A (wordy) preview of our discussion questions for tomorrow. Hope it might be useful food for thought:
The common thread of the readings is the evaluation of history resources and user experience with them. Some of the material involves evaluating digital experiences while the rest involves feedback from museum-goers. Both are severely understudied. I think it may be especially useful to compare the two.
-Could digital analytics be useful tools for understanding a larger audience? Should digital projects proceed to cater to new audiences? What could be lost or gained in the transition?
-What unexpected responsibilities might content producers face because of the “entrance narrative?”
-Visitors under 25 like introspective experiences. If that is also what history museum visitors expect from history resources, could we learn something about presenting history by studying how younger individuals interact with history resources?
-How should user “mood” be analyzed when evaluating digital experiences? How does this differ from evaluating that of a visitor to a physical exhibit?
-How does museum location affect an audience and their expectations? How does this impact their feedback? How is this affected when the exhibit is digital?
-What do you think of incentivizing surveys? If this “encourages responses and rewards time spent,” could other museum content benefit from incentivization?
-Conversely, could incentives to provide feedback alter the nature of that feedback?
-What unexpected responsibilities could content producers have if visitors “feel more positively” about the actions of historical actors by virtue of understanding them better?
-Should museums be afraid of displaying “unfinished” work and collecting feedback on it? What about digital history resources?
-How might user feedback be affected if they are aware or unaware that a particular project is “unfinished?”
I have more, I’ll add on as I go.
DECIPHR Project Content Strategy
Website Title: The Detroit City Public History Resource (DECIPHR).
Description: A digital resource for historical information about Detroit and a broad range of related historical topics.
Mission: To foster a productive community of historians and non-historians; to provide a user-centric aid for historical research; to educate interested users of all backgrounds about the modern historical process as well as the history of Detroit, urban history, union history, industrial and post-industrial history, and related topics.
Purpose: To give the interested public a go-to resource for answers to their historical questions that lie within DECIPHR’s range of topics. DECIPHR is designed to encourage users to jump feet-first into history and the historical process by allowing them to pick a historical question and be given short, scholarly articles written explicitly to answer that question. The website is less interested in cataloguing trivial facts and dates about the history of Detroit but rather uses the city as a focus point for discussing several historical topics. Some of these topics are controversial and contested between and within both the public and academia, and so DECIPHR offers a chance to anyone with scholarly acumen to write and publish historical articles where the interested community decides what represents “good history.” Control of website content will never be in the hands of a single authoritarian individual or arbitrary group.
The work done to assure the academic quality and historical veracity of the website’s articles lends itself to the addition of the Search Archives by User-defined Categories and Expectations tool (SAUCE), which willcatalogue the sources used from multiple digital locations in a way that is user-friendly for researchers.
Audiences: DECIPHR serves three explicit audiences and presents content to each one in a different, specialized manner. Each audience enjoys a tier of the website tailored to their needs. The three content presentation tiers and their target audiences are:
I. DECIPHR Public: The “front-end” of the website, where non-committed users can easily browse “the best” historical articles. The articles, although written by various users, are presented in a clean and uniform manner. There is also a field where users can submit their own questions. This audience is “the general public.”
II. DECIPHR Community: The content creation section of the website, where registered users can browse aggregated audience questions, draft articles, vote and comment on pending articles, organize and tag SAUCE content, and participate in other forms of goal-oriented discussion. This audience will at first consist primarily of DECIPHR project members, but registration is open to all. Nonprofessional historian authors and committed nonexperts alike can expect promotion and recognition for their hard work.
III. DECIPHR SAUCE: The archival source management section of the website, where researchers can browse a catalogue of sources cited by authors in the DECIPHR community. Users of SAUCE can expect an evolving user-generated and user-centric archive of digital sources to aid them in their original research on historical topics. Dedicated community users are free to add new sources to the database on their own, but they need not feel pressured to do so; the archive of digital sources should grow over time naturally as more content is published, since authors are required to cite their sources.
I. DECIPHR Public:
- PHP/HTML, etc. Finished articles approved by the community appear here for public “consumption.”
II. DECIPHR Community:
- WordPress-style article-writing tool. For historical article authors. Authors add bibliographies/footnotes using the relevant SAUCE tool.
- Digg/Reddit-clone. Pending articles appear here for community review and voting. For registered users.
