Well designed graphs are no longer my enemy.

I’m looking forward to meeting everyone in class tomorrow evening and getting started with Clio II.

As I was reading through the articles and books for this week, I was reminded by many of the themes from Clio I. The advice from multiple authors to plan, plan, plan and make decisions very purposefully continues to be at the forefront of many of our texts. And certainly with good reason. I spent a lot of time planning out my project for Clio I and then changed nearly everything but I was very cognizant of how much thought needed to go into every decision.

I really enjoyed Knaflic’s  Storytelling with Data and I now feel that I will never look at a bar graph or infographic the same way. Many of the details that Knaflic included seem like common sense (i.e. bold or put in color something that you want to make stand out .) But what I had never paid attention to was how you can clean up a graph by removing labels or gridlines. I often feel somewhat confused when looking at complex graphs, but perhaps it’s not just me!

Lastly, I agree with Stephen Ramsay’s definition of a digital humanist. Anyone else? (I also agree with some of his colleagues whom he said are “sick to the teeth of this endless meta-discussion.” Can we stop arguing about the definition and get on with it?)But to cycle back to Ramsay, I think he’s on to something by saying that digital humanists have to be building something. After all, if you are merely reading/viewing a digital project or serving only as the history expert, how is that very different from a humanist or a historian? Rather if you are building an app or a database of scanned documents or a website or creating visualizations to see data in new ways, that is different from the traditional job of a historian and, I think, justifies your place in the digital humanities.

I commented on Lacey’s blog and Ann-Marie’s blog.

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Reflection on Jim Crow Lived Here

Jim Crow Lived Here: Race Relations in Virginia, 1863-1954


When this class began and I started to imagine a digital project that I could create, I wanted to connect the project to research I have done on the 1926 Public Assemblages Act in Virginia. I decided to devote my project to the history of race relations in Virginia from emancipation in 1863 to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The larger topic of Virginia’s role in white supremacy and black activism came from a realization that most Virginians do not understand their history and are unaware of the heroic acts of protest, some decades before the national Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, or the extremist views that once existed in the state. I felt that I could present a history with information that few people knew about.

Virginia is often overlooked as a center for rich study of the struggle for black equality because it lacks the violence of the states in the Deep South. Furthermore, I chose 1863 to 1954 because it is often mistakenly presented as a rather static period of history with little activism from the black community and uniform efforts on the part of whites to establish oppressive laws. In fact, there are many instances of black activism and white communities often presented varied opinions on the best way to manage race relations.

The goal of “Jim Crow Lived Here” is to bring about awareness and provide quality scholarship of some of the lesser-known instances of white supremacy, Jim Crow laws and black activism within Virginia’s post-Emancipation history. Additionally, I hope to make it clear that these events occurred in relation to one another, not isolation. I want to appeal to two major audiences, history buffs, and students. In order to appeal to these groups, the website had to be scholarly yet visually appealing and accessible to non-historians.

Before completely committing to the goal of the project, I made sure that no one else had completed an identical project. There is currently no project that focuses on Virginia that begins at Emancipation and ends at the Brown v. Board decision.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Civil Rights Movement in Virginia digital exhibit was created to accompany a physical exhibit of the same title in 2004 at the organization’s Richmond, Virginia location. The online exhibit’s sixteen pages provide a quick overview of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws and civil rights achievements from 1866 to the 1970s. While Civil Rights Movement in Virginia depicts a handful of events and sets them against a wider national context, the goal of “Jim Crow Lives Here” is to provide more in-depth information about events and legislation.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Encyclopedia of Virginia contains hundreds of entries with detailed information about events, people, and places of Virginia’s past. Because it is set up like an online encyclopedia and feels similar to Wikipedia, there is little contextualization within the commonwealth’s or national history. “Jim Crow Lives Here” will overcome the weaknesses of Encyclopedia of Virginia because it will integrate the people, places, and events in a thematic and chronological organization.

