The End is Near

Well…Here I am. Finally at the end of my career as a student. Forever and always. Of course, I’ll never stop learning. But as far as formal education goes, stick a fork in me, I’m done. That is, if you don’t count the massive pile of homework I have to somehow manage to finish up in the next week and a half (and who’s counting that, right?).

With that said, this week I’m taking some time to reflect on my time in the Public History New Media course this semester. Us public historians looooove that thing called reflective practice.

At the beginning of the semester I wasn’t really sure what to expect. On the one hand, I’ve been using a lot of the media that this course addressed for many  years; but on the other, technology tends to hate me. A lot. So I just wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. Spoiler alert: It turned out fine, and I even learned some things in the process.

I learned HTML! (See what I did there?) When I was much younger and much less cool, I was so jealous of those people who had really fancy backgrounds and layouts and fonts. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how they did it! Turns out they could probably code (or knew someone who could). Now my Myspace can be cool, too, because I know how to code. I also conquered iMovie and PhotoShop, and honed my Twitter and Omeka skills.

Now…”How does this all fit in with Public History?” you ask. More than most people might think, actually. As people are pelted more and more every day with digital technologies, it is of crucial importance that public history institutions adapt and use these to their advantage. Today, it would be nearly impossible to find a museum or archives that didn’t have a website. Many even have online collections and exhibitions. Institutions are moving away from print advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and focusing more heavily on digital campaigns that are grounded in social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Even inside the institutions themselves one cannot escape the digital. Many museums are incorporating digital elements into their exhibitions, such as QR codes, computer interactives, and specified hashtags. I knew all of this coming into this class because, as a member of the so-called “digital native” category, none of this is new to me. I am used to going to museums and seeing these things. What I didn’t think as much about, however, is that a large portion of audiences are not used to this.

The most important thing I learned in this class is that using digital media in the public history sphere is important, but it’s even more important to use it consciously. Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. And when we do choose to use digital media to advertise, tell a story, or to create/enhance an experience, we must make sure we are considering all factors that will influence the outcome, particularly audience expectation and access. After this class, I now feel confident that I can go out into the world and use digital media effectively in my public history endeavors.

Now I just need to get to that final mountain of homework…

See you on the other side!!

 

Writing Stories on the Landscape: Shimon Attie and Augmented Reality

A few months ago I was sifting through the hundreds of folders in the unprocessed Stephen Feinstein collection at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, when I came across one devoted to American artist Shimon Attie. I opened it a little lethargically, as I had been combing through all of this material for hours, but as I went through the folder I found myself more and more intrigued with every page. Shimon Attie has become known for his use of wide varieties of media, including photography, site-specific installation, performance and new media; and his exploration of how that media can be used to re-define relationships between space, time, place, and identity. His installation “The Writing on the Wall: Projections in Berlin’s Jewish Quarter” was particularly appealing to me.

In 1991 Attie set out to create a sort of rebirth of the old Jewish quarter (or the Scheunenviertel for those of you brave enough to try and pronounce it) in Berlin. Located at the heart of Berlin, the Scheunenviertel was a center for eastern European Jewish immigrants from the turn of the twentieth century. However, in the 1990s the area was undergoing rapid gentrification. It became the new “it” neighborhood after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and block by block was being completely transformed. Recognizing the important story that was being lost as the area was renovated, Attie combed archives, newspapers, and personal collections for pre-WWII photographs of the area. And so “The Writing on the Wall” was born.

Attie took the photographs of the Jewish streets that he found during his search, most of which reflected the world of the Jewish immigrant working class instead of the more affluent, better assimilated German Jews, and slide-projected them onto the built environment at or near the addresses where they were originally taken. By projecting the historic images on the present-day landscape, Attie was able to bring the past into the present; to tell a story that the buildings alone could not tell.

Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin, 1932 (Children and Tower)

Mulackstrasse 37, Berlin, 1932 (Children and Tower)

Almstadtstrasse 43, Berlin, 1930 (Car Parked in Front of Hebrew Bookstore)

Almstadtstrasse 43, Berlin, 1930 (Car Parked in Front of Hebrew Bookstore)

About the same time that Attie was producing “The Writing on the Wall” a new term was coined that described precisely the type of work he was doing: Augmented Reality (AR). AR is different from virtual reality in that instead of representing the physical world in digital terms, it brings the digital back to the analog world (like Attie did by projecting images onto the physical environment). AR offers endless possiblities for digital storytelling, and exists in a veriety of forms across a spectrum of technologies. At one of the spectrum lives “light AR,” which can be seen in geolocated Web-based media, such as the Instgram photo map. Further along we encounter “superimposed visualizations.” This type of AR uses a combination of printed page, webcam, and Web page to produce 3D animations. Take this category one step further, and you have visualizations superimposed on the real world, such as the SkyView application for iPhones. This app lets you hold your phone up to the sky and then identifies and provides information about the constellations, sattelites, and planets in your field of vision.Early forms of AR were often clunky and awkward, but the onslaught of the smartphone has changed all that. Combining a camera for image input, a screen to display directly seen and superimposed information, a compass,  access to the Web, and radios that can handle rich multimedia information (among about a zillion other features), these handy-dandy little boxes are now crucial to contemporary AR. They have even made some forms of AR so integral to our daily life that we don’t even think about them, such as geolocation (think Google Maps, or the Photo Map capability of your Instagram account) and accessibility of information via QR codes (they’re literally everywhere).  

The potential for digital storytelling through AR is particularly intriguing for historians. Much of the technology that is currently hitting the mainstream is actually allowing us to integrate historical narratives into the real world landscape via mobile apps such as HistoryPin and History Here. In the early 1990s Shimon Attie didn’t have all of the fancy mobile software that we have today, but his goal was much the same. He wanted to bring the past into the present and tell a story that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

If “The Writing on the Wall” were recreated today incorporating some of the features that have arisen in recent years its reach could be much wider than it was in 1991-1993. Each projection could be accompanied by a QR code that visitors to the neighborhood could capture on their smartphones, which would then link them to a page that provided more information about that particular image or area. Or the large-scale projections themselves could be sidestepped altogether, and instead a mobile app could be designed to give visitors a tour of the area, incorporating the historic photos and additional information.

While AR is currently seeing a significant growth spurt, it still has room to grow. And huge challenges to overcome, including (but not limited to) data crunching requirements, accessibility, and intellectual property rights. I for one am extremely excited to see where AR will take us in years to come as it continues to be developed and permeates into the mainstream.

What’s in a Wix?

The Glessner House, built in 1887 and located on Prairie Avenue, is an “internationally known architectural treasure” here in Chicago. Today it serves as a museum and a place to interpret art, architecture and social history. The museum is an interesting place, and seems to have a lot to offer. Unfortunately, the website for the museum is almost as dated as the house itself (ok, I exaggerate just a little). Planted firmly in the realm of Web 1.0, the site is a slew of text and bright gold backdrop.

Enter Public History New Media class. This week we were split into teams and given the challenge of revamping the website for the Glessner House Museum. The rules were few; just simply that we must redesign the site to make it more accessible, user-friendly, and visually appealing using one of the free site-builder platforms that can be found online. Sounds easy enough, right? After all, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel (and by that I mean we weren’t to create new content, just copy and paste). We just had to change the way it looked.

Group projects are interesting animals. They often take on a life of their own, and always present an array of hurdles and opportunities. This one was no exception. Let me just run down a brief list of some of the hurdles and opportunities I ran into during this process.

Hurdle #1: Right out of the starting gate I was met with a challenge, albeit a rather small one. My group and I decided to build our site on Wix, a site that was brand-spanking new to all but one of us. And I was not the one. At first it was a bit daunting. The site allows for quite a bit of freedom and creativity. It even has an interface that allows you to edit the way your site will look on a mobile device, independent of the one people will see when they access it from a computer. Thankfully, however, when it was all said and done it only took a couple minutes of poking around for me to grasp a good working knowledge of the tools Wix has to offer. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s not so steep as it is for other platforms I’ve used.

Opportunity #1: Collaboration!! The single most beneficial aspect of group work (at least in my humble opinion) is the opportunity it presents for different minds to come together and pool their assets. Every person in the group offers a different perspective, a different way of looking at things. I’ll admit that sometimes this can go horribly array; but when done correctly, the opportunities are endless! This group project was no exception. For this assignment I deemed it a blessing to be working in groups. It relied heavily on aesthetics and creativity, neither of which I am very well-versed in. Because I was working with other people, I was able to feed off of their ideas and fill in any weaknesses I might have in the “make it look pretty” department. In the end, we produced a pretty fetching website, if I do say so myself.

