Published August 29, 2014
After nine years at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), I have made significant contributions in digital humanities and history through my work on twenty digital projects. I currently direct four major grant-funded projects, and serve as a senior team member for five others. As Research Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Public Projects, I consider the theory, meaning, and structures of digital projects and their potential to democratize the process of making and consuming history. As a member of the senior staff at RRCHNM, I write and develop grant proposals that bring in significant dollar amounts and prestige to the Center and to Mason. Since starting at the Center, I have co-authored eleven successful grant proposals to federal agencies and private foundations totaling nearly four million dollars.
Since the establishment of the Public Projects Division at RRCHNM in 2007, I have been a critical member of the team that generates new projects, sustains legacy projects, and collaborates with libraries, archives, and museums doing digital public history and humanities projects. I draw heavily upon my experiences working as a public historian in museums prior to being hired at Mason, and upon my graduate training in digital history, museums, and memory. Some of my key contributions include developing scholarly-driven history websites that are designed for non-academics audiences, and working closely with communities and individuals to collect and save their own history through digital means. I am sharing this knowledge and the methodologies developed by designing curricula to teach historians, art historians, librarians, museum professionals, and archivists. Additionally, I connect my experience and research on how museums use the web with work on a software team building a platform for publishing cultural heritage collections online. In my own work outside of RRCHNM, I am publishing with new models of scholarly communications, including a digital monograph with the University of Michigan Press. Through my digital projects, publications, presentations, and service, I am shaping the development and directions of digital public history.
Managing and Developing Digital Public History and Humanities Projects
My digital public history and humanities project work is grounded in RRCHM’s core mission of democratizing the practices of history by incorporating multiple voices, reaching diverse audiences, collaborating across institutions, and encouraging the popular participation of doing history.
The first project I managed at RRCHNM was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, hurricanearchive.org, a community-sourced, online collecting project that launched two months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast. As Project Manager and Outreach Co-Lead, I co-authored a grant proposal to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to build a website to collect, preserve, and present the stories and personal digital record of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and to advance the practice of building of digital memory banks. The project was driven by similar principles as RRCHNM’s first online collecting project, the September 11 Digital Archive, by letting individuals contribute first-hand accounts and to tell their stories in their own words, which would remain accessible and become part of the historical record. As Project Manager, I coordinated all aspects of the project development, web design, and outreach. This project collected over 25,000 digital items and inspired other organizations to build their own online collecting projects. The American Association of State and Local History selected the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank in 2007 for their Merit for Leadership in History Award. To encourage others to build similar projects, I presented our work and findings at the Oral History Association, American Association for the History of Computing, Texas Museums Association, and Society for American Archivists conferences. To share the research we conducted on building digital memory banks, I co-authored a white paper, with Dr. T. Mills Kelly, “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5.”
My experience in managing and developing the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, led me to help care for the September 11 Digital Archive project, 911digitalarchive.org and to co-author a proposal for a Saving America’s Treasure Grant, awarded by the National Park Service and National Endowment for the Humanities in final year of the grant program. I have been responsible for overseeing the migration and upgrade of RRCHNM’s oldest and most fragile digital collections to a more stable system to ensure near-term preservation. I re-launched a new online collecting portal and added a blog in 2011 as an effort to collect reflections on the event’s tenth anniversary and to highlight the site’s broad-ranging content. I became the grant’s Primary Investigator in 2013.
My strength as a manager and public historian motivated the Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, gulaghistory.org Project Director to ask me to take over after the project experienced staff turnover. Gulag is a public digital history website that featured rich online exhibitions and a digital archive telling the complex history of the Soviet Gulag prison system from the perspectives of prisoners, guards, and family members. I worked closely with the lead scholar, Dr. Steve Barnes, and our international partners to build online exhibitions and to launch the final website.
This experience prepared me to plan and launch the Occupy Archive, occupyarchive.org, a digital archive and online collecting site to document and save the digital evidence from the Occupy protests in 2011-2012. Together with Dr. Sharon Leon, we organized a group of 10 volunteers at RRCHNM to design a website, write a custom Omeka plugin, and customize a form to collect photographs, websites, fliers, announcements, blog posts, and other digital materials generated by the international Occupy movements. With no funding available, we were able to close a significant gap in documenting the Occupy movements, and were received national press attention for our efforts and were invited to publish with the experimental journal, In Media Res.
