Migration Story: Video Trial Run

The University of Minnesota Immigrant Stories video creation tool was the focus of this weeks practicum. The assignment- to create a short video of an immigration story- seemed simple. And, the tools provided by the UMN Immigrant Stories were great, with on caveat: it appears my internet is not fast enough to keep up with some of the stages. This resulted in frustrations with my laptop, my router, and the Firefox browser. Although this problem was out of the control of the UMN Immigrant Stories tool, it created a less pleasant experience in making the short movie. I am frustrated as I write this blog post that I am unable to embed my video directly into this post, and that even connecting the URL is unsupported. Thus, here is the hyperlink  to my video.

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday and family gatherings, I chose to make a very short video about my grandfather, Brooks Ramsey. At the offset, I was set back by not being able to use my preferred browser, Safari. I was forced to download Firefox in order to use the video creation tool. This was not a huge problem, but I would like to see the platform supported by Safari! The next steps were relatively simple- I was clearly guided through the account creation, and after a snafu with remembering my password, I successfully logged into the video creation tool on Firefox.

I was not sure what to expect when making my story–how much I would have to have prepared going in, what skills I would need, how fast my internet would need to be… I was impressed, and relieved, that there were prompts for writing a script, that later could be pulled up as a transcript for the audio portion of the video. I answered some of the questions about my Family Story, like what or who influenced my family, what are some notable events. These prompts were open ended enough to allow for some creativity, should the user go that route. I was, through this process, haunted by my slow internet connection and at one point lost a paragraph of text that I had written when I was forced to reload the page.

Adding media was a frustrating experience in the beginning. My goal was to use video saved on my laptop, and include it into the WeVideo platform. However, after many minutes, I gave up on incorporating the audio of my grandfather speaking.The movie file I was trying to add to the “my media” section was never successfully downloaded. I would like liked to have this file format, and I am still unsure if it is not supported by the WeVideo, or if it simply was too large of a file be downloaded.  Photos, however, downloaded in a relatively reasonable amount of time. Using the editing tools became intuitive after a few trial errors: very loud theme music playing over my voice; a minute long silence over the initial photo of my grandparents before I figured out how to move the voiceover file to the left-to align with the beginning of the slideshow; and finally transitions-I removed them from the video because I grew frustrated at misplacing them along the video timeline. With more time and perhaps better photos and audio, I am confident that a subsequent video would be smoother and more attractive.

I have created one movie, in college, and with a group. THIs was my first solo venture using this type of editing tool, and I know that it will not be the last time I use it. I am excited to know of a relatively easy and straightforward (for the next time) tool that will allow me to download my content for free as a Quicktime file. This type of open access software is so important for the public to share their stories and contribute to a broader dialogue on community, change, and self expression.

 

 

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Narratives of Minnesota’s Immigrants: Open Access Oral Histories

The Minnesota’s Immigrants website is a great example of an open access content oral history project. The project is coordinated by the Minnesota Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of Minnesota, with sponsorship from the Knight Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Digital Public Library of America. The experience of navigating the website to hear the voices, see the photos, and share in the stories of immigrants and their families was moving and inspiring, particularly in the current volatile political climate that has uneased many people. The narratives, expressed trhough multimedia sound, images, and text, worked well to reflect the immigrant experience to an observer like myself. Particularly, I was impressed with the narrative of Banlang Phommasouvanh and the family story from Milwaukee.

I was particularly struck by Banlang Phommasouvanh’s story of her immigration to Minnealpolis from Laos following the outbreak of war. When I first looked at her narrative, I read the whole transcript on the right of the screen before clicking the ‘play’ button. The poetic form of her immigrant story was all the more powerful through her reiteration of her name after each verse. After reading the transcript, I looked at her photo in the link below the video. I was impressed with the option to do this—to read her transcript and alternately view her photo. However, the photo is opened into a new page and requires the user to revert back to the previous page to see the transcript again. Obviously, this also causes problems when the user wants to listen to the recording of the narrative; it is not possible to open both pages. Possibly, the website could be designed so that the photos of the immigrants are opened as pop-up windows, similar to the PDF versions of the transcripts. Positively, the video recording of Banlang Phommasouvanh’s poem with images in the background was highly effective. I enjoyed the movement and texture of the drawings, into photographs of memorable events in her time in Minnesota, and ending again with hand drawn images. The combination of poetry, repetition of her name, and the image representations of her life were powerful and emotive. I was disappointed, however, that there were no links to related items for this narrative.