Hurdle #2: Consistency. When you have multiple people with their hands in the pot it can be difficult to keep things consistent. This can be a problem when you’re dealing with a website. Consistency across pages helps orient users. It is harder for them to feel lost or confused if fonts, color schemes, and lay outs stay relatively the same on every page of the site. This can be tricky when working in a group. For instance, with our website I tried to make sure that all of the page headings where the same size, font, and in the same place across the entire site. Easier said than done. I’m still not 100% convinced that I was successful, but I definitely gave it the good ol’ college try and I got it pretty darn close.

Opportunity #2: Usually, finding a time and place to meet is the bane of my existence when it comes to group work. Between classes, work, internships, other homework, and having to accommodate commutes it’s nearly impossible…Not to mention we were working on this over Spring Break. This particular assignment, however, completely did away with that issue. Because it was entirely online, we merely had to create one account and make sure all four of us had the login information. Then we could sign in, do our business, and sign out without our paths ever crossing. Not that I don’t love the ladies in my group, but the nature of this project was a Godsend. All hail Web 2.0!

There’s one more thing I’d like to note about this project. It reminded me just how much time and effort actually goes into building these sites. I think often we take for granted that something like this is “free;” that we can open up our web browsers and surf thousands of pages in mere minutes. Sure, we didn’t have to pay a fee to get our site up and running; but we did spend a good amount of our valuable time working on it.  And we didn’t even have to produce any new content! My hat’s off to those whose entire job is to build these things…usually from scratch.

The History Place

When I first read the phrase “History Web” on our class syllabus I thought it all sounded a bit too simple. I figured Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig would have a much fancier definition, wrought with guidelines and stipulations, than the one I was picturing. But, to my surprise, their explanation in Digital History was really quite simple. Cohen and Rosenzweig categorize the History Web as any online history pursuit that is headed up by historians instead of digital experts. This realm of history-doing provides a huge opportunity for professional and amateur historians alike

In discussing this History Web, Cohen and Rosenzweig point out that the marriage of history and digital media presents several advantages for historians: “we can do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources; we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, hear from more perspectives.” But they follow up this observation with one very important question. Can (and does) digital history actually do anything different from conventional modes of history? In theory, it should; and when done well, it does. Digital media provides unprecedented opportunities for collaboration,  interactivity, searchability, and manipulability.

For this week’s assignment we were tasked with tracking down and critiquing a website that would be categorized as part of the History Web. With the parameters set so broadly, I wasn’t sure where to even begin. After wasting the majority of my evening playing history-themed games on BBC’s History for Kids (I recommend the Mummy Maker game…You get to pull the brains out through the nose!), I stumbled upon The History Place. Established in 1996, this website features articles on a variety of topics, focusing predominantly on WWII. It is owned and published by Philip Gavin, author of World War II in Europe and The Fall of Vietnam. He authors the majority of the articles himself; however, “The History Place also includes materials from other writers. Some, such as those listed in Points of View, have PhDs in their fields of study, and in a few cases, are well known celebrities.” In addition to these topical articles, The History Place also includes information on historic tourism, homework tips and resources, slide shows, and several document exerts and photos. 

I applaud Gavin for what he is trying to do here. He’s making a fairly large quantity of historical information (mostly timelines with short blips of facts and figures) accessible to the public and encourages its use in schools and homes for educational purposes. BUT he doesn’t really tap into all that the web has to offer. Remember all of that stuff I mentioned earlier? (Hint:collaboration,  interactivity, searchability, and manipulability). It pains me to say that The History Place is pretty old school, and he hardly takes advantage of these features. His pages, while full of good and useful information, are, to put it bluntly, boring. Take a look for yourself:

HistoryPlace2

There are so many missed opportunities on The History Place. As a public historian, I was immediately disappointed to see that it doesn’t provide users any way to interact with the content (or each other) beyond reading/viewing it. There is no space for users to generate or engage in discussions with each other about the presented topics. Their only option is to contact Gavin himself and cross their fingers that he posts their comment.

