Combining the Sound and Sight of History


Immigration, by Anna Zarshin (2017)

As we draw close to the end of the semester and of my first foray into public (and digital) history, I return to a question that has remained with me since starting this blog: in what way can we produce public history in a way that represents multiple experiences effectively? How can we use the digital form to craft narrative?

Projects like “Immigrant Stories” provide an example of how digital public history can be created and utilized for the future. This online project, ran by the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, features exhibits, oral interviews, and curricula ideas aimed at helping to guide teachers in how to discuss immigration issues and experiences in the classroom.

The representation of said experiences (as well as the site’s use of multimedia) shines through on its “Stories for the Classroom” page. This page features videos and transcripts of immigrants and new generations of citizens describing the journey their families have made to the United States and the struggles they faced along the way.

As tools aimed at the classroom, many of these short biographies tell engaging stories by effectively combining narration and music with photographs or videos.

In the video above, for example, Magnolia Yang Sao Yia (born in France, but raised in Detroit, Michigan) talks about her family and recites a poem capturing her love and appreciation for Hmong dance and its role in identifying her family’s roots in Southeast Asia. Splicing together home movies and pictures of herself, her family, and history with tight narration, this “digital story” has the potential to engage students and casual fans of history with empathy for its subject matter.

Other stories take advantage of the creative works created by their subjects in order to illustrate their stories and voices.

In the video below, Banlang Phommasouvanh (originally of Laos) draws upon her experience as a public school teacher to tell her story through a storybook that she authored and has used in her own classes.  Listening to her story about her family’s  journey to the United States juxtaposed with cartoons of her family and defining events in her life (especially the Vietnam War) allows viewers to empathize with and better understand these experiences.


The quality of the “Stories”, in their ability to balance and wed visual and narrative information, is not evenly distributed. Some, like the story included below, rely heavily on still photographs and narration unaccompanied by music or any sort of creative punctuation. Without a more consistent standard of varying media and presentation, it is likely that stories such as this will be less engaged with by academic and popular audiences, making it difficult for the videos to speak to each other.

Making Public History

Creative differences aside, “Stores for the Classroom” has great potential as a public history site.

The best of the stories avoid a bland formula of Omeka pages filled with text, punctuated with a few photographs, and oriented entirely toward the historical, and instead focus on the humane aspects of immigration history. Watching young girls dance the same styles practiced in their culture for generations and listening to a speaker narrate a literal storybook of their lives is crucial for not just explaining the history of immigration during their times, but what that process meant to them.

For our class, my group project teammates (Bianca Barcenas and Zack Stella) and I have been trying help people represent their experiences in the same way by creating an online photo exhibit that would both illustrate changes to industry in Gary, Indiana overtime and allow residents to share their personal histories in and around areas affected by these changes. In so doing, we, too, have had to grapple with questions of how to capture and represent the voices of the communities we seek to engage, rather than to speak on their behalf or to allow photographs of shuttered factories and narratives of the “rustbelt” of the Midwest do the same.

Fulfilling this goal of accurately portraying someone else’s history will always be difficult for public historians. There may be points at which our project will fall short of that standard.

In the end, all that we can do is to continue to try to use the voices of the past as much as possible and as many mediums as it takes to bring their stories to light and understanding–to see the past as it was and to hear what it has to say.


Pod-Cast Away: Hearing History and the Benefits of the Medium


Having been on both sides of education, I’ve learned through experience that people have different styles of learning. Some prefer visuals over textual information. On the other hand, some prefer focusing on one task or activity at a time with no divided focus.

To me, as a first time user, podcasts seem to be a method of engaging a very particular sense (hearing, of course) in a way that enables multitasking. I found that to be my experience when I listened to an episode from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast for the first time.

First, the nitty-gritty. Mechanically, the podcast site works well and offers many points of access. Users can subscribe or listen to individual episodes on Google Music, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher (had to look up that last one). Each episode could also be downloaded from the site. Notably, however, while users can share links to episodes on social media directly on the site, Revisionist History itself does not have a profile on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter–which seems like a lost opportunity for audience outreach.

The podcast episodes use atmospheric music appropriate to their historical period to transition between interviews and scenes. Gladwell, serving as the narrator, helps to gradually introduce events, ideas, and characters with a narrative flow similar to his writing as an author and a contributor to The New Yorker.

Revisionist History
Home page of Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast


As the series’ name suggests, Gladwell wants his audience to learn and appreciate past events in ways that complicate our current understanding of history.

