All posts by CHightower

Looking Back: Reflections on the Century America Project

The Century America project has been something of a whirlwind for me (in a good way!). Since beginning the project in January, I’ve learned a lot about Montevallo, the Great War, and myself as a researcher. At the beginning of the semester, I began this project by combing through the Annie Crawford Milner Archives and Special Collections here at the University of Montevallo, and it is from this archive that I have drawn the majority of my site’s materials and information. These archives hold a large body of documents from the Great War period, including yearbooks, catalogs, newspapers, presidential papers, and other institutional records. In fact, President Palmer’s papers from the period are so numerous that I was not able to view them all over the course of the semester. However, from the documents that I was able to read, I developed an understanding of the school as it existed in the early decades of the 20th century.

Translating the archival research into a finished, digital project was somewhat difficult for me, although I certainly appreciated and benefited from the opportunity to explore something I’d never done before. The technological aspect of the course was a learning curve for me, but I enjoyed learning about the emerging possibilities for historical research in a digital medium. I particularly enjoyed learning how to digitize items and arrange them in an exhibit format. Creating a piece of research that is more publicly-oriented was also somewhat challenging for me, and I’m still trying to decide whether I incorporated the appropriate amount of information into my website. I suppose my audience will be the judge of that!

I tried to adhere fairly closely to the contract that I provided earlier in the semester for my website. I changed my website’s theme a number of times, so the final appearance of the site is somewhat different than I had originally envisioned. However, for the most part, the content and tools that I used on my site are consistent with what I had planned out in my contract. My site’s landing page is an “About the Project” section, which I hope will provide potential readers with an understanding of the project’s aims. As a tab under this page, I provide a link to my Century America blog, so that readers can follow the research process that resulted in the site’s creation. Similarly, I provide an “About the Researcher” page, so that reader’s will have some sense of who I am and why I may have focused on particular themes and not others. The first major page of my site, “A.G.T.I. at the Eve of the War,” depicts the school as it existed in 1913, the year prior to the outbreak of the war. I tried to focus on a broad range of topics, including the curriculum, the uniform, and student life, so that visitors to my site can immerse themselves in all aspects of the school’s history in that year. The content became quite text-heavy, so I ended up adding anchors to the page so that viewers can more easily navigate the content.

The bulk of my site is organized under the “A.G.T.I., Montevallo, and the War, 1914-1919″ section. In my contract, this section had been organized under three separate pages: “The Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute in Wartime: Daily Life, Challenges, and Responses,” “Montevallo: Portrait of a Community During the War Years,” and “The Spanish Influenza and the End of the War.” For the final site, I chose make “Daily Life, Challenges, and Responses” and “A Community’s Response to the Great War” sub-pages under a main “thematic” tab, and I eliminated the page on the influenza and the war’s end. I chose to do this largely because there wasn’t much information that I found about the Spanish influenza as it related to A.G.T.I. In the final version of my site, I decided to add a “Voices of the Great War” page to this section as well; this page contains a collection of poems and writings from A.G.T.I.’s students from the period. As I created the three sub-pages under “A.G.T.I., Montevallo, and the War, 1914-1919,” I struggled with the text vs. documents/images balance, but hopefully there is enough material present for viewers to feel compelled to stay on the site longer. On the “Voices of the Great War” page, I decided against utilizing audio to enhance the poems and writings from A.G.T.I.’s students. I had a few people tell me that they didn’t think it would add to the page as I have it laid out, so I decided to abandon the audio components. Other than that change, the page is largely consistent with what I had originally planned out in my contract.

Some of my favorite pieces on my site are the images and documents that I gathered from the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s World War I Gold Star Database. One of the challenges that I faced over the course of this project was a lack of sources detailing the wartime contributions of the town of Montevallo. The local newspapers held within Montevallo’s archives were helpful in providing some insight into the WWI-era happenings in Montevallo, but as my project progressed, the balance between school and town information seemed (and still seems) unbalanced to me. Because of the dearth of town-related resources in the archives, I was quite excited when I came across the holdings in the Gold Star Database. I think the images of the WWI soldiers provide a human connection to the Montevallo men who served, especially in light of the other documents available about them on the site. I hope visitors to my site will enjoy learning about these soldiers and will use this information to pursue the histories of their own families and communities.

I have really enjoyed being a part of the Century America project, and I consider it one of the high points of my undergraduate experience. Working with Dr. Pearson, Dr. McClurken, and my Century America peers has made me a better student and researcher, and I’m glad to have experienced such a friendly learning environment. While I was initially nervous about having my work so visible and available for criticism, I am happy (and lucky) to have such a public platform by which to share my work. I have really enjoyed watching everyone’s sites develop over the semester, and I think the collective project is a great example of the benefits of liberal arts education, mentoring relationships, and peer interaction.

