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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.

 

Omeka URL:

http://brettbink.com/Omeka/exhibits

HST251 Week 3: Practice with Database research

Our readings thus far reminded me of the story of how the West African country of Liberia—a name derived from the word “Liberty”—was founded by the American Colonization Society, which began encouraging freed African-Americans to move “back to Africa” beginning in the early nineteenth-century. Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is named after US President Monroe to this day. That said, this is where most readings and discussions on the matter have begun and ended in my past experience. The initial question I sought to answer was to what extent Liberia maintained ties with the United States. Considering Liberia was founded by former slaves and their descendants deliberately trying to get away from the white rule in the United States, was there an effort to cut ties with the US? Or the opposite: was Liberia deeply interlinked with America, despite its erasure from US history? To what extent in Liberia’s early history should it be understood as a colony (as the name “American Colonization Society” implies) and to what extent should it be understood as an independent country?

Knowing these were rather broad questions, I did not entirely know where to begin or what to expect. In hindsight, I can say I learned that it is easy to achieve a partial answer when asking such a broad question, but a challenge to achieve a satisfactorily complete answer (hence why such primary source-based research can take large stretches of time). Nonetheless, my first step was to determine what databases I wanted to use. Based off of demonstrations in class, I already knew that the Library of Congress and the Digital Public Libraries of America websites were fitting for the kind of “broad sweep” search I wanted to make. But wanting to be thorough, I scrolled through the primary source database list on the MSU library website; the amount of material that was available dealing with African and/or African-American history was overwhelming, but I ultimately decided to explore “African American Newspapers: The 19th Century (Accessible Archives)” because of the timeframe it focused on.

When searching for documents on the websites, I began with a general search term like “Liberia” or “American Colonization Society” to first see what was available. The African American Newspapers database mostly pulled up results from the “Freedom’s Journal” newspaper, which revealed that there were critiques from abolitionists that the American Colonization Society’s “movements tend to fetter more closely the chains of the enslaved” (LIBERIA). The Digital Public Libraries required a degree of digging; hoping to find some documents that might reveal information about American-Liberian exchange, I started my search with the keyword “Liberia”, but then fine-tuned my search results with the location “Liberia” and the subject “African Americans—Colonization—Africa.” I noticed that one of the documents—an address to the American Colonization Society—dated to as late as 1880. This revealed that the society was sending African-Americans to Liberia 15 years after the Civil War ended, along with the statement “Colonizationists, as a rule, have believed that two distinct races, that cannot or will not amalgamate by intermarriage, can live in the same land in but one of two relations—master and slave, or oppressor and oppressed… the question of slavery has been settled, but the Negro question is still an open one” (Latrobe 10). Finally, a search of the term “American Colonization Society” on the Library of Congress website pulled one of the most enlightening documents on the first page of search results. In 1873, the American Colonization Society was struggling with the question of if it should continue its efforts now that slavery was over, but it concluded

The redemption of Africa must in its progress originate new empires of power and mind… Its territorial seat will be the African equatorial zone. But its traditions, some of them grateful, some of them painful, will be taken from America; its form of government, let us hope, will be free; and its spiritual forces will be derived from the Christian religion… We must strengthen Liberia, by sending thither every year hundreds of our colored citizens, picking our men as best we may; by encouraging agriculture, the common arts of life, and skilled labor (Humphrey 13-14).

Returning to my original interest in the interrelations between Liberia and America, I can already say from this early research that the American Colonization Society’s founding of Liberia was not a brief episode in the early nineteenth century, but a sustained effort that continued well after the Civil War ended. Additionally, those involved conceived of Liberia as the creation of a new, independent empire, but ironically one that required a continuous influx of people and American ideals. While Liberia was the product of colonization, it did not seem to be the product of “empire” as traditionally conceived by European colonization in Africa. Unfortunately, of the digitized documents I encountered, most were written in the United States, and were best at answering questions of perceptions of Liberian colonization and the recruitment of colonists. To more fully investigate American-Liberian relations, I would need to find documents from Liberian sources themselves (which, as far as I can tell, might require going to physical archives), or trade ledgers that reveal Liberia’s material relations. While the American Colonization Society continued to send people to expand the colony, the question of whether or not they were sending material goods to support it, or if Liberia produced goods for export, have yet to be answered. Were I to dig deeper into this research in the future, I would either have to reframe my question to focus on the American side of the exchange (i.e. how intensive were the American Colonization Society’s efforts to support Liberia? How many people did they send? How did the ideology of colonization evolve over time?) or find Liberian sources (of which there do not appear to be many that are digitized).

 

Humphrey, Edward P, and African American Pamphlet Collection. Africa and colonization: an address delivered before the American Colonization Society. Washington, D.C.: M’Gill & Witherow, Printers and Stereotypers, 1873. https://www.loc.gov/item/92838006/.

Latrobe, John H.B.. Liberia: its origin, rise, progress and results. An address delivered before the American Colonization Society, January 20th, 1880. 1883. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100336666. (Accessed January 26, 2019.)

“LIBERIA. – Of late, we have thought, that the principal obje”. Freedom’s Journal. New York: February 21, 1829. Retrieved from African American Newspapers. http://www.accessible.com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/accessible/print