I was similarly impressed with Justin Schell’s entry on his grandmother’s, and family, immigration story. As a person who used to work with people with dementia I was drawn to the incorporation of music and memory into the narrative. Music is a wonderful way to connect not only with people who have passed, but with people who are still here but are living in their own, new reality. I appreciated the creator’s slideshow that incorporated primary source documents from his genealogical research alongside family photos. Within the record of this narrative, users have the option to connect with other stories on the website through the Immigration History Research Center partner. This link allows users to navigate the narrative records across partners, destinations, origins, and regions.

Generally, across all of the narratives, I was left wanting for more: images, songs, related items. I was disappointed that there was room for multiple images of the immigrants but only one, and opened in a separate page, was available. The addition of images would strengthen the overall narrative and provide further context of the life and events of these storytellers.

A final critique of the site is not in the weaving together of audio and visual components of storytelling, but in the presentation of the transcript tab of each individual narrative. As a visual person, I would like to be able to follow along with the transcript of the oral history while it is playing, and without having the additional PDF window open. When you scroll down the text of the transcript, the entire window scrolls, ultimately removing the video and visual aspect of the story from view. User experience (at least mine) would be better if I could scroll the text of the transcript while also keeping an eye on the movie. In this way, the visual and audio components of the story would be tighter.

Overall, my experience with Minnesota’s Immigrants project was positive; it is an engaging and accessible platform for telling digital stories. And, generally, the method and practice is successful for public historians to share their truths about the larger world. The website is intuitive, not overcrowded, and provides multiple options for searching and browsing. The website is not overly fancy, and seems to reflect the mission of the organizations to simply share the stories of fellow Minnesotans. The website could be even more useful to public historians and the wider public if more opportunities were presented for sharing the content across social media platforms. In this way, the website would probably get more hits and share the stories with a wider audience, thus fulfilling the public history tenants of audience and shared authority. I would love to see the website grow to represent more populations and more stories as the immigrant story in American continues to evolve.

Text Analysis and The Digital Humanities

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Frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book. By Theodor von Holst, via Wikimedia Commons

Text analysis is a new concept to me in practice. In theory, I knew that books, music, and art can be digitized and their data analyzed for useful trends and analysis. I rely on this technology all the time, through music applications like Shazam, on Google Books, and on museum sites like the National Gallery of Art’s open access collection.  Analysis of the digitized versions of works of art allow historians to quickly view patterns and trends that are not possible to see without painstaking and labor intensive time spent with texts. This week’s assignment was to use three text analysis platforms to play around with a chapter from a pre-20th century book. I chose Chapter V of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which Victor brings the monster to life, but he soon disappears causing Victor extreme distress. The Chapter is important for describing the grotesque and beautiful shape of the monster.

It took a few tries on Google Books to find a version of Frankenstein that would allow me to see the plain text needed to run the analyses. After finding this copy, I pasted the plain text into a Microsoft Word document. The chapter is 2401 words and 4.5 single spaced pages on Word. I observed some differences between the plain text in Word and the images of the pages on Google Books. Importantly, the readability on Google Books is better. There are fewer words per page, the text is bigger, and the spacing of the paragraphs allows for a smoother read of the chapter. In contrast, the plain text version on Word was blocked into long paragraphs only separated by the sparse dialogue in the chapter, but even then the paragraph breaks seemed unnatural and choppy. On Google Books, though, it was clear that the hard copy book had been scanned: there was multiple pages that revealed the shadow of the crease where the left and right pages were scanned independently. Additionally, the scanning job was (not surprisingly) imperfect. Multiple lines were enlarged by the scanning process. This did not make the text unreadable, but revealed the human hand involved in its digitization. The plain text version was not unreadable but it certainly was less enjoyable. I am not accustomed to reading literature in Microsoft Word and had to readjust my response to the context and format. I felt that reading the book in Word dulled some of the emotion that Shelley so effectively conveys in Chapter V. The shorter word count per line and page on the eBook stayed true to the poetic continuity and smoothness of the original text in its traditional format.

