Musings on Digital History

Teaching Digital History

I have been thinking about how I can introduce my colleagues in the music history and ethnomusicology worlds to the tools and techniques I have learned in my Digital History coursework. It seems as though the ethos of digital history is one of open access and sharing information, and I think tools like Tropy and QGIS are incredible tools, yet I don’t think as many people in my music-specific fields know about them. Thus, I have been thinking about hosting a workshop on DH tools for music historians. More on that later.

The Knight Lab, out of Northwestern University, has developed many tools for sharing history, including Timeline JS, StoryMaps, StoryLine, and Juxtapose (to name a few). For our Combing Through History DH project, I have created a Timeline JS of combs throughout history, before I knew it was part of this module. It has been a great learning experience figuring it out on my own, and I really think it is one of the most user-friendly interfaces I have learned, thus far. TimelineJS uses a Google Docs template, and has a number of fields for various types of data. I include a screenshot of my timeline information here:

Once completed, you copy the Google Docs URL in your own personal Google Drive, paste it into the Knight Labs website, and voila, a Timeline is born. My timeline is not complete yet, but here is what I have so far, using WordPress’s Knight Timeline plugin:

For my second tutorial, I spent some time with Zooniverse. According to their website,

“The Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research. This research is made possible by volunteers — more than a million people around the world who come together to assist professional researchers. Our goal is to enable research that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise. Zooniverse research results in new discoveries, datasets useful to the wider research community, and many publications.”

I chose the “Athena: Spot Species in Fine Art” project which is based out of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The goal is simple: spot the animals, plants, and fantastic creatures in the provided works of art.

As you can see in the image above, the simple interface allows you to click on the animal/plant/creature using their color-coded system, and identify everything you see. By logging into their system, you can be added to the author list for any subsequent publications related to your contributions.

In the past I have participated in wiki-edit-athons and have contributed to Smithsonian public transcription projects. Participating in these projects is an exciting way to feel like you are part of the larger historical community, especially the projects I have helped with that have nothing to do with my own research areas. I have never taught or assigned this kind of crowd sourcing assignment to my students, but I think it could be an interesting experiment. Shannon Kelly cautions:

“A digital writing assignment is not always enough to increase digital literacy; a more pronounced understanding and implementation of digital pedagogy on behalf of the contributing instructor makes the project more effective.”

Shannon Kelley, “Getting on the Map: A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy and Undergraduate Crowdsourcing,” DHQ 11.3 (2017).

Thus, in order to make this kind of assignment worth it, the instructor must be clear about the skills she must train them to do before starting the project, and identify what she wants the students to learn and contribute. Fortunately, new publications like Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross’s 2017 book, Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students give us clear guidance on how to integrate DH into the classroom. Their book is a practical resource for those interested in incorporating DH into their work.

Musings on Digital History

Historic Preservation: Sustainability of Archival, Digital and Research Materials

Museum Collections

Preserving the historic may well be a byline in my email signature. As a museum professional, I have been working in this realm for over a decade. In the last few years ago, the conversation surrounding the care of historic materials has seen a major shift. Historic institutions and museums are dealing with the after-effects of untamed collections strategies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, museums acquired large numbers of collections en masse, even when the reality was that a mere fraction of the objects were worthy of display. Museums are laden with centuries of objects in various states of disrepair, many of which are stored on pallets in expensive off-site storage facilities with little to no attention or interest by scholars. Given how many museums are facing budget shortfalls and massive layoffs, two questions come to mind:

  1. Are keeping these collections worth the costs?
  2. Could strategic de-accessioning efforts be a sustainable choice for museums in crisis?

Preserving (Digital) History

We must ask similar questions about the need to preserve digital content as we do for physical collections. In our “Combing Through History” group, we had a thought-provoking conversation about whether we want to continue updating our project after the semester ends. While we are all enthusiastic and excited about our project we felt that none of us had the bandwidth to commit to maintaining the site for perpetuity. But often it is not as clear what the anticipated lifespan of a digital project might be. People move, change jobs, get involved in other projects, and so it is not entirely a bad thing to let a project end. But it seems from the readings we have covered this week, it is best to consider issues of preservation at the beginning, not the end of a project, because many of these ideas can be built into the infrastructure of the project, especially grant-funded projects which require this kind of information.

I thought it might be useful to compile a list of resources (provided by Dr. Otis, thanks!), as I did in my last blog, for questions related to digital preservation.

First, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance provides us with a great chart, The Various Levels of Digital Preservation. This is a great resource for easily tracking the various aspects of your project and how they should be considered through the lens of preservation. As we have learned, for grant-funded projects

Secondly, University of Pittsburg professor Alison Langmead created a self-guided tool called the Sustainability Roadmap. She tells the user in the introduction that

“You will have a stronger sense not only of how to sustain your work, but also what your project’s major overall characteristics are alongside your own intellectual goals. You will leave with an understanding of your project’s particular sustainability goals and a plan for beginning to work toward them.”

