Where we go from here

With 23 posts and 76 comments on the working group’s blog I think we have a lot to talk about in our session this Sunday. I’m not entirely sure about the best way to organize our session. We have a range of great posts on general visualization and interface questions and a series of posts that report out on detailed case studies. We have posts that focus on ways end users can visualize and create interfaces and posts that focus on the kinds of interfaces that we want our organizations to be able to provide to different audiences. We’ve discussed maps, timelines, graphs and charts and a range of different kinds of digital objects, including photographs, oral histories, and material culture. My hope for our working group’s face-to-face meeting is that we can have a chance to try and think across this work and use this as an opportunity to consider where we go from here.

I would suggest that we take the following approach to our session time.

  1. Introductions: Many of us have yet to meet face to face, I would suggest that we start by briefly introducing ourselves and our project/posts. Anyone who joins our group can use this as an opportunity to get a quick introduction to the work we have been doing.
  2. Open questions: Once everyone has had a chance to introduce themselves and their work I would suggest that we take some time to pose questions to the group or to individuals about their posts. Consider posting ideas for general questions you would like the group to respond to and discuss in the comments on this post. I would like the questions to originate first from members of the working group, but then if time permits to take questions from whatever audience members we have.
  3. How we are thinking differently? I would then suggest that we take the last few minutes of our session time to briefly go back through the group and have each group member briefly explain how participation in the group, working up their post, or reading one of the other pieces has changed their thinking. I think it is really important for us to be meta-cognitive about this sort of thing and I would love to get a sense of how our thoughts on this subject are changing.

So that is my suggestion for how to organize our face-to-face workshop time. If anyone has a different idea for the best way to use this time you should feel free to post suggestions in the comments.

Mobile Visualization

(PS on this one. Links to follow over the conference…)

Mobile matters. Mobile internet users will exceed desktop internet users soon, and by 2016 as many as 80% of all internet users will do so from mobile devices. Internet dat calls are increasingly coming from mobile devices according to Cisco and others, and traffic will increase exponentially.  This “paradigm shift” toward mobile, predicted by Pew in 2010, represents both extraordinary challenges and possibilities to digital humanists and scholars.

As we think about visualization in the digital humanities, this shift is worth considering. Specifically, how do practices of visualization shift when we think about doing it within the confines of the space of a 3×5 inch phone, a tablet, or an iPad? Perhaps more important questions involve those of goals and audience. How do we think about visualization in mobile context? Who precisely is our audience? How do we handle complexity? In what ways can we simplify? Although I won’t answer these questions, I will begin with some examples of best practice, which are by no means comprehensive. Great mobile apps tell stories, they evoke places and ideas. Visualization strategies are, obviously, a huge part of that.

Examples of great visualization strategies abound, though it is clear no best practice has yet fully emerged. Some of the most effective include some of the following examples: Time Travel Explorer London does this through its effective use of background maps to connote time, even if the particular narratives attached don’t excite. (Note also, this is on an iPad.) Halsey Berglund’s Scapes captured place and art through the effective use of Sound. The London Street Museum app allows users to superimpose photographs over views of place evoking a sense of how a particular locale has changed. Time Machine Manchester takes historic video and geo-locates it. The PA Historic Markers app captures the sensibility of historic markers and enriches them with rich context, it provides lots of text as well as rich images. My own Cleveland Historical (and tool Curatescape) allows for implementation of multiple different sorts of multimedia interpretive materials and meta analytical tours. We’ve capitalized on this technical capacity by interpreting through multi-layered stories with visualizations that allow audiences the capacity to move deeply into an interpretive narrative, peripherally across a wide variety of stories, or have their experience mediated by a meta-interpretive theme. Museums, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, have also produced ways to visualize their collections using mobile devices, often in conjunction with visits to their institutions.

Arguably the best example that I’ve seen of brilliant visualization is by the NYPL’s Biblion World’s Fair project on the New York World’s Fair for iPad. Entirely an app-based experience, this project provides an unique non-linear approach through the fair, mimicking (I think) how you might have experienced a fair itself. With a view that changes frequently, deep interpretive analysis, and a collection of interconnected visual and sound materials, Biblion suggests the possibilities of mobile to transform how we see the past.

If the above apps suggest some best practices, what other differences might present themselves for visualualization in mobile environments?

Technology matters, and while it can impress, it is not necessarily an end in itself. For example, augmented reality is seductive but emphasizes only technology, and especially the visual. Essentially, augmented reality is the ability to juxtapose a camera view (taken from your phone) over a historical or other images. Apps that do this exceptionally well are surely magical. Check out London Street Museum or LookbackMaps. More broadly, platforms for doing this have emerged, including Layar that allows you to see more than images but all sorts of information, including restaurants, directions, shopping possibilities, or even fellow users. This sort of augmentation is meant to enhance our experience of landscape by adding information to that experience. As neat as this is when it works, it is not necessarily interpretive. Interpretation is more than merely seeing an image, it is about “seeing” and understanding in new ways.