The next element I noticed that detracts from the user experience is the design treatments he uses on the website. In order to help keep users on message, it is extremely useful to keep certain design elements consistent throughout a website (Cohen and Rosenzweig agree!). Gavin’s design treatments and color schemes are all over the map, creating a bit of a distracting experience. In addition, he doesn’t maintain a consistent format for his title banner that is present at the top of every page. The font remains the same, but the color, border, and accompanying graphics differ across the various pages.

I commend Gavin for taking the time to put this information out on the web so that it can be accessed easily all in one place, but ultimately I’m left wanting. Having originally built this website in 1996 (although it appears that he updates it periodically), it’s probably time for The History Place to undergo some cosmetic surgery.

 

Mash-Up Madness

This week in Public History New Media we were commissioned to try out Adobe Photoshop. Fortunately, I’ve used this program before. Unfortunately, I had forgotten almost everything I knew about it. But, despite my insecurities I trudged forward to make my own mash-up. At first I wasn’t sure what photos I wanted to use or theme I wanted to address (if any at all); but as I scrolled through my photo albums it occurred to me that 2013 was a pretty adventurous year for me, so why not combine all of those adventures into one image?!

So I set out to put Chicago, St. Louis, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Laos all in one image. I’d like to think I succeeded, but I’ll let you be the judge.

I started with our very own Loyola Lake Shore Campus as my background:

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Then I added a couple elements from photos I took when I visited my boyfriend in the UAE:

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Then I added a Laotian mountain or two:

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And, of course, we need a Buddhist temple:

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Since we’ve got the temple, we also need the Buddha:

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And, finally, an homage to my home state, good ol’ Missouri!

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After some very tedious editing I was able to combine all of these photos into one beautiful masterpiece:

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I had a lot of fun messing around on Photoshop, but as I was playing around with changing the built environment in my photos, I couldn’t help but think about all of the opportunities and challenges it presents for public historians. Knowing how to use this program is obviously an asset for us public historians. It allows us to improve the quality of our digital images, merge and edit images for exhibitions, and create augmented reality landscapes. BUT, in the wrong hands these things could go horribly array. I’ve seen the images that people who are really skilled (more so than I am at least) at Photoshop can produce. They can layer images so flawlessly that the viewer doesn’t even know the photo has been doctored. In the future this could create more and more problems in determining authenticity. In addition, these mash-ups are in a serious gray area as far as copyright is concerned, and it is possible for creators to get into serious trouble (which is why I played it safe and only used photos I took myself…I’m scared of the copyright police!).

In the end, Photoshop is a really valuable tool for public historians. Case in point: Under the “Qualifications” section of several job listings I’ve respond to, knowledge of Photoshop has been listed as “Preferred.” And we all want jobs!!

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

Somewhere at some point we’ve all heard that the birth of the digital age means the death of print. For book nerds such as myself, there could be nothing more tragic than if this statement were true. There’s just something about opening up a book, a real book, with pages and a dust jacket, that ebooks and webpages just can’t compete with. Luckily, it’s not true at all (cue deep sigh of relief). Not only is the web not killing print, it’s actually making nice and facilitating it.

Our assignment this week in Public History New Media was to look at and assess a social media website. I scanned the list and immediately knew which one I’d choose: Goodreads.  Otis Chandler, CEO and co-founder of Goodreads, says that the missions is simple: help people find and share books they love. The idea struck him when he was browsing a friends’ bookshelf (literally…not digitally). As any reader knows, the best recommendations most often come from friends. So Chandler and his partner set out to create a space online where friends (and strangers, if you so choose) could do just that: share the lit they love and find new lit to love. Launched in 2007 and today boasting over 20 million users, Goodreads essentially is an online user-generated database of books, annotations, and reviews.

Typical book page on Goodreads

Typical book page on Goodreads

Once you’ve created an account (for free…hear me, grad students? FREE!), you can create your own library and reading lists and peruse those of your friends. On top of that, in true Web 2.0 fashion, these catalogs and reading lists ultimately serve as a springboard to spark discussion among users. You can rate books, read and write reviews, make recommendations, post and respond to discussion topics, answer trivia questions, and scan pages and pages of quotes, among about a zillion other things. It even links directly to other social media platforms to allow you to easily share your ratings, recommendations, etc. on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or even your own website.