The Century America project was special to me for a number of reasons, but mainly because it allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my time at Montevallo. By viewing documents and images from the early years of the Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute, I feel as if I have developed a deeper appreciation for my undergraduate institution and the role it has played historically in Alabama. I hope that Montevallo will be able to use the history that I’ve collected on my website to share its story and preserve the memory of UM’s early history. I don’t think of my site as a comprehensive analysis or depiction of life in Montevallo during the Great War but rather as a springboard from which to explore additional ways of remembering and exploring Montevallo’s unique history.

Century America at the COPLAC Southeastern Conference

This week I had the opportunity to present my Century America project at the COPLAC Southeastern Undergraduate Research Conference. In preparation for this presentation, I decided to implement a few organizational changes for my website. For example, I did away with the “Spanish Influenza and the End of the War” section as a stand-alone page. I will now be discussing all of this information on the “A.G.T.I.: Daily Life, Challenges, and Responses” page. Also, with the help of a PhD student studying computer science, my site is now free of the pesky “Older/Newer Post” navigation tool! Since I did not have to go into my site’s PHP blindly, I avoided a great deal of heartache and tears.

I appreciated having the opportunity to present my Century America site to an audience of people who’ve never seen it. As I am in the final stages of my site’s construction, the perspectives of the conference attendees, my peers, and UM’s faculty granted me insight into my site’s current strengths and weaknesses. I was able to gauge audience interest as I presented the different sections of my site, and I think my site’s pages provide enough information to maintain the interest of potential readers. In my opinion, the audience at the conference seemed quite responsive to the presentation. I received several comments that people appreciated the aims of the project, particularly the project’s emphasis on preserving the stories of individual men and women who contributed to the war effort. After my presentation, a lady from the audience briefly shared with me the story of her family members who were a part of WWI and WWII. I really think that our projects have the potential to inspire others to share their memories, photographs, and documents from the period. We might consider providing information on our sites about how people can seek out opportunities to share in the preservation of their own materials, as I am sure some individuals would be happy to share the surviving documents and photos sitting in their attics.

Roadmap for Century America Website Completion

I have spent some time this week thinking about how to reasonably complete the work I have remaining for my Century America website. All that I really lack at this point are the “A.G.T.I. at the Eve of the War,” “A.G.T.I. in Wartime,” and “Spanish Influenza and the End of the War” pages. I will have all of these completed by Friday of this week, as I have to present the website at the COPLAC Southeastern conference on Saturday. Beyond that, I plan to incorporate audio segments into my “Voices” page. I had originally intended to construct a timeline for my website, but I have yet to see how this would fit into my website and not provide redundant information. My senior thesis is demanding a lot of time right now, but I am trying to put as much work into my website as I possibly can. I would appreciate any feedback or recommendations that anyone may have for my website!

Here is my proposed schedule laid out a little more clearly:

    • Friday, April 11: All of my Century America website pages will be finished (in terms of text and images)
    • Monday, April 14: Any timelines I plan to include will be placed on the website
    • Monday, April 21: I will have all of the “Voices” audio placed online
    • Thursday, April 24: All recommendations and corrections will be complete; website completed

Spring Break, or the Troubles of Remaining Motivated in the Snow

My progress update is coming somewhat late this week because I haven’t had regular Internet access as I’ve been traveling. I am on spring break this week, and I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, which is about 40 degrees colder than where I live in Alabama. I’m having a lot of fun, but I’m having to remind myself to stay focused on the Century America project, too. Last Thursday and Friday, I spent a little time in the Annie Crawford Milner Archives and Special Collections looking through some presidential papers. On Friday morning, I re-scanned several of the items that I want to place on my website. Since then, I have been correcting additional crooked scans on my laptop, which takes some time away from actually working on my website. I feel as if I have fallen somewhat behind, but I am trying hard to stay on top of things while moving around. The main obstacle in my path right now is a paper I have to submit to the Phi Alpha Theta Regionals by Friday, but as soon as that is finished, I will be 100% back on board with Century America. I will be in Atlanta on Friday and Saturday, so I hope I will have more time to work this weekend. I did not really account for travel plans in my Century America “schedule of deadlines,” but I will persevere regardless!

