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.

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