LET’S DO THIS!

Our group has our work cut out for us. Not that it isn’t manageable, but it’ll require a fair bit more coordination and imagination than we’ve had thus far. I know everyone is up for it, so I’m encouraged by that.

First, we’ve got to figure out gaps in our research. I think we’ve managed to tease out some of the important threads that the website should follow, and Matt’s feedback on our essays lets us know that we’re generally on the right track. Our immediate task is to put our heads together and look for glaring weaknesses, or places where our story gets muddled or is altogether missing. Right now, I think the period between the 1950s and late 1960s is important, because it doesn’t only cover the arrival of the first families and the ostensible “birth of the community,” but there’s a lot of information we can include about post-war housing development in general. Regent Park is fascinating in and of itself, and any period

Second, and I mean RIGHT AWAY, we need to start populating the site substantively. I take the blame for this, actually; We scheduled a few meetings to work on the site in full and I was compelled to leave town for something I couldn’t really avoid. Bernadette was kind enough to send around a revised gameplan, which, if we follow, we can get back ahead of schedule. I think asking Matt our questions tomorrow will really get us going, at which point we can start to make significant improvements to the site. Until it gets on the site, a lot of this stuff is nothing more than ideas in our head.

Finally, we’ve got to make a few more community visits!

Working with archival material is no joke…

This week, my group and I made back-to-back archive visits, trying to delve deeper into the material than previously before. Because our visits this time around were aimed at producing some content for the site (and not just for our general background reading), I ran into a couple of problems problems that I want to share with the class, in the hope that some of you will give it some thought or offer some advice:

Working with primary sources makes it much more difficult to determine the parameters of your study, because there’s really no way to look at the entirety of the material at once. In a matter of days, our group was able to digest and synthesize the academic literature on Regent Park’s history. This means that we’re able to determine what’s salient and what is beyond the remit of our study. When working through the archives, though, a new document can throw you for a loop. Because you don’t know what the next document might say, you have no sense of how to treat the first one. For instance, there are a few different “proposals” for the initial development of the neighbourhood. If I had just located one and not the second, I wouldn’t have known to do some background research on which one of the two was the approved proposal.

Makes you think about the way we privilege archival material. If in 90 years, the only remnant from your belongings is a copy of an essay you wrote as an undergraduate, do you trust that it can give someone a clue or two about the way you lived your life? Isn’t it troubling that, just by virtue of its endurance, someone is going to endow it with some kind of definitive authority?

(Also, I realized that there is A LOT to cover. I always kind of knew this, but once you really open up a document and start writing, it occurs to you that you may need multiple essays to get your point across. I ended up writing on Regent Park’s pre-history (ending at about 1950), despite having planned to write about the early development up to the 70s. Its a very, very important bit of context that I think the rest of the historical work relies on, so I’m glad I was able to discover such a wealth of information on it).

Compiling Contacts

I spent some time this past weekend putting together a list of contacts who could assist with our project in Regent Park. Some are potential interview subjects, some are people that can advise with research, and others can simply point us in the right direction. More importantly, I think we’ll need people to consult us on whether we’re representing the community fairly. This can really just mean a pair of eyes to look at our drafts. Coming off of last term, where we read quite a bit about the ups and downs of community collaboration, I figured its worth a try.

Now, my biggest task is to play catch-up on some of the technical aspects. I am pretty intent on learning how to produce a website such as this, not only for this project, but so that I can have some basic familiarity with web design and formatting content pieces. I figure I’ll spend the entire weekend getting myself up to speed, and will work with Will, Bernadette and Naveed to start tinkering with the site in substantial ways.

Finally, we as a group have decided to make a few return trips to the archives. There’s tons of documents we’ll have to go through, and our initial choice of going in groups of two seems like it’ll take too long. Question for some of the other groups involved: How do you deal with access issues at the archive? Have any essential pieces been unavailable to you?

 

 

 

 

Slowly but Surely

My absence last week threw me a bit out of the loop, unfortunately. I’m encouraged by Will, Bernadette and Naveed’s progress, and look forward to hearing from them at our meeting today at noon.

