A Digital History Project as Part of the Digital Humanities

These slides (pdf) were part of a December 2015 presentation at the Vermont Alliance for the Social Studies Conference in Manchester, VT.

Session description: Empower students to do the work of historians by using online archives and online tools such Google Maps, graphing sites, text-analysis utilities, and free website hosting platforms. Learn how one AP U.S. History class created an original digital history project consisting of an interactive map and data visualizations. The workshop will explain how the class collaborated and proceeded, step by step, through text mining, brainstorming, researching, data processing, mapping, writing, and using spreadsheets for developing graphics. The class’s final product, Federalists and Antifederalists in New Hampshire (apush.omeka.net) will be presented. How the project fits into the digital humanities (DH) will also be discussed.

Digital History in the High School Classroom

NH town votes on ratification of the federal Constitution

On the last day of school this year, my AP U.S. History students put the finishing touches on a digital history project they had started in May, following their AP Exam. The collaborative project, on which students contributed individual parts, shared research tasks, and worked with online tools, was my first classroom foray into the digital humanities. The whole process, which from start to finish lasted about three weeks, had two primary goals: contribute something new to the historical community and create and share the work digitally. After explaining to students that new scholarship was typically derived from primary sources, I led the class in a series of small lessons and tasks that gradually resulted in original research findings. Albeit small, the project gave students an introduction to the digital humanities and gave them the opportunity to collectively practice the work of historians. Their efforts resulted in Federalists and Antifederalists in New Hampshire.

Here’s an overview of how the project was accomplished:

Introduction to Text Analysis and Digital History

serendip-o-maticTo begin, students were made aware of text mining as a methodology that can be used to generate research ideas. Together, the class read a short intro to text mining and watched a few related YouTube videos, including Big Data + Old History, a snappy overview of how computer science and distance reading has changed historical analysis. Students later experimented with the concept of text analysis by pasting full web pages into the playful academic search tool Serendip-o-matic, which searches image libraries like Flickr by extracting keywords within large text.

one small part of a sample word-frequency analysis

In preparation for the next part of the process, I generated three separate word-frequency text analyses based on three volumes of the State and Provincial Papers of New Hampshire, and had students estimate the time period associated with each word list. (I simply used an online text analyzer for the lists.) Once several students made accurate estimates, and the class could see events of the past reflected in the word lists, I had students run their own practice analyses using several different milestone documents in American History, including the Proclamation of 1763, the Marshall Plan, and the Federal Highway Act. When students explained to the class the extent to which their analyses produced expected results, word frequency seemed like a viable way to “read” a large collection of primary sources without really reading a large collection of primary sources.

Investigating Research Topics in Early NH History

student research proposals

Twenty-nine volumes of the State and Provincial Papers, covering the years 1630-1800 and consisting of approximately 25,000 pages, were divided among the class and each student ran at least two text analyses. After time was spent evaluating the results, and after students also explored other books like Jeremy Belknap’s 18th-century History of New Hampshire, each student was asked to use several pieces of scrap paper to propose potential research topics to be shared in a classroom gallery.

Massachusetts Historical Society map

All proposals were considered, the most interesting were discussed, and in the end I steered the class in the direction of three possibilities: Indian problems in different regions of New Hampshire; border disputes among different towns; and the state’s role in ratifying the Constitution. Regarding the Constitution idea, the student’s actual proposal had addressed New Hampshire’s “hesitancy” in the ratification vote. When this idea was investigated online, including Google Books and Google Scholar, analyses were found but it seemed that a town-by-town accounting of federalist and antifederalist sympathies was unavailable. Something like this ratification map of Massachusetts, in other words, was apparently not yet on the web. It was at this point that the final direction of the research project became clear.

Compiling and Validating Map Data

Inspired by interactive mapping projects, like this one on the Whiskey Rebellion, the class divided the work of compiling vote totals from the Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New Hampshire Which Adopted the Federal Constitution, 1788. This data was inputted into a shared Google spreadsheet, zip codes were added, and everything was double-checked for accuracy. In front of the class, I went through the steps of uploading the sheet into a Google Map. The votes came to life as the map was color-coded and geographical patterns of support and opposition emerged.