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Screenshot of Voyant text analysis of Frankenstein Chapter 5

Using Voyant was a great way to analyze the text. After pasting in the plain text from my original Word document Voyant automatically analyzed it for word count, unique words, context, and created word clouds of varying density. Below are screenshots of word clouds created by Voyant at 25, 75, 200, and 500 words. Notably, words Clerval, eyes, time, and dear were used most. Interestingly, though, the word “Google” is prominent on all four word clouds. Scanning the text document and images, I could not find the word Google enough to warrant it showing up in all four word clouds, but on the phrase feature of Voyant the top phrase was “content from google book search generated at”. Clearly this word and others associated with the Google engine distort the analysis. Generally, though, the visually representation of frequency in the word cloud is more appealing than the the table of the Phrase feature and useful for getting a snapshot of the trends and patterns of the text.

The context tool of Voyant allows users to choose a keyword, like ‘eyes’ and ‘time’, and see its context across the corpus. Users can choose the number of words to the left and right of the keyword, and choose multiple keywords to see more complex patterns. Usefully, the context tool allows you to export the analysis to HTML or a URL presumably for further analysis on other platforms.

My exploration into text analysis was Google’s N-Gram tool located here. I plugged in a few words to get used to the tool: race, rights, and Jim Crowe from 1800 to 2000 (the default dates). I wanted to see the trends in books in 2015, but found that Google does not allow users to search past the year 2008. I confirmed this with another quick keyword search. I like N-gram because it allows you to view books that have your keywords and provides a nice visual of the years the keywords were trending. Below is a graph of keywords from Frankenstein.

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Chart of keywords from Frankenstein represented on Google’s N-Gram

I tried some other keywords for a more contemporary perspective on N-gram. I used keywords Obama, progress, and president between the years 1950 and 2008. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of Obama is quite low leading up to the 2008, and a closer look at the books published in 2008 are in the context of the 2008 presidential election. Notably, books containing the Obama keyword between 1800 and 1946 are geographic references.

Finally, I tested out Hathi Trusts’s Bookworm. Bookworm only searches books out of copyright, so after 1923. I plugged in two keywords from Frankenstein, ‘Clerval’ and ‘friend’.  Unsurprisingly, Clerval was a flat line between 1750 and 1923. Friend however, peaked around 1808. This is a useful tool in assessing the language, motivations, and amiability of the early 19th century. I was most impressed with Bookworm’s use of social media. They highlight Tweets right on the website with their hashtag #htrcbookworm .  Literary buffs on Twitter clearly love this feature:

 

The text analysis tools tested in this blog post are pretty awesome. There are endless keyword trends, themes, motifs, and names that can be picked apart for their greater importance and contributions to scholarship and personal interest. As a public historian and librarian, the tools can be used to engage and draw in audiences, as sort of ‘hook’, that piques their curiosity. For example, at Valentine’s Day a text analysis of Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems can be embedded into Twitter and across social media to inspire visitors. On a more scholarly level, the text analysis can be used to gauge the public’s interest in certain topics and keywords that can be the topic of new museums exhibits.

Review: Encurate: The International Museum of Surgical Science

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International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL Photo by Becky Ramsey on iPhone 6

This week’s blog post asks students in our course to download an app created through Encurate and attend the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago. My experience this week has been mixed–from first downloading the app to using it in the museum to reflecting on it in this blog post. Ultimately, would I recommend this app to other users? Sure. But not without some significant fixes or changes to the app’s use in the museum itself. For context, I use an Apple iPhone 6+ from early 2015. I am confident in my ability to navigate most apps designed for Apple, and am a frequent patron of local museums and exhibits. I visited the museum on the morning of Sunday, October 23, 2016 .

Downloading the app was not a problem. I easily found it on the iTunes app store by using the search word Encurate, as suggested. After downloading I did not actually open the application until I was standing outside the museum on Lake Shore Drive. Upon launching the app, I was impressed with the simplicity of the design, the easy to read graphics, and the clear instructions to turn on my Bluetooth for better location services while in the museum. I followed the app prompts to turn on Bluetooth and begin navigating. The app has six options on the main page: Tours, Map, Info, Events, Likes, and Help. Clear, concise and to the point which I appreciated.

