Category Archives: HIST 694

Wrapping Up Digital Public History Course

My experiences this semester have been overwhelmingly positive. Like any moment of growth and learning, however, there have also been moments of struggle (social media is not my forte, so module 9 was particularly painful for me). I am surprised by how time consuming and how energy-sapping the development of my prototype has been. At the same time, I am also looking forward to  continuing work on the website beyond this class. It’s a project that I am very passionate about and I am excited by the prospect of further collaboration in order to better create a piece of digital history that exists for and with the public.

Much of what I learned this semester felt like a reinforcement of what I know from working in the physical public history space. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that digital public history projects have to work just as hard (if not harder) to captivate audiences. In my time as a museum employee, I have witnessed many a family double down on an outing that has lost its enjoyment simply because they had already invested a significant amount into the experience (the drive, parking, paying admission). From my limited experience, once a visitor is on-site, they will want to get their money’s worth and stick it out. If the  experience is unenjoyable, they probably won’t return, but it’s unlikely they will immediately head for the exits at the first sign of boredom.

With most digital history projects, the opposite is true — no time or monetary investment is required to partake. If nothing is at stake, users can jump ship at the first sign of discomfort, frustration, or distraction. Therefore the content, methods, and overall projects produced by digital historians seeking to engage the wider public must exceed user expectations within the first three seconds of the experience. What a tall order! With this in mind, I feel like I am now constantly on the lookout for extraordinary examples of digital public history projects.

I can’t resist including a few more words about the future of my project. Since the content matter is so lacking in audio and visual, I’d love to collaborate with a law school or mock trial group to reenact testimony from the Joint Committee Investigation; I was really inspired by the “Eavesdropping at the Well” piece we read by Richard Rabinowicz. Despite my aversion to social media, I want to implement a campaign to solicit community contributions to post on the website. Finally, I want to dive deeper into the historical content in order to expand the existing exhibit and create new ones (what role did WWI and German propaganda play in Florencio’s lynching?).

Last Lynching: Overview and Evaluation

The intellectual argument put forth by my project is based primarily on sources from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.  The bulk of these sources were created through an investigation into the Texas Rangers by the Texas House and Senate. These sources were generated by powerful individuals (local representatives) who were viewing other individuals in power (state police force) with a critical eye.  While a plethora of recent scholarship has been produced about the misdeeds of the Rangers, scholarship that prioritizes the stories of the Rangers’ victims remains limited. My project seeks to acknowledge this imbalance by focusing on a single Ranger victim and the community involved in his story: Florencio Garcia. The presentation of Florencio’s story in my project asks users to consider the concepts of accountability, justice, and legislative reform.

Florencio’s story does not have an ending that fits in a nice, neat box. The Rangers that were widely believed to have killed him were required to testify in front of a joint committee, but they were never officially found guilty. The joint committee’s final report stated that the officers’ accounts were unsatisfactory. Is this what justice and  accountability looks like? A Mexican-American representative proposed legislation that would have implemented significant changes in the operations of the Rangers. His bill passed — but only after significant revisions that altered the bill’s content so much, the representative abstained from the final vote. Is this what reform looks like?

Florencio was one of many victims and survivors who were at the center of the Ranger investigation. I chose to focus on documents related solely to his story because of the questions his story raises. Additionally, I believe the examination of the victims’ stories on a case-by-case basis serves to return a small portion of power and dignity to individuals who had much forcibly taken from them.

Moving forward, evaluation will be vital to the success of this project. A committee of at least 10 individuals should be compiled to review and test content before the project is officially launched. I saw a lot of merit in the user experience rubric proposed by Craig MacDonald; that will likely be incorporated into the first evaluation period. Evaluations will be held at regular intervals and at critical moments in the project’s lifecycle. In addition to a pre-launch evaluation, an evaluation will be held concurrently during the project launch and 6 months out from the launch date. Evaluations will be facilitated using a combination of interviews and respond-and-return questionnaires with stakeholders, users, and members of the target audience. Both formats (interview and respond-and-return) will collect qualitative and quantitative data.

The Impacts of Technology on Digital Public History

It’s clear that rapid advancements in technology over the past 20-30 years have presented public history practitioners with new opportunities. More interesting to me, however, are the challenges that come with this constant progression. For example, I was fascinated to learn about the OHMS tool that I posted about a few weeks ago. Doug Boyd’s article, “OHMS: Enhancing Access to Oral History for Free,” plainly states the advantages of annotating oral history interviews and search functions.

