Monthly Archives: February 2019

Week 7 Website Architecture

For this week’s exercise in conceptualizing the website architecture of digital history projects, I was inspired after reading in a separate class W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic to base my website concept around the intersection of the movements for alcohol prohibition and slavery abolition. More specifically, the two issues were frequently intermingled, with most temperance warriors also being abolitionists who would treat slavery to a master and slavery to “the demon rum” as analogous issues of unfreedom. Thus, what you see below is a conceptual architecture on how I would design a site seeking to convey the conflation of slavery and alcohol prohibition.

At the homepage or “base” of the site, I would include an introduction and summary of the argument I wish to convey. From there, the site branches out into four main pages for the reader to visit in whatever order they choose. It is important to note that one of these pages is a centralized bibliography for my website, containing citations for all the secondary literature I draw from and a “pool” for all the primary source documents I incorporate into the website. The three remaining pages are each a subtopic, with the relevant primary documents stored within them (albeit, were I to actually create such a website, the question of “what documents can I have digitized?” would be a far more pressing issue than the hypothetically “ideal” documents I use as examples in my hand-drawn map). Each subtopic would contain a brief descriptive overview, along with a collection of documents where, if the visitor were to click on them, they could read them personally and view commentary and annotations. The first sub-topic, “Restricting the Enslaved”, would cover what is known about the drinking patterns of those held in bondage: many enslavers used alcohol rewards to incentivize the compliance of the enslaved, but the flow of alcohol in this context was seen as something that had to be tightly limited and controlled so as to not spark “rowdiness.” I am aware that both the former colony of West Jersey and the state of North Carolina passed laws making it illegal for slaves to purchase alcohol for this very reason, and I would use documents like these pieces of legislation for visitors to view. The next subtopic, “Dry Abolitionists”, would cover the aforementioned conflation of drunkenness and unfreedom, and would incorporate Temperance propaganda, like Herman Humphrey’s poster, “Parallel between Intemperance and the Slave-Trade” (also viewable in Rorabaugh, p. 215), along with accounts of the Black Temperance movement, such as Frederick Douglass taking the abstinence pledge. The third subtopic, “The Transnational Legacy”, would ideally be more interactive (assuming I have the technical knowhow): the conflation of alcohol and slavery bled over into the Liberian Temperance movement and into the Scramble for Africa, in which the Brussels Treaty of 1890 being signed by America and the European powers to prohibit both the slave trade and liquor trade in Africa. Ideally, I would want visitors to spatially understand the extension of abolitionism and temperance outside the US after the Civil War. Thus, this would ideally contain a map with points for where each document comes from.



HST 251 Week 6 DH Project Comparative Review

This week, I learned about the art of reviewing digital history projects. For this exercise, I chose to compare the websites “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery”, created by New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the New York Historical Society’s “Slavery in New York.” As far as websites go, they are both on the older side, with the former created in 2004 and the latter created in 2005. Additionally, both of these are digital exhibitions, consisting of descriptive text and documentary images.

In terms of media and design, it is worth noting that neither site has aged well: they both use Adobe Flash. As a consequence, most documents and images these sites display are pixelated and unclear. In this sense, the “Slavery in New York” website has an advantage over “Lest We Forget,” as the latter runs entirely on Flash, whilst the former only uses it for only its “Galleries” portion. “Lest We Forget” does not perform well regarding visual appeal or accessibility, either. The exhibition does not even use the entire screen, and feels like you are reading a small colorful rectangle inside a larger, grey rectangle. Text is also very small and pixelated, confined within scrollable textboxes that are frequently too small to be read with ease. In contrast, the “Slavery in New York” website uses a larger, thicker, more readable font and utilizes much more of its available space, letting you scroll through the page itself rather than a tiny textbox. And even where there is blank space, the site uses a background image of a historical painting of New York streets to make it feel full. Finally, both suffer from issues of organization and clarity for the user, albeit in different ways. The “Lest We Forget” site embraces its digital format, in that the exhibits are organized thematically, rather than in any particular order, allowing people to explore based on their personal interests. However, from the home page, the site’s navigability is not clear for a first-time visitor. The different exhibits are marked by images (mainly of faces) that only show clear labels if you move your cursor over them. And if you click on them, you are taken only to the front page of the exhibit; you would have to notice the word “more” in small print at the bottom of the textbox to see the full exhibit. “Slavery in New York” is much more navigable in that it has clearly bolded headings on the left side of screen, such as “Tour Galleries”, “About the Exhibit”, and “Education”. However, many of those headings have sub-topic headings that are not always intuitive and one only discovers by clicking on them; for example, a page titled “History of Slavery in New York” (something that might best be placed before people visit the actual “Galleries”) is found under “About the Exhibit”, while the scholarly source bibliography is located under “Education”. If one goes to the actual “Galleries” page, the organization is mostly intuitive: every gallery has a main feature at the top, a “Gallery Overview” at the bottom, a collection of “New York Stories” for further reading, plus some form of semi-interactive image. There is also a clear presentational order, with every gallery numbered 1-9 at the top, but this does have the drawback of taking away the visitor’s ability to explore the galleries they want based off thematic interest.