The podcast’s mission to reinterpret events or people that are “overlooked” or “misunderstood” is demonstrated by the variety of subjects it tackles. Across three seasons, the series dives into the role of art and politics in 19th century Europe, the close circle surrounding Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War, and the role of philanthropy in higher education, among many other themes. The characters introduced and interviewed in these stories provide unique perspectives into more obscure historical moments as well as already well-documented events and periods.

The second episode of the series’ first season, titled “Saigon 1965,” is a great example of this.

Saigon 1965
Top of Saigon 1965 Episode page, with social media sharing links, download link, and background information.

In just over half an hour, Gladwell introduces listeners to a military intelligence project conducted by the U.S. military and the Rand Corporation in Vietnam. This initiative, called the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Project, was established to interview thousands of captured or defected Vietcong members in order to gauge the psychological drives of the Communist guerrilla forces of North Vietnam and to determine A. what their motivations were for fighting, and B. whether US forces could ultimately diminish their will to continue fighting and, therefore, win the war.

Saigon 1965 page 2
Bottom of Saigon 1965 episode page with Vietnamese translation of interviews and pdf files of documents from the Vietcong study.

This particular story shines through in the way in which interviews with three members of this project (two American Rand analysts and one Vietnamese field agent) understood the goals and findings of the reports they gathered. The podcast’s deep dive into each of their backgrounds really helped me, as a listener, to understand how each of these figures reached radically different conclusions about the ability of the United States to win the war after examining the very same information. This helped to ground the episode’s main message that the War in Vietnam was a doomed effort in part because the officials in charge chose to consume or accept information that conformed with their own expectations and desired outcomes–a pattern of blind spots that Gladwell implied remains with us in the War against Terror.

Gladwell’s method of “revisionist history” is not without its detractors or faults. In a review for H-Podcast, Douglas Priest has likened the podcast as more of a “meditation on memory in the present” than a history. Furthermore, Priest accused Gladwell of exercising more of an argumentative journalist voice (especially in episodes concerning higher education) and of failing to “truly historicalize and contextualize his narratives.”

While I understand these concerns, Revisionist History still holds the potential to teach history well without sacrificing good storytelling. Gladwell has proven as a journalist and writer that he knows how to write and tell an interesting narrative that makes his audience appreciate the place of small details in the bigger picture–something historians like myself struggle to communicate to readers all the time. While some of the podcast episodes may suffer from less historical analysis, the promise of others like Saigon 1965 show promise in Revisionist History‘s ability to both provide context and to tell old stories from new perspectives.

A Book by Any Other Name: Text Analysis and Google Books

Google Books Cartoon
“Error page” for Google Books in 2010, widely considered to be a tribute to Twitter’s counterpart.

It is tempting to think that new, digital media should be able to recapture every element of the old and to show them in a new light. This begs the question of how far have online tools come along in making that a reality to the potential benefit of historians.

This week, I tried multiple online databases and tools–Google Books and Google’s N-Gram Viewer, Voyant Tools, and HathiTrust’s Bookworm–to analyze the language of a text–in this case, a chapter in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Google Books

First, Google Books. The digital “preview” of the book was mostly consistent with the original text, with the only exception being a missing illustration. When I converted this digital image on Google Books into plain text, however, more inconsistencies appeared.

In addition to the aforementioned illustration, the plain text omitted the use of larger letters to indicate new paragraphs, misconstrued seemingly random marks above letters in the digital images as apostrophe marks and made minor (though noticeable) typos.

Frankenstein Pic 1
Digital preview of the first page of Chapter 1 of Frankenstein on Google Books.


Frankenstein Page 2
Plain text version of most of the first chapter of Frankenstein.

While these mistakes seem superficial, they can add up if one were to try to repeat this process for multiple texts. If unresolved, such errors can limit the twin goals of making old texts both accessible and readable on a platform such as this.


Sites like Voyant Tools, on the other hand, seem to bear potential for helping historians measure the presence and spread of ideas and key language within a source.


For instance, upon analyzing the text in the first chapter of Frankenstein, Voyant Tools calculated that Mary Shelley most frequently used words such as “voyage”, “dear,” and “fear,” and presented that information in the form of a word cloud, a chart, and other forms.

Frankenstein Voyant 2
Voyant Tools frequency chart, word cloud, and other forms of analysis of the first chapter of Frankenstein. Note the repetition of words such as “dear,” “shall” and feel across the different windows.


From the data provided by Valiant, we could derive that the text involves personal relationships with family, travel and both faith and uncertainty on the part of the character. In conjunction with reading the text, this analysis provided by Valiant could make it easier for readers to identify themes in writing, if not patterns in the writer’s choice of words and, in doing so, be better able to identify what cultural or periodic influences influenced the creation of written work.