Alison Langmead, et al, “The Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap.”

By familiarizing myself with these tools, I am feeling more confident about how to continue to launch different facets of my Instrumental Women project, and what my responsibilities will be going forward.

I will leave you with a quote that resonated with me. Historians who use digital technology have to be flexible in both their telling of the past, and with the limits of the technologies we use to tell it. In his 2018 book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, librarian and GMU alum Trevor Owens states that:

“Digital preservation is not an exact science. It is a craft in
which experts must reflexively deploy and refine their
judgment to appraise digital content and implement strategies
for minimizing risk of loss.

The craft of digital preservation is anchored in the past. It builds
off the records, files, and works of those who came before us and those who designed and set up the systems that enable the creation, transmission, and rendering of their work. At the same time, the craft of digital preservation is also the work of a futurist. We must look
to the past trends in the ebb and flow of the development of digital
media and hedge our bets on how digital technologies of the future
will play out.”

Trevor Owens, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 187.

Musings on Digital History

Accessibility and Data Visualization: Towards an Inclusive DH Space

From the beginning of class, I think we all waxed on about how the digital sphere has democratized research, information sharing, and access.  Yet, as we have learned in last week’s module focused on issues related to bias and ethics, and this week’s module which is focused on accessibility and design, this is not entirely true.  We have a long way to go to make the internet a safe, ethical, and accessible space.  Not to say that digital historians have the ability to change the entire web to fit these needs, BUT we do have control over our own projects and can lead the way towards a more accessible history-sphere.

As we approach our own digital projects, I wanted to make a “cheat sheet” of accessibility tools that I could refer back to whenever I needed. In light of the accessibility unit, I thought this list should also be accessible to readers of my blog:

  • #AccessibleHashtags: When using hashtags, capitalize the first letter of each word if it is more than one word.  If someone is using a speech reader, it will sound like nonsense if the words are smashed together, but capitalizing makes the them read like individual words. For example, use #InstrumentalWomen, not #instrumentalwomen. This technique is also known as CamelCase.
  • Alt-Text for Photos: It is important to provide descriptive text for images, describing what the photo looks like, for those who are visually-impaired.
  • Wave Accessibility Tool: This amazing plug-in will scan your own websites and let you know how accessible your content is for people with disabilities. I used the Wave tool on this website, and was happy to see that I didn’t have any errors!
  • Color Oracle: This open source tool allows you to simulate how your digital content may look to people with various types of colorblindness.
  • Get creative, and keep it simple: It is easy to get over eager when doing complicated data visualizations or web projects. But if you are trying to reach the most people, keep it simple. Just because you know everything about a topic, doesn’t mean your readers do. Help them learn what you want them to know, and get creative! Working on data related to blind communities? Consider doing aural data representations instead of visualizations. Design for people with cognitive impairments? This article is a great resource for designing websites for users who may struggle with conditions like ADHD, anxiety, seizure disorders, and others. Again, it reminds us to keep things clear and uncluttered.
  • Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI): This wonderful resource is aimed towards providing “strategies, standards, resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.” The Wave tool uses guidelines that this initiative puts forth, but it always nice to go to the source for questions.

Throughout this module, I have been reminded of an amazing new movement which is a response to universal design, called design justice.  Design justice is a movement which envisions how “design might be led by marginalized communities” and that by doing so, it would “dismantle structural inequality, and advance collective liberation and ecological survival.”1  I have previously been thinking about this in the realm of guitar design, and how many women are thinking of new shapes and designs for electric guitars that are lighter weight, more ergonomic,  and better for the environment.  But I think the principals of this movement also relate to DH.  Having read about the issues related to biased algorithms, etc, it seems like the concept of design justice would address some of these very things.

While we may have to take some additional steps towards accessibility as we design and implement our projects, but by doing so, it will make our work accessible to everyone, and as a public historian, it seems worth it.

  1. []
Musings on Digital History

Ethics, Bias, and Diversity Issues in DH

Author and Professor Safiya Umoja Noble writes in her shocking book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism that while we may think that search engines are equal opportunity providers, search engines actually have led to biased algorithms which discriminate against people of color (especially women of color), and reinforce the privilege of white users. Bias is seen in search engine results, photo searches (in quite offensive ways), and in how things are prioritized when searching. I think most people don’t consider the level of human involvement when it comes to the internet, but the biases of developers can certainly be seen in these ways. To be fair, it seems as though sometimes the sin is one of omission: people not considering that their choices impact people of color in these ways (this is true outside of the internet as well). At the end of her study, Noble states that

“I am particularly mindful of the push for digital technology adoption by Black / African Americans, divorced from the context of how digital technologies are implicated in global racial power relations.”

Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (NYU Press, 2018) 171.

In the age of COVID, this statement is haunting. Access to internet has been granted to thousands of families for virtual schooling. Considering this push, and how it could hurt black children, who are already marginalized on the internet, oof. It is a bleak thought.

