Internship Reflection #8

Because of my internship, I am better prepared to carry out work on collaborative digital history projects. My experience was a unique one in the sense that I was able to witness a multi-year project that saw the participation of seven different partners: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, five historically Black colleges and universities, and the Center for History and New Media. When I first joined the team, staff at the Center were beginning to think critically about the wide variety of items held by the different HBCUs: what broad themes could be applied to the institutions’ collections? How could a metadata schema be developed in such a way that would best capture information about everything from paintings, sculptures, oral histories, photographs, and archival materials? 

Around this same time, the GMU team was also contemplating another matter central to the project – the translation of academic and archival information into an experience that would be digestible by the project’s audience: the public. Would users of the site want to engage with oral histories of “everyday” people? How willing would they be to dig through hundreds of pages of scanned archival documents like correspondence and newspaper articles? What about the presentation of metadata? Something as simple as following the ISO format for dates (Year-Month-Day) could be confusing or off-putting to users unfamiliar with the standard. 

These questions were made all the more challenging by mixed perceptions about the project; initially, some institutions were working under the belief that the project’s end product would be akin to a database, rather than an engaging, narrative-driven website. The concept of “translating” complex academic concepts in history into material that is consumable and relatable to the “everyday” person has always intrigued me, so I was excited to be a part of these conversations. Because of my experience, I feel well-equipped to navigate these issues if and when I ever work on a digital project similar to this one. 

I also have a better understanding of working with metadata and how to go about generating metadata for large-scale projects. Finally, discussions about the types of language to be used in the project were incredibly enlightening. A topic of conversation at a recent team meeting centered on racial terms used throughout the site. Since NMAAHC is organizing the project, should the project use the term “African American” to describe individuals with no known regional or ethnic association (such as Afro Caribbean or Afro-Latinos)? When would the term “Black” or “Black American” be a better option? Because this site is likely to be a standard-bearer for other digital history projects, it’s important that seemingly miniscule details are given serious consideration. It’s a meticulousness I hope to take with me into my next digital history experience.

Internship Reflection #7

One of the most interesting aspects of my internship and my experience with the DPH Certificate Program has been the emphasis on creating digital projects for the public. As someone with public history experience, I’m already familiar with the unique challenges that come with creating exhibits and programs for the public — it can be quite difficult crafting something that appeals to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, abilities, and education levels. That being said, once a visitor has made it to a museum or historic site, the odds of them quickly changing their mind is slim; even if the experience is unengaging or generally not what the visitor had in mind, visitors are unlikely to end the visit prematurely because of the time and resources they have already dedicated to the experience.

That’s not the case for online visitors to digital public history sites! As discussed in our Digital Public History course last year, online users can quickly assess a home page or other elements within a project and make a judgement call about whether or not they want to stick around. The time and resources invested in navigating to a DPH site likely amounts to only a few clicks and at most an extensive Google search. The window where a user’s attention can be captured is much smaller, and if it is captured, it must be consistently maintained. At any point in this process, a user may choose to navigate away from the experience by hitting the “back” or “close” button on their browser. This is quite different from the experience of a visitor to a physical site, where visitors would need to gather their things, navigate to the exit, then sort out their transportation home.

It’s been fascinating to see how deeply these concepts permeate the work of digital public historians. In discussions on object metadata for the HCAC project, the question about how the average visitor to the site will perceive the metadata schema has continued to be front of mind. Something as simple as the “date” field requires an extensive amount of consideration: should the format for dates follow the ISO standard? If so, what about when the date field contains a date range? Would something like “1949/1953-01-01” be too confusing or off putting for users? Fields like “description” and “subject,” meanwhile, require a multitude of meetings and extensive research to establish format standards that will be moderate enough not to scare users away but still communicate vital information and maximize discoverability.

I know that standards exist for museum signage, things like exhibit labels and wayfinding signs, but what resources exist for digital public history projects? Is that an unresearched topic that is in need of further development?


Internship Reflection #6

At this stage in my internship, I’m drawing on what I’ve learned about metadata in the certificate program. When I first encountered this subject in the Fall of 2021, I was incredibly intrigued. Before enrolling at GMU, I spent three years in the collections department of a natural history museum, cataloging objects that were new to the collection and updating or expanding existing object records. Working in that environment, I came to learn how important it was to create highly-detailed records of objects: their condition, their appearance, their location, etc. While I believe this background primed me to better understand and appreciate the topic of metadata in digital humanities, there were certain metadata issues that were new and challenging to me.