Design and Tools:

The next step of the project was to identify the content I wanted to include and determine the best tool or platform to work with. I knew I wanted to include primary sources like photographs and newspapers. The best tool to display these along with text was Omeka, which allows web-builders to create items complete with metadata that identifies source, author, date, publication, and format information. Multiple items can be accompanied by long-form text in the form of exhibits. I imagined each event of segregation or activism to be its own exhibit accompanied with supporting items. Visitors to the site can read about the event and click on individual items and understand the item’s original source. I felt Omeka was a better choice than WordPress because it allows for more dynamic item information rather than just embedded pictures with a lot of captions.

I spent a lot of time previewing existing Omeka sites to get ideas for what I wanted my website to look like. My favorite was the Histories of the National Mall site. The Mall Histories Theme lends itself to the goals of my project and helps me to ensure that both audiences are comfortable and interested in browsing through the site. The home page of the website is very visual and lacks lengthy text. I firmly believe that home pages with a large amount of text are intimidating to many people and less inviting to those who might want to browse.

Despite a learning curve, I was able to customize the theme in ways that made sense for my project. It took some playing around before I figured out how to make the navigation buttons go where I wanted them to go. The home page is laid out so that users can navigate to acts of segregation and activism, people central to the story of Virginia’s race relations, a scholarly overview essay putting the events in context, or a timeline of events to visually place the events. The photos behind the large navigation buttons depict primary sources related to the topic of the site. These titles also appear across the heading of every page of the site.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.45.43 PM

Screen shot of the homepage

I did have to create new navigation pages to make the theme work for my website. I really wanted four main navigation categories- People, Events of Segregation and Activism, a Timeline, and a scholarly Overview. The “browse exhibits” button is the only one I kept from the original theme. It is re-titled “Segregation and Activism.” The “Overview of Race Relations” and “Timeline” pages are simple pages that I used instead of the mall history’s “browse items” and “about” pages. Lastly, with the help of Dr. Leon, I created a custom navigation button for “people” that is set up to display only the people item types. This was much better than my original plan to re-title “browse collections” as people and have only a people collection for the entire site. The end result of the custom people navigation is a list of people significant to the history of race relations. Users can view a picture and see a small blurb about them before clicking into the extended content.

Additionally, because I chose to work with the Mall Histories theme, which wasn’t intended for general use, I had to change around some of the code in the HTML folders in my cPanel. This was totally new to me. I have never worked very much with HTML and in many cases my plan of attack was really just scrolling through the code in the various files trying to find what I needed. One thing I had to figure out how to change was the navigation link that automatically appeared in each exhibit that said, “Go back to all questions about the National Mall.” Fortunately I figured out that in the code editor for the exhibits php file, I could rewrite the link to say, “Go back to Segregation and Activism.” I also had to delete the Center for History and New Media and the National Endowment for the Humanities logos that appeared the footer. This was pretty simple and I was able to replace it with a “proudly powered by Omeka” statement and the Creative Commons licensing information.

Outside of Omeka, I also used TimelineJS to create a visual timeline of the important events in Virginia’s racial history. The timeline includes fifteen events accompanied by a picture and a description. Many of the timeline events link to items or exhibits within my website. I felt that the ability to link to pages in my site was really important to allow visitors maximum usability. This ensures that visitors don’t have to browse the website in a particular order to access the information. My original timeline did not link correctly. Fortunately, once I started over, the second version linked to the pages with no issue.


There were several decisions I made about the content to try and ensure that my intended audiences would actually enjoy the site. Each exhibit begins with an overview description at the top of the page before continuing in greater detail. This design choice should, hopefully, appeal to casual visitors looking for a quick answer. To appeal to historians or students, I really wanted to provide extended research that was not already on the Internet. Much of what I included in the exhibits comes from academic press books or scholarly articles that are not open access.

I also wanted to boost the credibility of my research by including footnotes and a bibliography in each exhibit. The footnoting process took much more time to complete than I expected because I had to hand-code the HTML to create the footnotes. For some reason, I could not get the footnotes to link to the bottom of the page and back to the text. I tried a few different variations of the HTML code but none worked. In the constraints of time, I decided that as long as the footnote appeared, that was the most important thing!