But I was surprised that no word of caution was included in Boyd’s article about the dangers that come along with these advances, dangers posed to the scholars using these tools, the field at large, and the general public. In her 2016 American Historical Review article “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” Lara Putnam notes that in exchange for time- and money-saving conveniences (like the digitization and searchability of an oral history interview), historians may end up sacrificing necessary depth and context. The ability to quickly search for specific terms or names also has the ability to change the questions we ask and the stories we tell. How should historians account for this as they create digital projects with and for the public?

Moving on to a different conundrum — the smart phone. For years staff at cultural institutions have been struggling to maintain or increase visitation to their organizations. As Colleen Dilenschneider posted in 2017: “[People] would rather stay home…home is comfortable — and you can be more ‘connected’ to others than ever before.” (The data she cites is pre-pandemic, so this preference to remain at home may no longer be accurate.)

Faced with this challenge, some organizations leaned hard into what they do best: space- and place-based experiences. They also utilized the same technology that was inadvertently reducing participation, the smart phone. Projects like PhillyHistory.org and Cleveland Historical inspired users to get out of their house and into their cities, engaging with history content through tours, augmented reality, and interactive maps. Exhibits like WWI: Love & Sorrow didn’t ask visitors to choose between their phone and a museum experience. It allowed visitors to do both, but in a way that forced visitors to leave their home. “Once downloaded, the app has minimal content…The main content is not available until the mobile user is at the museum.” (Hart and Brownbill, “Storyteller – World War One: Love and Sorrow – A hybrid exhibition mobile experience.”)

In an era where so much lies at our fingertips, digital history projects must incorporate the technology that its public is already familiar with, but in a way that stimulates wonder and surprise.

 

Project Progress Update #4

I was able to add a few more events to the timeline this week. My goals for the next week are to get all the necessary content into the timeline and to flesh out the exhibit pages more. Once that is done, I will need to take a critical eye to all of the text that has been produced to ensure that it meets the stylistic standards I’d like to meet. I will also need to create and figure out a location for a Bibliography page. I think it should definitely have it’s own section within the exhibit, but I’m considering also including a link to that page in the navigation bar.

Project Progress Update #3

Since my last update, I’ve added three new pages to my navigation bar: Contact, Community Contributions, and Español.

The addition of a contact page was pretty straightforward. Omeka offers a contact form plugin, so I installed that and set it up. The plugin recommended I enter reCAPTCHA site keys under my “Settings” section to avoid spam submissions. Signing up for reCAPTCHA keys through Google was a quick and painless process.

The “Community Contributions” page took a little more thought, however. Omeka does have a Contributions plugin, but I was hesitant to utilize that. The way I envisioned the “Community Contributions” page was more akin to a permanent exhibit at an art museum — patrons can view the art on display, create meaning from that experience, but the museum will not accept unsolicited creations from visitors to display alongside the permanent pieces. The curation process for that specific permanent exhibit is not ongoing: it happens only during a specific timeframe determined well in advance by museum staff. Because of this, I decided not to pursue the Contributions plugin. Instead, I experimented with the Exhibits and Collections functions of Omeka, the idea being that each contribution would be input into Omeka as an item. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the layouts these tools provided.

I was looking for a gallery-type display of the files associated with the items, that linked back to the items themselves. I settled on creating a SimplePage and entered a shortcode in the text box that would return all items tagged “communitycontributions”. In the page description, I also included a link to the Contact page along with the following text: “Have a question about how we accept and display community contributions? Send us a message here.” I’m still contemplating what the curation policy for this page should be — perhaps once or twice a year submissions could be accepted and the content refreshed. Regardless, once the policy is determined, information about it can be posted on this page.

Finally, I added an Español page. Ideally, when a user clicked this button, they would be transported to a twin site where all the pages were in Spanish (this seems to be the case with the Bracero History Archive). Better yet, the translation would somehow be ingrained into the site and users wouldn’t need to be redirected to a separate link (as is the case with some of the pages on New Roots).  Unfortunately, I think this would take a bit more time for me to figure out, so I settled for a SimplePage duplication of the homepage. It’s not as clean as I would like it (I can’t figure out how to translate the buttons in the navigation bar or the name of the website), but it gets the job done. I’d like to fully translate the home page, including the timeline in its entirety, but that may be too lofty of a goal – only time will tell.