The topic of discoverability and the creation of resource discovery metadata has been top of mind for all the members of the HCAC team at RRCHNM. I have had the privilege of sitting in on (and occasionally contributing to) discussions surrounding the question of how to best make the items on the forthcoming Omeka site most discoverable to site users (i.e. the general public – not necessarily scholars or academics). Additionally, the team at the Center has dedicated many hours towards the creation of a metadata resource template in Omeka S (otherwise known as a schema) that would allow for maximum discoverability, but also fit the needs of the diverse collections from the five HBCUs at the center of the project. It’s definitely quite a tall order!

Recently, initial work on the resource template was completed and the schema was rolled out to the five universities. Now, staff at the HBCUs must work to generate metadata for items  they have selected to be a part of the HCAC digital history website. Even as this work begins, the metadata schema is not technically “complete.” The RRCHNM team encouraged project staff to reach out with comments and suggestions regarding the resource template; the team at the Center realizes that a single, uniform schema is unable to fit the needs of every single item within one collection, not to mention five collections spanning as many institutions. While this initial template that was rolled out last week was developed based on assessments of the institutions collections, HCAC staff realize that continued conversation and schema development will lead to increased discoverability for every item featured on the site.

With the premiere of this first schema version, I have been tasked with generating metadata for the Papers of Monroe N. Work at Tuskegee University. Thus far, it’s been an interesting experience. For the Digital Public History course I took last spring, I created metadata for a handful of documents that were a part of a larger report that had been generated as part of a Texas Senate and House investigation into the Texas Rangers. I didn’t find it particularly challenging to create metadata for these documents, since they had already been organized for the final legislative report. Working with the  Monroe N. Work collection, however, is more challenging because it requires me to decide which items should be grouped together. It’s a learning experience that I’m very grateful for, since I’m continually working to translate my experience with museum cataloging into tangible metadata skills.

Internship Reflection #5

When my internship first began, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect regarding the entire experience. I did, however, have an initial idea of of what the working environment would be like. Since the internship was fully remote, I imagined that I would be assigned a project by my internship supervisor/mentor, participate in weekly check-in meetings with said supervisor, and essentially conduct my research and work in isolation. Almost immediately I was surprised to find how wrong I was! While it’s true that my internship experience is fully remote, I’m lucky in the sense that I can participate in weekly meetings in-person if and when I choose.

A great example of this occurred last week when the HCAC team met up in D.C. and explored the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Together, we partook in a self-guided experience of the Museum, analyzing the content on display and the breakdown of information in the various exhibit spaces. We also discussed ways that the forthcoming NMAAHC HCAC website will supplement the brick-and-mortar museum experience, as well as potential experiences the website could offer to users that the in-person museum cannot. After our tour, a group of us moved to a café at the National Museum of American History to review next steps in the development of a metadata resource template that the RRCHNM will be sending to the five member HBCU institutions in the following weeks.

Again, this event is an exceptional example of how incorrect my initial ideas surrounding this internship were. Additionally, the day at NMAAHC speaks to another mistaken assumption — the assumption that my interactions with staff would be limited to one person at RRCHNM. From the beginning, I have been welcomed into the Center for History and New Media fold and have had the opportunity to work with and learn from the Center’s director, the HCAC project manager (who is a research assistant professor), and two graduate research assistants. The experiences and backgrounds of these four members is incredibly diverse and it’s been interesting to see the different perspectives they bring to the project. At times it feels like I’m getting a four-for-the-price-of-one deal when it comes to knowledge I get to carry away from this internship!

Looking forward to the second half of my internship, I’m expecting to take on additional responsibility within the HCAC team, especially since the project is beginning to escalate, with an expected beta launch by Spring of 2024.

Internship Reflection #4

When my internship began, I made it a point to prioritize team meetings. Every week, my classmate and I have a standing meeting with our internship supervisor. Additionally, the larger HCAC team at the RRCHNM also meets every week via Zoom. Over the past few months, there have been times when it has been difficult to attend one or both of these meetings; some weeks I’ve been on the road during a conference call, other weeks I’ve been bogged down with other schoolwork. However, when my internship began, I made a commitment to myself to prioritize these meetings. I firmly believe that a key ingredient to success in this internship is my full integration and active participation in the larger structure of the project. I’m proud with how I’ve consistently shown up throughout the semester in this internship. It’s a small win, but I believe it to be a vital aspect to success.

