Category Archives: Doing Digital History 2014

Final Presentations in Digital History

My students presented their projects on the 18th despite a nasty snowstorm. The storm prevented one student from attending class, but he participated via speaker phone. Some of our guests could not make it to campus, but several intrepid community partners did. We thank them for coming to see the unveiling of the students’ semester-long local history projects.

The presentations and the projects themselves were an unqualified success. After a couple of initial instruction sections on Omeka, the students mastered this program largely without my assistance. I was delighted to see them help each other out when they ran into problems. The Lost Dunkirk group included exhibits on the history of twelve buildings, as well as a timeline using TimelineJS and a Google Earth map embed showing where each of their buildings had existed. The Sarah Sinfield group did exhibits on four periods of Sarah’s life, as well as a StoryMap of her life and travels and a Wordle using some of the letters that the men of the 72nd NY Regiment wrote in support of Sarah’s pension for her Civil War service.

After a few final corrections, the exhibits are now live. Take a look if you want to see what students can accomplish in a semester, using new technology to present local history in innovative ways:

Sarah Sinfield

Lost Dunkirk

Many thanks to the great community partners who provided most of the research materials for these projects, including Michelle Henry and Jo Ann Kaufman, who did the research into Sarah Sinfield; Diane Andrasik, Denise Griggs, and the other helpful volunteers at the Dunkirk History Museum; and my neighbor David Briska, who gave the Sarah Sinfield students his fantastic tour of the Dunkirk Lighthouse. The lighthouse connects both projects, as the original building was one included in the Lost Dunkirk site and Sarah Sinfield’s husband William was the assistant lighthouse keeper after the Civil War. Check it out if you are ever in Dunkirk; it’s worth a visit!

My hope is to have students in other courses and interns add to these projects, particularly the Lost Dunkirk. I think that the students this semester made a good start. Much of that is thanks to the terrific Doing Digital History summer institute sponsored by NEH and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Thanks for the millionth time to Sharon Leon and Sheila Brennan for their direction of this institute, and to Jeff McClurken of U Mary Washington for his great session on teaching  DH. This would literally have been a far different (and lesser) course without what I learned at this institute. If you have an interest in digital history, I highly recommend applying for this institute, should it be offered again.

Happy New Year to all!

Almost to the Finish Line

I see it’s been a couple of months since I last posted. Academic life has intervened–teaching three courses, including one completely new, and serving on an administrative search committee, among other things. The Digital History course is almost over; the students give their final presentations Thursday to their classmates and community partners. After seeing the “dress rehearsal” last week, I feel confident enough to say that the presentations are going to be better than respectable. The students have done a great job, in fact.

It’s been a challenging and different course to teach for me. I am used to doing either lecture-focused courses or research/methodology seminars where I spend quite a bit of time in one-on-one guidance of student research, although they work on their own to do the research and writing, of course. But this course was a rather different animal. In my DH course I have followed Jeff McClurken’s advice to give students the space to write their own contracts and figure out how to do their projects. They gave updates in class, and I met with the groups on a few occasions, but they have been working on their own for a good deal of the semester. Both groups ultimately chose to use Omeka for their projects, and I resisted the impulse to look at their sites until last week. I was a bit nervous when I first peeked, but I need not have been.

Not only have the students risen to the occasion, they have done so without the frequent assistance and hand-holding that students often ask for when I ask them to use a new technology. I’ve helped with a few problems, but generally they have figured it out themselves or used the documentation. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon. It isn’t that the students in this course began the semester any more tech-savvy than my other students (other than the one CS major). Some had used WordPress, but few had any experience with the other tools we learned, and no one had even heard of Omeka. So perhaps it was the nature of the course itself that emboldened the students to become problem-solvers. Whatever the reason, I like this!

The next time I teach DH, I hope to be able to get a computer lab for one of the two teaching days each week. I reserved a lab for several days, and it was quite useful. Students didn’t always want to bring their laptops to class, and one only had a desktop, so the lab worked well for trying tools. I also want to develop a two-part course. The first part will be an Introduction to Digital Methods, which will focus more on learning and experimenting with various tools, and have a couple small digital assignments. The second part will be an Advanced Digital Methods similar to what I did this semester (just like me to start with the advanced course!). That way (in theory, anyway) one could get a group of students who already had some familiarity with some of these tools, and they could devote more time to planning, researching, and constructing their projects.

Next post will be about the student presentations, complete with links. The History Department at Fredonia ended up getting a domain from Reclaim Hosting (which I highly recommend) and creating public sites there for the students to use. More on all this next time.