Project Progress Update #2

This week, I experimented with and settled on a solution for the timeline element on the homepage. I selected Timeline JS from Knightlab because of its simplicity and accompanying tutorials. Additionally, I was able to include an element in the timeline that I considered very important — the ability to hyperlink directly to certain exhibit pages. The inclusion of a “Read More” link in each timeline event will allow users to go straight to the event that they’d like to learn about most. To me, this is important because I don’t want users to get lost while navigating the website or feel like they need to do an extensive amount of digging in order to answer their most basic questions.

One drawback to this method, however, is that clicking on the “Read More” link opens up a new tab. Instead of redirecting the already open tab to the linked exhibit page, the already open tab remains on the homepage and a new tab opens to display the linked exhibit page. This isn’t a major problem, it just feels a bit clunky. From what I’ve learned about Timeline JS, this issue doesn’t have a solution, or at least not a straightforward one. Since the tool is an external one that has simply been embedded into the Omeka/Wordpress site, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be able to reroute the existing tab to a different internal page. It’s not what I had in mind, but users should still be able to find their way around the site once on the rerouted new tab.

The issue of the permanent navigation bar at the top of the page was solved through the selection of a different Omeka theme – Foundation. This theme includes the option of a horizontal dropdown navigational layout that is visible at the top of every page on the site. It includes a search bar and it’s easy to add new links to the bar through the navigation section under appearance. The installation process for the theme took a little more time than anticipated — I was unsure how to upload the unzipped theme folders into my cPanel as a bulk action, so I had to upload them all individually. I believe I will need to utilize this same method when I install the Simple Contact Form plugin.

At this point, the website and most of the elements are very bare bones. My goals up to this point have been to create basic pages and ensure that it was feasible for me to include the elements that I had prioritized. Now I will need to begin filling in the blanks and ensuring that the pages look closer and closer to the finished product. For the next week, I’ll focus these efforts on the homepage and the timeline.

 

OHMS: Annotating Oral History

Accessibility is a key component of digital public history. The Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) is an exceptional tool that can be used to share oral history projects with online users. At the heart of the tool is the OHMS viewer, which allows users to watch/listen to video/audio of an interview, while simultaneously accessing a timestamped transcript and index (if made available by the uploader). The viewer also includes a search function.

Once an account is created with OHMS, uploading interviews and indexing them is simple. Under the “Interviews” page upon logging in, click on the “+New” button in the upper right hand corner. The “Metadata Editor” form will appear. Audio and video content can be uploaded through this screen. At the bare minimum, this form requires an interview title and media information about the interview. The form can be saved and edited at any time.

In order to index an uploaded interview, return to the “Interviews” page. To the right of the newly added interview, in the “Index” column, click the “Index” link. The “Tag Data” screen will appear. The interview should be embedded on the page, which makes it easy for users to index the project as they go. To add an annotation, click “Tag Now.” The timestamp field will auto-populate with the last time in the interview that was played (or a few seconds before) when the “Tag Now” button was clicked. Users can include information about the interview segment they would like to annotate. Once done editing, the tag is saved. Users can easily return to this screen to add and edit tags.

To export the interview in the OHMS viewer, return to the “Interviews” page and select the correct format under the “Export” column. To embed the interview in WordPress, first install the “OHMS Viewer” application, then upload the XML/CSV file into the OHMS Viewer cache. Below is an example of an oral history interview that has been indexed through OHMS.

 

Project Progress Update #1

My main focus right now is on the timeline element I’d like to feature on the homepage. There are a number of different tools I could use to create a timeline: the Neatline plugin through Omeka, Timeline JS from Knightlab, Tiki Toki, etc. I also need to figure out how to add in a permanent navigation bar at the top of the page and build out the pages that the links on that bar would navigate to (ex: Community Contributions, Contact). Finally, I’d like to reformat the landing page for the exhibit (“The Lynching”) so that it’s more in line with my paper prototype.

Project Proposal: The Last Lynching of Cameron County

“The Last Lynching of Cameron County” website will present information about the lynching of Florencio Garcia, the last confirmed lynching victim in Cameron County, Texas. Florencio’s story is unique because his death was classified as a murder, not by a grand jury, but rather by an investigative committee for the Texas House and Senate. Even as state senators and representatives declared Florencio’s killing unlawful, they took no action to bring his suspected killers (two Texas Ranger officers) to justice.