Currently, I co-direct with Dr. Sharon Leon Histories of the National Mall mallhistory.org, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Public Programs Division. I co-authored the grant proposal and provided the intellectual grounding for project to uncover the history and contested development of the National Mall as a physical and cultural public space. Drawing on the historiography of public spaces, civic nationalism, and memory and memorialization, the project connects social, cultural, and political events, people, and places together by presenting the material using geospatial and thematic modes of access. I have been responsible for establishing and implementing the intellectual goals of the project, developing a content strategy, and leading the technical team in planning and implementing the mobile website design. I have written and reviewed content for the project. Knowing of the wide potential audience, I also designed numerous vehicles for evaluating and testing the website’s information architecture and content, including the effectiveness of map layers to convey change over space and time, and investigative questions (“Explorations”) to demonstrate multiple perspectives. To reach broad audiences, I led the content team in developing and implementing social media outreach plans and on-the-ground publicity strategies. The project launched its beta site in March 2014, and we continue to refine the content and some elements of the design. In May 2014, the NEH selected Histories as an exemplar digital humanities project featured at a special event held at the Capitol. In the short time that the project has been live, the Journal of American History reviewed the site for its Fall 2014 issue.
Cultural Heritage Collections Research and Tools
My interest in the ways museums use the web informs my contributions in the Public Projects divisions, and drives some of my independent research.
I am a member of the original team that developed the Omeka software omeka.org. Omeka grew out of needs we identified for cultural heritage institutions to use free, open-source software to design sophisticated, collections-driven, and standards-based websites. Beginning in 2007, I co-authored all Omeka-related grant proposals. As the original Project Manager, I shaped decisions determining the intellectual rationale built into the software, including evaluating metadata schema and data output formats, while also working closely with software developers to design a user-friendly administrative interface. As Outreach Lead, I coordinated all outreach efforts, which has resulted in over 100,000 core software downloads, and hundreds of new Omeka websites built by libraries, archives, museums, scholars, and enthusiasts. I have written over 100 pages of end-user documentation that is viewed tens of thousands times each year; led dozens of workshops and panel discussions on using Omeka; and introduced Omeka to potential users through numerous consultations. Since introducing a hosted version of Omeka, I have coordinated the implementation and design of all elements of Omeka.net, its end user support, and documentation. Omeka.net currently supports over 17,000 users working on over 11,000 websites.
Building on Omeka’s success, we applied for and received funding to create a prototype to aggregate collections from any Omeka website into the Omeka Commons. As Project Manager, I worked with the developer team to shape the structure, features, and design of the Commons. Based on needs of libraries and universities to enable networks of scholarly communications, we received additional funding from the Mellon Foundation to create a multi-site version of Omeka. As Co-PI, I am shaping foundational decisions for redesigning the core software to make it usable and interoperable with a variety of digital assets management and content management systems.
The Samuel L. Kress Foundation funded the Public Projects Department to research and report on the state of museum mobile content development in 2008-09. Together with Dr. Sharon Leon and Dave Lester, Mobile for Museums, chnm.gmu.edu/labs/mobile-for-museums, produced a detailed white paper including an overview of how cultural heritage organizations incorporated mobile technologies into on- and off-site interpretation; offered best practice recommendations for developing for mobile platforms; and provided two working prototypes to demonstrate our recommendations. As the Project Manager, I researched and wrote five of the six sections of the white paper that discussed development and best practices in mobile technologies for museums. I also built a prototype mobile website using Omeka and its plugins with a mobile cascading style sheet. This digital white paper has been recommended by the Institute of Museum and Library Services as a useful resource to assist grant applicants when developing for the mobile web.
My own research in how museums use the web began in 2004, under the direction of my advisor Roy Rosenzweig. I revisited this research independently in 2011 to track, analyze, and compare data over seven years of major changes in museum web development, http://bit.ly/stateofhistorymuseumweb. I tracked how history museums shared collections and exhibition content, and how they interacted with their audiences online. This research stands as one of the few studies tracking history museum web presence. I published my results and analysis online prior to the Museum Computer Network conference where I organized and chaired a roundtable discussing ways that history and art museums differ in their approaches to creating and sharing online content. I shared my findings and data publicly under a Creative Commons license, http://lotfortynine.org/2011/11/state-of-history-museum-web-2011/.