NGram and Bookworm

To further that goal, Google’s N-Gram Viewer and HathiTrust’s Bookworm app allows users to quantify and graph the frequency in use of language between texts across centuries.


Using Google’s N-Gram viewer, users could, for instance, illustrate the uses of words such as “race,” “class,” or nation within a chosen timeline.  The viewer also lets users take advantage of Google Books database by allowing them to see lists of texts using their targeted language in specific time spans by clicking on time-ranges just beneath the graph.

Searching by the language of the text presents a particular use to historians interested in tracing the influence of ideas over time. Tracing the use of “nation” or “race” in Germany from 1800 to the mid-1960’s, for instance, creates a graph that indicates a peak in these terms’ prolificacy among texts in the mid-1930’s. Utilizing this knowledge, historians could better identify times when ideas gained greater cultural currency across cultures and posit theories regarding the reason why (in this case, potentially the rise of Fascism and ideas of racial science in Germany).

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Bookworm operates in a similar way, but with greater limits and some hangups in its interface. While this app also graphs the frequency of language over time, the database of books it draws from is limited to older texts beyond copyright. Furthermore, to view texts from a historic period, users have to click on the exact part of the timeline on the graph to open a popup menu, which seems slow to respond at the time of writing.

HathiTrust Race and Class
Bookworm search for “race,” “class” and “nation” across all texts from 1760 to 1920. The leveling of these and other terms in texts towards the 1920s is difficult to attribute to factual trends in literature at this time, due to the fact that the database only contains books published before 1923. 

In sum, the many online tools for textual analysis offered by Google and its peers do hold out promise for historians trying to trace the influence of ideas over time. As a historian, I have to contend with categories and rhetoric around class, race, empire, or the idea of the nation quite often. Having tried each of the different sites I have mentioned, I can safely say this level of textual analysis could assist people in my field to find at what time key terms familiar to us in the present became part of the written language of a society.

Though more steps ought to be taken to make these apps more user-friendly and the translation of analog text to digital form more accurate, textual analysis sites and apps should not be ignored as a potential tool in the historian’s ever-growing toolbelt.



Right Before Your Eyes: Virtual Reality and Historical Narrative

VR Cartoon

It is interesting how virtual reality (or VR, for short) has resurged in popularity in the same vein of vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, and other tech. The stereotypical heavy goggles people wore to fly at sci-fi conventions have been replaced by mobile phones we can strap to our heads and use just about anywhere.

Along the ranks of social media and video games, VR presents an opportunity for public historians and institutions to tell truly immersive stories.

To explore how organizations try to do this, I examined two different VR projects created in partnership by filmmaker Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and the Chicago History Museum. This project, titled “The Chicago00 Project,” hosts multiple VR exhibitions, as well as a fascinating Augmented Reality project concerning the 1915 SS Eastland Disaster on the Chicago River in the Loop that allows users to view historical photographs grafted onto the city. For more information, I highly recommend reading my classmate Bianca Barcenas’ latest post on her blog.

1929: St. Valentines Day Massacre

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The first of the projects I tried, the St. Valentines Day Massacre, was very engaging and approachable as a rookie-user of VR. The entire presentation takes less than six minutes and can be paused at any time so that viewers can swivel their phone to view the surroundings and the historical pictures grafted onto them.

The project takes full advantage of a three-dimensional perspective. It sets the audience at a street-level point of view of the building in which the mob hit took place, the victims’ bodies, and of the police investigation immediately afterwards. Point-of-view shots, such as one of the crowd outside the crime scene from what appears to be a second-story window, were a nice touch that really made me feel I was actually at the site.

That being said, elements of this exhibit felt exclusive to users with effective VR technology. For example, there were parts in the narration that prompted viewers to turn around to look out a window or examine evidence in a coroner’s office. Though I was able to do so with the functionality of my Samsung Galaxy phone, the lack of a gyroscopic feature on a mobile device or access to VR goggles (such as Oculus) can deprive users of the same experience. For further examples of this, I recommend my colleague Emily Taylor’s post on her blog.

Overall, I was pleased as a user and found that the project functioned well as an exhibit of the infamous mob hit in your pocket.

1968: The DNC Protests


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The next project I tried, a tour of Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, felt like a totally different creature.

Rather than blending historical photos with the landscape, as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre does, the DNC tour displays photos and short clips as portraits set against the buildings and streets captured in their scenes. Combined with the narration, this had the look and feel of  an audio (and visual) tour of a museum.

