History 428: Adventures in Digital History

HIST 428: Digital History Sites

Based on your review of the Digital History projects above: Think about what you like about these digital projects as a whole, and what you don’t.  What works and what doesn’t? What elements would you want to incorporate and which do you want to avoid in your own project?

What Digital Projects Did I Review?

I first began reviewing one of the Roy Rosenzweig prize recipients. The site that first caught my eye was Ben Vershbow, Rebecca Federman, and Michael Inman’s “What’s On the Menu” site. [1] The site features historic menus from New York alongside transcriptions. The site ticker readers that, so far, 1,334,409 dishes have been transcribed from 17,545 menus. The site reminded me of the subreddit r/vintagemenus, which is exactly what it sounds like.

While I love a good transcription, (mainly because I really, truly enjoy typing) 1,334,409 dishes is pretty mind blowing. While perusing historic restaurant menus, my first question was of course; “Why would someone choose to embark on such a project?” (For love of antiquated dishes?) Realistically, this site provides insight into commercial and social patterns in New York throughout the years. Common dishes showcase not only dining trends, but also, what sort of food and food processing systems were available at the time. 

Last semester, in American Technology and Culture, we learned that canning, and by extension, condensed soups, were seen as such a novelty that Woodrow Wilson ate a smorgasbord of congealed food at his Inaugural Dinner – a dinner that was intended to clearly symbolize man’s triumph over nature. Sure enough, condensed soups and other canned delicacies can be seen on a variety of menus from the “What’s On the Menu” project. Delicious! [3]

Other Digital Projects

The other two sites that I looked at were the Gilded Age Plains City and Spatial History projects. The Gilded Age Plains City project, which appears to have been last updated in 2008, “explores the development of towns and cities on the Great Plains through the lens of a murder case in the 1890s that evolved into a fascinating story.” Rather than tell a purely text-driven narrative of a murder case, this site allows readers to explore “images, photographs, maps, and documents” at their own pace. The first thing that I noticed about this site was its easy-to-understand “Welcome” page that outlined the purpose and layout of the website. Because this site is over a decade old, it provides an example of how to create an informative digital history project through simpler tools. [4] 

The Spatial History Project features a variety of maps and visualizations aimed to showcase different locations discussed in the Telegraph and Texas Register “during the initial years of independence from Mexico and early American statehood.” [5] This project is extremely in-depth, features a great deal of metadata, and is likely a great, timesaving resource for anyone studying this period of Texas’s history. On the site, creator Cameron Blevins discusses a number of difficulties he faced in creating the project, such as navigating online databases, and making torn, blurred newspaper pages readable by machine. As we learned when we first visited the Digital Archiving Lab, digitizing materials, especially those which are old, fragile, or possibly illegible, takes a great amount of human thought and consideration. After all, machines, computers, and other digital tools are only as capable as their programmers.

What do I Like and Dislike About These Digital Projects?

I like the projects that include easy-to-read “welcome” or home pages. I find that this inclusion helps guide readers. I also like when tabs or links on the website clearly showcase their intent and use.

Personally, I prefer navigating the websites that are aimed at wider audiences, rather than researchers who might benefit from the included information, as these sites are simply more accessible and feel more “relevant” or interesting.  I found the “Spatial History” site to be overwhelming, as though I was unsure as to why I was viewing the site. Obviously, not all digital history sites are meant for the general public, but I believe that keeping readability and visual appeal in mind can never hurt.

What Elements Would I Include or Avoid in the Scrapbook Project? 

Our scrapbook project will likely include the following major elements: 

  • Biographies: Of members of the Rowe family and a family tree
  • Scans: We will scan/digitize some amount of the scrapbooks from the collection 
  • Transcriptions: Of texts and other entries from scrapbooks
  • Maps: Of locations frequented by members of the Rowe family. These maps may help provide narrative for possible “Day in the Life” sections of the site
  • “Then and now” Photographs: Of the aforementioned locations 

Considering these factors, our group should consider the following elements from other digital projects when creating our website: 

  • Time: Both our visit to the DAL and reviews of other digital projects showcase how important it is to have sufficient time to make scans and read pages. Because of this, our group has created a time log spreadsheet that includes relevant due dates to help keep us on track 
  • Focus: The Rowe scrapbooks are plentiful in content. We will need to choose a specific focus (which we are working on narrowing down) when creating our website 
  • Transcriptions: As seen with the “What’s on the Menu” and “Spatial History” project, making a good transcription can take a lot of time, but prove crucial in increasing accessibility to a site. Even if text on a page is clearly scanned, it may not be readable via a screen reader or other accessibility device. Including as much “basic text” as possible can help a greater amount of individuals benefit from a project.

Notes

[1] What’s On the Menu? NYPL Labs. 2011. Accessed January 22, 2020. http://menus.nypl.org 

[2] “Vintage Menus: Everybody Eats.” Vintage Menus. Reddit. Accessed January 22, 2020. https://www.reddit.com/r/VintageMenus/ 

[3] “Steamer Ticonderoga Menu, August 3, 1900” NYPL Labs. 2011. Accessed January 22, 2020. http://menus.nypl.org/menus/13456 

[4] “Home.” Gilded Age Plains City. University of Nebraska. 2008. Accessed January 22, 2020. http://gildedage.unl.edu 

[5] Blevins, Cameron. “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space.” Spatial History Project. Stanford University. 2020. Accessed January 22, 2020. http://web.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=93

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