I made the choice to post individual bibliographies for each exhibit so the viewer would have a clear idea where they could find more information on the topic. The lists include open-access websites, scholarly journals, and books. The addition of open-access websites ensures that both the history buff and the history student will be able to use the bibliography for their unique purposes.

The hardest goal to reach in terms of the content was putting these events in context. I wanted it to be clear to viewers that these Jim Crow laws or events of activism in Virginia did not occur in isolation. I wanted to provide both a national and state context. The scholarly overview essay that I included as one of the main navigation links will help to accomplish this goal. The overview essay provides a general chronology of the exhibits I included under “segregation and activism” and provides current historiographic information about the topic to add value for the scholars and students who might visit the site.

Currently, Jim Crow Lived Here has four exhibits that include detailed, scholarly research. I would have liked to include more. My original goal was ten. However, I realized that the building of the website and detailed research and writing were hard to do in just one semester. More content needs to be added to the website before visitors will get a true sense of the evolution of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws and black activism. However, I strove for quality over quantity and I feel that was more successful.

Project Dissemination:

My grant proposal indicated that I would try to bring visitors to my website by linking up with organizations that might display the site on their social media pages and Twitter feeds. Some of these might include the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society. Much more work needs to be done before the project is ready for wide distribution. But I’m hopeful that I can add more in the next year and eventually reach this goal.

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Conflicted about the Academy

I came into this week’s readings assuming that I’d have a strong opinion one way or the other about the impact of digital scholarship on the history profession. I was wrong. I’m feeling rather conflicted and I think that is most likely because I have not experienced any of this firsthand and the idea of publishing a dissertation or a book is pretty abstract at this point.

After reading through all of the articles, I was most interested in the debate over AHA’s statement about allowing students to choose to embargo their dissertations. The statement provided a time frame 6 years, the length of time it typically takes a PhD to publish a book and secure tenure. While I recognize the reason for the proposed time frame, perhaps the option could be even more flexible. Why not allow students to embargo once they enter into talks for a book contract? Or allow students to choose a length of time up to 6 years for an embargo? OR allow students to decide sometime into the embargo period that they are ready to lift it? If the AHA’s intention is protection of and flexibility for early career scholars, it seems there should be even more options.

William Cronon offers a fair and valid point. It’s great when senior historians publish online and we can appreciate their generosity. Yet it is unfair to require online access publishing of graduate students who have not yet had the opportunity to publish a book or even an article.

At the same time, Dr. Jennifer Guiliano also makes a good point that maybe the AHA should have surveyed its members. Additionally, she writes that her dissertation got downloaded 604 times and she made the argument to the publisher that an audience truly existed for her work. I do have to wonder if she is an exception to the rule rather than the typical case she claims to be.

I think what much of this boils down to is the decades old system in the history profession of finishing your dissertation, looking for a job in academia, turning your dissertation into a book and thus securing tenure and more career flexibility. (Perhaps this is simplified process and it certainly glosses over the various moves to tiny colleges out in some random state and the low pay and slim benefits that career academics must endure in their quest for a book deal and tenure at a better position.) It seems to me that this system needs to change. Universities cannot continue to mandate that everyone publish a book when the presses are shutting down and/or becoming more stingy with what they publish. It’s not a sustainable system for anyone.

Dan Cohen touches on this issue in his article, “The Idols of Scholarly Publishing.” “Can we get our colleagues to recognize outstanding academic work wherever and however it is published?” he asks. Trevor Owens and Timothy Burke also encouraged the academy to explore options outside a printed manuscript. Maybe one day a new system will allow historians a more flexible way to attain jobs and tenure aside from publishing a book. The profession and its members are still, I believe, in the process of refining how we view work that is published on the web without a hard-copy counterpart.


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What was the Civil War really about?- Using Historical Thinking

What was the Civil War really about?

