Digital History

HIST 428- Spring 2024

April 26- Final Reflection

The process of creating the UMW Campus Histories website with my group was a valuable learning experience, which allowed me to explore how digital tools can be used to present historical research and educational materials to audiences in an interactive and accessible way.

At the beginning of the semester, I felt relatively comfortable with my historical research and writing skills, but had almost no experience with digital projects. I was excited to begin work on the website, but felt somewhat adrift and unclear on how to start. However, once the group met and created our project contract, laying out what tasks each person would need to complete in manageable, specific steps, my confidence increased enormously. The contract ended up being one of the most useful tools to working with a group effectively. Going into this class, I didn’t like group work very much as I felt nervous about so much of the final product being out of my control. However, the communication and collaboration that our group was able to achieve through frequent meetings, as well as the guidelines we set out together in the contract, meant that everything ran very smoothly and the final product was one that everyone was happy with. The contract included our mission statement, which despite being broad, kept us focused on the purpose of the website.

From the earliest conception of the project, we wanted to emphasize comparisons between historical materials and modern ones. This led to us putting a good portion of our time and effort into the photographs and oral histories. The comparisons between historical and present day photos is in my opinion one of the most interesting aspects of the site. Unfortunately, we were not able to publish the oral histories from the Centennial History on our site, but they provided inspiration for our interviews with present-day students and faculty, which are an important addition to our site’s archive.

The interactive map was a feature that we were all extremely excited about from the beginning. I was particularly impressed by a site I reviewed early on in the semester, Histories of the National Mall, which included a map that users could have open on their phone while walking around the mall, to learn more about the history that happened in the place they were physically standing. Looking to facilitate a similar experience with our site, we used Google MyMaps, the same tool used by a previous group of students in the course to create a site for the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. We were hoping to post QR codes around campus linking directly to a page comparing photographs of the location, but were unable to get permission. I believe the map can still be used in the way it was intended, since the map can show users their location relative to the pins for each documented location. The map is the most interactive feature of the site, and as such we wanted to give it prominence, so it is located on the home page. An easily navigable menu at the top takes users to the other pages, including the other big feature, our archive of primary sources.

After completing this project, I feel much more confident about using digital tools to share the work I do as a historian, and I hope to use the new skills I have developed in more projects going forward.

Feb 7- Knightlab Tools

Here’s a Storymap I made for a previous course using a tool from Knightlab.

I found StoryMapJS to be a very easy tool to use- it’s really no more complicated than making a powerpoint. To place each pin you provide coordinates, then write up a quick paragraph and upload a picture if desired. I had Google Maps open in another tab while I was working, and would look up the city I wanted there, then copy the coordinates and paste them into StoryMap.

I’ve looked at a lot of project using interactive maps this semester, which has gotten me really excited to see how we’re going to incorporate mapping tools into our project. I’m not sure if StoryMap is exactly what we’re looking for, but I really like the tool regardless, and will probably be using it for projects in the future.

Jan 30- AI in Digital History

I asked ChatGPT to “write a two page essay about crusader castles.” Here’s what it gave me.

I also got the image generator Deepdream to create a picture of a crusader castle.

An AI-generated image of a crusader castles. The building is made of tan-colored stone, and has one large round tower and multiple concentric rings of walls.

One thing that particularly strikes me about the essay is how adeptly it manages to avoid displaying any opinion that might be seen as controversial or inflammatory. Given that I asked it to write about the Crusades, an inherently controversial topic, the resulting essay felt strangely stilted and shallow. As far as I can tell the information it gave was accurate, although crusader castles are more of an aspirational research interest for me than something I’ve already looked into in depth, so there may be things I missed.

The image looks realistic at first glance, although on closer inspection certain elements of it can clearly be recognized as AI-generated, such as the small shapes on the ground in front of the castle, who could be representing humans or rubble. The image does not depict a real castle, but people unfamiliar with the architectural style could easily mistake it as such.

Jan 24- Reviewing more DH Projects

#1 Virtual Angkor

I love this project, although I am biased towards liking anything to do with Angkor Wat. The 3D models are absolutely beautiful, the website is modern-looking and well organized, and the teaching modules are well written and informative. I admire the innovation and creativity, not to mention the technical and research skills required to create a project like this one. That being said, I feel that the interactivity of the site is somewhat underwhelming comparing to what is being promised. Visitors to the site have the ability to view a selection of scenes in 360 degrees, but don’t have any further freedom of movement within the virtual model. Each of the scenes also have an awkward ~20 second run time, after which you need to replay the embedded video to continue viewing the scene. Overall I am deeply impressed with this project, and am interested to see where it goes in the future.