Interpretation is about building connections, representing ideas in new and original ways, or among historians it is often about contextualizing the past. In this regard, technology may augment, but so does interpretive process and expression.

In other words, interpretation *is* augmentation.

When thinking about visualization on mobile devices, we should recognize that *mobile* matters. Mobile allows us to take the power of computers into the spaces of exhibits or city streets, so our work should use the physical landscape as part of the interpretation. Examples of this include the brilliant movies on the Gettysburg Battle App (and others by the National Trust) where a live storyteller is filmed in situ, placing the physical space where the story is taking place within the story. An example of an approach to avoid is embedded in most Historic Markers apps that show images of historic markers (literally) and display their text (literally). What’s the point of this? I have no idea. If you are at a site, then you can already view this information on the marker. These apps add nothing to the marker itself. Although they do alert you to the fact that a marker is nearby, it is little consolation because they offer nothing of analytic value.

Engagement with landscape or object or the visualized data is enhanced by tools like QR codes (and, in the very near future, near field communication). The ability to interact with the code provides interpreters another way of pushing information and ideas to audiences. One aspect of the QR code often overlooked is that the information and knowledge linked to through the code has to be sought by users. As a result, it allows for projects to call users to action, to seek more information, potentially making it possible to provide deeper and richer interpretive visualizations than you might otherwise provide. It is worth noting that other strategies for engagement that are not necessarily technological can work. For example, we can invite user comment and feedback (Scapes), crowdsource the creating of content (Broadcastr), or as we do in Cleveland building content in collaboration with publics. QR codes (and NFC) also call forth the import of using the tactics of game makers, and/or interactive storytelling, or even geo-caching to draw users into your interpretative narratives, to enhance their interaction both with the material world, either artifacts or the landscape. QRator University College London connects people to museum physical objects through a quasi mobile, quasi crowdsourcing strategy that reimagines museum artifacts in entirely new public dimensions. If this is not precisely visualization, the act of engagement is vital to successful visualization. Likewise the app Comic Street Paris accomplishes the same thing by inviting users on a journey of discovery through Paris. Mobile is more than just the visual.

Sound matters. (See my post on the challenges of visualization itself and its privileging of sight over sound and the other senses in the digital humanities.)

For mobile apps that are outdoors and placed based, the use of the Google Map as background is pervasive. But, consider using historic map layers or stylized maps. Precise representations of reality can help you find something on a map, but they don’t necessarily enhance interpretation. Open Street Maps, Vector Maps, or other historical rectified backgrounds might be of greater help in evoking place.

Curiously relatively few apps have embedded visualizations such as those produced by scholars in the context of their scholarship or digital projects. On desktops and laptops, our strategies for visual or other storytelling techniques have been much richer. Perhaps, it is because of the differences in mobile? I doubt this however. It is more likely caused by the fact that the technology—both for visualization and for mobile representation are relatively new and only slowly coming together. Even so, it is clear we need to imagine our visualizations being encountered by audiences in mobile contexts and move toward figuring how best to present in this environment. I am confident that there surely is room for more richly nuanced and detail visual strategies on mobile, but they have not yet emerged. Indeed, I am in favor of having scholars lead the way in reimagining how techniques of visualization can be adapted to mobile technologies, whose pervasiveness will reshape how we communicate with one another as well as with our students.

Mobile, as I hope that I have suggested, produces a different sort of user experience—neither better or worse. It is just different. Those differences don’t preclude more traditional would recommend that we focus our time, efforts, and resources (financial and other) on building new interpretive strategies for mobile. Many of these exist within our professional practice already, but they will surely have to be re-imagined in the context of mobile expression. More importantly, visualization depends on building and responding to audiences within the framework of their experience.

I Want to Use Your Collections!

I love Joan’s post, because it gets at many issues I have been working through both professionally with the Omeka project and also through my own research that relies on access to cultural heritage collections for analysis.

During the WebWise unconference, “WiseCamp,” I led a session called, “What Do You Want Me to do with your Collections?” I proposed this from the perspectives of both a historian and material culturist researcher and as a digital historian who helps cultural heritage institutions build and publish collections online. Although the tables were overflowing with participants, very few of the had experience tracking visitor use or asking visitors how they would use those digital collections. This was primarily the case, because so few of them had digital collections. The Balboa Park Online Collaborative and the Walker Art Center were the two organizations in our session that very carefully consider their users’ needs and usage of their digital content. Many other participants wanted to hear from me, and I wanted to get them to talk about engaging in different audiences through their collections in an online environment.

This was a relatively small sampling, mostly from IMLS grant-funded projects. But, from my experience and research on how history museums use the web, I would say it is not atypical.

As Joan mentioned, I have proposed that making more material culture collections available in online formats may help to better integrate those types of sources and approaches to interpreting the past into history and humanities scholarship. And that the longer museum collections are missing from the digital world, their collections and these approaches could be marginalized again.