Probably my favorite thing about Goodreads is that it facilitates literature discussion groups. You can start your own group, or join one that already exists. These groups can be public, or can have various privacy settings (moderated, restricted by domain, or secret). These groups are a really good way to pick others’ brains about your favorite literature, and to see what people with similar interests are also reading.

Call me old-fashioned, but I value material objects. I love the experience of opening and reading a book—hearing the crack of the spine, smelling the dust between the pages, writing in the margins, and dog-earing corners. And I love discussing what I’ve read with other people. But I also value convenience and efficiency. Goodreads combines these concepts and consolidates them in one place. I can visit a single website to discover what to read next, what my friends are reading, and enter a discussion on a particular book or literature topic. Goodreads even links up to Amazon (which acquired the site in 2013…surprise, surprise) so I can easily find and purchase yet another book to add to my already slightly ridiculous collection. Or I guess you could buy the ebook version if you’re into that sort of thing.

In the end, Goodreads gives users the best of both worlds. It uses a digital platform to enhance and encourage an analog past time. How does that saying go? “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Nowadays we can’t hardly live without the web, but many of us (myself included) also aren’t willing to let go of physical/material experiences, such as reading a book. Neither one is “winning,” so to speak. The creators of Goodreads recognize this. Both are here to stay, so why not create something that marries the two?

Hope for Historians

When we were prompted to blog about the challenges and opportunities that digitization presents to public historians nowadays, my initial response was, “You want us to do WHAT?!” With the slurry of pros and cons regarding digitization that we get bombarded with on almost a daily basis, that just seemed too much like opening Pandora’s Box. Longevity, ease of access, copyright issues, system failures, storage space, obsolete technology…Just thinking about all the issues that come up make my head spin. But once my Exorcism reenactment was over, it occurred to me that digitization in the sphere of public history, after releasing its full gamut of wonders and evils, just might ultimately release the same thing as Pandora’s Box: hope.

Up until a couple of years ago I was primarily on the user side of digital history. I rejoiced when I could find the 1901 newspaper article I needed on the web and didn’t have to make the trip across town (or even to another town) to scroll through reels of microfilm for hours to find it. I relished spending afternoons looking through online exhibitions at museums I wouldn’t be able to visit in the foreseeable future. And I absolutely reveled in my good fortune when I discovered that I could access the Emma Goldman Papers via the internet from my quaint little town in Missouri, even though they were housed at the University of California-Berkeley (That really was the best day ever). If I was every frustrated with digital history it was because I couldn’t access something I wanted; a website was under maintenance or a document could only be viewed in person.

But as I gained more experience in the professional world of public history, I stepped over to the creator side of things. There’s so much more to worry about and consider over here! Before I can even start digitizing documents and artifacts there are a number of questions I have to consider: Do I have the right equipment to scan or photograph the objects? Is there enough space on the server or on an external drive to save the files? Is there enough demand to warrant spending the time digitizing? Once the objects are digitized another slew of questions comes up: Do I have permission to use the images? How will I use them? Are they easily accessible to the public? And then even more questions come up: Who will maintain the digital systems? Is there enough money to fix equipment when it malfunctions, or to replace it when it becomes obsolete? How will we protect our content once it’s digitized? What happens when our servers crash?

Are you pulling your hair out yet? I am. When faced with all of these predicaments, it’s easy to get frustrated. But, as public historians, we can’t forget our chief responsibility: serving the public. Remember how excited I was when I could access archival material and view exhibitions online? Whenever I’m ready to throw my hands up in defeat, I think about how digital history has served me in the past. 

As much as we may like or dislike it, digitization is here to stay. And, when done correctly, it provides users with a resource they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Of course, there are so many hurdles standing in the way for those generating digital content; the two biggest being time and money. But I think the recent thrust toward digital history provides users and public historians alike with hope. Hope that digitization will open new doors for us. Hope that it will allow us to reach audiences we wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and, as users, access to content we couldn’t otherwise access. Despite all the hurdles and issues that come along with digitizing historical documents and objects, ultimately it will serve public historians well to embrace the challenge.

But am I being too optimistic and naive to think that digitization in the realm of history could potentially serve us and our audiences so well?