Marking Digital History at UMW

Digital HistoryJeff McClurken’s Adventure’s in Digital History seminar is (or is it “was” now?) a pretty amazing thing. The driving logic of the course was that four distinct projects, each dealing with a unique facet of local history, were be framed for the world-at-large as online digital resources. This is a quite ambitious goal, and as the class finished up today I think most would agree it did far more than meet expectations. I saw two of the groups present their projects last Friday, and all four groups presented their work today (or is it now yesterday, which I unfortunately missed). The projects, in no particular order, are as follows:

  • The James Farmer Project This group focused on the life and achievements of James Farmer, Civil Rights Activist and late Professor at the University of Mary Washington. They capture this larger than life historical figure through quotations, video, an extensive biography, and countless photographs.
  • The James Monroe’s Papers: Both a site for the James Monroe papers housed at UMW as well as a focused site on Monroe’s letters while an ambassador in France during the 1790s.
  • The UMW Alumni Project: This group interviewed various alumni of the University of Mary Washington. They produced a site where other alumni can also add your own biography. They also created an extensive time line of the school’s history to commemorate UMW’s centennial year (1908-2008).
  • The Historical Markers Project: This group created a functional website containing the Fredericksburg City, Stafford County, and Spotsylvania County Historical Highway Markers of Virginia. For each marker, they provided extensive research and further reference material for seventy different markers.

Take a look at each of them, for they collectively represent a valuable contribution to historical resources online. What’s more, each of these sites are Google-friendly, free, and open to the public, as knowledge subsidized by the public should be. And finally, to seal the deal, they even have Creative Commons licenses! It’s a model for future courses that want to use the web as a place to create and share a series of long-standing historical resources.

I was at Richmond for the bulk of this course and the rest of DTLT did all the heavy lifting, yet I was lucky enough upon my return to sit down with Shannon and think about making WordPress Multi-User bend to the imagined site design of the Historical Markers project. The group had to research and present 70 markers within Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania counties. Each marker had an extended resource framer a broader context for its historical significance. This is remarkable because the few sites that deal with historical markers in Virginia that are online only reproduce the marker text, failing to give any larger frame of its history. This group filled that void by remaining keenly focused on the extended history, buttressed by a bibliography for further reading. It’s an invaluable resource, and this group put a tremendous amount of labor into amassing the sources for each of the markers.

Image of Fredericksburg Thinking about the site architecture with Shannon was a lot of fun. The guiding question was as follows: “How do you get enable visitors to easily browse, search, and find markers within a puny “blogging” platform like WordPress?” This was further complicated by the fact that the search function on WordPress displays keyword searches chronologically. For example, if you search for a common term you’ll get numerous results but it won’t sort for relevance by that term based on it’s place in a post title or its recurrence, but rather chronologically. For example, when searching “George Washington” the first five search results make only passing reference to him, while the sixth item is a marker dedicated to his childhood home. The logic of this search is determined by how recently the post was published rather than its relevance to George Washington. So, we were further restricted by an inadequate search engine, so what to do?

Well, we came up with three simple things: First, categorize each of the markers by county, by century, and by common topics and have these on the sidebar for quick browsing. Second, use tags to keep track of keywords and then use the Simple Tags plugin to create an alphabetical index of terms in the form of a tag cloud as well as integrate a related post feature for each post. Third, create a page where all the markers are listed by county, each of which has a link to the post for that marker. This worked in large part because there are a finite number of posts. Nonetheless, I think it manages the task at hand well, and does a nice job of getting to any marker on the site in two clicks, much like a search.

And as I often do, I tried to push Shannon into including all the historical marker images as well as the geo-tagged google maps locations of the 70 markers. All of which, by the way, is freely available on the Virginia Department of Historical Resources site (a good sign when a gov’t agency is geo-tagging all its markers with Google Maps, then making that info freely available along with high resolution images). But Shannon was smart for she understood that the key to this project was not the bells and whistles, which while potentially useful, would only detract from the core mission of this site: the research, extended bibliography and discoverability —all of which was accomplished brilliantly. Bravo!

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4 Responses to Marking Digital History at UMW

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  2. Jmcclurken says:

    Jim,
    Thanks for the kind words. The students really did some amazing things, didn’t they?

  3. Reverend says:

    Jeff,

    They certainly did, and I think it has actually reverberated more widely given the online, open, and accessible nature of the project. Check out this post on the local blog The Fred Review. The word’s getting out, and your students certainly made it a good word 😉

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