Bias an ethics extend to the archive-sphere. As we have discussed previously, it is important to acknowledge what is not in archives, and what gaps exist due to racism and collecting priorities. But once you access archival material, there are a host of ethical considerations to be aware of. Just because you can easily publish interesting bits from archival research, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Historian Michelle Moravec asks:

How are we thinking about our responsibilities as the users of these digitized archival material, when what we write is online, and when our reuse of digitized materials may at the least violate copyright and the worst cause harm to individuals?

Michelle Moravec, “What Would You Do? Historians’ Ethics and Digitized Archives,” Medium, April 14, 2016.

I have been thinking about this quote all week, and how it pertains to my Instrumental Women project. Part of my DH project will be an interactive database of women who make musical instruments from around the world. I have compiled a list of over 200 instrument makers, and I am in touch with another organization which has a list of 100 makers working in South America, alone. For months now, even though the database is ready to go live, I have hesitated on whether I should post the database. On one hand, all of the information I have compiled has been from readily accessible online sources, thus if I can find it, can’t anyone? The reason I have been cautious is that women in this industry have experienced terrible trolling, sexism, and even threats. By creating this public database in order to celebrate and help support women instrument makers, I do not want to create a easy access platform for trolls and those who wish to do harm. Because I believe in consent, I have now decided that I will be asking for written permission of these makers in order to make sure everyone is not only aware of the project, but has the right to opt out. The added bonus will be that I will be able to be in contact with all the women in the database, which will no doubt help me as I embark on my dissertation, wherein I plan to conduct oral history interviews with many of these women.

PS– I encourage you all to check out the work of ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt.  I attended a presentation Dr. Gaunt gave last year on just this thing.  She is writing a book entitled “PLAYED: Twerking at the Intersection of Music, YouTube, and Violence Against Black Girls,.”  In the following article, she states that”My book is about the intersection of twerking, the way the music is being monetized through streaming and the way artists will exploit girls’ games in order to gain attention in the attention economy. There’s this halo-effect for artists and girls because they know when Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion release a song, there’s a whole slew of algorithms that are going to pull their videos in. That’s the monetization of music. YouTube is profiting off of the content of very young girls. And before last year when the fine came from the FTC, they were practicing plausible deniability.”

Musings on Digital History

Project Management and the Museum Professional

Without any formal project management training, my museum positions have always been focused essentially centered around being a project manager. When I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, I served as the departmental coordinator for various projects that required the input and buy-in of multiple departments. For example, I managed a reinstallation of 200 object labels for the musical instrument gallery. I worked closely with the design and fabrication departments, submitting our label text and copyediting their proofs, coordinated photography of objects for the labels, worked with our preparator on determining what objects needed new mounts, and worked with conservation and collections care to clean and assess object conditions before installation. I worked with our facilities and front line staff to close the gallery, to communicate this closure to the public, and created clear signage to close the space. To me, project management relies on communication and coordination. Sometimes, I feel like a professional nudge, but to get a project done, it is imperative that someone takes the lead to drive all the players towards the goal.

In the digital space, many tools and apps exist for project management, but they require buy-in from all parties. I wanted to use these kinds of tools at the MFA, but I didn’t have the ability to recommend they be used by everyone. Two free apps worth exploring are Basecamp and Trello. Both apps give project managers the tools to assign tasks and follow-up on them, upload documents for one’s team, set and prioritize deadlines, track progress and budgets, and chat and post updates for the group. Having created my own systems for my whole career, learning about these apps is essential for doing PM in the 21st century. I think, the only challenge, is getting people to agree to using the app, which means that everyone checks in often, and complete’s their own tasks–not always the easiest thing to ensure on any platform.

In Dr. Otis’s webinar on Project and Data Management, she explores how historians have to be project managers when it comes to applying for and managing grants. Grant-giving organizations require you to submit detailed documentation related to a wide swath of things, including the project budget, data plan, and dated deliverables. I really liked her outline of what every project manager should consider:

  1. Requirements
    1. Scope
  2. Cost-schedule
    1. How much and when?
  3. Risk assessment
    1. What could go wrong with the project?
  4. Data management
  5. Communication
  6. Periodic reviews
    1. Are you on track?
  7. Exit criteria
    1. When are you done?
      1. When have you met requirements or when the money is gone
  8. Preservation

Things I was not as versed in, in this list, included issues related to data management and preservation. These are hugely important in the realm of DH. One must consider issues related to where project materials live, who can access them, and if they are secure. Furthermore, for digital projects, preservation is key. Similarly, one must consider how long this project will live and what the plan for making that happen are (annual costs post grant, platform updates and website maintenance, etc), making sure that the materials are saved in ever-green formats so that years down the line, they are still accessible, and so on.

Overall, I would very much like to continue to do Project Management in my career because I like to organize materials and my Type-A personality lends itself to taking control and getting things done, although I have learned to accept help and delegate tasks.