When I look to test out new digital tools, some that can help to visualize large collections of data, I find it hard to use it with many of my sources about stamp collecting processes, collecting cultures, and the stamps themselves.

So, for the working group, I thought I would tackle the task and test a new-to-me tool for creating a visualization of US commemorative stamps (1892-1940) using the Image Plot software created by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at San Diego State University. They have created one of the few pieces of software for working with images to investigate entire collections together. I had some stamp images already and a list of commemoratives, so I thought it wouldn’t take too much time to complete. I’m still not done although there is a chance that I might finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, getting the data in a useable format is often the hardest part. Still, I pushed forward and installed the software, which runs on PCs and Macs. I started to make a CSV file that listed the name, issue, year, and file name of each commemorative stamp from 1892-1940 thinking I had all of that information. I did, sort of, in a table in a Word doc, so the data needed some cleaning and some additions. Then, I found that I needed many more stamp images than I had in my own files. I ended up grabbing low-res images from a philatelic site, because it was more accessible for copying than the Postal Museum’s Arago site, which prevents users from downloading their beautifully-photographed stamp images because of copyright restrictions. (I’m still lost on this one since those are federally-printed publications.) The next step entails processing the images through the software.

We all want our research to be easier in a variety of ways. This is one area, where I would like more access to cultural heritage collections so I can play around with it, and then I’d like to share that newly-created thing back with the institution(s) whose objects I’m incorporating. Europeana, DigitalNZ, Digital Library of Australia, and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling Americaproject are standing as good models for openness and sharing of cultural heritage data. In the case of the Digital Library of Australia and the LC, these collections remain mostly documents and text–still privileging those types of sources.

I look forward to discussing these challenges and opportunities to enrich and enhance uses of digital heritage collections from both the institutional side and from the perspective of different researchers who want to use those collections for their own purposes.

Do Researchers Use the Available Digital Cultural Heritage Materials?

Last fall I suggested that I would investigate how well digital cultural heritage collections were being utilized by researchers. Turns out this was harder than I expected. But from my very initial research it seems that scholarly writing does not cite a lot of cultural material available online. This has led me to some questions for the group – some you’ve probably already considered, but maybe a few new ones worth thinking through together.

I started by searching for the use of the terms “digital archive,” “digital collection,” “online,” “http” and “www” in American History and American Studies dissertations and journal articles published between 2002-2011. But I was surprised by the small number of results – fewer than 10% using “digital archive” or “digital collection,” and less than 30% using “online,” “http” or “www.” American Studies led the way in usage or discussion of digital material, almost double the amount of references for each term. But either there were very few citations, or the terminology used varied enough that they required more detailed searches than Proquest’s interface (which requires a PDF download in order to review the full text) allows.

For example, out of roughly 21,000 dissertations from this period with the subject heading of American History or American Studies (unfortunately, there are duplicates here since many authors select more than one major subject heading), only 270 used “digital archive” and 240 used “digital collection” somewhere in the full text. A proximity search resulted in approximately 1,400 in American History and 2,500 in American Studies. Even the larger of these numbers is less than 10%, which is surprisingly low. For comparison, about 6,000 used “museum” and 1,800 used “material culture.”

Of course not all institutional materials available online are titled “digital archive” or “digital collection.” But broadening the terminology to “online,” or “http” or “www” also had surprisingly few results: about 2,700 and 4,700 for American History; 4,700 and 7,800 for American Studies. Do only about a half of the American History/Studies dissertations in the previous 10 years cite materials found online? [NB – published material that is also available on the web, in Proquest Historical Newspapers for example, does not necessarily need to include a URL, and that would undoubtedly increase the number of citations for material encountered digitally.]

A search in history and affiliated subjects in Project Muse and JSTOR also returned a small number of uses of “digital archive” or “digital collection” – only 30 in Muse and 240 in JSTOR. Even when searching for these terms in Library Science journals, there were only about 60 results.

This lack of citation of material encountered digitally was very surprising to me, and I wonder if you all have the same reaction?

We know that researchers encounter primary source material digitally and explore collections – or at least skim finding aids – online. So I have some questions, about institutions and researchers both.

  • Do institutions need or want to keep track of citations of their digital collections? If so, do they just search for their URL or DOI in these databases or use another method? Or are they more interested in general number of hits than number of references?
  • Would an increased number of citations in scholarship help justify the effort and expense of digitizing collections? Are the textual finding aids prepared cheaply and mainly for researchers, and the visual interface to the collections for the public and educators?
  • Overall, do cultural heritage organizations want or need to identify or cater to their scholarly users, or stay focused on a broader public? How does scarcity of resources influence this decision? And what would researchers want from digital cultural heritage collections?
  • Certainly researchers explore collections online, but do they also need to go to an institution to see the physical object? Would a researcher be comfortable citing a primary source object that they have seen only virtually, or will they need to see it in person as well?
  • And a related question – already raised by Sheila – would the ability to encounter digital versions of material culture objects increase the usage of this kind of evidence in scholarship? Most history dissertations and research articles privilege documents, photographs, and sometimes paintings and fine art objects. Is the lack of citation due to the difficulty of accessing physical collections and the only relatively recent availability of material culture online? Or because of larger biases in the discipline? Will some version of the Smithsonian Commons encourage historians to use the holdings of the institution because offers an easy-to-use interface to the institutions APIs? And will the professional gatekeepers allow it?