As for content and audience, both sites are intended for public audiences, though I would argue “Slavery in New York” does a better job of catering to them. The purpose of “Lest We Forget” is made very clear in its home page: the site is in commemoration of the UN declaring 2004 the “international year to commemorate the struggle against slavery and its abolition” and seeks to, in a sense, bring to the surface the nuances of the experiences of those who were enslaved. Judging by both its broad reference to different forms of slavery in the Americas, and its option to select between 4 different reading languages, this site is clearly intended for a diverse, Pan-American audience. However, in regard to descriptive text, the site tries to make both broad statements and be scholarly and nuanced at the same time, which at some times can result in what the site says to be vague and awkward for someone unfamiliar with the topic. In contrast, the “Slavery in New York” website is clearly intended to advertise a physical exhibit the New York Historical Society created, and as such, is mainly intended for New Yorkers. With all the links, PDFs, and other educational resources the site provides, it hopes to spread its basic message—that New York was shaped by an at times paradoxical interplay between slavery and abolitionism—to educators, parents, and students. Because it does not attempt to be overly broad, “Slavery in New York” does a good job of providing just enough descriptive detail to go with every image or subject without bogging the reader down.

HST251 Week 5: Omeka exhibits

This week, I learned how to upload primary documents onto an Omeka site, organize them in exhibits, and present them with annotation. After reading Calvin Schermerhorn’s chapter “Industrial Discipline,” I was inspired to build my Omeka exhibit based off what documents I could find that pertained to industrial slavery in Richmond, Virginia. For a text based item, I found a catalog published by Tredegar Iron Works (a factory run on slave labor), and for a visual oriented item, I found a map of the relative concentration of slaves in Virginia counties.

The first step of turning the documents into a virtual exhibit—filling out the Dublin Core metadata—was in itself an exercise in figuring out what a document precisely is. For understandability/replicability purposes, there were times I had to make judgement calls on whether I wished to use metadata on the original databases verbatim, or adjust it to more accurately describe the document. For example, I found the Tredegar catalog on Hathi Trust, where they listed the original creator as “Tredegar Ironworks (Richmond, VA)”, and I had to assess whether this was what actually belonged in the “creator” position of the metadata, or if that spot would more accurately be filled by the name “Edmund M. Ivens” or “J. R. Anderson & Co.”. But ultimately, I judged to keep the original nomenclature for the creator, as that is both what someone would need if they wanted to find the document themselves on Hathi Trust and describes clearly from whom the information in the document is coming from. Filling out other parts of the Dublin Core, such as “Subject” and “Description”, also forced me to think less about the specific pieces of information I pulled out of the documents, and more about what the documents are in the most general of overviews.

During the annotation process, I noticed that these digital methods forced me to not just examine the documents closely, but also to ask myself “if I were to put my thoughts, observations, and reactions to the document in front of me in plain, readable English, what would I want someone who just saw this document to walk away noticing?” In many respects, the process of making historical observations through annotations felt like a reversal of how I would go about it in essay writing. Rather than treating the documents as an insert to my broader knowledgebase and argument, I had to insert my knowledgebase and analysis into the documents themselves. Aside from the much deeper understanding of the documents at hand this creation process gave me, these annotated document exhibits also have a unique presentational strength. Despite how we as historians base our secondary writing on primary sources, said sources are inevitably subsumed into our writing and thus, in a way, are lost to the reader (especially a non-historian). In contrast, these digital presentations put these documents at the surface of the historical knowledge-making process. This promotes a style of historical understanding that pure secondary writing is unable to.


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