Montevallo in the Shadow of the Great War: A Website in Its Infancy

This week, I had a lot of non-Century America obligations that I had to fulfill, so I was not as productive as I perhaps would have liked to have been. I had to present my previous research project on Wednesday at UM’s Undergraduate Research Day, so I spent the first part of the week getting ready for that. However, on a positive note, I won 1st place in the oral presentation category!

Aside from that, I was able to dedicate the latter half of the week to the Century America project. I filled out the paperwork (abstract, presentation outlines, personal biography, etc.) necessary to present my Century America website at the COPLAC Southeastern Regional Undergraduate Research Conference, which my university is hosting this year. I found out on Friday that I have been accepted to present, so I will be showcasing my website at this conference on April 11 and 12.

I got another batch of scanned documents and images on Thursday, and I think some of the materials will be very useful in the section of my website detailing the wartime activities and environment of A.G.T.I. However, I will have to rescan some of these items if I want to include them on the Century America website. In addition to collecting my scans, I spent Thursday afternoon and Friday morning in the archives, and I found some interesting letters from President Palmer in which he talks about his son (the man pictured on my Century America website). During the period of the Great War, Palmer’s son was serving in the armed forces, and from what I can gather, he strongly desired the opportunity to serve in France. However, based off my readings of some of these letters, I do not believe he was ever shipped overseas. I’ve really enjoyed reading President Palmer’s documents, and I plan to highlight the Palmer family on my Century America website.

I am trying to dedicate as much time as I can now to getting all of my scans finalized, so that I will be able to work on the project while I travel to Ohio next week for spring break. I’m finishing up the “About the Project,” “About the Researcher,” “Bibliography,” and “Further Reading” sections today. Wish me luck!

P.S. I got a cool picture of a hawk on campus this week! Unfortunately, it was subsequently attacked by a group of crows. I’m looking for possible WWI metaphors.

Making Progress: Scans, Contracts, and Permissions-to-Publish

This week, I focused on gearing up for the creation of my Century America site. I met with the university’s photographer on Tuesday, and I selected a number of “modern” images of Montevallo to use on the overarching website. Most of the images that I sent were of buildings, which I know we were trying to avoid, but I think the images that I selected are the ones that are most representative of the University of Montevallo. I also met with Mr. Heatherly, Montevallo’s archivist, and selected an image of Main Hall to be used as the WWI-era “representative” image of the Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute. Permissions for the use of all of these materials have been obtained in writing.

Mr. Heatherly also provided me with my first batch of scans, which included presidential papers, administrative files, a Food Conservation Bulletin, freight records, and newspaper clippings from 1914, 1916, and 1918. I had initially tweeted that there were over 70 items in this batch, but the number is actually closer to 120. I am very lucky that Montevallo has a wonderful archivist and library student workers because they are making the process move very quickly for me. I have submitted a scan request for the portions of the A.G.T.I. yearbooks that I would like to use in the project, and I am in the process of doing the same for the bulletins, academic catalogs, and newspapers from 1917, 1920, and 1921. Mr. Heatherly also put me in touch with the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I am currently working on submitting the permissions forms necessary to publish images and documents from the WWI Gold Star Database. I’m very excited that the project is moving forward!

Thoughts on the Role of the Historian in the Digital Age

As part of our assignment this week, I read over the following essays from Writing History in the Digital Age by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty:

  • “‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers” by Leslie Madsen-Brooks
  • “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” by Robert S. Wolff

Based on my reading of these articles, it seems as if the authors’ central arguments surround the role of historians in a (digital) medium in which they are not the dominant voices driving the historical discourse. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, historians have not played a large enough role in guiding the development of history as it exists on the web. Because academic recognition for digital scholarship was not widely granted or standardized for many years (and to some degree is lacking even now), professional historians have, for the most part, avoided digital scholarship until quite recently, instead pursuing only those projects that have benefited their careers and perpetuated the dominance of traditional, print-based scholarship. The absence of academic historians on the World Wide Web left a gap that was quickly filled by an assortment of conspiracy theorists, antiquarians, genealogists, and popular history enthusiasts. Without the authoritative voices of academically-trained historians to interject in the writing of history online, these individuals were left to shape the historical discourse that now defines “history” on the web.