So in the end, I am bringing more questions than answers to the working group on Sunday. But I look forward to discussing with you these wide-ranging questions as well as the ones raised in each of your posts.

Visualizing Oral History?

The oxymoron embedded in the title reveals the contradiction behind any attempt to “visualize” oral history for historical curation. One could argue that oral history, and sound, more broadly, are such fundamentally aural experiences that they can’t be visualized at all. Even so, for historians, the meaning and magic of oral history has been long hidden behind the veil of the visual. Typically this has happened through representing oral history as text transcription or encased in long-form video interviews. Sadly, such presentation prioritizes one sense–sight–above the others. This point was clearly made in the emergence of sensory history and has more recently been emphasized by oral historians seeking to recover the meanings embedded in the aural experience and expression.

Digital practice has uncritically adopted that trope in discussing and valorizing evidence for historical curation. And, arguably, our efforts to deal with visual evidence in archives, online exhibits, and other presentation has far outstripped our work in dealing with sound (much less the other sensory-based) materials. To a degree, this is ironic because some of the premier digital tools that have so altered daily life–cell phones and portable music players–have their origins in transforming voice and sound experiences, making them pervasive and deeply individualized.

In May, the IMLS-funded Oral History in the Digital Age initiative will be releasing recommendations that rethink oral history, folklore, and ethnographic practice in terms of digital innovation. Convened by MATRIX, the Oral History Association, and the Library of Congress, this project ventures into a host of important questions that are emerging in our era of digital scholarship and interpretation.

As we await that report, the curatorial challenges facing how we curate sound materials can be suggested by highlighting some well-known digital oral history projects and newly emergent tools for curating oral history.

On public radio, we regularly hear the moving narratives collected as part of StoryCorps. Storycorps reveals the extraordinary power of oral history, with those so-called driveway moments in which we find ourselves listening to Storycorps interviews on National Public Radio. Developed as a way to document America, ala the New Deal WPA projects, StoryCorps was primarily designed for radio audiences, but it also captured some of the ethos of the digital age, with individuals interviewing people well known to them, using scripts and approaches suggested by StoryCorps. Long before the term crowdsourcing emerged, StoryCorps had set about capturing the narratives by empowering ordinary folks.  Even so, StoryCorps has been widely criticized by oral historians for its methods, especially the lack of training of interviewers and conversational quality of the materials collected.

If these critiques bear merit, StoryCorps’ major failing is that it has relegated most of its “born digital” oral histories to an archival hades in which they are accessible, with some exceptions, only through a visit to the Library of Congress. Only small snippets of interviews, generally those chosen for radio, appear on a project website, which promises to archive the materials, never mentioning a more sophisticated approach to making them discoverable in digital environments. Imagine, if you will, more than 40,000 hours of oral history from across America stuck in a server, unavailable, and disconnected. By funding collection over curation, StoryCorps provides a model of opportunities lost.

By contrast, the Veteran’s Oral History Project has taken a more sophisticated approach to crowdsourcing and curation. Like StoryCorps, VOHP collects materials from the crowd, but provides a detailed training kit that emphasizes the collection not just of the story but metadata surrounding it. Even better, VOHP takes the processing and archiving of the oral histories seriously. As digital objects, the oral histories can be discovered and searched, though only at the interview level (with some exceptions.)

The Historymakers project offers yet another view into how we might process and connect oral histories. Distinctive for methodically having collected over 8000 hours of interviews with African Americans, Historymakers is also distinctive in its sophisticated approach to digital archiving, creating archival meaning and linking at the level of the audio segments (as opposed to just the entire interview), including common-sense indexing. Developed with desktop tools, the index is not publicly available, but the project nonetheless points toward a future in which oral history is indexed and connected in more sophisticated ways.

Indeed, over the last decades new techniques have emerged for processing and imagining oral history, such as that from Mike Frisch and his team at the University of Buffalo’s Randforce Associates, have emerged that use common-sense tagging and interpretive metadata that is associated not merely with an entire interview but with particular clips. Moreover, indexing interviews in this way creates a network of meaning that crosses interviews and collections.

Following Frisch’s theorizing, oral history centers have explored the development of new tools that provide for the richer production of meaning within and across oral history collections. These endeavors have taken different forms.  Concordia University’s, Stories Matters Project, follow’s Frisch’s models. It allows users to create clips according to personal and/or interpretive criteria, and then create personalized playlists of clips that speak to specific themes.  The Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky created the OHMS tool that allows for transcription and indexing of interviews within ContentDM environments, which connects audio to searchable transcripts/indexes. More recently, Annotator’s Workbench, a tool for ethnographic research developed at the University of Indiana, obtained an NEH ODH start-up grant to connect its tool to Omeka databases. Meanwhile, my research colleagues at the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities, have been exploring a hybrid approach that would involve indexing interviews in google documents, and then creating compound archival objects in Omeka that would link audio indexed thematically to archive sound. The list of innovations in this category is expanding dramatically, and I expect that we’ll see lots of new and exciting work in this area over the next 24 months.