Writing About the Map and Making Data Visualizations

With the map in place, students next worked on language for the website (which I was putting together at omeka.net) and then visualizations that would help clarify research findings. Before writing, students were asked to refresh their knowledge of federalist and antifederalist voting habits by reading overview articles from the library’s electronic reference collection. The readings were briefly discussed and then, in groups, students wrote copy and submitted their work in Google Classroom. The submissions were combined into one document, given one voice, and then collectively edited for inclusion on the website. (Yes, this took a while.)

distance measurement using DistanceFromTo.net

Data visualizations were completed individually by students using Plot.ly, an online graphing tool that allows for uploading spreadsheet data. Each student submitted at least one visualization and the best were included on the project website. While Plot.ly nicely presented data, DistanceFromTo.net greatly facilitated data collection. An online distance calculator, DistanceFromTo enabled students to easily measure the linear distance between key water ways and New Hampshire towns, and proved vital in proposing linkages between geography, economics, and the ultimate decision of New Hampshire residents to vote for or against the Constitution.

For the Library and Classrooms: Chromebooks and “Chromepacks”

DIY “Chromepack” charging cart

Last week, Molly Wood, the NYT’s tech blogger, asked if a Chromebook is all you need. Last year, I asked myself the same question. My library was due for computer replacements and I wanted to use the opportunity to make the room’s workspace more spacious, flexible, and efficient. Chromebooks seemed perfect. I thought that by removing desktops and bringing in a cart of ultra-thin laptops, table space would emerge, as would the ability for students to work in comfortable chairs or even on the floor. Further, it’d be easy to collaborate in small, ad-hoc groupings. And it could be done quickly. The Chromebook’s solid-state structure, with its fast boot-up time, seemed like an excellent way to be “always on.” I wondered, though, how the place would function with a whole new OS and a whole new approach to computing. Would browser-based cloud computing meet the academic requirements of my school?

After a full year of trying it, it’s clear that the answer to this question is, yes. The desktops, along with their slow network connection time, weren’t missed. Initially, more limited printing seemed like a significant loss, but it didn’t take long for teachers and students to become experts at sharing work through Drive. Similarly, my school’s adoption of Google Apps for Education seemed to be accelerated by the Chromebooks’ single sign-on for multiple integrated services, like mail, calendar, Docs, and add-ons like EasyBib. Now, many students can’t even imagine working with clunky software on a big, bulky machine. In short, as a result of abandoning desktop (and laptop) computing for a mobile approach to schoolwork, my library has become a more modern, more collaborative, and more productive workspace.

We also chose to deliver this new computing throughout the building. By using cushioned camera cases for five Chromebooks, we created what we call “Chromepacks” — kind of like field packs, but for computers. The library has a total of 41 Chromebooks, 25 of which are in Chromepacks available for use in the library or for classroom check-out. At the end of the day the camera cases are simply opened and placed alongside a DIY charging cart. The charging system, like the use of the Chromebooks themselves, is fast and easy.

“Chromepacks” charging
Camera case holds five Chromebooks
Charging cart for library
Tables free of desktops and cables


From the Center for History and New Media

This post is part of a December 2013 presentation at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in Manchester, NH.

As I prepare to return to the Advanced Placement U.S. History classroom after an eleven year hiatus as full-time librarian, I have been exploring and experimenting with the links, software, web tools, and content of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). Located at George Mason University in Virginia, the Center maintains digital archives, develops software, and organizes professional collaborations such as THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) and One Week | One Tool, a summer institute where participants build an open-source digital tool for the humanities community. Further, in a team effort with the Stanford History Education Group, the RRCHNM has developed Teachinghistory.org, a popular educational clearinghouse that profiles free, quality tools and websites useful in history education. While the Center offers much for teachers, some things are newer and more useful than others. And while I’m not an expert in any of the products listed, in the following links I highlight what I consider to be the best, as well as a thing or two that might be avoided. RRCHNM content is organized into three categories: Collecting and Exhibiting, Research and Tools, and Teaching and Learning.