For my historical thinking activity, I want my students to use the skill of corroboration to answer the question about the causes of the Civil War. I chose this question because it is one that is still be hotly debated today, yet the issue is awash in primary source material. I will also be asking the students to use the skill of background knowledge to discuss why interpretations of the Civil War changed.

Reading List

1860s Primary Sources:

Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” March 21, 1861 Savannah, GA. As reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War, Philadelphia, 1886, pp. 717-729.

South Carolina Secession Proclamation, December 24, 1860, Yale Avalon Project

Mississippi Secession Proclamation, January 1861, Yale Avalon Project.

John Wilford Overall, “The New Heresy,” Southern Punch, Sept. 19, 1864.

20th Century Primary Sources :

John S. Mosby, Letter to Samuel Chapman, June 4, 1907. Transcript from the Gilder Lehrman Collection.

Confederate Principles Today and Yesterday,” United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine, October 1957,  pgs 45, 58 and November 1957 pg 39.

After reading all of the documents, answer the following questions:

  1. According to Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, what was the cause of the Civil War?
  2. Do the statements of secession by Mississippi and South Carolina disagree with Stephens’ argument?
  3. John W. Overall, a Richmond editor, wrote an article in 1864 disagreeing with many contemporaries over the cause of the war. In 1907, former Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby penned a letter with similar sentiments. What did these men identify as the cause of the war? What do these sources demonstrate about evolving interpretations of the Civil war?
  4. The Daughters of the Confederacy suggest a different cause of the Civil War. What cause do they suggest from the article written in 1957? How does the author use that logic to condemn school segregation?

Write a 1-2 page essay explaining the cause(s) of the Civil War. Using your knowledge of 20th century race relations and the Civil Rights movement, discuss your thoughts on why the interpretation of the war changed over time. Include evidence from the primary source documents.


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Is it a problem with the academy?

I found this week’s reading to be very enlightening in terms of all of the different copyright laws and the way they have changed over the years. The articles, particularly the ones by Lessig, Suber, and Willinsky are convincing in that open access scholarship benefits more and allows libraries to do more with their funding than pay huge subscription fees. I will certainly miss the ease of which I can obtain scholarly articles when I am no longer a graduate student. Additionally, Anderson’s article pointed out something I had never thought of before. The scholars doing the research are funded at (often) public universities, peer reviewed by others on a university payroll and then the university library has to turn around and pay big bucks to access the eventual final product. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Except, I began to think, “what if I ever publish an article?” Ideally, I’d like to publish in a reputable journal that I can cite on a CV and people will know it. I know I’m not alone. Many scholars, whether they be students, professors, or independent researchers want the prestige that comes with getting published by a journal that is peer-reviewed and has the stamp of approval by the academy. It might be my ignorance on the subject, but are there open access history journals that are on the same level as the Journal of American History  (JAH) or other such journals? Where would one publish online and still garner the same respect as if you published with JAH? I searched very quickly and noted that the JAH is still very much paid access. The American Historical Association’s news magazine, Perspectives, is available full-text on their website but their American Historical Review is still paid access.

So is the problem fully an economic one? Or does there need to be a shift in the way universities and the history profession view online publishing, especially through an open access platform? If the benefits are not there to publish your original research in an open access platform that is not well-respected, what is the point? (Yes, I know the information gets out and more readers may recognize your work, but for historians who seek career advancement or recognition, this might be a major stumbling block to solving the open access conundrum.)

I’m still feeling conflicted about open access. I can see both sides and am not sure where my loyalties lie, though in preference of a democratic access to information and after reading about the Te Papa museum’s experience, I would err on the side of more open-access availability.


I edited a page about a train wreck that occurred in Orange, VA in 1888. I have previously completed primary source research on the wreck and decided to add information to its pretty short Wikipedia page. I entered two paragraphs of text and cited information with primary source material, just to see what would happen. I wrote the entry on Tuesday and so far I’m still the most recent edit. In hindsight, this was probably a much too narrow topic to see any really editing movement. But I was amazed at how easy it was to create an account and edit a page!