After paying my $10 entrance fee (the student rate, $15 for non-students) and being prompted by the museum host to download the app (to which I replied that I already had it), I grabbed a one-page printout from a file holder mounted on the wall, an Exhibit Map, just in case the application failed me and I became lost in the spookiness of the Surgical museum. I opened the app in the first room on the first floor that was housing an exhibit on diagnostic detectives. On the app, I opted for the Tours, and then “Select Interest Area”. The app contains four areas of interest for visitors to get further information on: Eleanor: Matriarch of 1524; Surgical “Oohs and Ows”; Architectural Fun Facts; and “Morbid Morsels”. Perhaps overzealously, I selected all but the first area of interest. The app prompted to press “ready” after my selections. I began my journey, with one more instruction from the app to keep my phone handy for alerts on things in the museum that meet my interests.

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Map of Surgical Museum on Encurate app. 10/23/16 by Becky Ramsey on iPhone 6+

The app has a lot of potential. The user interface was good; not too cluttered. In clear and concise sentences, I received snippets of information about the room that I was supposed to be in (more on this below) or on an object of interest that aligned with my initial interest selections. The The map of the museum was accurate; it showed what room I was in and where the nearest restroom was located. I appreciated the “where is” option on the map to easily find the exit, stairs, or elevator if I somehow got lost. However, the museum really is not big enough to get lost and seek help from an app. The idea is great, perhaps in giant museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the reality of the Surgical Museum is that it is small, and more often than not I was in eye sight of the main stairwell.

The location capabilities of the app were frustrating and perhaps not precise enough for the small size of the museum. There have been times at the Louvre where I really wished I had a better map to find the bathroom, or a ping to my phone to highlight something really spectacular in a portrait gallery. Using the Surgical Museum app, though, I found myself looking down at my phone reading about Napoleon’s death mask, when the screen automatically switched to a note about the exhibit one room over.

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Screen shot from Encurate app describing death masks. Taken 10/23/16 by Becky Ramsey on iPhone 6+

I observed that the application could not pinpoint my location if I was not solidly in the center of a room; if I was near a doorway or a wall the location service wanted to put me somewhere not where I wanted to be. As a result, the information I was reading on the screen would disappear and prompt me to another artifact or tidbit of information. This was frustrating, and after one of two times attempting to get back to my intended text I gave up and moved on. Half the time, though, the application was successful in determining my location while I stood still and read. While my phone was locked, received ten word, give or take, notifications to check out something of interest, like the blood sucking leeches captured on the screen shot below. This was useful, although I found the blood sucking leeches on my own without the app prompting me. In retrospect if I had limited my initial interest to one or two instead of three and four my experience may not have been as disjointed. With fewer pings being sent to my phone there would have been fewer location errors.

Notably, the “favorite” feature indicated by a heart in the lower right corner of each screen malfunctioned. I was not able to view my favorited pages, even while I was still in the museum. An update to fix this feature would allow for easier reflection on and absorption of the museum experience.

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Example of notification from Encurate app. 10/23/16 by Becky Ramsey on iPhone 6+

The app developers clearly did not want to overwhelm users with too much content and information. Four areas of interest were enough to give users options without discouraging them with too many options. However, a suggestion to choose one or two options instead of all four may be necessary for overzealous visitors like myself. I loved the information on the actual home and building, the mob history, and the being prompted to check out the crude optometry and eye surgery tools. Generally, I enjoyed having some information right on my phone to compliment the labels and posters but did not think it was absolutely necessary in such a mid-size museum.

Generally, I appreciated the information that was pinged to my phone. The museum had a LOT of content and so having a few highlights sent directly to me was a good way to get more out of the exhibits. Would I use the application on occasions when I wasn’t assigned to as part of class? Yes, for a few minutes, until I got frustrated with the location accuracy. In a larger museum I think this technology would have greater success: bigger exhibits, more space, more content, more people means more opportunities to miss important content and a greater opportunity for this location based service to step in and guide visitors.

Dual Narratives of Web 2.0 Storytelling

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Definition of storytelling according to Wikipedia.com (October 18, 2016)

In The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media Bryan Alexander provides an accessible, intriguing, and informative resource on storytelling in the digital age. Traditional 1.0 storytelling—oral traditions or print books—is reimagined in digital formats that are social, dynamic, and participatory unlike ever before. Importantly, Alexander identifies the shift to Web 2.0 as an opportunity to create and edit content in ways that diversify the storytelling experience across topic, method, and demographic. Storytelling has taken on a new identify in Web 2.0 and is easier than ever through structured pre fixe website platforms like WordPress, Twitter, and even Flickr. Storytelling is inherent to the growth of Web 2.0.