Collecting and Exhibiting

OmekaOmeka and Omeka.net
“Omeka is a next-generation web publishing platform for museums, historical societies, scholars, enthusiasts, and educators. Omeka provides cultural institutions and individuals with easy-to-use software for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/omeka/ My rating: ✓+ | My reasons: I did not install Omeka, but found Omeka.net to be easy to use and useful for uploading and organizing classroom materials and documents. The templates, while simple, look clean and can be customized with plug-ins and changes to the header. Numerous meta-data fields for uploaded files could be better described, but the fields needn’t be fully completed for use with classroom materials. Used for a class project, Omeka could give students lessons in curatorial thinking. Other uses might include an art class exhibit or maybe a student eportfolio. Here’s a basic tour of Omeka.net and here’s a site by teachers for teachers. I started this site in no time at all.

Research and Tools

“Zotero is an easy-to-use yet powerful research tool that helps you gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects), and lets you share the results of your research in a variety of ways.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/omeka/ My rating: ✓+ | My reasons: While it’s like delicious, which allows for tagging and bookmarking of online information, Zotero is much more powerful. Whether you use Zotero stand-alone software or the Zotero browser plug-ins for Firefox or Chrome, storing and managing digital sources is easily accomplished, as is sharing sources privately or publicly. It’s not only useful for manually cataloging websites and PDFs, but Zotero can use meta-data within online documents to automatically store source info. In research databases like those from EBSCO and Gale, for example, Zotero captures bibliographic information with one click. Here’s a small shared Zotero collection that I just started. 2-minute video overview. 3-minute video tutorial. 14-minute video tutorial.

Want to use WordPress to manage your class, publish research, or collaborate on a conference presentation? ScholarPress develops a variety of WordPress plugins for academic and educational uses, bridging the gap between technology and pedagogy.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/scholarpress/ My rating: ✓- | Here’s why: While ScholarPress promises to be a multi-course learning management system, complete with calendars, discussion forums, grade books, and lecture note modules, it currently seems to be unsupported and incompatible with new WordPress BuddyPress plugins on which it runs. Its current name (or former name, if it’s no longer supported), is BuddyPress ScholarPress Courseware.

“Anthologize is a free, open-source, plugin that transforms WordPress into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Grab posts from your WordPress blog, import feeds from external sites, or create new content directly within Anthologize. Then outline, order, and edit your work, crafting it into a single volume for export in several formats, including—in this release—PDF, ePUB, TEI.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/anthologize/ My rating: ✓+ | My reasons: It does exactly what it claims to do. Easy to use and useful for making ePub files divided into book chapters from your site’s content. Great for handouts or larger documents for iBooks. Here’s a screenshot sample.

“Serendip-o-matic connects your sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world. By first examining your research interests, and then identifying related content in locations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Europeana, and Flickr Commons, our serendipity engine helps you discover photographs, documents, maps and other primary sources.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/serendip-o-matic/ My rating: ✓+ | My reasons: After extracting keywords from your research collection, the search tool presents an interesting reflection of your sources. It never fails; there’s always something in the results that makes you wonder about its connection. Consequently, Serendip-o-matic offers the serendipity of an old-time search in the stacks, where stumbling across something unexpected, interesting, and perhaps useful made for a nice distraction and sometimes a good source. Full disclosure on this rating: I was part of the team that launched the tool in July 2013. It’s now in its second release.

Teaching and Learning

“Teachinghistory.org (National History Education Clearinghouse) is the central online location for accessing high-quality resources in K-12 U.S. history education. Explore the highlighted content on our homepage or visit individual sections for additional materials. Return often for new content and to join in the vibrant conversation about teaching history.” — http://chnm.gmu.edu/teachinghistory-org/  My rating: ✓+ | My reasons: The vast site is divided into four categories: Teaching Materials, History Content, Best Practices, and the Digital Classroom. The homepage addresses the historian’s work and includes videos on developing historical thinking skills. This documents-based approach to studying the past is further illustrated and expanded in the site’s lesson plans, teaching guides, and directory of primary sources. Within the Digital Classroom section, visitors find tool reviews and strategies. Of those presented, I found these to be of greatest potential use in the AP U.S. History classroom:

  • ThingLink“Make your images come alive with … video, notes, or even music from YouTube.” Annotating documents and images is made easy, as is sharing. Here’s a sample of mine and a better one on interpretations of the Boston Massacre.
  • Lucidchart“Lucidchart provides the easiest and most powerful flowchart software in the world. Create professional diagrams and flowcharts to help you communicate visually.”  Useful for things like tracking cause/effect, chronology, diagramming essays, charting continuity and change, flow charting. Here’s a sample and video promo.
  • Padlet“We give you a blank wall. You put anything you want on it, anywhere. Simple, yet powerful.” Useful for virtual discussions, group research, and group brainstorming. A sample from APUSH teachers.
  • Zoom-in Inquiry – In this video a history teacher illustrates the teaching/learning technique of “zoom-in inquiry,” where students are led through a primary sources piece by piece in order to build a full understanding of the full source.
  • Dipity“Dipity is a free digital timeline website. Our mission is to organize the web’s content by date and time. Users can create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive, visually engaging timelines that integrate video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps.” A good review tool. Here’s a sample.


One Week | One Tool: Bit by Bit

Much has already been written about One Week | One Tool and its creation, the  Seredip-o-matic search engine. Brian Croxall and Mia Ridge  masterfully chronicled each day of the week and also reflected on ideas such as trust, unity, ego, and teamwork. And Jack Dougherty and Amrys Williams eloquently added their own important details. I nonetheless feel compelled to write my thoughts about One Week. As a non-programmer and as the team member with the most limited understanding of code, I had wondered — and worried — about what role I might play in the creative hackathon. Initially intimidated by the process, I was happy to quickly become engrossed in the project as group members galvanized around Serendip-o-matic and focused on individual responsibilities.  Once in my assigned role, I found myself fully immersed in the digital humanities, even though I wasn’t fully digital.

LayoutWhile much of the team talked in language involving “pull requests,” “forking,” and “jQuery,” my language strictly concerned Serendip-o-matic’s purpose, responsiveness, and appeal — the vocabulary and ideas of why and how it worked, and how to promote it. While I did write some rudimentary HTML and made a GitHub “push,” user advocacy, product description, and public relations occupied nearly 100% of my time.

My responsibilities, and those of the other eleven participants, came together mid-day on Tuesday. Following a Monday brainstorming session about tool ideas and a subsequent crowd-sourced popularity contest on IdeaScale, the full group took Tuesday morning to debate our choices. After eleven possibilities became four, and then four became one, attention shifted to team building.  Meghan Frazier, who had on Monday stepped up to guide our brainstorming session, emerged as co-project manager with Brian. They then facilitated division of everyone else into two teams: Development/Design and Outreach. For me, Outreach was the only possibility. Psyched to have a clear role, I began to feel less intimidated by the process. Further, once on my team, I soon became too busy to worry any longer. The train was leaving the station, its destination was Friday afternoon, and it was time to move.

On Wednesday afternoon, once a product name, tagline, and domain name had been selected, outreach work became increasingly focused on communication and user advocacy. Jack, Outreach leader, guided Amrys and myself in drafting press release language, choosing pages and writing copy for the Serendip-o-matic website, growing a media and public relations contact list, and sharing user impressions with Dev/Design. Marathon sessions of wordsmithing were combined with web searches for news outlets and blogger info, which were combined with evaluating Serendip-o-matic’s performance and feel. In one way or another, these jobs basically continued until Mia, Dev/Design leader, announced on Friday afternoon that her coders (Scott Kleinman, Scott Williams, Eli Rose, Amanda Visconti, Rebecca SuttonKoeser) and designer (Amy Papaelias) were ready to go.

DinnerSerendip-o-matic was born on Friday around 3 pm at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. It’s now available to all — teachers, students, scholars, or those who simply want to browse. The tool works well and is useful and unique enough to impress Dan Cohen, Founding Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America.  The tool came from a talented group of programmers who worked immensely hard with little sleep. Yet, as Amrys mentioned in the Google Hangout interview during Friday’s live launch, it’s also the result of a full community that came together with the common goal of advancing the digital humanities. At CHNM hangs a sign that reads, “Building a Better Yesterday, Bit by Bit.” The programmers clearly did this. But even the work that wasn’t fully digital, did, bit by bit, contribute in the end. Serendip-o-matic, therefore, really is the product of something resembling a digital humanities “barn raising,” a community effort where everyone rolls up their sleeves, pulls together, does what’s necessary, and builds something good.

Immensely proud of my team’s creation, I thank the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, One Week | One Tool director Tom Scheinfeldt, and the great people at CHNM for giving me the opportunity to help launch Serendip-o-matic.