One of the most challenging aspects of this experience and the HCAC project as a whole is the speed at which progress is made. During a team meeting yesterday, my internship supervisor spoke to this, stating that this project was the slowest moving project he’s ever encountered in his 20+ years at the RRCHNM. This can be attributed to the large number of partners involved in the project. While my involvement is centered almost exclusively around the Center for History and New Media, the larger HCAC project includes 5 HBCUs and the Smithsonian. A wide range of staff (full-time, part-time, undergrads, graduate students, faculty, museum staff, etc.) are involved at the HBCU level. For the project to succeed, coordination and communication must happen within the individual HBCUs, between the HBCUs, between the HBCUs and the RRCHNM, between the RRCHNM and the Smithsonian, and between the Smithsonian and the HBCUs. Additionally, as the project advances, progress is increasingly reliant on independent contractors who have been hired to help with the digitization of objects within the 5 HBCU collections. With so many individuals and organizations involved, it’s almost incomprehensible to me that progress is happening at all!

It can be difficult at times for me to understand what my role is when it comes to tackling these challenges. While the experience presents a valuable learning opportunity for me, I often feel like my abilities and role limit how much I can contribute to the forward momentum of the project. In those moments, I make a conscious effort to remind myself that the success of the project relies on the small, regular contributions of all involved individuals, not the contributions of a select few.

Internship Reflection #3

Over the past few weeks, the objective of my internship has shifted slightly. Initially, I was tasked with selecting, researching, and contextualizing an object from the collection of one of the five HBCUs at the center of the HCAC project. After consultation with my internship supervisor, I selected a series of documents that converged with my academic interests. As I researched, I was able to consult the original documents that the HBCU had uploaded to the RRCHNM Omeka S sandbox site. In reviewing these files, I realized that I was already familiar with the contents of the papers because I had encountered other digitized versions of them elsewhere online. Unfortunately, since one of the objectives of the HCAC project is to make available HBCU collections that have never been digitized, the decision was made to remove the item at the center of my research from the overall HCAC project.

The experience was an unprecedented one for me, and was very enlightening. While I do feel a twinge of disappointment that my research on the collection objects came to a halt, I believe the larger lesson I learned was incredibly valuable. When working on a digital humanities project, it’s important to begin with foundational questions like: How will this project be different from ones that already exist? What need will this project fill that other projects are not already filling? Will this project duplicate any existing work? What value will this project bring that an in-person experience or a similar digital experience is not able to accomplish? For me, it was even more impactful that this situation took place within a project where the Smithsonian is involved as a primary partner; the fact that a reexamination of these questions was happening at this stage in the game (and in a project of this size) left me with the understanding that no institution is immune to these sorts of challenges.

Once the decision was made to pivot away from the documents at the center of my internship, my supervisor was quick to suggest a new objective for me: the comparison of two oral history platforms. Multiple HBCUs are planning to feature recordings from their oral history collections on the HCAC website. The HBCUs are currently doing the work of transcribing and in some cases digitizing these recordings, but the final product (along with an index) will need to reside on some sort of platform on the HCAC site. As part of an earlier course in the certificate program, I did some work with the OHMS viewer from the University of Kentucky, which will be one of the platforms at the center of my new research project. Additionally, I will be experimenting with TheirStory, a commercial platform that seems to primarily target individuals wanting to preserve the stories and memories of their loved ones. Moving forward with this task, I will need to quickly work on developing skills that allow me to analyze the needs of this aspect of the project, apply that understanding to my experiences with the 2 platforms, then effectively and concisely communicate my findings to a wide range of stakeholders.

Internship Reflection #2

I am enjoying the opportunity to witness and participate in behind the scenes meetings with the varied groups and individuals that are central to this project. Every week, my classmate and fellow intern (Holly) and I are invited to join a standing meeting with the staff members of GMU’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media about the progress being made on the History and Culture Access Consortium project. It feels like we are getting a valuable sneak peek into a wide range of elements regarding this endeavor: how to manage a project of such broad proportions, the contractor-client relationship, and the technological processes that are essential to the success of the project even in its earliest stages. I appreciate how well Holly and I have been welcomed into the team, and how we are continually included in project communications that aren’t necessarily directly related to our internship.

For example, a few weeks ago, Holly and I were invited to attend a Zoom meeting with the program managers from the five HBCUs involved with the project. This meeting was meant to allow for the exchange of techniques, ideas, and questions regarding the utilization of Omeka S and metadata. The uploading of items and metadata to the Omeka platform falls under the purview of the 5 institutions, but not necessarily under the scope of the RRCHNM (although the Center is indirectly responsible for the uploads since RRCHNM is responsible for guiding the institutions through the Omeka and metadata journey).

For our internship, Holly and I have been tasked with researching and thinking critically about one of the collections from the institutions, so in theory our attendance at the program managers meeting was not required or even directly related to our tasks as interns. However, it was still a valuable opportunity to further our understanding of Omeka S and metadata and I was excited that the project team at RRCHNM thought to include us; it would have been easy and understandable for the team to exclude us from this meeting, which made me appreciate it even more.  To ensure additional positive experiences like this one, I think it would be beneficial for me to voice my appreciation of our inclusion.