This is one of those days when I am feeling discouraged. Spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to figure out how to upload the Neatline plugin to Omeka. The directions are sparse: download the file (check), unzip it (check), move the Neatline folder to /plugins (huh??). Where is plugins? After much searching and trial and error, I figured out that this had to do with the FTP program. Unfortunately, we never actually used this at the workshop, so I was clueless as to how to proceed. I think I figured out that I had to go into my Reclaim Hosting portal, and found the FTP thing in the Cpanel. I believe I actually got it connected with my Cyberduck correctly, but still cannot figure out how to get the Neatline folder to plugins and to my Omeka site. Luckily, one of the students in my DH course is a computer science major. I am hoping I can prevail upon him to help me with this. Unfortunately, I will not be showing my students how to use Neatline today! (Okay, so I kinda waited til the last minute to try it; it was a sorta last minute addition.)

What this and a few other frustrating experiences tell me is that I really need to do a coding class. I need to at least learn the lingo, as there are too many times when I am completely at sea with this stuff!!

The course is still perking along, but we shall see how the students conceptualize their projects. And then execution–yikes! One group wants to use Omeka; I believe the other is going to create a site using Drupal. (Needless to say, the latter is the group containing the computer science major.) I am thinking that may be too limited; certainly seems quite limited in terms of plugins and the ability to embed things like StoryMap and such. Having your own hosted site definitely makes things easier!

Enough complaining for one day. I am now going to try focusing on the things that are working well, and getting help for those that are not. Wish me luck!

Digital History in Western New York

We had two fantastic presentations of WNY digital projects this week in my Digital History course. On Tuesday Nick Gunner (who works in Fredonia’s marketing & communications division) showed us the mapping application he developed to present the prodigious research efforts by Doug Shepard and Wendy Straight to map antislavery activism and the underground railroad in Chautauqua County. Check it out at Nick used Open Maps to create his program, and we took a look at that as well, and even corrected a few errors in the Dunkirk map.

On Thursday we trekked to Reed Library to hear about the digitization of Anna Clift Smith’s Van Buren Life journal. Smith lived at Van Buren Point  (on Lake Erie) and her journal (written in 1904-1905) contains her observations on local flora and fauna as well as her activities,  and is punctuated by her own illustrations. This journal is held by Fredonia’s Reed Library Archives and was transcribed and published in book form in the 1990s (with the support of the Friends of Reed Library). Cindy Yochum showed us how she did the scanning and coding, and Lisa McFall gave us the low-down on TEI coding. We also saw the original journal in the archives, and Barb Kittle showed us the local histories, atlases, and directories available here for the students’ research projects. Two of our librarians, Katie Sacco & Sara Parme, have begun the process of creating the site (on Omeka!), which will eventually include the transcript and the original of each page, the illustrations, and a participatory annotation tool. Take a peek at what they have put up so far on Anna Clift Smith’s Van Buren Life.

Not only did my students learn some of the nuts and bolts of creating these two cool projects, they also had reinforced one of the main messages of our readings and class discussions: it takes a village to do DH! This is a collaborative process, as I keep telling them, and a long-term one. As many have pointed out, librarians are key allies and collaborators for all of us wanting to do digital history. So here is a big shout-out to all the librarians at Reed (and Lisa, who works at Hamilton College) who have contributed to this digitization project and who have been so helpful to my class. In addition to those above, this includes Scott Richmond, who taught my students the mysteries of Dublin Core last week. Another big thank you goes to community folks such as Wendy and Doug, who devote so much of their free time and energy to researching local history, and coders like Nick, who create applications to help them present their work.

I am humbled by all the hard work and enthusiasm that has gone into creating these two digital projects. Terrific work all around! Next week my students begin work on their projects. More on that to come.

How It’s Going

Well, it’s been awhile since I last wrote at the end of the Doing Digital History workshop (thanks CHNM & NEH!). I am three weeks into my Digital History course, so time to reflect a bit. I think it is going fairly well. We had a discussion yesterday about how we would define digital history, after reading Rosenzweig & Cohen, as well as some of the digital humanities definition pieces. I have managed to use PressForward to feed the students’ blogs into our course site (yay!).

Next week we have a session on Omeka and Dublin Core. We also have coming up: a presentation on a project mapping the Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County.  This presentation will be by Nick Gunner, mapper extraordinaire, who mapped the materials Wendy Straight and Doug Shepard compiled on anti-slavery activism in the county.  Next, we get to see how Cindy Yochym at Fredonia’s Reed Library  digitized the Anna Clift Smith journal.

Soon the students will be choosing their group project from two options. First is the story of Sarah Sinfield, a local woman who asked for and received a pension from Congress for her Civil War service, after accompanying her husband and his regiment to various battles, including Gettysburg. The second project is recovering and mapping the buildings of “lost Dunkirk”–lost to urban renewal, railroad changes, and economic transformation.