More recently, technology projects have been exploring how another generation of digital tools, in particular mobile, could use oral history as the basis for a richer interpretive . These include mobile-based projects like the beta effort at Broadcastr, which seek to link oral testimony to place through crowdsourcing the collection of memories. Unfortunately, creating sophisticated approaches to metadata to make such memories discoverable does not appear to be part of the project. However, there is now doubt that sound can be used to recover place in dramatic ways as I’ve learned through our efforts with the Cleveland Historical Project to curate cities in mobile environment using oral history. Listening–not just reading text or looking at photographs–can offer evocative sensations of place. Indeed, Halsey Bergland’s Scapes project might offer the best example of how sound curation can transform a museum exhibit.

Meanwhile SoundCloud is a tool that has been built for curating sound. In addition to making sound sharable, SoundCloud has a variety of features, which include: an open api, an emphasis on social sharing, pervasiveness on multiple platforms, and allowances for community commenting on sound clips. Like scholars’ efforts to curate oral histories at the segment or clip level, SoundCloud allows users to connect to sound and oral history at the level of meaning through rich annotation. Moreover, because SoundCloud files can be embedded into digital projects, it allows for rich use of sound both to build community and to explore how communities can contribute to interpretive digital humanities. Finally, with an open API, SoundCloud is being extended into a variety of ancillary sound projects making it a potentially valuable tool in the digital humanities.

If no single best practice has yet to emerge from these various efforts, we can see the outlines for how we might think about curating oral history in a manner that offers a richer perspective on sound. These points of agreement might include some of the following: a) recognition that oral history is fundamentally an aural experience and not just a text; b) oral history should be evaluated for meaning at a clip or segment level, not just at the level of the 60-minute or 90-minute interview; c) clips and segments should be connectable across interview or even collections (or archives); d) our metadata schemes, as well as our work in representing oral history to public audiences, have to account such rich metadata schemes (think linked open data); e) collecting oral history is one thing, making it open and accessible is another goal that the oral history community should embrace; f) efforts at linked open data have to account for segment and clip-level metadata; g) and, it is vital that we involve communities in processing and connecting to oral histories together–much as we are learning to involve those same crowds in collecting oral interviews.

As for the other senses, I fear that the literature is less well developed. And although I can’t imagine how the digital age will recover smell, the advent of three-dimensional printing might soon present a new tactile experience in which historical artifacts could be reprinted and re-imagined in physical space.

That said, perhaps I protest too much about the over-emphasis on visual metaphors in our digital humanities conversation. I might be a bit like Cassandra, and sort of like the musicians who organized to protest against recorded sound in the 1930s. (On the image below, and those protests, check out this dandy link from Smithsonian.com.)

Digital Humanities and Museums

The inaugural issue of the online Journal of Digital Humanities should be of interest to everyone here. It just came to my attention, and much of the content previously appeared elsewhere on the web, so apologies if this is already old news. I see lots of articles with intriguing titles, including Trevor Owens on “Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?” and Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser on “Spatializing Photographic Archives.” But I am especially interested in the pair of video presentations by Nik Honeysett of the Getty and Michael Edson of the Smithsonian called “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums.” They try to tackle the question of how museums can move beyond the power and limits of “physicality” (i.e., direct confrontation with the real thing).

AHA Blog Highlights Importance of Historical Thinking in regard to “Time Maps” and Data Visualization

The “AHA Today” blog post today might be of interest to my colleagues here.  It highlights the relevance and importance of historical thinking in regard to the rise of digital means of handling and visualizing historical data and information (including through timelines — echoing some of Steve’s points).  It also links to what sounds like an interesting presentation at the recent SXSW conference on  “Maps of Time: Data as Narrative” (which opens by asking “What’s the relationship between visualized data and the story we want to tell?”) and to a fascinating looking visualization tool called ChronoZoom — both of which I am eager to explore a bit.

Reflections on Building the Digital Blue Ridge Parkway

I apologize for being later than my official “sign-up” week in posting a full entry to the blog. It seems that my whole life is running about a month behind right now.  But on the positive front, this has given me a chance to read all of your other posts, and to visit the links to the excellent outside resources you’ve all provided, and this has already introduced me to many ideas and lines of analysis that I’m finding interesting and useful.  I’ll try to make a few connections to your points that resonated with me as I write my full post below.

One thing reading the blog so far has made me realize, too, is that there are probably a lot of things I (and the people I have been working with) should have known and thought about—as a team, together—before launching head-on into creating Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, my own “digital humanities” / historical visualization project that I want to reflect on here.