Musings on Digital History

Digital Storytelling and Games

Note to self: Jayme, remember that in your Digital History class in your first year of your PhD, your assignment was to play Oregon Trail. Also, remember, you didn’t buy enough food at the beginning of the journey and as a result, you are directly responsible for the deaths of your husband and cousin. You were better at this when you were in elementary school, Kurland.

Growing up, my sister and I were not allowed to play video games, aside from “Typing Tutor” or educational games at school like “Oregon Trail.” Once in a blue moon, we would get to play Super Mario Bros at our babysitter’s house, but we didn’t own any gaming systems. Since then, I have never really had much interest in gaming. When I have tried games like Mario Kart as an adult, I fail miserably and end up running into walls, all while getting kind of dizzy watching the simulated game realm.

I found the article “Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past” really thought provoking.

Krijn H.J. Boom et al write that

In contrast to factual learning, video games allow players to experience the past by interacting with it as they go, deepening their understanding through reflection and experimentation…Video games inherently allow players access to all these abilities and act, as it were, as a learning conduit.

Krijn H.J. Boom et al, “Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past,” in Communicating the Past in the Digital Age edited by Sebastian Hageneur (Ubiquity Press, 2020), 31

It seems like the authors are almost encouraging public historians to engage with the public through the use of games, yet, they also warn about the downsides therein. I had never considered the power of video games which portray the historical past, like Call of Duty, could potentially make the player think they understand WWII given the game’s premise. After sharing key case studies, the authors sum up that:

“In order to make more use of video games as an educational platform, both in formal and informal settings, it is important to better understand the educational impact video games have on players, and to find opportunities in which interaction between the players and the past can be discussed or mediated in order for the latter to be more critically assessed.”

Krijn H.J. Boom et al, “Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past,” in Communicating the Past in the Digital Age edited by Sebastian Hageneur (Ubiquity Press, 2020), 41.

I love the idea of using a technology which is already widely in use and enjoyed, like video games, for teaching history. Why shouldn’t we connect with people on their terms using their preferred methods, instead of expecting them to come to us? But beyond games related to war and warfare, how can other historical events or time periods be adapted to the game format? I also loved learning about RoMeincraft, since I have watched my nieces play Minecraft for years, but had never stopped to think about the historical potential beyond the user’s ability to build worlds.

This week, we learned how to use the app “Twine,” an open-sourced tool for interactive, non-linear storytelling—think chose your own adventure…kind of. Authors Krijn H.J. Boom et al weigh in on Twine’s platform:

“Opposed to traditional linear scholarly writing, Twine can be valuable for interpreting fragments of the past to recreate or envision diverse possible scenarios.”

Krijn H.J. Boom et al, “Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past,” in Communicating the Past in the Digital Age edited by Sebastian Hageneur (Ubiquity Press, 2020), 36.

I found Twine to be a rather easy platform to learn. Our group (Janet, Caroline, and I) were initially daunted by the task of creating such a project. The research areas we have worked on didn’t seem like appropriate projects to turn into a “choose your own adventure” experience. But once we got to brainstorming, we decided to present a “Culinary Tour of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair” because many household staples in the present were introduced at this event. I think the only thing missing was the ability to actually EAT the food we introduce. So without much further ado, please enjoy playing our game.

Musings on Digital History

Digital Exhibits: Tools and Issues

“While the traditional white-cube exhibition display remains the most refined and delicately mute backdrop to honor an artist’s work in person, the global health crisis has mandated an inevitable alternative, with gallerists and curators discovering the possibilities of limitless space and access that enclosed interiors inherently lack.”

Osman Can Yerebakan, “11 Digital Art and Design Exhibitions to Get Lost In From Home,” Architectural Digest, April 10, 2020.

It seems that COVID, among other things, has made (or rather, reminded) museums and other institutions that digital exhibitions and projects are powerful and important ways of interacting with the public, outside of their physical walls. In this moment of social distancing and isolation, the public is turning to the digital for entertainment, solace, and community. And digital-born projects are having a moment.

Ever since I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, I have been interested in digital exhibitions, but the museum had a team of digital experts to create these kinds of projects, so I guess I thought I didn’t have the requisite tech skills to participate in these initiatives, beyond creating the content. In 2018, I curated an exhibition entitled “Jazz at Georgetown” while working at Georgetown University Library’s Booth Center for Special Collections. This exhibition had both a physical display, and continues to live on in the digital sphere on their website. I also created an accompanying Spotify playlist, since it was a music-focused exhibition. I used the tools available to me, but it got me wanting more options in the digital sphere.

I think there is potential to create interactive projects that aren’t so static. Projects like Google Arts and Culture allow visitors to see museums virtually, from the comfort of their homes, yet, I don’t think we have fully embraced the possibilities of the digital. While it is cool to be able to take video-based interactive tours of physical spaces, how can we harness the vast potential of the digital sphere, which inherently has the chance to remove the confines of the physical world.