The course continues to challenge both me and the students, but I am pleased so far with how it is going. And I know it is far, far better than it would have been had I not been privileged to attend the CHNM/NEH Digital History Seminar this summer. If you’d like to check out my digital history course, please do so at HIST 396 I Dig History.

Survey in Google Drive

Thanks to Jeff McClurken’s model, I put together a pre-class assessment survey on Google Drive for my DH class today. It was fairly quick and easy (took less than an hour–of course, I didn’t have to make up my own questions!). I will send it out to the students tomorrow. Hope it doesn’t scare them away!

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 8.46.45 PM

I also have identified a couple of projects that my students can work on in the course. One is the story of a local woman who received a Civil War pension from the federal government for her service, and who also worked at the local lighthouse. The second is a website on “Lost Dunkirk.” The town of Dunkirk used to be much bigger and more prosperous; it lost a lot of businesses and buildings over the years, including some through bad urban renewal. The historical society has photos and info on many of these buildings, I found when I visited today, so this will be another web project for the course.


Digital Pedagogy

I was very energized by today’s session and have lots of ideas for my Digital History/Humanities course, as well as for making my other courses digital inflected. I think right now I need to try to keep myself from trying to do too much this fall–need to start with small steps! I have a clearer idea now of what I can do with my DHH course, and how to accomplish it. I am going to develop a pre-course skills assessment survey like Jeff McClurken’s, and get it off to the students so that I can get that information before classes begin. I also plan to identify some sources students can use for building digital projects; I have a few in mind already.

I do want to have my capstone students do their final papers on Word Press, but I may have them do a sort of hybrid with the paper and links, images on Word Press but also printed as a more “traditional” research paper–kinda how the JAH and other print journals do digital scholarship. Have to think on that a bit and see what my students think.

Uses of distant reading?

I have to say that text mining was rather less fun than I had expected. Yes, the Ngram and Bookworm and Voyant were fun for searching terms (see previous post), but I am having difficulty figuring out what I would use the topic modeling for. Using an (admittedly) small sample of texts, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about my research. But that is perhaps because I am fairly far advanced on this project; I’ve done the research, am familiar with all the sources, and have done some of the writing. So maybe the best time for this distant reading and topic modeling is when you are beginning a new project and want to run a bunch of texts through the old topic modeler. I am trying to think how it might’ve helped my research if I had had the ability to do this for the gift project. If I had been able to load hundreds of articles on gifts, etiquette books, diaries, etc. and see what relationships popped up in topic modeling, it could have set up some questions for research. This might have structured my research earlier and saved me some time in slogging through all these documents to come up with the key concepts to frame my argument. As it is, I think my current research is too far gone to benefit substantially from this. But perhaps there are dimensions to this that I’m not considering; I’m willing to be proven wrong on this.

For my DDH project, which is my course on DH, I would like to create an assignment using NGram and/or Bookworm, so that students would be able to see the rise and fall of words/phrases over time. I’m not quite sure what the assignment will specifically consist of at this point, but I will work on it. I think Voyant is a bit tricky, and the topic modeling even moreso, for an introductory undergrad course in DH.

I think the middle portion of my course will be “playing with digital tools.” I am hoping the students will all have laptops so that we can do these sessions in class like we have done in this seminar. If not, I will have to try to get the library classroom or one of the labs (which are in short supply, especially for humanities–one of the many problems at my campus and, I am sure, other campuses).

Spatial History & Mapping

This was an incredibly busy day–my head is still spinning! I am looking at my notes and see Lincoln’s warning: “Data mapping is hard.” He was NOT kidding! I had a rather hard time wrapping my mind around how to do this, and had some problems with the data set and the Google Fusion tables, although it worked eventually.  I don’t have the kind of research data for which this kind of mapping would be useful, but I could see uses for it with census data for a community project.

I liked StoryMap once I got it working and would like to play with it a bit more. I started a story about where I have lived, but only got one slide made. There was a Chautauqua County woman who served in the Civil War and I am thinking this could be a good little tool to tell her story–I will have to talk to our county historian about this. This seems also to be a good tool for students.

I had fun with the geo-rectifying tool, but I suspect it was a fairly easy assignment since my section of Boston still had mostly the same streets and landmarks. I think it would be more difficult for a city that had grown substantially between the 1930s and today  (Phoenix, for instance). The rectified maps reminded me of the way HistoryPin displays; I guess it is in some ways the same basic technique except you are pinning buildings and monuments to maps.

I got Geolocations uploaded to Omeka. I’m on a DH renga at Fredonia and we are thinking long term about a county history/landscape project. I was thinking that this might be a useful tool to start to play with and conceptualize such a project.

I’m looking forward to text mining, which seems (possibly) more relevant to my own research on gift giving.