As I thought back to those beginnings, and to what I needed to have known, I was especially struck by two of the posts by Sharon and Steve:  Sharon’s survey of a number of examples of different arrangements and strategies for presenting collections, and Steve’s about the benefits and drawbacks of various collections management systems and the need for the data to be able to be freed, especially struck chords.

I remember feeling when I started my own work that I needed more time for a systematic study of both interfaces and databases before we began so that we could select tools that best fit this particular material.  But, alas, our project did not really build in time for that kind of learning – especially not in a coordinated, systematic process by the entire team (though, to be fair, several of the staff with whom I was working had previously done a good bit of this work). So, with the grant clock ticking, we plunged in with whatever varying degrees of knowledge we brought to the project.  In the end, I confess that I really did not always understand the implications that many early technical decisions would have for our data and for the project’s usefulness, portability, and interpretive potential.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me give a little background.

Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, a large digital historical collection for which I have been the scholarly advisor since 2008, made its official debut in January of this year.  It’s based on my 2006 UNC Press scholarly book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, which was in turn based on my 1997 UNC History dissertation.  I’ve been working on Parkway history since 1991!

Driving Through Time has been co-developed with a wonderful team of colleagues (librarians, programmers, and library science graduate students primarily) at the Carolina Digital Library and Archives, part of the University of North Carolina Libraries.  Major funding ($150k over two years) was provided by State Library of North Carolina under the provisions of the federal Library Services and Technology Act.  And considerable in-kind time and support were provided by the UNC Libraries.  All of my time was donated, as I am a non-faculty professional staff employee at the university and receive no recognition (or explicit support beyond what I’m paid to teach Intro to Public History every year) for any scholarly work that I do.   (Plus, the terms of the grant would not pay for “content development”; that is, my work.)

That whole aspect of one’s professional “positionality” (to employ some jargon) and the ability to do innovative scholarly projects is something I’d love to discuss, since I’m one of these “alt-ac” people who have been a topic of conversation in digital humanities circles of late.  But what I wanted to take up here are some of the challenges and frustrations I found as a scholar whose expertise was the historical content, but who had enough interest in the digital revolution to realize the interpretive possibilities offered by computer-aided visualization.

There are three intertwined elements I’d like to discuss briefly and invite your thoughts on:

  1. What I was able to imagine for the project originally, based on my own content-based sense of the “visual” possibilities of Blue Ridge Parkway historical materials and history (and my own very limited technical ability to implement anything at all).
  2. The distance between the original vision and what we were able to do, some key areas where I think we have not yet realized the vision, and some reflections on why.
  3. The possibilities for how to move this forward, especially given limited support for further interface development at the library.  What do I need to know, and what forms do our data need to be in so they are as portable as possible?  What other outlets (e.g. Viewshare or other tools) might ultimately allow this to grow and expand in a way that is both sustainable and flexible?

First, what I wanted, and why.  When writing my book, I was often frustrated by the fact that many of the important historical conflicts over the Blue Ridge Parkway (a 469-mile scenic highway between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, built beginning in 1930s) were essentially spatial:  they had to do with land acquisition, land use, travel routes, regional economic patterns, historical erasure and reinterpretation on the land, and the relationship of a national park road – a trip through a space – to all of the above.

While writing a chapter on the scenic “Peaks of Otter” in Virginia, I realized how any point on the Parkway was a sort of palimpsest – a layered set of landscapes representing different historical moments.  The construction of the national park represented the explicit creation of a “designed” tourist landscape on top of (and obliterating in many cases) evidence of previous communities, homes, and life patterns.

All of this became quite problematic when the National Park Service started trying, after the late 1930s, to interpret histories of those now-vanished communities on (and by means of) its newly designed landscape.

Trying to recount all of this in Chapter 6 of my book entangled me in a thicket of overlapping stories that were a challenge even for me to track.  I kept thinking, as I was writing, that if I could only have a set of transparencies – sort of like those in books for children about the human body—that would allow me to overlay the “before” and “after” and thus show the changes and interpretive inaccuracies, it would be much easier for me and others to “see” what happened at this site.

However, this was not going to be something my press was going to do in a book for which I had already exceeded the number of illustrations in my contract.  So I had no alternative but to describe verbally a number of aspects of the story that could have been engaged through some visual means.

Fast forward to 2008:  in a move for which I will be forever grateful, colleagues at the University Libraries contacted me to see if there might be possibilities within the Blue Ridge Parkway materials to develop a digital project to add to the long-ongoing collection “Documenting the American South.”  When they demonstrated what they had done to help visualize North Carolina’s urban history with geo-referenced overlays of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, and with related geo-tagged historical materials, as part of their “Going to the Show” project on moviegoing, I nearly cried.  I knew that the Parkway’s historical archives contained more than enough maps that, if geo-referenced, could similarly convey the changing landscape of the 29 Virginia and North Carolina Parkway counties.  I also knew that, like the maps, almost all of the other Blue Ridge Parkway archival materials (photographs in particular) had with them metadata about where they were taken.