Just this month, we saw the opening of the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA). VOMA’s creator, artist Stuart Semple, decided to launch his initiative (which he had conceived of several decades prior) after being left disappointed having seen how different institutions have made their collections available through video tours and digitization. Thus, he decided to hire a group of architects, programmers, and video game designers to create his vision. His team partnered with major museums to scan the art so that visitors can see objects in 3-D, while “walking” through the museum in the same fashion that one would navigate through a video game.1

Smithsonian Magazine writer Jennifer Nalawicki quotes the museum app Smartify co-founder Anna Lowe, musing on the major issue with digital museum experiences:

“The advantage of something like VOMA or [other virtual museum experiences] is the reach and engagement you can have with a global audience,” Lowe says. “But I think the key thing about physical museums, and the main reason that people go to museums, isn’t for a learning experience, but to be social. I think that’s the biggest challenge for [virtual visits] is how do you move people through a space without it feeling like you’re just scrolling through a site.

Jennifer Nalawicki, “The World’s First Entirely Virtual Museum Is Open For Visitors,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 17, 2020,

Inspired by these readings, and wanting to learn more techniques related to digital curation, I was happy to learn how to use Omeka, a free and open access collections management and digital exhibition app developed by GMU’s Ray Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.2 Omeka’s collections management capabilities are solving a serious problem faced by small museums and private collectors. Collections management systems, like The Museum System (TMS), are incredibly powerful tools for large museums, but they come at a hefty price tag which is a major barrier for small institutions. Omeka has the ability to manage collections while also letting the user create exhibitions and share their own object-based research.

In 2018, I started collecting harmonicas. It began as a research need- I was researching musical instruments designed by John Vassos, a noted industrial designer who is known for designing the first commercially-available color television console as well as the Perry turnstyle (used in many NY subway stations). My main objective for collecting these instruments was to be able to measure and study their designs. After acquiring the three instruments he designed for the Hohner Musical Instrument Company, I became interested in other art-deco harmonicas designed by Hohner for the NY World’s Fair. And thus, my collection took off. I currently have about 20 harmonicas, and I wanted to see how I could use Omeka to organize my collection. If you are interested in how the project currently looks, check out:

Digital history projects and digital exhibitions potentially have the ability to shift exhibitions into the public domain. Most of these projects are free to access, unlike many museums, and so they have the potential to invite new guests in. When considering creating a project in the digital sphere, it is important to take into consideration issues related to copyright, as they are not always intuitive. For example, some museums like the Met and the Victoria and Albert Museum have made many of their objects and photos part of the public domain, and users can download and use this information in whatever way they see fit. Other institutions use their collections as income, and license images to help benefit their institutions.

The internet has democratized the curatorial space and has created a place for independent researchers to share their work with the public, without needing a book deal, faculty job, or museum backing, but in doing so, we still have many issues to navigate and figure out related to updating our understandings of copyright, publishing, and what it means to be open-sourced.

  1. Jennifer Nalawicki, “The World’s First Entirely Virtual Museum Is Open For Visitors,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 17, 2020, []
  2. Side note—if it is not already obvious, I am completely thrilled with my choice to get my History PhD at GMU, and the focus on DH is a BIG reason. I am having so much fun []
Musings on Digital History

Mapping History

I have long heard about mapping projects being the next big thing in history and in the humanities, but I guess I never fully appreciated what that meant, and how one maps a project.

GIS stands for Geographic Information System, which is a “framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes. ​With this unique capability, GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and situations—helping users make smarter decisions.”1

This week, we got into the weeds with a program called QGIS, a free and open-source software. While it definitely takes some getting used to, and can be somewhat finicky if you have made an error, the opportunities for mapping multiple data sets to look at historical trends is pretty incredible. In the demo for this unit, we looked at data related to London, its neighborhoods, and then also mapped statistics related to the plague onto it. The next example which we did on our own, was actually quite relevant to a volunteer project I am working on with the Fairfax County NAACP related to voter registration and voting at the local level. It was cool to get some clarity regarding earlier election results in the county, and to see how it has changed in the present.

I have to say, this whole mapping project was a serious challenge for me, but I am still working on it! I first downloaded the incorrect version of the software, so I experienced some serious frustrations when it came to trying to get the data to visualize in the way the tutorial said it would. Once I got it to work, after downloading the correct and more stable version, I was able to see how powerful this program really is, but I still feel like I have only scratched the surface. Once I made it to the independent tutorial, I found a little more success, but I think it is going to take me more time to really figure it all out. Most of my work does not really involve mapping, but I would like to become proficient in QGIS because it is a powerful tool way to visualize geographic data.

The way data is visualized, and one’s color palette choice is incredibly important, as I learned. I think a lot of the style choices—colors, shading, etc, REALLY affect how the data is interpreted by the viewer. For example, I used olive green and brown for some horrible reason and the results were NOT PRETTY. If you use two separate colors that do not look good together, or are too bright, or too similar, the points you are making end up not being well understood. In the future, I would maybe start by planning out the color scheme before diving in.

