Mobley made an awesome Omeka theme for us!

Today has been a fun digital humanities day, which is not something a person who works in this field can say every day (let’s just say technology is, and always will be, humbling to work with, even for the best and brightest). Tyler Mobley, our digital services librarian extraordinaire at the Lowcountry Digital Library, has developed a customized theme in Omeka for us to use in laying out APLA. Today was the first day I could begin working in it, and it is awesome.

To provide some background, we are building APLA in Omeka, an open source system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, because it includes a very user-friendly and durable online exhibit builder program. One of the downsides of Omeka’s exhibit builder though is it comes with a limited set of options for exhibit appearance themes and page layouts. I found this frustrating because in my earlier work at Emory University’s digital libraries, we used Dreamweaver and later Drupal for laying out our digital projects. These content management systems certainly have their own issues, but for a person like me who is filling in the site content rather than organizing the back end of the system, I grew accustomed to having some sense of control over where texts and multimedia files went in a given digital project, rather than following a template. So when the LCDL team decided to go with Omeka for our exhibits with their set list of themes and page layouts, I had some concerns.

Still the ease of setting up and using Omeka is undeniable, and this a big plus for our relatively small digital library staff. In addition, with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, we are also hoping to make Omeka’s exhibit builder accessible for our institutional partners to use in collaboratively building innovative digital projects based on their digital archives. So Mobley embarked on setting up a compromise. We would still use Omeka, but he built a very aesthetically pleasing and user friendly Omeka theme for our LDHI projects, and made additional page layout template options so that our staff and partners would have many more to choose from in laying out APLA, as well as future digital projects. To clarify, as a humanities scholar primarily, I cannot fully wrap my head around what all Mobley did to make this digital magic happen, but it’s working great so far and I am looking forward to seeing APLA come together with this new online exhibition theme!

NEASA Digital Humanities Conference

This past weekend I went to my very first digital humanities conference with digital scholarship librarian, Heather Gilbert. The conference was the New England American Studies Association conference in Providence, Rhode Island. This may seem regionally far afield from Charleston, South Carolina, but finding a conference entirely dedicated to digital humanities is rare, so we jumped at the opportunity to present on APLA.

Our panel title was:

“African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations”: Transforming Charleston’s Public History Landscape through a Digital Exhibition Project”

In the first sentence of my presentation, I noted that our title seemed bold. Then I continued, “How and why would an online exhibition project transform a city’s public history landscape, particularly one as established and highly trafficked as Charleston, South Carolina’s? A more accurate subtitle might be ‘attempting to transform public history to be more inclusive amidst various daunting challenges.'” From there I argued that despite these challenges, “developing inclusive public history in Charleston is crucial for historic sites and tours in terms of historic accuracy and public education, contemporary ethics of multiculturalism and diversity, and even in terms of good business practices for current visitor and local audiences.” Then I asserted that “digital public history interpretation collaboratively produced through the College of Charleston can help engage local sites and tours to help promote greater public awareness of these underrepresented histories in ways that are meaningful, cost-effective, and widely accessible.”

The rest of the presentation is too long for this blog post, but many exciting points came up in the question and session period afterwards, particularly after Heather Gilbert followed up my scholarly discussion of why inclusive digital history is important in Charleston with a multimedia presentation on how to actually make this happen. She particularly described what content management systems and open source software we are using, how we chose them, and discussed ways to organize staff workflows and skills within the limited resources of a small to medium sized academic library. We felt pretty good about how the presentation went, and if you are sorry you missed it, Dr. Benjamin Railton live-tweeted our panel! To find out some highlights from our presentation and many others, check out the many conference tweets (what would you expect from a digital humanities conference?) at #neasa2012 on Twitter.

Overall I found the conference to be really engaging, and validating for our interest in combining public history and digital humanities work through projects like APLA. “Digital Public Humanities” was even the title of the keynote address given by Dr. Steven Lubar from Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities and Culture Heritage. He posted slides from his presentation and his notes on his blog here: http://stevenlubar.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/387/

But I think one of the most exciting moments for me during our panel presentation was when a professor from Wheelock College in Massachusetts, Dr. Akeia Benard, told us how helpful our project discussion was for her own work in Newport, Rhode Island. Benard is trying to collaborate with local institutions in Newport to develop inclusive public history interpretation, particularly regarding the importance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Rhode Island. She described confronting numerous challenges in her work, similar to what many public history producers find in Charleston when they seek to develop effective representations of African American history during and after slavery. She thought our digital interpretation ideas could also have great potential in Newport. I found it strangely comforting to hear that Charleston is not the only area facing challenges in transforming public history, and exciting that digital projects could actually be a viable solution for some of these challenges, both within and outside of Charleston. I also hope in the future that various communities across the United States and even the Atlantic World may someday be able to collaborate on the various solutions we find for our similar challenges in addressing the complex history of slavery and its race and class legacies.

Welcome Beth and Alexandra!

I am very pleased to announce that we have two new graduate student assistants working with us at the Lowcountry Digital Library this academic year from the joint master’s in history program at the Citadel and College of Charleston. Beth and Alexandra are both doing great work, and you can see blogs about what they are up to here: Beth– http://bethgniewek.wordpress.com and Alexandra — http://englishdiaspora.wordpress.com.

On top of her archival duties, Beth in particular has been helping me finding images and links for APLA– which is awesome. Image searching, and identifying copyright information about each image, can be a goose chase, so I greatly appreciate her help. And it’s great to have someone to brainstorm with about other ways to find multimedia materials. For example, in the APLA section on rice agriculture, we recently talked about going out and taking pictures of sites with the remnants of rice agriculture features, like trunks and canals (such as Caw Caw Interpretive Center), along with finding archival documents that address this history.

So in honor of our new graduate assistants, and the start of the new semester, I would like to talk a bit about pedagogy, digital humanities, and public history in this post. One of the benefits of relatively new exhibition building software in open source systems like Omeka is that they are getting increasingly user-friendly. This is excellent news for folks like myself who greatly appreciate technology and its potential uses for public history and humanities, but I don’t really know how to handle the back end of computer programming and design. The pre-established exhibit frameworks of sites like Omeka mean that I don’t necessarily have to know how to do this to build a great online exhibition (and hopefully in the future the framework options will keep increasing with Omeka). In addition, at LCDL we have our ace-in-the-hole digital scholarship librarian Heather Gilbert, who can help with styling the Omeka exhibition structure we choose, so APLA will definitely look sharp when it’s done.

But to get to pedagogy — the increasing accessibility and ease of using digital project-building software also means that it becomes easier to teach digital public history. We recently met with Dr. Megan Schockley who teaches public history at Clemson University, and I was fascinated to hear about how she encourages her undergraduate students to work with local historic sites in the Clemson area to develop digital projects like short films and online exhibitions that the sites can then use in their own site representations. How could this digital public history teaching strategy work with Charleston area sites, for undergraduate and graduate history students like Beth and Alexandra? Of course traditional history lecture, research, and writing courses are not going anywhere, and they shouldn’t. But in this economy, students should have the option to build a diversity of project building skills that have applications for academic and public history fields. And with numerous historic sites struggling with limited budgets and staff, encouraging students to work with local public history sites to build interpretive and effectively inclusive digital projects could be a win-win situation all around. It’s definitely something to think about for the future . . .