Together, I and my library colleagues devised and secured the funding for a plan for a geospatially enabled Blue Ridge Parkway archive that became Driving Through Time.

I am not sure exactly what I thought, in practice, this would include.  But I think I imagined:

  • Geo-referenced historical maps and drawings that could be layered both upon the present landscape and on each other, so as to see the evolution of plans over time (or, in several cases, plans not implemented vs plans implemented – getting at another of Steve’s points, the ability to demonstrate contingency in history and the very real possibility, at various decision points, of alternative outcomes).
  • Geo-tagged historical resources (photos, maps, newspapers, oral histories, etc.) that could be searched via a Parkway map – allowing people to find materials based on location, the same way they navigate the Parkway itself.
  • Some kind of visual environment or interface whereby a visitor could virtually drive the (historical) Parkway and encounter these materials.
  • Something that would allow visualizing and searching materials simultaneously in space and time (e.g., what’s available for this site predating 1950?).
  • Some created, interpretive maps that would, for instance, take historical data or information and allow visualization of historical dynamics with regard to the Parkway:  for instance, a timeline-based map that would indicate the progression of Parkway construction over the 52 years it took to build (1935-1987), or some kind of interpretive map that would demonstrate what the Parkway would have looked like if a different decision about Parkway routing had been made during a huge 1934 conflict over this issue.  These interpretive maps might have also interacted with the digitized historical materials, allowing a space-based discovery process related to the digital materials.

I now realize that this agenda was probably far too ambitious for the time, personnel, and money we had available.  Additionally, I realize that my wishes far outstripped my knowledge of what was technically possible or how it might be implemented.

At one point, however, in an attempt to envision what the “main” site interface (which I had always envisioned as a MAP) might look like, I drew this picture, by hand, and shared it with my library colleagues.

As you will see by visiting the site, we have done a tremendous amount of work and do have many of the features originally envisioned.  I am very proud of what we do have: over 3500 digitized, geotagged items (photos, maps, oral histories, newspaper articles), several interpretive historical narratives (“overlooks”), about 100 geo-referenced maps that can be output to Google Earth, about a dozen K-12 lesson plans.  Building this has taken a prodigious amount of thought and effort by a whole team of people, and it vastly expands the prospect that many publics interested in America’s most visited national park unit can engage its history.

Yet, the “visualization” piece of this is not where I had hoped it would be.  What we have seems closer to a spatially enhanced (note the “geobrowse” feature), but still somewhat conventional “digital archive” than I originally imagined, and much of our interpretive material (the “overlooks,” in particular) is more text-based than I had hoped.  The simultaneous, dynamic time/space faceted browse is not really there (though you can search by both time and space), and we have not had the time, money, or staff resources to create new interpretive maps (or map-based “overlooks”) upon which to project historical materials.  We don’t get as much of a sense of “driving” through the materials as I could imagine we might.

Why?  What were some roadblocks (to continue the driving metaphor) and difficulties we encountered, and some resulting limitations of the site?