Mapping projects allow us to see trends or unlikely similarities between distinct sets of data. And mapping is becoming a common tool for researchers across disciplines, from geographers, to historians, to ethnomusicologists! For example, the New York Times published a mapping project which showed the similarities between districts which had been red-lined, and the heat island effect that these same areas are facing. In another project, a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Allie Martin, uses mapping to study the musical and sonic effects of gentrification in DC over time, which includes how gentrification affects music cultures, including DC’s GoGo Music and the traditions of buskers and street musicians. Her projects also have an aural component in relation to the maps, which is an important part of how she shares her research. Daniele Salvoldi explores how mapping has allowed researchers to attempt to reconstruct sites in ancient Nubia, by using archival materials spanning geography, history, natural history and ethnographic source materials2. Having personally researched musical instruments excavated in Meroe in Nubia, I think this type of project is incredibly important, and might help us figure out why Greek musical instruments were excavated at the tomb of a Nubian queen. By using data points from so many different areas, the possibilities for understand the past are endless.

In efforts related decolonizing museum collections, I could see mapping projects being a useful way to visualize the geographic makeup of a museum collection, especially as it pertains to gaps in collections. Or to see how a collection has been built over time, and being able compare geography and dates to political and social unrest to see if that may be why a given object is in a museum collection half way across the world.

Susan Grunewald writes that

Digital mapping works best in conjunction with more traditional sources. It can be crucial to making research conclusions, but not without the context and evidence of the standard building blocks of historical studies. Indeed, GIS mapping and the traditional methods and sources of history are symbiotic. As my research process shows, initial mapping work can help scholars refine their research questions and navigate information contained within written documents and oral testimonies.3.

I really appreciated this succinct take on how mapping projects can help guide research, and can help point researchers in new directions. But I think we also need to be careful not to infer meaning about a situation purely based on the map we create. I think we, as humans, want to organize and make sense of ourselves and our pasts, but meaning that we derive from a given set of data on a map may be coincidental, so I think we need to proceed with caution. I think the map is one in a set of tools at our disposal to find meaning in our pasts.

  1. []
  2. Daniele Salvoldi, “A Historical Geographical Information System (HGIS) of Nubia Based on the William J. Bankes Archive (1815-1822),” DHQ 11.2 (2017). []
  3. Susan Grunewald, “Beyond the Archives: What GIS Mapping Reveals about German POWs in Soviet Russia,” Perspectives on History, February 26, 2019. []
Musings on Digital History

Databases and Digitization: Using Online Tools for Historical Research


Things I Wish I Learned Earlier In My Research Career.

Open Source Research Management Tools

Zotero Citation App

Since I began GMU’s PhD program, now two weeks ago, I have been trying to establish good habits and organized workflows for my dissertation research. I experienced the horrors of not having a good system for keeping track of my research materials during my masters, and I am really trying to avoid a repeat of that in grad school, part 2. About a year ago, when I decided to focus my research on Instrumental Women, I started using Zotero citation software, a secondary source management system. Zotero allows you to organize your source materials by folder and subfolder, and also generates footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies in your preferred style. Zotero has a plug-in for your web browser so that you can add citations directly from the web. It generally has had life changing impacts on my research. I am still glad to know how to write individual footnote citations, or bibliographic entries using Chicago Style (thanks Dr. Norton!), but Zotero is a powerful tool to keep track of everything in a way that actually makes sense, and interfaces with your web browser. I started learning how to use Zotero from my husband Jeff, who uses it for his scientific publications, bt it wasn’t until recently that I learned it was developed by the George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Tropy Archival Material Organizer

This week, I learned about the wonders of Tropy, a research app for organizing digitized archival photos and documents. I have always had an incredibly frustrating relationship with the photos I have taken in archival collections. What should I name this photo? Can I combine these photos without turning them into a PDF? Where do I keep the metadata for these photos, most importantly, which box/folder did the damn thing come from so that I can properly cite it? Well luckily for me, the Rosenzweig Center has me covered. Tropy (est. 2017) solves these problems.

Here is a screenshot of the interface. I used a set of photos I have taken related to instruments made for women by men. This particular image, below, came from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and I used it for a blog they asked me to write about my research. I was able to add dates, box and folder numbers, and even save a zoomed in shot of an important part of this advertisement:

Last year, I was hired as a proxy researcher at the Archives for American Art for a client in England. I took thousands of photos, and really wish I had Tropy to use! Tropy allows the user to group items, but also do batch edits. For example, you can add “Box 10” to hundreds of photos at one time. How cool is that? Note to self: do not delete the photos you are using in Tropy. The app needs to communicate with your computer’s storage, so the images don’t “live” on the app. This was learned after furiously searching for a photo uploaded a few days before.

