Blog Reflection Post 8

Because of my internship, I am confident that public history is the thing I want to do. It’s very easy in the midst of graduate school historiography papers to wonder if the work you’re doing will impact anyone, let alone change the field. However, interning with the National Museum of American History has reminded me that my education has not existed in a vacuum. Everything I’ve learned at George Mason University–from digital public humanities to applied history–has helped me succeed in this internship, not by preemptively outfitting me with every skill I’ll ever need, but by giving me the foundations so I can figure things out on my own. However, a small part of me was wondering if I’d even enjoy public history–a small part, but still worrisome. However, coming from the other side of this internship, I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity and happy that I decided to go back to school to study history. I finally feel at peace with my academic decisions, and though I know the real world of job interviews awaits, I look forward to my own future as well as the future of public history and digital humanities.

Blog Reflection Post 7

What insights do you have about working in digital public humanities as a result of this experience? What new questions or ideas do you have as a result of this experience?

Much of the work of digital public humanities is invisible to the eye of the public. That may seem strange, given that the subject contains the word “public,” but it’s because all the work done is for the benefit of the public. Metadata makes it easier for both those working on the project to comprehend it, but it also allows people outside of the project to understand the data more easily by standardizing things. Even though I do not personally work with the public in this internship, all my work–in some form or another–will come before the public. They most likely won’t see the rows upon rows of data that I’ve entered into Excel, but they will see the conclusion of all that data. In a way, I’ve come to view digital public humanities as the sound engineering of public history. Whenever I’ve worked with audio/visual technology, it’s always apparent that nobody notices when the audio is working smoothly. However, when a mic is too quiet or there is too much feedback, it’s all anybody notices. Digital public humanities–at least the kind that I’m partaking in–is like that: it all goes unnoticed until you accidentally enter information into the wrong row or you forget how to standardize a certain categorization or spelling.

Given all this data I’m compiling, I now understand the appeal in crowdsourcing: work that would take years by a team of a dozen can be accomplished in a few months with hundreds of intrepid Internet users. At the same time, if there are questions about the quality of your work, it’s hard to ask an advisor on a crowdsourcing project–there rarely is one. It’s hard enough for me, a digital intern, to communicate all my ideas and questions in a single email; I almost always forget to mention something. So the limits of digital public humanities are mainly in effective, clear communication. However, sometimes the trade-off is necessary, even welcomed. Some crowdsourced projects don’t need a lot of oversight–in fact, the best ones need none at all. My main question is if digital public humanities can ever substitute completely for in-person communication and research. It’s not really a new question, and it’s a question that many people think that they have the answers to. But I’m still drawing my own conclusions on this one. I think digital public humanities is practical, but I do have to say that I am looking forward to meeting my boss in person in the coming weeks, as I work on an in-person project within the museum itself. I guess, despite my access online to centuries of data and words, it still can’t–at least for me–completely replace the wonder of touching an artifact or seeing someone’s gratitude on his or her face.

Blog Reflection Post 6

What skills or knowledge from your coursework are you using in your internship?  Have you noticed a difference between theory and practice? Why or why not?

Most of the skills from my digital humanities coursework that apply to my internship deal with metadata. How much metadata needs to be included? What is the best way to standardize that metadata? How will this metadata allow us to see patterns in the data?

The metadata of the “famous,” “celebrated,” and “celebrity” databases are very important. If all we cared about was the data itself, we would just copy the sentence in which the words are used. However, the database is meant to make information as clear as possible, so we list the newspaper that the word appears in, the date, and the location of the paper. That information will allow us to observe any regional patterns. (New Orleans newspapers really like sarsaparilla, for instance!) Similarly, we record the object to which the word “famous,” “celebrated,” or “celebrity” applies. (It’s surprisingly unclear in a lot of cases.) We also document the object’s sex (if there is one), foreign or domestic status, and age. And finally, most importantly: what is it/he/she famous for?

Perhaps all this information could be gleaned from the sentences themselves. However, while in theory that might be true (“The famous battle of Gettysburg took place three years ago today” is fairly obvious), in practice, many things are left implied (“The famous anniversary commenced with fireworks” makes a lot of assumptions about the previous sentences, but also about the reader). While I do wish that some of these newspaper writers had been more transparent in their meaning, it is fascinating to do a deep dive into who a famous “general” or “explorer” was based on the other clues in the article. It’s also made me aware of how much information is assumed to be known by readers in the newspaper articles of today; any future graduate students will have just as hard a time as I have been having!

We have all these rules that help us categorize these sentences and objects, but sometimes, they can’t cover all the bases. Once again, I should have anticipated this (rules can’t cover everything, after all), but I find myself surprised every time it happens. All this means is that we have to adapt our strategy and adopt a new rule. These rules don’t just apply to categorization; they also apply to how the data is written. I have my own style, but I’m also realizing that my boss has his own style (open brackets vs. closed brackets, for instance). Standardization is important, which is easy to remember when setting the rules, but harder when you are on your 300th data entry and cannot decide whether the “Elastic Lock Stitch Sewing Machine” is the same as the “Elastic Locke Stitch Sewing Machine.” Unfortunately, standardization is pretty hard when the English language wasn’t even standardized in the 19th century!

Blog Reflection Post 5

What about your internship has been an eye-opening (new or unexpected) experience? What were your initial expectations? Have these expectations changed now that you are half-way through? How? Why?  

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience of this internship is that nothing I do is done in a vacuum. Maybe that’s a realization I should have had before I even started–it’s kind of the underlying theme of public history–but it truly struck me when, amidst plans to get the data ready for analysis and presentation, the government shut down. All Smithsonian institutions were affected; fortunately, my boss and I were not furloughed, but it meant that there was a stress on completing the project that didn’t exist, since he was now taking on other responsibilities in the absence of his colleagues. The work we have done wasn’t negatively impacted–we both were still able to work–but I forgot that this work is contingent upon the Smithsonian–and, looking at the big picture, the government–running. The shutdown made me more cognizant of outside pressures affecting work that we think is apolitical: maybe the work is apolitical, but it’s done in an inherently political environment.

My initial expectations were that my work’s implications might not even be known to me. I knew that exhibitions take a long time to put together, and I wasn’t expecting to walk into the museum the next day and see one with all my research. So I suppose that I had low expectations to my work ever being seen by someone other than my boss (at least this semester), so I was pleasantly surprised that my boss wanted my particular project done by next month so that he can present the findings. However, with exposure comes potential criticism, and that possibility has made me realize that I need to accept both the joy and discomfort associated with putting your work “out there.” So I’ve had to adapt my expectations to not only do work that my boss–and, most importantly, I–am proud of, but acknowledge that now my work will be scrutinized by more people, and with that comes apprehension. I will still continue to do good work, and I will be receptive to other people’s opinions, but I can’t let what I’m afraid that they might say negatively affect my current work.