#2 The Valley of the Shadow

This site functions similarly to some of the Omeka sites I reviewed in earlier blog posts- it’s mainly a curated collection of digitized primary sources. However, it’s much more visually appealing and modern-looking than most of those were. While the intro page looked nice, I honestly didn’t like it very much- I felt a little disoriented without access to the menu upon my arrival to the site. The organization into time periods and thematic topics was helpful to make the vast amount of records and information available feel more manageable and to help visitors find exactly what they’re looking for. Speaking of, the sheer amount of sources contained in the archive is extremely impressive, and I imagine the site is very useful to researchers looking into this particular period of American history.

#3 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States

This site is one of the most innovative Digital History projects I’ve looked at so far. Rather than a simple database of historical maps, it combined the primary sources with interactive features to enhance the way site visitors engaged with the historical materials. The interface for using the atlas was not always super intuitive, but the site included a helpful section on how to navigate the interactive maps, as well as a table of contents with hyperlinks to every section, which made finding and accessing certain parts of the atlas easy and fast. Unfortunately, the site didn’t include a search bar, which could cause difficulties in navigating the site. I really enjoyed playing around with this website, and would like to go back and explore more if I get a chance.

From what I’ve seen in my survey of digital history projects so far, important qualities of a site include interactivity and navigability. Each of the projects I’ve looked at were strong in some aspects and had issues in others. Interactive features like the 3D models in Virtual Angkor and the maps in the Atlas are what make digital history projects unique, taking advantage of the things you can do with digital tools that are impossible in tradition print publications. In my own project, I’d like to make use of interactive features as much as possible. In terms of navigability, I liked the organization of pages under subheadings in The Valley of the Shadow, and the table of contents in the Atlas. I’ll also be sure to include a search bar in my project.

Jan 22- Review of Omeka sites

One of the website building tools that we have the option to use in this class is Omeka. The tool is a little different from WordPress- it’s intended more for use by digital archives and collections, rather than for blogging. However, people who know their way around Omeka can use it to do some pretty cool things. I’ve gotten to mess with the tool a little in previous courses, but I wasn’t aware of the variety of different functions and appearances that Omeka sites can have until I started exploring the list of sites provided by Dr. McClurken.

One Omeka site that I really liked was Histories of the National Mall. The front page was organized into clickable blocks that linked to different parts of the site, which I found visually appealing, and which made it easy to navigate to the pages I was interested in. My favorite part of the site was the interactive map. I found it a little difficult to use with a mouse, but according to the site’s about page it was mainly intended for use on a phone or tablet while walking around the National Mall, so I suppose that isn’t a huge problem. Rather than simply being used to post content that could just as easily be in print, this website used the mapping tool to enhance the way people experience the National Mall, and I admire the creativity that went into making this site. The appearance of the website was a little dated (and the fact that they linked their Tumblr is painfully 2014), but overall I think it’s held up very well, and all of the links I tried still worked.

Another site that I looked at was St. John’s College Digital Archives. This site was closer to what I was expecting from an Omeka site- it was a pretty straightforward archive of visual and audio files, organized into collections both by topic and by the location of the library holding the original physical records. All the items are thoroughly tagged, and the site includes a helpful page offering guidance to using the database, making it easy to navigate the site and find the items you need. One issue that stuck out to me is the lack of transcripts or image descriptions. Most of the items are audio files, scanned documents, or photographs, all of which should probably be transcribed for improved accessibility.

Jan 17- Why Study Digital History?

I’ve not had much prior experience using digital tools (as you can probably tell from the quality of this website), so I’m looking forward to developing my skills and knowledge in this course. Being proficient with various online resources and tools is a particularly valuable (and hireable!) trait, and it will be useful for me to grow in this area as much as I can while in school.

Digital history is one area of focus within the larger field of digital humanities. Digital humanists use a wide variety of digital tools to enhance the study of their discipline, and to make materials relating to their field available to a wide online audience. If this definition seems vague, it’s because the digital humanities encompass a huge variety of different activities and areas of study, from topics traditionally considered a part of the humanities (history, literature, art, music, philosophy, etc.) to a more abstract focus on the digital space itself. Digital history falls under this umbrella, and refers to the practice of employing digital tools in the process of researching and educating about the past. Historians use these tools to digitize and archive primary sources in an accessible manner, to process large amounts of historical data and find patterns, to visualize data in graphs and maps, or to publish their work in a medium that reaches a wider audience and invites more discussion than traditional means of publication. Digital history is an exciting field because integrating these digital tools into historical research can allow historians to examine and present sources in ways that’s never been done before.

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