Open Refine: Cleaning Up Messy Data

As a museum cataloger, I have been tasked with database management, cross-checking data with approved style guides, and grooming object records for consistency. Sometimes, generating an excel spreadsheet of over 1000 objects to groom can be an incredibly tedious process. Over the years, catalogers have used different date naming conventions (19th Century/1800s/1800-1900/c.1800-1900/about 1800-1900). When trying to generate statistics about the make-up of a collection, these seemingly innocuous date names can prove to be time consuming and frustrating to fix. Open Refine is a data grooming software that is far more agile and equipped to deal with grooming large amounts of data in quick order. While it definitely has a learning curve, Open Refine has the ability to let the user separate names into multiple columns (easier than excel in regards to names that are comprised of multiple words, hyphenations, etc.). Open Refine also can allow the user to zero in on subsets of data to groom in smaller batches. I am looking forward to using this software on my Instrumental Women database, which needs some serious grooming!

Admittedly, I was hesitant and nervous for the tutorial on Open Refine. When I hear the term data, I think math. I guess I never considered my research points data points. But now that I rethinking how I look at my materials, I am interested in data analysis and visualization. Christof Schoch states that as historians, “we need smart big data because it can not only adequately represent a sufficient number of relevant features of humanistic objects of inquiry to enable the level of precision and nuance scholars in the humanities need, but it can also provide us with a sufficient amount of data to enable quantitative methods of inquiry that help us transgress the limitations inherent in methods based on close reading strategies. To put it in a nutshell: only smart big data enables intelligent quantitative methods”1. Henceforth, I am going to seriously consider the information I gather and it’s potential uses in both qualitative and quantitative ways.

Open Source = Free!

I must mention that all of these tools are open source and free. Given last week’s blog on how digital history have the potential to democratize historical research, open source tools like Zotero, Tropy, and Open Refine are also democratizing research methods and data organization.

Visualizing, Organizing, and Telling History Online

As I embark on later phases of my Instrumental Women Project, I have been thinking about how my database of living makers, and timeline of women in the industry could be shared online. I have been inspired by the interface and interactivity of several DH projects, including the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and Old Bailey Online. These projects allow the user to sort and search through data in a very user-friendly way. As I move forward, I want to figure out how best represent my work, and I think I will be returning to these sites to find inspiration.

Digitalization and the Big Picture

Just this week, in Professor O’Malley’s course on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, I was introduced to the idea of Transnational History. As Lara Putnam writes that the shift in historian associations (i.e. geographic history as a specific course of study) is happening simultaneously with the rise of the digital age. She says that “source digitization has transformed historians’ practice in ways that facilitate border-crossing research in particular.”2. Simply, the increased digital access to sources and materials from various repositories, coupled with our increased awareness of globalization and the influence thereof is potentially making studies like “American History” obsolete. Even more basic, we all study world history—American history, like any other, is influenced by various other global influences. Before the digital age, a geographical boundry made pragmatic sense, since “the real-world geography of textual sources used to define our work. Information in physical form…tends to cluster in administrative centers near where it was produced”2. She warns, however, that “Meanwhile, we are going to have to work actively so those systematically less present in printed sources do not fall out of view. Size up the absence. Who wasn’t publishing papers or pamphlets, or wasn’t reading them, or was far from the people who did? Rural people, illiterate people, people who stayed put: all stand in the shadows that digitized sources cast.”2.

Jonathan Blaney and Judith Siefring address the strange bias that exists toward the printed word when citing sources. Without even thinking about it, I too have succombed to finding the page number of an online article so that I can use the hard-copy citation. Why? Maybe because it looks cleaner, with fewer blue hyperlinks. Blaney and Siefring posit that “change of practice at individual scholarly level reflects and promotes change at a wider cultural level. As more and more established academics are open about their use of online resources, the belief that digital content is less scholarly should lessen, and citation should improve…Digital citation is important because it is a reflection of how digital resources are valued.”3


I’ll be brief. This week I learned some seriously cool tools for research, with some great contextual literature to allow me to think critically abou the responsibility I have with the data I collection.

Alas, I am tired. See y’all next week.

  1. Christof Schoch, “Big? Smart? Clean? Messy? Data in the Humanities,” Journal of Digital Humanities 2, no 3 (2013). []
  2. Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast” in American Historical Review 121, no 2 (April 2016): 377-402. [] [] []
  3. Jonathan Blaney and Judith Siefring “A Culture of non-citation: Assessing the digital impact of British History Online and the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no 1 (2017). []
Musings on Digital History

What is Digital History?

“The class focused on US history since the Civil War, but at every opportunity Mr. Hill guided them to the present, linking what had happened a hundred years ago to their current lives.  They’d set off down one road at the beginning of class and it always led back to their doorsteps.”1

Before grad school reading took over my life, I was almost finished reading The Nickel Boys, kind of a literary last supper before I would be reading books that others have chosen for me (good choices, just not mine!). As I was reading, the quote above really resonated with me, and with how I have tried to make history relevant to the present in both grad school and in my work in museums.  So how can we (historians) not only make the past present, but make it something that others care about? Digital history, to me, is a critical component of sharing history in the 21st century.

