Digital History Fellowship | Practicum: Educational Projects Division

This spring, I had the opportunity to spend the entire semester working in the Educational Project Division. While I did enjoy our rotations last semester, which allowed us to get a taste of several projects in each division, it was nice to see how a single division functioned over the long haul, and to be a part of at least one project from start to finish. During the semester I was a part of three projects: Storer College, For Us The Living and the Pilbara Aboriginal Strike. All three projects were very different from each other and not only gave me a better sense of the variety of work that the Ed Division undertakes, but gave me an opportunity to develop a diversity of skills.

The first project I worked on was an oral history project about Storer College, a historically black college located in Harpers Ferry, WV. After the school closed in 1955, the school’s land and some of its buildings were acquired by the National Park Service. In the late 20th century, former students, staff and faculty members were interviewed about their experiences growing up in the area or attending the school. For many years, these rich oral histories existed only as audio on the original tapes, making them hard for researchers, not to mention the public, to access. For this project, RRCHNM partnered with the National Park Service to take these oral histories (which NPS had recently digitized) and create written transcripts which would then be posted online along with the audio files so that the greater public could finally hear them. 

The bulk of the time on this project was spent transcribing interviews and then reviewing them. I was joined on this task with several capable undergraduate research assistants who created many of the first drafts, which in my estimation is the hardest part. While some of the interviews had taken place in recent years with more modern audio recording equipment, others were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s with less than perfect sound quality. One of my proudest accomplishments was taking one of these garbled interviews and adjusting it in an audio editing program so that some of the words and phrases could be made out. While the interview is far from complete and there are minute long segments that cannot be understood, there is now a record of some of what was said. This interview without the transcript would have likely become lost and forgotten. Now it can provide us with an interesting window into the interviewee’s life as a student at Storer. 

Before this project, I had very little experience with oral histories. This project not only gave me experience, but also allowed me to read up on best practices in the field. I quickly learned that there is not one set way to transcribe interviews. Therefore, the undergraduates and I were all transcribing pauses, crosstalk, inaudible or unintelligible words in different ways. In order to create consistency among the transcriptions, I created a style guide for the transcriptions based on what I had been reading about best practice, previous examples of NPS oral history transcripts, and what I thought would be most useful to researchers using the transcripts. This allowed all of us working on the project to be on the same page and create clean, helpful and consistent transcripts. 

After the interviews were transcribed, we took information and quotes (along with their audio clips) from the interviews to create new web content for the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s website in order to update and expand their content about Storer College. I also worked with the project’s director, Nate Sleeter, to come up with an interesting way to present this information. Because a lot of the interviewees talked about memories they had which were linked to certain physical spaces on campus, we gathered the information based on place, creating pages that represented buildings on campus. We also suggested that the NPS use an interactive map as the entry point for this content, with users being able to click on a building and go to a page that contained information about the building, as well as bigger themes that were accentuated by the oral history quotes. As of the writing of this blog, the website content has not yet gone live, but the interactive map (scroll to the bottom of the page) is already being constructed.

Just as the Storer College project was finishing up, the Ed Division started a new project called “For Us The Living.” This project is focused on creating a set of online learning modules about the Alexandria National Cemetery and is a partnership between RRCHNM, the Alexandria City Public Schools and the National Cemetery Administration. This cemetery, one of the earliest ones, is often overshadowed by nearby and much larger cousin, Arlington National Cemetery; indeed Alexandria was created first in order to inter Civil War soldiers, but they soon realized that they would run out of space there and began interring bodies at Arlington instead. 

This project was really exciting for me because I was able to be part of the process from the beginning. While the “deliverables” (website that contained several digital modules about the Alexandria National Cemetery) were already set per the project proposal, the content of the individual modules was not. Our first task was to do preliminary research in order to discover what might be engaging topics and which of those topics had enough source material to create a substantial module. Another exciting part of the early process was a site visit to the cemetery itself where we met with and were given a tour by staff from NCA. On the visit, we were able to conduct video interviews with various members of the NCA staff and take pictures of some of the gravestones and memorials to include in our modules. Since the cemetery includes fallen soldiers from the Civil War up to Korea and Vietnam, we originally explored themes that might incorporate soldiers from many different eras. But eventually, we settled on the Civil War as a defining moment in the cemetery’s history and decided to focus our modules on that period. 

While the project team worked as a whole on the internal research, after we decided the topics for the individual models, each team member was assigned a module to create. The module I was in charge of is called ‘A Sad and Terrible Disaster.’ It focuses on four civilians buried in the cemetery who died in the days following the end of the war. As I discovered, these four men were crew members on a steam-propeller boat, the Black Diamond, which was out on picket duty patrolling the Potomac River, searching for Lincoln’s escaped assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Late one night, another boat, the Massachusetts, carrying recently exchanged prisoners of war, collided with the Black Diamond causing both boats to go down in the river. The detective-like research that it took to discover this story reminded me about one of the parts of history I love so much: finding numerous small pieces of evidence and piecing them together to determine what might have happened in the past. Because this process was so stimulating to me, I decided to structure my learning module so that the students would follow a similar sort journey of discovery, starting out with very little information and then piecing it together as they are presented with additional primary sources. 

Finally, the third project that I helped with this semester is called the Pilbara Aboriginal Strike. This project, similar to The Amboya Conspiracy Trial will create a content-based website in collaboration with two Australian scholars to tell the story of the Pilbara strike that took place Western Australia in 1946. Although most of the work has been done by Sara Collini and Chris Preperato (who are heading up the project) it has been a great learning experience to be a part of the planning meetings. I have learned about global collaboration via Skype meetings, how to explain technical terms in plainer language, the importance of wireframes in nailing down how the website will work and most of all, how to balance the wishes of the scholars with the practicality and design of a website. 

In conclusion, after jumping around from division to division during rotations last semester, being part of multiple projects in various stages of completion, it has been extremely fulfilling to be a part of just a few projects from the beginning stages, and even get to see one of them through from start to finish. I feel that I have grown immensely as a Digital Historian in my time as a DH Fellow and I have thoroughly enjoyed developing skills in project planning, collaboration, research, and online module creation.

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