The intended audience for this digital history project are individuals with a connection to or interest in the Rio Grande Valley region (specifically Cameron County and the city of Brownsville), the Texas Rangers, and/or a history of anti-Mexican violence. The hyper-specific scope of this project will probably mean that the individuals who are most likely to engage with the end product will be current citizens of Cameron County, Hispanic (most likely of Mexican heritage), Spanish-speakers, and have some college education. Other characteristics of likely users include: an interest in history, involvement in local community organizations, politically aware and active, a desire to draw connections between current events and the past, and individuals who are interested in elevating untold/under told stories.

Project Goals

  • Present an easy-to-access narrative of Florencio Garcia’s lynching. Include opportunities for more advanced users to further explore the people and events surrounding Florencio’s story if they wish. These opportunities should be accessible, without overwhelming those users who do not wish to engage beyond Florencio’s basic story.
  • Provide a dedicated space/time for users to share their thoughts and opinions on Florencio’s story, the history of violence and discrimination in the Rio Grande, and the current relationship law enforcement has with its local and state communities.
  • Inspire users to reflect on the following questions:
    • How did non-Anglos understand and respond to Florencio’s disappearance and murder?
    • What impact did Florencio’s lynching and the resulting investigation into the Texas Rangers have on the local community?
    • What impact did his lynching  have beyond the Rio Grande Valley?
    • In what ways does Florencio’s story inform the way locals understand present-day events in the Rio Grande?

A unique challenge with this project will be reconciling the available historical content with the goal to present Florencio’s story in a narrative format. Photographs, images, physical objects, and biographical information are essential to a captivating story. Unfortunately, Florencio left a very limited amount of this information behind, likely for the same reasons that made him a target to begin with. It’s likely that the powerful groups that decided what was incorporated into the historical record in the early 20th century did not see much value in maintaining information about a young Mexican national who worked as a cattle herder. Because of this, content may need to come from sources that have no direct connection with Florencio, but present experiences of people whose life experiences were similar to his. A heavy amount of information will need to come from newspaper articles and government documents, like the Proceedings of the Joint Committee of the Senate and the House in the Investigation of the Texas State Ranger Force, 1919.

The technological elements of the website should allow users to easily submit feedback and view the feedback of other users. The internet being what it is, this talk-back space will need to have a delay built into it, so that project admins can review user-generated content before it is made public. Omeka might be a good fit for the needs of this project.

Revised Personas

Persona 1 – Luis

Demographic30s, Accountant at a local non-profit
Descriptive TitleThe Activist
Quote: “Those who forget history are deemed to repeat it – my community won’t forget.”

 

A Day in a Life Narrative: Luis is passionate about his town and is always striving to make it a better place for everyone in it. He frequently attends town hall meetings, is a member of multiple community-building organizations, and has started multiple petitions. Luis is constantly seeking new information — whether it’s about congressional districts, human rights issues, or environmental challenges. He’s a firm believer in learning from the past and sees a tremendous amount of value in using history as a way to stimulate interest in community action. Luis speaks and reads a small amount of Spanish but does not consider himself fluent.

End Goals:

  • Easily access the untold/under told histories of people that have come before him and pass them on to the many people he comes in contact with.
  • Motivate change and action in the community. Make connections between the past and current challenges the people in the area are facing.

 

Persona 2 – Dawn

Demographic: 40s, Secretary at a public high school
Descriptive Title: The Social Butterfly
Quote: “Let’s leave the past in the past and focus on the here and now.”

 

A Day in a Life Narrative: Almost from the moment she first wakes up, Dawn is in constant communication with her group of family members and friends. She enjoys being an active member of her community, mostly because she loves being around people. She loves consuming and relaying information in a story format. Whether it’s the latest political news, some neighborhood gossip, or training a colleague, Dawn is more engaged when the experience has a definite beginning, middle, and end — even better if there are twists and turns. She’s not a big history fan but is always on the lookout for an interesting story; you’ll never know what will generate a good conversation between her and the people she knows. Dawn is fluent in both English and Spanish and expects the content she consumes to reflect this back to her.

End Goals:

  • Learn more about her town’s history without making it feel like school. A compelling narrative is infinitely better than straight facts.
  • Find something that can stimulate moments of genuine connection with the people in her life. Facts and new experiences are meaningless if they can’t be shared with others.