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I think I’m a complete n00b

This week certainly felt the most advanced and perhaps a little overwhelming at least as far as the practicum activities were concerned. (I know, we were warned.)

I’ll start with the readings. Many of them helped me understand why these visualization tools are useful for digital historians and humanists. John Theibault’s article was the most approachable on the subject and definitely a good place to start. I think the biggest takeaway from his article was the idea that visualization is meant to aid interpretation.

It seems to me that most of these tools are most helpful in the research stage of a digital project and they are not necessarily something that would be displayed on a website. Or if they were displayed, these visualizations might be worked into an “about” page where you describe your research methods and practice.

In terms of the activities we completed for this week, I’m struggling to determine if they would be useful for my project at all or for anything I might create in the future. These tools still seem so foreign to me that it’s difficult to wrap my mind around using them in a truly effective way.

For the text mining, I decided to download and convert to plain text 12 oral histories from African-American Alexandria residents, most of whom lived during much of the early to mid-20th century. Once I created the visualizations using the Voyant tools, I realized I probably didn’t choose documents that made up enough text to make a quality visual. The oral histories were relatively short and probably did not make for enough text to mine. It was cool to see the word “school” come up as one of the most frequently used. It didn’t really surprise me as many of the interviews focused on the segregated schools in Alexandria.



Along with the wordle, I created a network but it didn’t really give me anything that made sense.


I used the same set of oral histories to work with the Mallet program as well. It doesn’t completely make sense to me and I’m not sure why some of the words appeared. Here is the list of topics I got:

1 miller helen house people don kids city understand inaudible black
2 collins len yeah remember time school alexandria high leonard area
3 unclear edwin bohlayer cw house don alexandria place road laughs
4 school side interviewer thomas virginia house elsie work interview high
5 casey belk maydell pk yeah fort ward interviewer house don
6 mabel inaudible lyles interviewer burts grandmother grade children march husband
7 alexandria school time church family thing mother children born black
8 didn street page back lot interview people things years lived
9 johnson lucian area county seminary people lane property mother june
10 abramson ethel mw remember washington wonderful father april mother don


With Palladio, I wanted to get some fun data to work with so I found a listing of all the African-American soldiers buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery. These are men who fought for the US Colored Troops, part of the Union Army. I found a list that provided names, units, and date of death. From the unit, I was able to figure out where each man originally came from or at least where he enlisted. I was laser focused on creating a map like the one in the tutorial video and struggled for a very long time to try and get a map to work. I was never successful and then I read the comment that we should focus on graphs. Below is one of the graphs I made. You can really see which states had the most units die in or around Alexandria. (I only used 72 names from the massive list so the data is a little skewed.)


I have to admit that I could not for the life of me get Gephi to work. I was super proud of myself for figuring out the instructions to replace a portion of the code. But I still couldn’t get the program to open. I have no idea what I did wrong but I had to admit defeat on that one.

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Spatial and Temporal History

I found this week’s practicum activities really helpful in showcasing the types of tools we can employ as digital historians to visually tell a story that happens over time and across geographic space. I’m really pleased with the look of everything I created. I fully recognize that these are very basic versions of these tools and I would like to explore these tools more in-depth and really see what their advanced functions can do.

Below are the products I created.

Timeline of Jim Crow in Virginia.

I found the spreadsheet tedious to fill in to create the timeline. But I tend to think that way of all spreadsheets, so we’ll chock that up to user bias.

My Story Map

Click here to link to my story map on Early Civil Rights Activism in Virgina for a better view. It bothers me a lot that you can’t see everything in the same screen when it’s embedded in a blog. I know there are ways to make it a little smaller and I played around a little. Is the problem that my pictures are too large?

CartoDB Map

I found this program to be the trickiest to work with. I was also feeling rather uncreative by the time I was able to start working on this map. I don’t feel that my topic is very well served by these maps or at least I haven’t thought of any data that I feel needs to be mapped and analyzed. I mapped a few points in Alexandria, VA that are important to the area’s African-American history. I focused particularly on black schools that existed in the city. There wasn’t a black high school for Alexandria students until 1950. If black students wanted to continue past 8th grade they had to travel into Washington D.C.

