I end this course in Digital History a little deflated. I’ve learned a great deal, but as I went further in one direction I would find that I need another and then another to the point that I really don’t have much to show, but a clearer vision of what can be achieved.
During a class discussion of this article, which is a panel among prominent historians about the state and nature of digital history, our class debated the use of “architects and plumbers” to describe the creative formation of a digital history interpretation and idea, and then the need to learn technologies to achieve it. I maintain that both functions are performed by digital historians because history is in the artifact and argument and supporting actors in that creation are all contributing to the process. The further I got along on my grand idea of a project, however, the more I realized I had an imbalance of architect and plumber- digital history is indeed a collaborative effort and I did not know how to function or create in that capacity.
I wanted to produce a history project based on the formation of Beech Fork State Park, Dam, and Lake. This occurred in Wayne and Cabell counties in Western West Virginia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Two communities were affected by the construction and several families were displaced. It was part of a domestic and interior initiative by the US Corp of Engineers to help reshape problematic waterways prone to flooding among other noble preservation goals. Individuals and families that had been in the region for generations would have relocated and the community would no longer exist. I was interested in that process of keeping the social identity and creating a new one due to governmental force, as well as the role of an institution assigned to create new space.
To accomplish this, I initially thought of a comprehensive website which would include before-and-after maps of the region with locations of community buildings and the now-standing park. I wanted to include stories from those affected and with first-hand experience of the transition. Also, I would digitally preserve the graveyard that sits in the part hosting all the community graveyards into one at Bowen Cemetery, listing the gravesites, giving 360 panoramic views and pictures.
After realizing that this was a mammoth undertaking, I consulted with Dr. Shapiro about something doable, which was to be the podcast. I threw a net out expecting volunteers and received a few inquiries, but those interviews still have not happened. I found very little literature on the subject save a newspaper article that is barely legible from the library scan. I know the stories are there, but I am not successful in finding them, let alone ready to have a podcast. And, even with a podcast, where would it go? I planned on hosting it on WordPress because that was familiar to me, but as the course progressed I found other ways of producing this idea and decided most recently on Omeka.net: The Beech Fork Project. As I collect more (any) interviews, they can be linked here to Soundcloud along with transcripts, pictures, and maps. I know there is a linear argument there but it is inductive. Alone, a podcast would not do much of anything given the extremely narrow audience and lack of definition.
This project would be best found as a website that belongs to a collective examining and showcasing either West Virginia history or Appalachian history. It is the story of social transition in the modern age while the world changed rapidly along with its agendas and the personal change of actors involved. But to produce this digitally is going to take both a broader approach to delivery and a more narrow focus on meaning beyond mear showcase. It will take finding the argument and collaborating with those who carry similar methods of delivery and subjects. I have been invited to include whatever this project becomes to the Clio site, for instance, and as I go further maybe with Oral History collections at West Virginia institutions and libraries. But, a podcast would have only reached very few and did not come to fruition.
In one of our last classes, we discussed digital historical museum experiences, and Public History online. We live in an exciting time in which we can see the reframing and transformation of institutions through emergent technologies. This discussion is very similar to one I’ve participated in for nearly 20 years regarding online learning: Is online learning as good or true as classroom learning? Is an online education valid? Here we have the question if public history institutions can exist without walls. There isn’t an easy answer because institutions serve a social need and as individuals, we shape our concept of their validity based on personalized experience and perspective. The question is not if a website can be Public history, but how the website does public history.
In the end, I want to tell the story of this pivotal time for a small community. I want to make a public, digital, historical argument and have arrived at the end of the semester knowing how my initial grand ideas were flawed and how challenging this goal will be while also informed of the many technological methods there are now to tell such a story, and how vital it will be to collaborate or learn how to lay the pipe.
BLOG ASSIGNMENT: In addition to submitting the final digital project, write a blog post assessing your project that also reflects on the process of creating it.