In Chapter 4 of The New Digital Storytelling Alexander identifies five modes of Web 2.0 storytelling: blogs, Twitter, Wikis, social imaging sites like Flikr, and Facebook. Although each platform is different in its function and method they share some common elements of digital storytelling. Primarily, each platform allows users to individualize their experience within the structured framework. The basic framework makes it easy for storytellers to create a robust page through sharing their emotions, ideas, and interpretations on and of events. Alexander emphasizes the assertion that digital storytellers are not just portraying fictional or nonfiction characters, they are inherently becoming characters themselves through the personal presentation of their retellings. For example, WordPress blogs are relatively easy for digital storytellers to learn to manipulate and individualize, allowing a fleshed out skeleton to emerge that reflects the creator’s persona.[1] Central to Web 2.0 storytelling, the various platforms open up opportunities for other people to use the content beyond the realm of the creator’s control in the comment sections, sharing the posts, editing photos, or adding on to the story Wiki style.[2]

The Fairytale Traveler blog is a great example of Alexander’s discussion on the reciprocal nature of Web 2.0 storytelling. Christa is a single mom, former medical professional, and a very enthusiastic consumer of popular culture “geekdom”, including mythology, comics, and most TV/film. Christa identifies her life work to “travel and enrich [her] son’s life with culture, amazing adventures, magic, and possibility.” This is what Bryan Alexander identifies as the character of the author, reflected in the author’s retelling of popular mythology and lore. Christa identifies Fairytale Traveling a a “creative, fantastic, and exciting approach to trip planning…a way to connect with your children by exploring the places that are the catalyst to the greatest stories ever told.” One narrative of Christa’s blog, then, is to investigate and share elements of travel and trip planning that in turn tell popular stories like those included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and by Disney. Christa reimagines fictional stories in physical locations. The Fairytale Traveler proposes trip themes on Norse and Celtic Mythology, American Folklore, Game of Thrones, medieval places, and many more. The blog acts as a metanarrative; the story of Christa’s life and the story of myths and legends.

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Header from The Fairytale Traveler blog, 2016. Pictured is the author Christa and her son

 

Aptly for this time of year (Halloween) I stumbled on the page associated with the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York. Christa provides a short excerpt from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and then extrapolates on the environment and fictional narrative as she has experienced it herself. The Fairytale Traveler engages in the parallel storytelling identified by Alexander: the story of the Headless Horseman, the story of Christa experiencing Sleepy Hollow for herself in 2014, and the reader’s ability to engage in the story through comments and shares.

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Excerpt from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) as show on The Fairytale Traveler blog 

The Fairytale Traveler is engaging, thought provoking, and inspires wanderlust. The dual narrative shared on the blog is exemplary of Alexander description of the meeting of text and image of stories and experiences in the digital form with author character and flare. The Fairytale Traveler is narrating popular mythology and folklore simultaneous to her own interests and travels, providing an engaging and interesting blog for users to explore and contribute to.

[1] Bryan Alexander The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Praeger, Santa Barbara. 2011. P. 58.

[2] Ibid 65.

Pinterest: Unbounded Social Network

I have very distinct memories of the early months of 2012 and NOT understanding my college roommates obsession with this online thing called “pinterest”. My friend, who now works in high fashion in New York City, was at the forefront of a new social media that simultaneously connected communities of ideas and communities of people.

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The optional Pinterest browser button to the left of the URL allows users to quickly save ideas and inspirations to their boards

My friend sent me a link from her Pinterest account, and I registered. After the initial excitement at being able to keep track of my knitting patterns, my Pinterest account lay relatively dormant- some exercise tips and croc pot recipes added here and there- until December 2014 when my oldest sister got engaged. My Pinterest interest skyrocketed. Suddenly I had unlimited access to other brides wedding inspiration; thousands of ideas for DJ playlists, bridesmaids hairdos, DIY ensembles for the dog to carry the rings down the aisle…. and I could send them instantly to my sister and insist that they be used in her rustic chic Vermont barn wedding. Needless to say, my Pins of Mardi Gras masks were not as well received by the bride as was the template for homemade hemp table runners.