III. DECIPHR SAUCE:
- Zotero/similar tool. Sources cited by authors appear here. If Zotero is not used, the platform should be similarly open-source to allow for the addition of new searching and organizational methods as the community suggests them.
Theme: Please see the attached example images. Tier-1 users should never see anything but a clean, finished-looking product. Metadata, comments, and votes will be recorded but only visible for Tier-2 users.
Layout: The front-end of the website (DECIPHR Public) will be designed to serve the user quickly and easily. No navigational tool or “home” menu is needed because the website focuses on presenting a uniform type of content to the user; instead, at the top of the website the user can sort the historical questions by one of several categorical criteria, with the most relevant objects appearing at the top. The default organization is to display the most popular historical question/answer at the top, based on community vote.
Information is fed gradually based on user interest: From an organized list of historical questions, the user picks one and is given the author’s brief 200-word answer to that question and a single picture the author deems most relevant and inviting to continued user attention. If the user desires more information, he or she simply clicks the answer to be presented with the entire article, wherein the author’s answer is presented.
In short, the layout is designed so that users immediately “get what they came for.” There is no up-front time cost learning to navigate a site map, or playing with interactive tools that may or may not end up offering useful information.
Fig.1 Draft welcome page. Allows users to quickly reach the part of the website dedicated to their needs.
Fig.2 Draft Front Page, with sample articles. Clicking an article takes the user to a synopsis of the most popular answer. A button on the synopsis page will take the user to the full article.
Processing the Past, I mean the very book itself, is a good example of historians (an historian and an archivist, rather) providing a service to those outside of their own field. It does more than attempt to explain the suggested divide it claims to exist between historians and archivists, or to lecture both groups of professionals on their intellectual differences; Processing offers several excellent ideas on how the two can work together to increase the benefit of archives to historians, archivists, and the general public.
It’s an exciting book because it suggests not only is there work to be done, but that in doing the work itself everyone will benefit. Allowing users to tag documents or retrieve works found by others based on metadata or other new methods are no threat to the archivist; by making the archive more accessible makes the expert archivist more indispensable in supporting and expanding on those methods even as he or she maintains traditional alternatives. Aside from increasing the potential of the time they put into their own research, historians can provide an historical perspective to archive organization that benefits anyone using them, including non-experts. Nearly anyone who makes the effort of searching an archive probably has a complex question, one that cannot be answered by a single document alone–even in corporate settings, of course, it’s less likely to be “how much revenue did this product generate for this financial year” and more likely to be “why did this product succeed/fail?” or “what where the contemporary decisions behind this product?”
A historical perspective would allow archives to meet complex questions at the door, decreasing some of the archivist’s petty workload when simple questions can answer themselves while increasing their usefulness as they focus their expertise on assisting more complex challenges and drive the organizational modifications that allow them to serve more people more efficiently. The archivists enjoy increased patronage, the historians produce more high quality content, the general public is empowered with access to information, and, if the organizational modifications are sufficient, all three groups get to participate in conversation with one another about intellectual and organizational issues alike. That kind of cooperative symbiosis is exactly what we all want, and more valuable than other particular gain that comes with doing digital history.
JAH Guidelines notes:
“Reviewers dont need to know about workings of websites any more than they need to know how books are made.”
While clever and lightly posited, I think we have learned this idea to be untrue. Reviewers of historical websites, I think, ought to have a mind for the possibilities of those sites and digital media in general. Books have a universal acceptance as accessible things, and a reviewer who comments on the size of font or the acid content of the pages is simply wasting time. When reviewing a website, however, things like the organization of content and the use of space becomes important. I think in order to review a history website, then, historians ought to have some familiarity with web design. Not only does that allow the reviewer to better express their criticisms in a constructive way, it also gives them the vision to suggest improvements or acknowledge limitations and difficulties the website’s authors may have encountered, and to better analyze how those challenges were handled.
One of my favorite museum experiences (maybe the only one I enjoyed, without much complaint) had no objects at all. The National Socialism museum in Nuremberg, Germany. Every visitor was given a pair of headphones with a numerical input attachment. As they wander the museum, they can read large print, short essays on different aspects of the topic, and they can input a code written nearby to have the essay read to them in their preferred language, at their own pausable pace, while they watch historical footage on nearby televisions. It was fun for me, like watching a collection of short documentaries.