In an effort to test the power, and ease, of aggregating museum-related content from the open web, I worked with Dr. Joan Troyano, Director of the PressForward project, to create different styles of digital publications, including conference proceedings for the Museum Computer Network Conference in 2012. This independent and unfunded research effort was rooted in my interests in the ways that museums interact with their publics and also share scholarship among their peers. I chose that professional community, because conference participants already regularly shared their conference presentations, slides, and recorded talks online, so we could easily draw from that material. Additionally, this community supports digital experimentation across their professional lives. Troyano and I created two frameworks for publishing proceedings and then built prototypes, chnm.gmu.edu/mcn/2011proceedings/ and chnm.gmu.edu/mcn/2012/, using the WordPress platform together with assistance from the PressForward team. We shared our methods in a public document and formally presented on this process at the conference in 2013. Through framing intellectual rationales for publishing in different formats we also found holes in the existing tools that informed development of the PressForward plugin. Importantly, we also successfully demonstrated how a museum, library, or archive can build and broaden their audiences by bringing together their enthusiast communities with experts at their institutions through one, open access, publication. We shared our findings on the PressForward blog.
Digital Humanities Pedagogy
From my earliest days at the Center, I developed hands-on workshops for using digital tools, but more recently I began crafting conferences and curricula for instructing diverse professional audiences on digital methodologies that open up new avenues of inquiry and interpretation. Beginning in 2011, I coordinated the planning committee for the WebWise, the Institute of Museum and Library Service’s signature conference on technologies for museums and libraries imlswebwise.org. Working closely with Dr. Tom Scheinfeldt (2011-12), Dr. Lisa Rhody (2012-14) and Dr. Sharon Leon, we planned and scheduled workshops, plenary panels, keynote speakers, project demonstrations, and project incubator sessions relevant to the practice of library, archive, and museum professionals.
In 2013, I served as a core faculty member and advisor to the end user and outreach team for the National Endowment of the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities-funded summer institute, Another Week/Another Tool oneweekonetool.org . I reviewed applications as a member of the institute’s selection committee, and planned for my instruction together with other faculty members to create a cohesive curriculum. Throughout the institute, I worked closely with the twelve-person team that planned, built, and launched the Serendipomatic tool in one week, .
This summer, I co-directed two summer institutes with Dr. Leon. Rebuilding the Portfolio held in July 2014, was one of three grants awarded by the Getty Foundation as part of a pilot program in faculty training in digital art history, arthistory2014.doingdh.org/. In August 2014, we ran Doing Digital History, history2014.doingdh.org, a similar institute for American historians. This grant was one of three awarded in the category of Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities by the National Endowment for the Humanities. As Co-PI and Co-Director of both institutes, I was responsible for shaping the intellectual direction, including the development of a curriculum comprised of readings and reference materials, digital projects, and digital tools. Together with Dr. Leon, we provided sixty hours of instruction each to twenty-three art historians and twenty-five American historians, representing many sub-fields, on the theoretical grounding of digital humanities and digital art history and digital history, as well as hands-on sessions for learning basic digital skills, installing and using web publishing platforms, using digital humanities tools, and planning projects.
Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, Commemoratives, and the Post, stampingamericanmemory.org explores the US Post Office Department’s commemorative stamp program and the ways that citizens, stamps collectors, and elected and appointed government officials participated in conversations about national life in early-twentieth-century America. Millions of Americans collected stamps at one point in their lives between the 1880s and 1940, yet, despite its popularity stamp collecting has not been examined closely by scholars. Many historians often overlook all aspects of postal operations and their influence on American culture. Traditionally, the study of stamps has been the domain of collectors and enthusiasts who immerse themselves in learning the details of stamp design and production, and do not uncover the cultural contexts in which those stamps were produced. Stamps are not mere instruments of postal operations, but rather, objects deeply embedded in culture, with complicated stories to tell. Designed to be collected, commemorative stamps showcased one interpretation of a historical episode that then transformed into miniature memorials through the act of being saved. This monograph surfaces how the USPOD emerged in the early twentieth century as one of the most active federal agencies engaged in public history and memorial making prior to the New Deal.