The narration for this project was notably much longer than the previous project’s–about 15 minutes in total. While I agree with my classmate, Emily Taylor, that the pacing of it could have been much more concise, it did not strongly hurt my experience as a user. Having written my Master’s Thesis on the DNC protests in Lincoln and Grant Parks (among other issues and events), I was fascinated with the details the narrator included to make viewers feel that they were actually in Grant Park. Specific aspects, like the milling around of protesters and pedestrians during speeches and the anger and internal motivations of the police, helped to make the events taking place feel like an unfolding human drama.

That said, I do believe there are elements of this exhibit’s design that limit immersion. The lack of extended video to accompany the audio of police and protesters beginning to clash in the park and on Michigan Avenue, in particular, felt like a missed opportunity to allow viewers to witness the mayhem of that pivotal week in August, 1968.  Combined with a streamlined narration, a more multimedia presentation could go a long way to keep viewers further engaged with the virtual tour.

In spite of the flaws or limits I have mentioned, the potential for drawing the public into historical narrative shines through in Chicago00’s projects. If it were to improve their design and perhaps better instruct how to access and use VR technology through phones or other devices, Chicago00 and other initiatives like it could stoke a public interest in the stories they have to tell by making users feel personally involved and present in the past.


“The Chicago00 Project: Chicago History Experiences”


Chicago: The City in a Garden



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In the 1830’s, when Chicago incorporated as a city, its still-growing government adopted the motto “Urbs in horto,” a Latin saying that means “City in a Garden.” Though the city did not have as many green spaces then as it does now, Chicago’s growth can be measured by the expansion of its network of parks and boulevards into the present. Some of them played host to some of events that made Chicago stand out as a cultural hub and marker of progress in the United States and as the battlegrounds for some of the most fraught political events of the 20th century. For instance, the construction and use of Jackson Park as the site of the 1893 Colombian Exposition helped Chicago stand out as a marker of the progress made in American culture and technology, and as a certifiable “Paris of the Midwest.” On the other hand, Lincoln and Grant Parks served as the battleground between Vietnam-era, antiwar activists and city and federal law enforcement in 1968.

As you walk through the parks of Chicago, how does the green landscape capture or erase the history of these spaces? How did these gardens nurture the seeds that were the greatest and most infamous of political events and culture to come out of the Windy City? Find out more at this newest online collection in the “Paris of the Midwest: Chicago, 1837-1987” project. We stroll amidst the history of the city in its parks every day. Come discover it with me.

Pwning the Narrative: Storytelling in Small-Scale Video Games

Tetris Immersion Pic

You are checking Facebook to see if your picture of brunch got any likes when you see it: another Farmville invite. Your eyes roll.  You click the “ignore” or “delete” button and move on with life.

Sound familiar?

In an ever-expanding digital age, social media like Twitter, Instagram and others have increasingly connected us by sharing information and by expanding and reifying social and professional networks. An interesting outcrop of the recent past has been smaller-scale gaming (to be distinguished from larger-scale, MMO or console gaming). While games of this variety can seem casual and cliquish, they retain the ability to tell stories that provide a crucial role to their users.

In his book, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander analyzed the qualities of smaller scale games that enable them to enhance and tell stories. Beyond cutscenes and sound design (which are present in larger games such as the Grand Theft Auto series), Alexander identified subtle elements that help gamers become immersed in their chosen digital environment. According to Alexander,  limited digital space and placing gamers into the position as a second-person character in that finite world helps us, the players, feel “deeply constrained in our actions” and yet feel an “inner sense of linear development” as we progress through a game.

By engaging with the world within a video game, people can engage a “dual consciousness” of experiencing what the game presents and of witnessing the game’s response to button presses and commands.  This experience sets gaming apart from other entertainment in its ability to turn its audience into character-narrators with control over the pace and direction of the narrative.

While I have felt this strange sense of immersion in larger games with complicated plots, I confess that smaller, simpler games have had a similar impact of making me feel like a part of their world and inner logic.

Take Clash of Clans, for example.

For the uninitiated, Clash of Clans is a “castle defense” game, based on creating villages to generate resources and to build armies capable of defending said villages or to invade ones created by other players.

The game’s tutorial and notification system refer to the player as the architect of the village. While this seems like a small detail, the fact that the player has total design control over the layout, scope, and priorities of the village–be it resource accumulation or attacking other villages–helps to make users feel they are fulfilling their given role.


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The game also displays from a top-down point of view that helps to ground the player in the role of an omniscient architect. All at once, the player can feel immense pride and power in designing a digital hamlet of their own and an obligation to defend it against any and all threats.