That said, I don’t think an object-less museum like that would work so well in the United States. Part of the design choice for the NatSoc museum, I think, was that by having no objects it prevents them from being revered in any way. It makes sense given the topic; do you want people coming to a museum so they can see Heinrich Himmler’s favorite dagger or one of Herman Goering’s obscene uniforms, etc.? Indeed, the lack of objects is actually a fitting design choice for a museum built next to the ruins of the Nazi’s favorite parade grounds. Walking through the museum and seeing the black and white footage, the large posterized essays of black on grey.. It’s like walking through a graveyard. A great design choice for a nation of people who feel “the responsibility of the past,” but I don’t think American museums would benefit from being that dour.
A museum needs objects, I think, if the museum-going public want objects. But perhaps the older ideas of public instruction and the feeling of belonging can return alongside.
The Elements of Content Strategy. I’ve only read a few classmates’ blog posts pending the writing of my own, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who loved, loved, loved this book. After countless hours of pondering philosophical readings like “Does the historic profession have a future?” (first two weeks) and “If it does, what will that look like, especially when historians are engaging with a public audience?” (last two weeks), we’re given a short and practical guide to managing digital content as if we were public historians. Obviously I’m generalizing and hyping it up. I think Letting Go and previous readings were at least as practical as Elements is philosophical–if the two p-words even deserve separation. But I think you know what I mean. The lessons in Elements are fantastic and can be drawn out without heavy interpretation and extrapolation. Reading Elements is like cooking for years without electricity and then one day getting a bag of quality take-out for dinner. The subject is something in which everyone was interested before we knew what it was (or maybe you all knew what it was already, so please forgive my naive enthusiasm).
We all want to learn to manage and work with content, and we all practice, as students of history, the kinds of strategies Kissane lays out, and we do it already even without working with digital stuff. Whether it’s finding a better way to write the terrible topic sentence for this paragraph, or inventing an appealing design for a poster or power point presentation (based on your audience), or synthesizing a hundred pages of draft-notes into a coherent argument for a final paper, we all practice content strategy. Every history student knows that few things are more painful, yet satisfying, than a qualitative audit that disappears a beloved paragraph from your paper because, after careful analysis, you realize it doesn’t contribute to your topic sufficiently to justify its existence. I haven’t enjoyed what must be the glories of managing digital content, and maybe you haven’t either, but I know that we can think of plenty of public history websites that fail to avoid redundant (or inaccessible) documentation, provide a search engine that reasonably understands what a user wants, or an infinite number of other design problems that keep it from being a user-centered experience…
To be fair, I think a majority of unsuccessful blogs suffer from one or more deficiencies in content strategy, too. Am I the only one who finds white text on a black background easier to read and concentrate on than the other way around?
It’s hard to write–or speak–when you don’t know your audience. Especially when you’re asked by your audience to write something as ill-defined as a blog post. Thankfully, this will be the last of my late blog posts because I think I understand the nature of the class now.
I think I might have bought into the “participatory discussion” idea a bit too much. I was planning on visiting a local museum in Leesburg, VA, and sincerely wish I had done my site review on that. By going to the Natural History Museum I thought I was being clever–yes, it’s a science museum, but it also presents human history from a position of authority. Yes, they do have an “easy out” for not providing, inviting, or at all encouraging historical context-making, but does the public understand the difference? Should historians not care at all because of their “easy out?” Maybe. But I thought it would give the class conversation material. Instead, I simply made myself look foolish for going to a museum that presents human history and attracts thousands of visitors each year but doesn’t count. (I think I finished my assignment about a week ahead of time. Couldn’t I have been notified that I did it wrong?) Ouch.
Despite what it looked like, yes, I did read the Owens posts. When I said that he wrote we should treat the public like unpaid servants, or whatever, it was a joke. A bad joke, and I am sorry for it. I would never have said it had there not been thirty or so seconds of dead silence and bowed heads after the class was prompted to talk about it. I don’t like talking either, but that was too much. I was trying to get the rest of the class to talk by making myself an easy target for argument since no one seemed to know what to say. Instead, I made myself a target for the discussion leader and cast myself as the one student accused of not reading the assignment. Double ouch.