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Do I have data? Week 7

I have to admit when I first read the instructions for this week’s activities and blog post, I was skeptical that I had any data related to my topic or if there was anything I’d have to hunt really hard for it.

Then I read Miriam Posner‘s blog post about Humanities Data. And it spoke to me. She laid out perfectly well how historians and humanists are so attuned to their sources they can feel the nuances that prove their argument before needing a chart of data to rely upon. I especially liked the example of the melodrama within 1920s silent films. Indeed, the film itself provides a much richer experience and sense of melodrama than a chart with a list of characteristics. But when Posner began to explain that all humanists’ computers are filled with files upon files of images, documents, maps, etc. that are difficult to organize, it struck a chord with me. I, too, have this problem.

And that’s how I figured out what I would use for my tidy data set. This dataset represents a number of newspaper articles published about the Public Assemblages Act of 1926. I have indicated the date, newspaper title, publication location, type of article, and the demographic of the newspaper owner. One day I would like to add to this data set by researching more newspapers that were in publication across Virginia or even more heavily investigate papers that I have only a small sampling of. Basically this dataset represents the articles I was able to scan from microfilm during one (long and exhausting) visit to the Library of Virginia or was able to pull from an online database.

Public Assemblages Act News Reporting

I have actually been meaning to do compile this information into a spreadsheet. I particularly wanted to see the spread of dates and see which papers were publishing similar stories on the same dates.

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NEH Grant Proposal

Here is a link to my grant proposal.

Benjamin_NEH grant proposal

my email address for comments: amy.s.benjamin@gmail.com


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Reflections on Week 5 Readings- The Audience

The difference between digital history and digital public history is similar to academic history as a discipline and public history in a museum. Much of these differences come down to the audience. Popular histories are written for a more general audience without PhD’s on the subject. Likewise, museum exhibits are often made to engage the casual visitor. Academic press histories often include a much more rigid structure, a well defined argument and many more footnotes. The audience is usually other historians with knowledge of the subject or familiarity with the form.

The role of the audience for digital history projects is everything. The audience heavily determines the content and presentation of your website. Shlomo Goltz’s articles on creating personas made me realize how important it is to visualize who might be using your site before even creating it. After all if you plan to create a digital history project that is accessible to the average high school student, that might look very different from a project geared towards historians. Mia Ridge also noted the importance of analyzing your audience early on. I also thought her advice to incorporate some user testing was really important. It’s important to figure out that your intended audience is getting something out of your project.

There also seems to be a bit of interactive piece that goes along with digital public history. Many of the articles discussed user generated content (UGC) and the place it holds in digital history site or a museum. I think the idea of museums using crowdsourcing technology is pretty incredible. It allows amateur historians to transcribe documents or identify photographs. This gives members of the public a legitimate purpose at a museum or site rather than passive museum-goer or browser.

Yet at the same time, I do wonder if many of these technologies are being used because they are “trendy.” I was really struck by Smithsonian’s American History Museum’s Jim Gardner who cautioned, “While some cultural institutions may not feel there is much risk in embracing radical trust, I know from firsthand experience that the subjects we explore as museums and historical societies sometimes attract individuals with problematic if not offensive opinions, and we cannot allow such individuals to use us for their own purposes.” On some level, despite my excitement over USG and crowdsourcing, I still want the museums and their digital projects to be the experts that I can learn from. That is essentially why I go to those sites.

After reflecting on these audience issues, I did some thinking about my own project. Drafting the personas was very helpful to me. I want my project to be scholarly but accessible. I’m already thinking I may need to re-do my draft exhibit piece if I want to appeal to more of a “general public” audience than scholars. I’m thinking that my current draft is a little lengthy and in-depth for the average browser. So what I could do is an a nested page that will allow those interested to click a link that will bring them to more information on the topic.


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