Clash of Clans contains many qualities of “social gaming” that Alexander identifies in other games. The ability to invade other players’ villages across many servers, as well as to join into “clans” that pool resources and armies and engage in wars with each other with tremendous amounts of resources at stake, has helped to create an engaged, competitive community. In a way, these wargames allow players to perform roles as military strategists fighting for the glory of their chosen kingdom and for the top spot of the leaderboard.

At the same time, Clash players and the internet culture are not beyond making jokes and mocking aspects of the game in ways that only fans could fully appreciate. The web is full of player-created memes and cartoons poking fun at themselves or authoring humorous stories between non-player characters in the game.

Clash of Clans cartoon

I admit it can seem strange to ascribe so many storytelling elements to a game that appears to be low-stakes and casual. And yet, immersion becomes easy in this game because the player’s role and the driving purpose of Clash of Clans (being the architect and defender of one’s village) are one and the same.

If we consider Alexander’s claim that small-scale games, as a form of social gaming, is similar to “social representation through small worlds,” it is hard not to see games such as Clash of Clans as not just opportunities to immerse in roleplay and imagined narrative, but as a connection between many in an invisible community of would-be conquerors and architects.


Bryan Alexander, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media (Praeger, 2017, second edition).



Making Sense of Metadata

Metadata. You have probably heard the word mentioned often in the news recently. Consumer advocates are worried at the rate at which consumer’s metadata is being used by companies to track their browsing and purchase history for targeted advertising. Others are concerned about the potential for this information to also be tracked by the federal government.

That being said, what is metadata?

Scholars such as Anne J. Gilliland have described metadata as “data of data”–hence, the meta nature of it. She further breaks down metadata in her chapter for the book, Introduction to Metadata, as information related to the content, context, or structure of an object of inquiry.

Andertoon Metadata Cartoon
Image Credit: Mark Anderson Cartoons

Sounds a bit complicated, right? Basically, metadata consists of information related to a single item–a book, for instance–or a collection of them that helps to distinguish said objects from others, making them easier to find.

For libraries, archives, and other repositories of information, metadata is a crucial tool for organizing, indexing and making collections of texts, visuals, and other objects more accessible. Towards that goal, institutions utilize one data standard or another, each with their own rules concerning indexing, abstracts, and bibliographic records for their collections.

My classmate Bianca Barcenas mentioned in her blog this week (which I highly recommend reading to follow us along in our journey) how archives keep to a standard of metadata structure across the country. Indeed, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) recommends using MARC (“machine-readable”) cataloguing and Encoded Archival Description (EAD) for metadata concerning collections, as well as the Dublin Core for describing web resources.

Other students in the class have written about some of these standards. Zach Stella, in particular, wrote an interesting piece on the Dublin Core that goes a long way towards describing how it is designed to work for the vast amount of content on the web today.

One standard I wanted to further explore was EAD.

According to Gilliland, EAD was created in 1998 to accompany the MARC standard of describing bibliographic materials.  The Society of American Archivists and the Library of Congress adopted EAD as a standard in 1999 and continue to issue instructions and updates on how to use the standard on a joint website.

University of Arizona EAD example
Example of a 2002-version EAD in xml format from the University of Arizona Library’s Special Collections.

Upon first impression, the exact format of EAD can be difficult to navigate. As you can see in the example above, it contains information such as the collection one is searching within, the title of a work or collection of files, author, publisher, address of the location the object is being held, among others. It essentially follows a header and description format you would find common in coding.

The most recent version of EAD (named EAD3) released in 2010 attempted to simplify the language and categories for archivists to use (as the chart below provided by the Library of Congress attempts to demonstrate).

An EAD3 description template from the Library of Congress’ website.

Evidently, both the Library of Congress and the SAA have taken steps to try to clarify the language and uses of EAD to make it more accessible to would-be archivists and researchers.

It is difficult to measure the success and longevity of EAD as a data structuring method. The XML format used by EAD to organize information can seem pretty straightforward for people with a background in coding, but prove very hard for researchers without that experience (myself included) to navigate and integrate.

Ultimately, organizations may well choose one standard over another not because of objective differences in quality, but based on the extent of their technological exposure and agendas. Some may prefer Dublin Core for the ease of writing metadata along a list of “Core Elements” (Creator, Description, Type, Rights, etc.). Other institutions, including Loyola’s own Cudahy library, may continue to use older, digit-based systems such as MARC because it is familiar to them.

In the end, EAD is just another tool available at the hands of digital historians and archivists to sift through, to catalogue, and to find information of interest. Mastering one or another method of creating and browsing metadata, while a bit of a hurdle for some, may prove to be necessary for museums, libraries, and archives to further their information of storing, understanding, and making information attainable to the public.