Pinterest was developed in 2010 by Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp as a platform for users to catalogue their ideas and inspirations: for wedding dresses, pumpkin carving designs, or recipes for frozen fruit popsicles. When I joined Pinterest it was invitation only it was possible only through an e-vite by a current user or a request to Pinterest itself. Notably, this method mimicked young Facebook’s exclusivity. Fast forward four years to today, and Pinterest is registration based, accepts sponsored content from companies like Nordstrom and Warby Parker (a nod to one intended direction of the website- fashion. Never have I seen sponsored content from history.com or the Smithsonian) Wikipedia chronicles the evolution of Pinterest, from 5,000 beta members in 2010 to over 70 million users worldwide in 2014 and a valuation of $11 billion in 2015. The Pinterest widget is embedded into websites, blogs, and advertisements for users to easily share images and ideas for later use.

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Pinterest asserts its dominance at historynet.com as a social media next to the like of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn

What does it mean for Pinterest to be a star player in the social media game? First, it is important to discuss the context in which Pinterest has emerged: Web 2.0. Sam Han identifies hallmarks of Web 2.0 that are pertinent to Pinterest as a social media community: it harnesses collective intelligence; it is portable across multiple devices and is not anchored down by the web; it remediates “old” media like pictures and revives them in a digital form to be shared and discussed; and Pinterest is cumulative in nature and by necessity to stay alive. Despite its founders brushing off the label of social media, Pinterest is in fact a media that digitally connects people and ideas and, as Han puts it, “facilitates the visualization of users pre-existing offline social networks.”Han, 57.

The distinguishing feature of Pinterest that overlaps it between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 is its existence primarily between strangers that have similar interests to each other. Yes, you can follow your friends boards and pins, but content (pins) are primarily generated through people or organizations that the user does not personally know (unlike Facebook, where your network is dependent on the real live people who are in your real life social network). Pinterest does create a virtual representation of the real life network, but also steps back to Web 1.0 by creating communities of interest around ideas like knit blanket patterns, Abraham Lincoln portraits, or the groundbreaking fashion of Madonna. These pinned interests are the digital representation of personality and life.

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Pinterest facilities communities of interest and communities of people; it has one foot in both worlds. Users are in effect curating content exhibits of their ideas, interests, goals, and accomplishments and simultaneously opting to engage with their friends and family about these exhibits through familiar actions such as shares, comments, and likes. Han describes the profile as the backbone of social networking sites and I argue that the profile and the greater network are in fact the same thing: a user is creating and building on their profile with every like, share, and creation of a new Pin. In contrast to Facebook where the profile is separate from the Newsfeed, the Pinterest profile is the collection of Pins because it is wholly focused on the self and the interests of the self (Han, 58).

Pinterest allows you to also take your profile on the go, another hallmark of Web 2.0. It is optimized for multiple devices on the Pinterest application, and can be accessed through browser buttons and widgets on a variety of websites. The accessible nature of Pinterest facilities its accumulation of content, and thus its success. As a content oriented website, the point is not immediacy or instant gratification like Twitter or Facebook. In contrast, the purpose of Pinterest is to create or explore at a future date and thus escape the banality of the here and now that is sometimes represented on Twitter. The Tweet below retweeted from @hoopladigital is a good example of content that many people simply do not care about, and question the relevance and importance of it. Pinterest, however, allows users to  drop the addiction to banality by viewing Pins that filter out the noise and focus on what matters to the user.

The value of Pinterest is in its cumulative nature. It allows users to gather and store their tactile interests in digital form from anywhere: using the application, the browser button, widgets, or straight from pinterest.com. However, users should be wary of the validity of all of the content. Viewing family photos of Italian immigrants in New York City posted by Joe Schmoe may seem exciting, but a bit of skepticism is necessary: users have the option to upload their own photos and cite them as they wish. Sometimes, this free access leads to misinformation or incorrect citations. Verified Pinterest accounts, though, such as the Art Institute, are wonderful sources to Public Historians to keep track of exhibits, inspirations, and locations to visit while simultaneously reaching new . Pinterest is shared authority at its finest- users are able to curate and contribute to their own histories in unprecedented ways and gain access to the homes of great works of art. The limits of Pinterest are unbounded.

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History Web: A Look at the Frances Willard House Museum and Archives

 

When thinking of examples of the History Web discussed by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in Digital History it was easy for me to revert back to Frances E. Willard, a woman who has stayed in the periphery of my memory for many years. Her namesake played a small part in my life up this point: I grew up blocks from Willard Elementary School; rode my bike past the Frances E. Willard House and Museum; often drive past Evanston’s First Liquor store (a nod to Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s history in Evanston); and often see FEW Spirits served in bars (another nod to Francis E. Willard that probably has her rolling over in her grave!).