So what is digital history (or DH as those in the know call it)?

In 2009, historians Douglas Seefeldt & William G. Thomas write that:

“Digital history might be understood as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.  [It is both an] open arena of scholarly productions and communication [and] a methodological approach.”2

They argue that to participate in the realm of digital history is not only digitizing the past, but creating a “framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.”2 The last part of this quote gets to the crux of how digital history can be useful.  In a way, digital history initiatives are curated history narratives, and can be a place not only to read history, but to experience and visualize primary sources, maps, photos, art, objects, and first person accounts of a moment in the past. DH allows users to escape to the past through the aural experiences of hearing music, natural sound recordings, and voices from the period in which they describe.  Digital history can allow for a multi-sensory self-guided experience for the user, allowing for, as the authors point out, the question to be opened up for “readers to investigate and form interpretive associations of their own.”2 History is multifaceted, and different people have different perspectives and preferences, thus, allowing for a more dynamic, user-led sense of history makes history even more meaningful for the user. Digital history can also make history accessible in ways that books and physical museums cannot.  From a person’s home, they can be transported into history, and in some circumstances, those who have vision, hearing, and physical limitations can be immersed in history in a way that was not possible before the digital age.

I believe that computers and digital access have democratized research.  Travelling to museums, archives, and special collections in libraries was once only available to those who have the means and funds to do so.  While there are still MANY collections which are not available online, digitization projects have created better access to collections online. Furthermore, digital humanities projects at their core, have the possibility for more elasticity, thus, as new scholarship identifies new ways of thinking and shares new knowledge, the internet allow for a more fluid ability to share history without the permanence of the published book.

The challenge, though, as Ian Milligan points out in his book History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research, is that we now face a massive amount of historical materials and data, especially materials that were born on the web, when in the period before the internet, scarcity was the norm, and was frustrating! Milligan states:

“Our collective cultural heritage, the legacy that we leave behind for the generations to come, faces a serious problem in the digital age. We used to, as a rule, forget. Now we have the power of recall and retrieval at a scale that will decisively change how our society remembers. For historians, professionals who interpret and bring shape to narratives of the past, this is a dramatic shift. The digital age brings with it great power: the prospect of a more democratic history and of more voices included in the historical record, a realization of the social historian’s dream. Yet it also brings significant challenges: what does it mean to write histories with born-digital sources – from websites written in the mid-1990s to tweets posted today? How can we be ready, from a technical perspective as well as from a social or ethical one, to use the web as a historical source – as an archive? Historians with the training and resources are about to have far more primary sources, and the ability to process them, at their fingertips. What will this all mean for our understanding of the past? How can these sources be used responsibly? Finally, if historians cannot rise to the moment, what does this mean for the future of our profession?”3

His statement has a Spiderman-like aura: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Milligan, and others, remind us that there are serious ethical considerations at stake when we consider the vastness of the online historical record.3 He posits, and I tend to agree, that we will need to forge partnerships with organizations like the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to make sure we have a second set of eyes looking at our work, and thinking solely of the ethics of our research methods and findings. But if these things are considered, the potential to transform the field. Milligan ends by saying that It’s uncharted territory and will be messy, but “Ultimately, it will be worth it. Web archives offer the prospect of incorporating more voices and more people. A more inclusive history is around the corner. We need to be ready.”4

In this moment, as we are living in isolation as COVID-19 ravages our communities and our sense of normalcy. We are depending on the internet for education, medical appointments, and work, among other things.  Imagine if DH projects aimed at children for self-guided learning existed and were more available?  Self-guided instruction would allow for a more flexible, less “one size fits all approach.”  We know that the traditional lecture approach is not working well for K-12, but today’s youth are very computer adept.  The potential for new ways of teaching and learning history for children could transform the online classroom into one which meets the needs of children’s attention spans, the workload of teachers, and the overall enjoyment and memory of a class or topic.

I think the very real challenge for historians, which I experienced this week, is to not lose one’s cool over technical difficulties. I was tempted, more than once, to throw my computer at the wall as I was migrating my domain name to WordPress. I took a cue from Seinfeld, had a moment of “serenity now,” and got back to work. Once I was able to launch the new website, which is way less clunky than my old one, I started getting in the groove. I added plug-ins, updated my CV, and now am able to take a sigh of relief. I think for many historians, the tech feels impossible, but we need to rally, and get on board. DH is the future, whether we are ready or not.

As I embark on my Ph.D, I am thrilled that DH is such a big part of the curriculum at GMU. This week, I also launched my initiative Instrumental Women on Twitter and Instagram, with the mission of amplifying the global histories of womxn instrument makers . It is my hope to use the tools I learn in this class to help me bring these stories alive. Looking forward to what comes next!

  1. Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Anchor Books, 2019), 30. []
  2. Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What is Digital History,” May 2009 [] [] []
  3. Ian Milligan, History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web is Transforming Historical Research (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 3. [] []
  4. Ibid, 245. []