Stamping American Memory also offers the first cultural history of stamp collecting by revealing how casual groups of collectors built communities and standardized practices through the formation of clubs. These practices were then followed by other hobbyist groups. Stamping uncovers the ways that the US government influenced stamp collecting, through its commemorative stamp program. Citizens proposed stamp subjects, started campaigns, and sought support for their stamp ideas from their elected officials. I analyze the stamps themselves and their design records to show how commemoratives were contentious and extremely powerful for many Americans, because stamps represented a federally-approved interpretation of American heroes and historical events. My research drew heavily from countless undigitized philatelic sources at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, federal records, and databases of popular periodicals and newspapers.
Scholarship that explores a historical dialog, communicated through visual culture, seems to be best served in a way that facilitates public participation and discussion around those objects. To do so, I applied for and was awarded the inaugural University of Michigan/HASTAC Publication Prize in 2012 for innovative and intellectually important projects published in a digital format. I chose to design the project in WordPress + CommentPress, because its structure allows for a long narrative to be integrated with a body of images and documentary sources within a dialogic platform. My goal is to bring together philatelists and historians not only through the sources I interrogate, but through the digital platform.
Prior to revising Stamping American Memory for the web, I was selected to publish papers I presented at the 2006 and 2010 William M. Blount Symposia on Postal History. Both articles were subject to blind peer-review prior to publication by the Smithsonian Institution Press.
Many of my other publications contribute to a body of literature on professional practice, including “Taking a Byte Out of the Archives: Making Technology Work for You” in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives (January 2005) and “Let the Grant Do the Talking,” for the Journal of Digital Humanities special issue on evaluation (Fall 2012). In, “Intentional Alts,” a conversation with former RRCHNM colleague Jeremy Boggs, we discussed the professional challenges of choosing alternative academic careers, which was published in the popular #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars collection by MediaCommons in 2011.
Writing and publishing comprises a large part of my work at the Center. I develop history content for digital public history projects, such as Histories of the National Mall, white papers, such as for Mobile for Museums, and technical documentation to introduce novices to using Omeka. Digital humanities work is collaborative, and similarly, some of my publications are co-authored. I wrote “Oral History in the Digital Age,” for the Oxford Handbook of Oral History (2010) with colleagues at the Center. Additionally, I have been asked by different organizations to write for their online publications. When the Rachel Carson Center launched a new digital publication, Ant, Spider, Bee, they asked me to write a short article for their inaugural issue on the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. A recent presentation at the NCPH conference motivated the Manager for Online Content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation to ask me to write a provocative piece about collecting practices for the Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. I also maintain a blog, Lot 49, where I write about digital public history and post all of my conference presentation materials.
Throughout my career, I have tried to model how to do digital public history by creating projects that are accessible to audiences outside of academia, and also by opening up the history-making process by doing history in public. As a result, I publish all of my conference presentations and other research online. For example, my research on history museum websites, which I presented at the Museum Computer Network Conference in November 2011 to an audience of approximately 50 people, has been viewed over 2000 times on SlideShare. Slides for a paper I presented at the National Council on Public History in April 2011, has been viewed over 1500 times. By sharing my research online and writing for other organizations, my reach as a digital public historian from RRCHNM increases exponentially.
My expertise in digital public history has led to a dozen invitations to speak at venues including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities. I also have given dozens of workshops on using the Omeka software platform and other digital tools for developing digital humanities projects. I regularly present at scholarly conferences on RRCHNM project work and on my own research in how museums use the web, postal history, and the visual culture of postage stamps. Since I began at RRCHNM, I have participated in 24 conference panels, roundtables, and working groups.
My reputation as a public historian earned me a nomination, and I was then elected, to serve on the National Council on Public History’s Nominating Committee during my first year as a Research Assistant Professor. Nominating Committee nominees are selected because of their commitment to the organization, the field, and their influence and knowledge of other practitioners. Additionally, I served on advisory boards for an Institute of Museum and Library Service’s National Leadership Grant, a digital initiative at a community arts organization, a digital encyclopedia initiative led by the American Association for State and Local History, and for a cross-institutional digital initiative at the Smithsonian Institution. I reviewed grant proposals for the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. I am a peer reviewer for the Digital Humanities Quarterly and the Curator Journal, and I have reviewed proposals for Routledge publishing. I also volunteered my time and expertise to committees selecting winners for the American Association of Museum’s Media and Technology MUSE awards and for establishing the Digital Humanities awards.