  • Previous models of digitization in our library’s collections were generally somewhat more static collections of carefully curated, digitized historical materials.  While the scholarship underlying all the collections has been top-notch, the visualization models and tools we already had to work with here at UNC were perhaps more conventional combinations of scholarly interpretation and searchable primary sources that what has since become more available elsewhere.
  • Staffing and funding:  This had several elements:
    • Turnover in library and student staff during the two years of grant funding cost us development time and continuity of vision.
    • There was not enough money for programming support at times we needed it, especially toward the end of the project, when we were able to see issues, but not really make any changes.
    • My time was always piled on top of my unrelated “regular job,” and at times I could not put in the sustained hours on research, writing, materials selection, and editing that were needed.  Had I been a “real” faculty member, I might have been able to secure a scholarly leave to work on this undertaking, but, even had funding been available, my present job would not allow for a semester’s or year’s absence.
    • Additionally, with the project built on soft money, most of the project staff was temporary and linked mainly to this project, lacking a longer historical memory and interconnection with ongoing library initiatives that would have helped inform and sustain this project.
  • Changing library priorities and available support.  During the course of my project, the library re-examined its commitment to building single-focus, grant-funded, interpretive digital projects and moved towards mass digitization of its collections.  This left my project and others a bit “homeless” in terms of commitment to ongoing development, fundraising, etc.  The university, meanwhile, has endured the recession and severe state budget crisis that has stretched every office (the library included) thin and put everyone in “retrenchment” mode.
  • What IS “location”?  What is “date”?  While it was easy to say that all materials would be “located,” in practice it proved very hard to consistently represent location within a wide variety of (variously identified) historical materials.  Is “location” a “milepost”?  What about items that don’t have a “milepost”? Is location a county, town, geographic feature, parkway “section” (numbered sections that guided Parkway construction)?  All of the above?  Similar issues pertained with “date.”  Year, month, decade, day?  How to indicate the level of certainty one might have for any of this?  Our database and our processes of developing metadata made these questions difficult to engage and resolve, and did not readily allow for items to have multiple “locations” or locations of different scale (ultimately, all of our “locations” link to a single point).  As I learned midway through the project, database creation for historical materials is its own specialized area of practice; it would have benefitted us to have more input from a database architect familiar with the vagaries and inconsistencies of historical materials as we created our structure.
  • Building a site infrastructure and interface from scratch.  While Greg’s post and the Danish study to which Phil directed us both point to the growing trend in public history for institutions to develop collections within existing interfaces (e.g. Flickr) rather than building their own, and while Viewshare is providing a tool for that now, ours was custom-built.  While this provided some advantages of creating database fields, search features, and a site look that pertain specifically to the Blue Ridge Parkway, it also meant spending a great deal of programming time on basic faceted search/browse functionalities that probably have [had already?] been standardized elsewhere.  Furthermore, with only limited programming support and programmers who were not always well-versed in the larger landscape of historical visualizations, our ability to implement innovative features was sometimes limited.  The question now is: is our database robust enough to allow feeding out to other interfaces as they are developed?  Here is an example that Trevor put up of outputting our data to Viewshare – note that for reasons I don’t understand, but Trevor probably does, our images don’t feed here, but you have to go back to our site to see them.
  • Various issues with handling maps, especially multi-part maps.  For reasons I do not understand, part of our collection is in Django (a MySQL database) and part (the maps, as you see in this one) is in ContentDM.  For various technical reasons, handling of the maps has had to be separated from the rest of the content.  The process of geo-referencing and creating KMZ’s for output to Google Earth was laborious, and the library’s lack of a “map server” hinders greater development of this feature (though, honestly, I don’t really know what this means either). The decisions about these matters rested almost completely with the library, and I have only the barest understanding of the thinking behind them, although it’s clear that they do have implications for what we have done and can do.
  • Much of the interface is beyond my/our control.  Making any changes to a number of key pages requires calling upon staff in the Library Systems Department – technical colleagues who are already overwhelmed with other work and have no continuing mandate (or money) to support this project.  For instance, I would like to have some more intuitive and logical presentation of the list of geo-referenced maps that we have – for instance, to call attention to two related sets of maps, the Parkway Land Acquisition Maps, and the Parkway Land Use Maps.  But changing this page (because the list is generated from the database) requires the intervention of the overburdened Systems Department, something that cannot be requested frequently.
  • Problems with search and thumbnails.  It seems to me that a site like this should have a Google-like keyword search, but, as we describe here, it does not.  Instead, it treats a multiple-word search as an exact phrase, and therefore returns no results at times when a casual user would expect it to find things.  We discovered these problems with the search feature very late, however, after the funds for our dedicated programmer had run out.  I have no idea why the search works this way, but there appears to be no short-term prospect of improving this, due to limitations of library staff.  Similarly, I wish the “results” pages would return thumbnails of the related images, but they do not.  I want to understand why, but cannot pressure the library to change this now either, especially since I have no idea what kind of work that would entail.

So, what now?  What I would like to receive from the working group is some input about where this project might go from here.  How might we move ahead to more fully realize its potential?  What, specifically, can I, as a technology-friendly scholar who has more ideas for the presentation of this content, but who has very limited power (or knowledge) myself to make any changes to the site, do to enhance its prospects for expansion and improved interface?  How can I work most productively within the constraints of the library infrastructure were the collection now lives?  What questions do I need to ask about the data, the database structure, and the underlying programming?  What kinds of training or access do I need?  What new tools are available that might be employed without a heavy burden for library technical staff, and what would I (or they) need to do or know to access them?

Bottom line:  helping with the creation of Driving Through Time has been a very rewarding process, and the site has dramatically improved access to some important collections of Parkway historical materials heretofore inaccessible to most publics.  But if, as Trevor noted, and as Gloria Gonzalez (quoted in Trevor’s linked post on the Phay Collection at Ole Miss) said, “creating an interface is an exploratory and interpretive act,” how can the scholarly content expert, working now in a somewhat unfamiliar, collaborative environment, more meaningfully help shape the interface (as she might have shaped a text) to maximize a digital collection’s interpretive potential?

“Interfaces to History”

The timeline paper posted on this blog a few weeks back is part of a longer paper I’m working on, “Interfaces to History.” Here’s an abstract:

The organization and classification of artifacts, words, and images to tell stories is the essence of exhibitions, whether in museums or on the web. The 1898 Report of the National Museum called this “the all-important question” and tried to determine the form of presentation that would allow “the great truths of human history may be told in the briefest and clearest way.” That is still our challenge, though perhaps our aims are not quite so high. My paper will consider some of the organizing principles museum curators use in real and virtual space– among them chronologies, genealogies, synoptic series, geographies, themes, topics, and the newest, the search – and the assumptions that underline them. The museum or website is a narrative space that demands thoughtful interfaces, and we should be clear about both the meaning of the choices we make, and the criteria by which we judge them.

Any advice or suggestions appreciated – the abstract is aspirational, not yet descriptive.