This isn’t angry rambling, please. It’s rare you get this kind of feedback from class discussion alone. Harsh, but necessary, if I’m going to better my performance.
The essays and interviews in Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World prove beyond a doubt, I think, that the public deserves an even greater share of authority in history-making than is currently practiced.
I thought City of Memory was a great idea, but I hope that it doesn’t prove to be a bad example of over-moderation. Imagine if we could read thousands of little stories of ordinary people in New York from two centuries ago? It would be an historical gold mine, and I think even what people of the day would have labeled “unimportant stories” would prove fascinating. It also demonstrates to cynics that the tools that make user-based history possible and in demand also makes projects like these easy to police. You can’t really moderate what people write into a logbook, but admins can easily reject a lewd and irrelevant comment. However, I can’t help but wonder if the project’s moderation leaves out some good stuff. When the project’s creator said they could easily delete sexual content, does he mean irrelevant spam or simply stories that make people uncomfortable? I’m not saying that the website should be turned into a voyeuristic log of people’s sexual adventures, no. But imagine what we might have learned about early 19th Century subculture and “underculture” if any city dweller had been allowed to write anything, and reading comments from the clients of prostitutes who were later murdered and sensationalized by a genteel media, etc. But of course I digress, the point of the project is not to serve as an archive.. Still, missed opportunity, I think.
The worst part about Letting Go is, paradoxically, the best. Sometimes the book’s arguments, implicit and explicit, are so powerful that I wonder why the issue is still discussed–the question of engaging and working with the public seems like it deserves to be stowed away into the dustbin of the profession, alongside “Should we study the histories of colonized peoples?” or “Should we allow women into college?”.
My favorite example of this is that, though the essays have different authors, many works in the book implicitly highlight the public’s capacity for poetry in writing. “Before the Other People Came” is not only a more respectful name for an exhibit on a First Nation tribe, but we can all agree that it’s a beautiful title. The “Case Study” section that begins with Minnesotans making their own histories on film cleverly ends not with a cold, academic conclusion (yes, I noticed that many of the essays take a casual format that echoes oral history itself) but how oral history and engaging the public can bring ordinary people’s hidden talents to the national stage. A skeptic can dissect the historical reality of a soldier’s defining of World War II as “sportsloving youngsters who were pitted against bitterly fanatical men who knew no rules, and yet won” all he or she wants. Only the most stonehearted could exorcise historical interpretations like that from the soul and declare it “bad history.” That the author of those words is a war veteran only enhances the meaning of what he had to say–the actual authority of his history comes not from being a combatant but from being a history-conscious member of the public.
I had a few questions to ask about the Bentham Project in class last week, but I don’t think it came up. Does anyone have any ideas for how the project could have been even more successful?
I thought it was a cool idea at first… but incredibly one-sided. The Building a Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham is all I know about the project, though. I don’t know if it was assigned reading because it’s a perfect example of academic-public cooperation (if it was, I’m sorry) but it seems like a good example of crowdsourcing exploitation in the manner that Owens warned against. Rather than posting leaderboards to make irregular users feel inferior, why not offer more personalized rewards that encourage the public to take part? Transcribe x many pages, and you get to annotate y number of sentences for everyone else to see. Transcribe z many pages, and you get to post a short essay on the front page.
Maybe my line of thinking is stupid, or maybe the Bentham Project does it and I missed it (the article really emphasized other things intended to excite the crowd, things that marketing experts would have rolled their eyes at five years ago). I think Owens is on my side here, but I didn’t read the assignment, so what do I know, eh? Aren’t the people transcribing turning Bentham’s work into a kind of discovery zone for themselves? Who cares about points if you’re having fun? If you really want people to stay involved, why not appeal to their sense of purpose? I had heard of the Bentham Project before, but didn’t know why I should care. There are plenty of things that need transcribing, why should I worry about this project when I have court-record chicken scratches from Kew to transcribe? Now, had you told me that studying his work would provide insight into the history of legal positivism, atheism, and homosexual rights like Wikipedia does in their opening on Bentham (I admit I have no idea if this is true or not) I would have been a lot more likely to sign up than if I saw some boring Google AdWords.
Again, it seems like if you’re going to ask the public to help transcribe something, why not ask them to help you read it, too? It’s like asking someone to help you set up a board game and then playing without them. Kinda mean.