One of the realizations I’ve come to as a result of my experience with this internship thus far is how much I value regular, scheduled check-ins with team members. In my previous experiences working at museums, project meetings would occur on an as-needed basis, maybe once or twice a month. These meetings were more formal and structured, since they were relatively infrequent. In contrast, the HCAC meetings feel like a moment for team members to touch base with each other and solicit feedback regarding ideas or questions that can be pondered out loud during the meeting. This is something I hope to carry with me into my career after my time at GMU.

Internship Reflection #1

This year I will be interning at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Specifically, I will be working on a project headed up by the National Museum of African American History & Culture called the HBCU History and Culture Access Consortium (HCAC). The HCAC project will see the collaboration of 5 historically Black colleges and universities with the RRCHNM and various other partners. The aim of the project is to “preserve and interpret African American art, history, culture and memory” according to the Smithsonian’s informational page on the HCAC.

Thus far, the team at RRCHNM has worked with museum staff members at each of the HBCUs on evaluating aspects of their collection that will be digitized, as well as training the staff on how to use Omeka S. RRCHNM’s end product will be the creation of 5 cohesive but distinct websites that spotlight elements from the HBCU’s collections. The HCAC project fits well with RRCHNM’s mission to “democratize media” through the use of digital media and computer technology; the digital collections will be available to both researchers and the wider public.

Together with my classmate, Holly, this semester I will work on learning the ropes of Omeka S and thinking critically about metadata, resource templates, and item vocabularies. Additionally, I will narrow my work to focus on one HBCU and one of the collections that specific college or university will be spotlighting on their website. One of my goals this semester will be to compile an annotated bibliography with documents pertaining to the collection I’ve selected. The hope is that the research I compile can then be used to contextualize and inform the content on the online exhibit featured on the site to support the the digitized collection.

The school I’ve tentatively selected is Florida A&M University and the collection I’ve (also) tentatively selected is their collection of documents pertaining to the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. In two weeks, I’ll have a meeting with my mentor, Dr. Mills Kelly, to confirm my school and collection selection, hence my use of the word “tentative.” Additionally though, I recently became aware of a unique challenge with my choice of collection. Although the preservation and accessibility of documentations related to a tragedy as severe as the Rosewood Massacre is of vital importance, the fact of the matter is that thousands of pages of scanned text can on the surface appear a bit…dry. Compared to the physical objects and visually striking murals that some of the other HBCUs will be featuring on their sites, the Rosewood Collection will require a unique presentation to ensure that viewers don’t overlook the essential content contained within those documents.

I’m excited to face this challenge head-on, learn more about Omeka S, and get a close up look at such a complex project with multiple major partners.

Presenting the Past in a Digital World

At first glance, digital presentations of the past seem extremely advantageous. Information that was previously difficult to access can now be viewed with a few simple clicks. In-person exhibits and educational experiences that once could only be experienced by a small group of people can be disseminated digitally to millions, maybe even billions of consumers. Unfortunately, these new methods also come with a number of challenges that educators must be cognizant of.

First and foremost — the amount of sheer digital noise that reputable history learning opportunities have to compete with is off the charts. If these educational experiences cannot be found easily by the target audience, they will be overshadowed by other experiences that may not be as credible. “If your website isn’t on Google, does it even exist?” This isn’t just a colloquial saying, it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your digital project isn’t one of the first results displayed at the top of the first page of a search conducted with search engines that learners are using, the project has failed before it even had a chance to be viewed.
Outside of online searches, it can be difficult for history educators to meet people where they are online. Increasingly, online users are on some of the most popular social media platforms: Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. Unfortunately, these platforms aren’t exactly designed in a way that is well suited to the presentation and distribution of academic and public history. Wikipedia is especially challenging because it discourages reliance on primary sources. With billions of views per month, Wikipedia is one of the most viewed websites in the world — but the content on the website has a reputation for being tightly controlled by a relatively small group of homogenous editors.
Finally, with searches on Google and Wikipedia becoming second-nature, it can be easy for “digital natives” (and even non-natives) to forget to question the origins and credibility of information they consume online. In many cases, this error isn’t necessarily due to oversight, but rather due to lack of knowledge as to how to assess online sources. Even if users are able to cut through all the digital noise and find a credible history learning opportunity, why should they trust reputable projects over non-reputable sources? If they are unable to spot the differences, learners might give equal weight to projects that are unequal in quality.