site is far more enjoyable as a desktop version, so I would recommend anyone else take a look at the site before or after visiting the Mall. Maybe I would feel different if I were a tourist visiting for the day, but it’s hard to imagine. I also noticed, unfortunately, that some of the information was outdated, like about the DC War Memorial now serving as the National World War I Memorial (that got reversed, and now there are plans for a WWI Memorial in Pershing Park). I wish there were signs on the Mall encouraging people to use this site, since I think it mostly suffers from a lack of awareness, certainly not a lack of care.
Digital history has lended oral history a credence that it could never really have had in the past, given the inability to preserve oral history in its original form. However, since audio and video recordings make oral history technically on par with written records, now oral history has become a credible source. However, audio and video recordings do not eliminate the biggest problem with oral histories–or with any account given some time after an event. Oral histories are typically presented years, even decades, after the events described in the oral history. While written accounts can also be written years later, it’s certainly standard for oral histories, when the importance of certain events can only be realized years after the fact. Oral histories are not problematic because of the spoken aspect but because of the memory of the speaker. Unless an oral history is given in the immediate aftermath of an event, its veracity could seriously be called into question.
Because of my general distrust of oral histories, I find myself relying on my Plainville history book and the original report that my fellow Normandy scholar wrote on Gordon Mannix more than on interviews with older Plainville residents or my conversations with the surviving Mannix family. Their experiences are certainly real and valid, and I can’t deny the emotion behind having personal connections to history. However, I want to focus on the facts and make it clear when I am speculating, for instance, about the origin of Gordon’s artistic abilities.
I think the mission of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer is a very admirable one, particularly since I’ve transcribed oral histories of veterans during my time interning at the American Veterans Center. I transcribed to add subtitles in some cases, but most of the time, I transcribed so I could figure out what to tag the video as. However, OHMS goes the extra step and takes you to the point in the video where a particular subject is talked about, rather than simply writing that the video contains that subject somewhere. While I agree this is a natural and seemingly obvious step, I think it might be a little too ambitious. Given all the issues our class had with accessing the site, it may not be user-friendly enough to be crowdsourced just yet. As I’ve discussed last semester, if too much work has to go into crowdsourcing, even the most particular Wikipedia editors aren’t going to do it.
Local history suffers from the very real challenge of lack of public interest. After all, most of the people interested in Connecticut history are going to be from Connecticut, and while Connecticut isn’t the smallest state in land mass or population (things you only know if you’re from Connecticut!), it’s already a smaller pool to draw from than, say, Civil War enthusiasts or Americans in general, Also, because of their smaller size and the potential lack of public interest, these organizations receive less funding, whether that’s in the form of personal donations or corporate/academic endowments. Many of them have to list themselves as nonprofits, and that usually dissuades burgeoning public historians from beginning careers there. However, while all these challenges would appear to spell the end of local history organizations forever, it is also pretty clear that these organizations aren’t dead for several important reasons. First, their staffs are very dedicated, often because the history is personal to them. Because their audiences–especially their online audiences–are so niche, they don’t have to pander to the public, which makes their websites more enriching learning hubs.
I am encountering a lot of the same problems that local history websites face: smaller audiences, a “so what?” attitude, and a small staff that consists of just me! My solutions to these problems involve adapting the techniques that these sites use: celebrating their uniqueness, making the site as user-friendly as possible to eliminate the technology barrier, and providing a lot of information to explore.
Same issues as discussed in earlier blog post–except now I have tons of information on Plainville, not just from interviews but now a book I found. Now it’s about consolidating that information and not overly boring the viewer. That is more of the focus: the web design stuff needs to wait until the end. Need to consult Gordon’s biography again and figure out how to add footnotes so I don’t improperly cite anything. All same issues, pretty much.
Designs by Mannix is coming along well. However, a lot of the research is going on behind the scenes: reading up on the history of Plainville, looking over Gordon Mannix’s biography, etc. It’s been hard to view the site through the lens of a persona, but I had some help when I received a comment. (!!!) I know it’s probably embarrassing to say this, but I keep forgetting that real people actually see my website. It’s tempting to want to make Designs by Mannix as accessible to as many people as possible, but I’d much rather have it tailored and truer to Gordon and his art. I’m working now on incorporating all the information I’m learning into the website. The minute details of the design of the site (font size, ease of use) can wait until all the info is up.
If I’ve learned anything from all these readings, it’s that history is not just writing down everything. In a way, we’ve always had to be selective about our history, but the Internet Age has made us think that cataloguing everything is a possibility. However, as the Library of Congress decided with recording all Tweets ever written, some things aren’t worth the time, effort, or money.
I feel that public historians are even more aware of this need to be selective. They’re not preserving history for posterity, for the possibility of a future audience who might care: they need to preserve for audiences who exist now. Public historians have to be more in touch with what people today want from their history, and sometimes that means abandoning or majorly reworking a project that you love dearly. If there is no interest, the public historian has failed. That doesn’t mean, however, the public historian should pander to an audience, should only work with certain topics–that would get boring. No, the public historian can work on the projects that they want, and hopefully they will get to if they are listening to the feedback. More importantly, public historians have to cultivate the right kind of feedback, the kind that doesn’t lean on whether an audience merely “liked” an exhibit but how it helped them learn something new.
For a lot of these assignments, we look at the same digital history websites, but through new lenses. For instance, now the Raid on Deerfield site wasn’t just to be viewed through the lens of reminiscent of a certain Internet era: we had to look at the process of how it was made, and how much of that process is visible in the finished product that you see online. When we first had to review the Deerfield website, I couldn’t get past the clunky Flash videos–but I was supposed to be focusing on design then. Now, I was focusing on the content, and I could see that outside contributors definitely led to the reshaping of the website, as the abundance of information made the site harder to navigate but gave it more credibility as a source.
I still struggle with what kind of audience I’m supposed to reach out to, mostly because the nature of the work I do for this class is so solitary, and I honestly wouldn’t force anyone to visit my website. But I’m realizing that a website without an audience is pointless, like a book without a reader. Maybe I put a lot of work into it, but if it’s not being viewed, that’s a detriment to my lofty goal: to give Gordon’s work the audience it deserves, to not let his story become forgotten. This project isn’t really about me flexing any amazing coding or writing skills; the focus will always be Gordon’s art. Am I now focused on contextualizing Gordon’s art? Yes, because it doesn’t make much sense without explanation, even if my point of view is A) not his and B) distanced by over 70 years. I have to stop thinking that I am central to this process. If the website is a success, it’s because the audience made it so; I’d just be smart enough to listen to what people want, frankly.