In the last few days, I have been mainly surveying secondary literature, trying to get a better idea of the neighbourhood’s history as it has been documented to date. I’ve been reading some chapters from Albert Rose’s Regent Park: A Study in Slum Clearance, which provides insight not only about the early housing plans, but also some of the public debate surrounding low-rent housing. Its interesting to see that, even at that early stage, Canadians were mindful of the implications of a new housing project on things like family welfare, physical and mental health, juvenile deliquency, etc.

From this, and from some of the academic articles I’ve been reading, its clear that the area has been a contested space for most of the last half-century. Stigma isn’t new, and neither is debate. Fortunately for us, this makes for an

More practically, my reading has made me think about the best way to transmit knowledge when working in a group. There are things that Will, Bernadette and Naveed read and know that I don’t, and vice versa. How do you share these things adequately with group members, so that we’re all equally well-equipped when it comes time to produce content? I have been thinking about posting research notes on the group’s Asana portal, or at least marked-up PDF’s and page references. Does anyone have any thoughts about the best way about this kind of thing, or whether its a worthwhile endeavour at all?

Social Housing in Regent Park I

I am (un)fashionably late with this, so I ask the class to pardon me for the transgression…

I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a course project in a while. Our group – as you have seen from Will and Bernadette‘s blog posts so far – is working on producing a history of social housing in Regent Park, one of the city’s identified priority neighbourhoods. The important thing to remember here is that, despite whatever baggage and negative connotations come along with being a “priority” area, the community is in many ways a vibrant and well-organized hub for all kinds of social activity. If the project has any kind of ideological goal, for me, its to dispel a myth or two.

I’m particularly interested in finding some information about the planning of the neighbourhood, and looking to see if that provides any insights into the planning involved in social housing projects more broadly. It’s interesting to me the way that attitudes about particular communities at a particular moment in time become kind of eternalized because of the way their neighbourhoods are constructed. Perhaps as interesting is the way that the neighbourhood’s design determines much of the residents’ self-concept. Does that make any sense? For instance, the fact that social housing in Lawrence Heights is hidden from the main intersection and commercial shops, to many residents, suggests that the city does not want them to fully participate in urban life.

In any case, I look forward to getting the ball rolling!

Knowing History vs. Thinking Historically

Like many others, I want to note that these week’s readings offered a really fun set of ideas. I’m really glad this class exists..

With that said, I’m encouraged by the pedagogical potential of video games, and the ways that they can stimulate interest by making history more interactive. It’s also true that video games have an undeniable reach; Students of all backgrounds and learning styles can be brought to the table by the always appealing prospect of FUN!

If I can add another con to Sarah’s great list, though, I’d suggest that video games are geared toward helping students get to know history, as opposed to helping students think historically. The distinction is an important one, I believe. Knowing history means expanding your understanding of particular events or historical occurrences (recall Tony’s interest in the Celts from Squire and Barab’s study). Thinking historically, however, means employing your critical faculties to make connections between  phenomena, all while paying attention cause, effect and narrative. There’s more to it, of course, but these are some of the basic sets of skills one would need to have to think historically. Can video games help develop your capacity for interpretation?

I try to partially resolve this question by thinking about the spatial dimension of history that video games expose students to. Think about the landscape in a game like Civilization III — students get to consider things like distance, time and geography, in a way they perhaps wouldn’t while reading text. Does anyone have any other ideas?

Even with this minor criticism,  I recognize that video games can be another valuable tool in the educator’s kit.

Data Visualization? YES! (with qualifications, of course)

One of the great things about these discussions on presenting history digitally is the focus on user experience. In my limited experience in publishing (working as an intern at a charity that produced math books for children), I observed that outside of making sure fonts were accessible and photo captions were large enough, there was very little emphasis on the reader’s experience. I can only imagine that much of the same goes on when history books are being published. How many books have you come across with tiny font and generally boring presentation? Makes you feel like you’re reading a police blotter.

With this said, I found this week’s readings, particularly Theibault’s piece, interesting with regard to this issue. Personally, I am obsessed with data visualization; I hope to be learning some basic tools this December break for a research group I work with. However, I recognize that it takes a certain set of critical tools to decipher what goes on in many of them. As Theibault points out, the point of many infographics is not necessarily self-evident, and requires a degree of explanation. If the purpose is precision, concision and clarity, these explanations (which often come in the form of a legend or button that links to an “about this graph” type of feature) can make things clunky and less fluid that one would hope.