The Frances E. Willard House and Museum was established as a museum in 1900 following her death in 1898. The house museum holds original furniture, artwork, photographs, and books on exhibit, and includes a library and archive focused on women’s history, social reform, political movements, and temperance. The home is situated on Chicago Avenue in Evanston within walking distance of Northwestern University, Downtown Evanston, and the lakefront. This post addresses the extent to which this home and its website is a useful representation of public history and the digital humanities. I found through exploring the website that it is in fact an excellent example of history and a manifestation of the relationship between the social internet and a historic place.

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Frances Willard House as seen in 1967. Photo courtesy of Google Images

According to the Cohen and Rosenzweig the History Web is any website or page that addresses one of four genres: primary sources; secondary sources; websites directed at students and teachers; and finally discussion based and organizational websites. Important to the conversation on the History Web is the Frances Willard House, whose mission according to their website is to “preserve and interpret the…Museum and its historic collections to promote vibrant discussion on Willard’s life and her work on behalf of women, temperance, and human rights”. The website is a wonderful representation of history come to life and independently fosters curiosity, participation, and discussion while providing users with a dual narrative of Willard’s life and the parallel story of the mission of the organization to reflect that life. It is important to address first the question of who is the audience. Through browsing each topic and link it is clear the Museum has a few groups in mind. The first is the forthcoming visitor who needs information on directions, hours, and tickets. The second is the unofficial or casual scholar of Frances Willard who is seeking information on her life and work but may not be interested in deeper scholarly research. A third audience is educators who need teaching materials and lesson plans, or students who need access to archival material and the library. Finally, the website speaks to members of the Evanston community and those invested in the Museum through blog posts and embedded tweets.

The design and content of the website indicate that the museum wants to be accessible to all of these audiences. Topical headers on Frances Willard, a biography; the Willard House, a history of the home; visit information; galleries; information for educators; news and events; the FEW blog; and three headers for general and contact information; and finally an option to donate. Cohen and Rosenzweig offer suggestions on what makes a good addition to the History Web: “additive media”, or an “interactive, two-way street of consumption and production”. Franceswillardhouse.org appropriately provides information on accessibility, directions, tours, and admissions but goes above and beyond to increase visitor’s knowledge online and pique their curiosity for future visits.

Frances Willard House utilizes social media to provide an interactive space between the museum and its stakeholders. The website addresses some of the cores of public history: shared authority and pragmatism. This feature creates a two-way street for the museum and members of the public who want to keep tabs on the home and engage with the continued narrative of Frances Willard. Embedding tweets into the website incites visitors to follow @franceswillard and thereby broadens support by and engagement with the public. This is a great example of merging new media with a historic site to promote awareness and reach new populations. Similarly, the website posts photos of its 8th grade Social Studies Club from a local school. This highlights their mission to be inclusive of many populations and reflects their strong roots in the Evanston community. The tweets and photos are examples of ways the house museum stays accessible and relevant in the community. Additionally, the Blog section keeps visitors up to date on exhibits and the renovations, while subtly and sometimes more overtly inciting visitors to check out the improvements in person.

I was impressed with the incorporation of audio and visual content included on the website. The website craftily linked a video about Frances Willard to the United Methodist Church, one of their significant stakeholders. By including the link to UMC the Willard Home accomplishes two goals that Cohen and Rosenzweig identify in successful History Web contributors. One, the website offers a range of the type of content without overwhelming the audience. This is also seen on the main page where an audio clip plays the same music box that is currently on display. Second, the link to UMC provides users with further scholarship and research on the topic that affirms what the website lays claim to on Frances Willard. It is clear that the museum strives—and succeeds—in being a pragmatic and useful resource for plural audiences.

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Music box in the parlor (photo copyright Donna Wesley Spencer from franceswillardhouse.org)

Cohen and Rosenzweig offer critiques of the History Web. When historical sites lack focus, have poor or convoluted design, or unnecessary content the effectiveness of the website deteriorates. The FEW website, however, has little to offer in critique. The layout is neither oversimplified nor cluttered and users intuitively follow links to a diverse content set. Additionally, the website has excellent HCI across multiple devices and browsers. My use and assessment of the FEW House Museum and Archives website concludes that it is in fact an effective representation of history, public history, and the digital humanities for visitors to investigate the narrative of Frances Willard, her work, and the archives.