Of course, that’s less of a problem when you’re well resourced. I think about the New York Times’ recent instalment on the history of Olympic medals in track, which effectively presented what otherwise would probably be a long book chapter. I also recall Sarah’s presentation about the Stanford Spatial History Project, which showed how complex data sets could be synthesized into useful graphics, many of which are animated. Still, I wonder if the “picture is worth a thousand words” maxim applies when you’re trying to make data visualization accessible to a popular audience. Sometimes, you might need a thousand words of explanation! What do you all think?

 

Credibility and Design

In discussing the differing levels of design sophistication of historical websites, Cohen and Rosenzweig‘s write:

…visitors to websites constructed under the auspices of institutions known to pay more attention to design in the real world, especially museums and historical societies but also official college or university websites, demand much more. In fact, they may consciously or unconsciously register disappointment or skepticism about such sites if their design is thoughtless or underdeveloped. For this reason, more and more large institutions, such as the Wisconsin Historical Society, now hire professional web design firms to create their sites.

This got me thinking back to a familiar theme in our class discussions: the credibility of digital history and the legitimacy it enjoys (or does not yet enjoy) with the public.

Because the internet is such a visual medium, we often make judgments about a website’s validity based on how well put-together it appears. Not only do we care about this for our own user experience, but also because we believe it gives us a sense of how much thought and effort goes into a website, a level of thought and effort that we tend to demand from our scholars in any medium. However, seeing as many historians are not trained in web design, they are either having to put together unremarkable DIY projects like the Doug Linder’s Famous Trials or they require a budget that can accommodate a web designer or two. At that point, the internet loses a lot of its egalitarian promise, doesn’t it?

True, the costs for web design are decreasing. Still, do you think that there should be some slight reforms in history education, so as to equip future historians with the tools to do their own web design work? Think about the way statistics is offered in many social science or humanities program, and how many people don’t make use of that knowledge until they do advanced work. I figure having a breadth requirement related to digital history (or maybe including an option related to publishing if students are completely uninterested?) could yield some great results going forward.

 

 

Is there a place for a non-financial contribution to the open access community?

This week’s readings actually made me feel bad about myself. That might be a first for this course…

As a result, I’m left with more questions than anything. Someone help?

I recognize that programmers need to be remunerated for their work. Not just so they don’t “starve,” but also so that there is enough demand to finance more and more ambitious projects that improve our digital experience. At the same time, I tend to believe that software that is free and publicly accessible is, in many ways, ideologically superior. Admittedly, this might be borne out of a romanticized view of social justice; After all, what is more noble than ensuring that everyone can make use of information, regardless of their class background?

However, I would feel much more comfortable holding this view if I participated in knowledge and software creation on the web. The truth is, I don’t. I simply wish to receive free access, so as to avoid being out-of-pocket or inconvenienced.

The question now is to what extent can we, as beneficiaries of free software, contribute? If the web is increasingly moving toward an open access model, and if this has significant implications for education more broadly, should developers not expect some reciprocity? How can we, as beneficiaries of free software, contribute? The answer is different for non-specialists, such as ourselves. Richard Stallman’s creation of the EMACS “commune” and similar sorts of community exercises certainly wouldn’t apply to those of us who are uninterested in significantly modifying software. What can I do?

I think the answer to that question might see me out-of-pocket and inconvenienced, after all. Maybe that isn’t so bad, maybe it’s the price we have to pay to participate in the digital community as non-developers. I don’t know. Any thoughts?

(By the way: Does anyone else really want to read Hall’s book?)

Website Review: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

Last week, I came across http://greatchicagofire.org. The website focuses on a fire that lasted for three days in October of 1871, and includes photographs, documents and statistics, as well as lengthy discussions about the impact of the fire on Chicagoan historical memory and the city’s subsequent history. The site was created in 2011 as a collaboration between the Chicago Historical Society and researchers at Northwestern University. Interestingly, the project does not appear to have support specifically from the university’s history department. The project’s curator is Carl Smith, a Professor of History and American Studies that does much of his work on the city of Chicago’s literary and cultural landscape.

I became interested in the website for two reasons. First, it differs from many of the historical websites we explored so far because it focuses primarily on one event. The Great Fire is used as a launchpad for broader discussions, of course, but virtually every piece of the website’s content is oriented around this one conflagration. Second, I became interested because it appears to be the type of website that we ourselves can approximate with our own projects. Though the website is ambitious, it does not have too broad a scope, nor is it encyclopaedic.

Approach

The website’s main title, The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory, reveals much about the site’s purpose and methodology. None of the pages provide a straightforward account of events. Rather, the essays are organized thematically, and retain a strong narrative voice. One essay, for instance, begins by discussing a speech delivered by Chicago journalist William Bross to the New York Chamber of Commerce. Another essay starts by setting a scene on the night that the fire first broke out. The idea of these essays to capture the mood and anxieties and hope surrounding Chicago’s reconstruction efforts; Sentences like “Chicago, as an inspirational post-fire song went, was “Queen of the West Once More” illustrate how the texts go beyond simply prosaic description, towards a real attempt to be evocative.

With this considered, the website has a significant slant worth exploring. As a project of the Chicago Historical Society, which runs the Chicago History Museum, the creators likely had an interest in depicting Chicagoans positively. This is very obvious throughout, as one of the unifying themes of each of the essays is the resiliency of the city’s inhabitants. This could very well have been the case, so it does not necessarily detract from the website’s value, nor does it disqualify the website from being considered a well-researched contribution to Chicago municipal history. Similar overarching narratives of resilience appear in much scholarly work about the Civil War, for instance. To an extent, this can be expected from such emotive subjects.

Website Design and Features

The website has a minimalist, clean look that makes it relatively easy to read. The top menu has four tabs – “The Great Chicago Fire,” “Web of Memory,” “Special Features” and “Browse All Images.” Aside from the last two, these are not really intuitive descriptors. What sort of information would logically be organized under “The Great Chicago Fire?” It turns out that is where the essays are kept, though an average reader like myself may click around a few times before landing there. Once you have been browsing the website for nearly an hour, remembering where a certain page is located can be onerous. The fact that drop-down menus exist is a great help, but considering that this website has relatively few pages, it would not be a difficult task to either reorganize or rename the tabs.

The website has a sidebar menu on the right which links to other features, including the Photo Gallery and a “Library.” Like the menu, this sidebar remains regardless of what page is visited. The Photo Gallery is rather impressive; It is organized into three separate collections and has helpful captions and dates. Upon clicking, each photo expands for a better view, and the caption becomes a more lengthy description of the photograph and its context. The “Library,” however, is confusing. The photograph of the building almost makes you think there are going to be photos of a burned library. Instead, there are just two short essays from 1871 describing the fire. Why are these not placed with the essays? Furthermore, depending on what page you are on, you might get an expanded list of Libraries, which are otherwise buried on the “Web of Memory” page.

Some of the website’s special features are very useful. The page titled “Touring the Fire” includes a map that shows the fire’s geographical coverage. At this page, more than anywhere else on the website, do you gain a sense of exactly how massive and sprawling this event was. The website’s “3D Images” page takes this a step further and allows you to zoom in on some of the damage. In my view, this greatly humanizes the whole experience. If you zoom into one of the photos, you see what appears to be a father and a child surveying the rubble, an image that was not immediately apparent after a cursory glance. The website also features an interactive timeline that a reader can click through.

Most interestingly, the website includes playable .mp3 files of two songs that were recorded about the fire. The media player is embedded into the page, and features the album artwork and the song lyrics beneath it. This has the dual effect of offering the viewer the chance to listen to some of the voices recollecting the fire, while establishing the far-reaching cultural significance of the event.

Lastly, there is a mobile app which is optimized for iPods, iPhone’s and iPads to a lesser extent. The app, which can be purchased for $4.99, is a streamlined version of the website that retains each of the pages. Here is a screenshot from an iPad:

Conclusion and Lessons Learned

Overall, the site is useful as a look into what appears to be a significant historical event, but also as an example of how to meditate on broad social and cultural questions through the lens of a highly specific event. Though it is primarily a website about Chicago’s Great Fire, it is also a website about a city population during a moment of crisis, a website about a popular reconstruction effort, and a website about the pervasiveness and enduring strength of local and community memory. The fact that it could be easier to navigate is a minor criticism in the context of the website’s much larger achievements.