In the past, historical scholars were responsible for shaping and defining the existing body of historical knowledge. It was through the contributions of these individuals that our understanding of the past and the human experience developed and expanded. This is true even now, as academic historians are still the standard bearers for the study of history. However, the nature of the World Wide Web has led to a reversal (of sorts) in the role of historians in shaping the historical conversation. The World Wide Web, by its very nature, is an open, accessible, collaborative medium through which to exchange knowledge. On a positive note, the web has allowed for unprecedented access to historical artifacts and primary source documents, both for scholars and for popular enthusiasts. It has led to a democratization of knowledge unseen before in history. However, while the web has opened the flood gates of knowledge for anyone with the appropriate technology, it has also opened the flood gates for anyone to contribute to historical study on the web and the public remembrance of history. In some ways this increased access is quite positive. People who would previously have been excluded from the historical dialogue now have the ability to share their unique viewpoints and experiences, which has led to a richer and more complete understanding of the historical record. However, with almost all barriers-to-entry removed or greatly reduced, the increased participation of the masses in shaping how we remember history has led to the propagation of historical half-truths, ideology-fueled acts of revisionism, and horrendously inaccurate interpretations of primary source documents.

Some would ask: why is this necessarily a problem? In a free and open medium, should people not be able to post what they like, provided that it causes no harm to other individuals? I would argue that it is very damaging and very much a problem that historical inaccuracies are being perpetuated on the web, and I believe that it is for this reason that the role of the historian will be secure in the digital age. With the World Wide Web serving as the “ready-made” source of knowledge for an ever-increasing portion of the population, the propagation of historical untruths can have a profoundly negative impact on the collective mentality of a society. As much as members of our society pride themselves on individualism and self-reliance, they also draw great strength from a shared experience and shared societal identity. This shared identity can only be understood through an examination of history and an understanding of one’s place in relation to the experiences of others. Warped historical accounts, incomplete narratives, unintentional inaccuracies, and blatant falsehoods not only pollute the general body of historical knowledge, but they also undermine the establishment of a society’s shared experience. Without developing a meaningful and accurate understanding of one’s past, it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions about one’s place in a broad context, to remedy past wrongs, or to address present issues and conflicts. Historians are able to provide the intellectual foundation on which all of these things can be attained. There is nothing wrong with encouraging public participation in the collection and preservation of the historical record; in fact, such perspectives are invaluable in understanding the social and cultural factors that have driven so many recent historical movements. However, if these individuals are truly interested in participating in a historical dialogue, it is important that their contributions adhere to the standards and conventions of historical study. Trained historians can provide the structure and guidance needed to facilitate the ever-increasing body of digital history on the web.

A Website Was Born, or How It All Began to Feel Very Real

This week, as I was writing my Century America contract, I began to realize that a different portion of the project is about to begin. Over the past several weeks that I’ve spent in the archives, all of my ideas and hopes for my Century America project have remained somewhat abstract. However, as I was writing the milestone dates for my project, I realized how “real” and tangible the project is beginning to feel. The prospect of actually working on the website is one that I am very much excited about. I am looking forward to sharing all of the work that I have done and all of the unique and unpublished documents that I have found over the last few weeks. I think the story of A.G.T.I. and Montevallo in the WWI-context is a very interesting one, and I am glad to have the opportunity to share this story with such a (potentially) large audience. However, I’ve also never shared my work on such a large scale, and being something of a perfectionist, I am having to learn to not be a stumbling block in my own path. That’s why I’m glad I have other people to hold me accountable!

So far, this week has turned up a few promising leads and a few dead ends. I spoke with the president of the Shelby County Museum and Archives earlier in the week, and he indicated that much of the material that they have in their holdings can also be found in the archives located on my university’s campus. Because of this, I do not know whether I will attempt to make a trip to their facilities. They do have a few items that my university does not, such as marriage records, census information, and death records. Because of the angle that I am taking with my site, however, I do not believe this information will be particularly beneficial in constructing my site’s narrative. I was informed today by my university’s archivist that the Shelby County Museum and Archives may have some images that may be of interest, so I may attempt to reestablish communication with the president and inquire about these images. In addition to contacting the county archives, I also spoke with someone from the Alabama Department of Archives and History earlier in the week, and it appears that all of the files of interest in the WWI Gold Star Database are downloadable. At this point, I need to speak with someone about appropriate attribution and the necessary permissions to publish, if any exist.

I also spent a few hours in Montevallo’s archives today and on Tuesday. I have prepared a list of materials that I would like digitized for my project, and this information has been furnished to the university’s archivist. I have also provided him with a list of the milestone dates in my Century America contract, and I have offered to help with the process of scanning the requested items. I am emailing the university’s official photographer shortly to speak with him about viewing some representative images of Montevallo from within the last several years to provide for the overarching site. I will have these modern images, as well as images from 1914-1919, to Jack by the specified date. At this point, I am trying to finish going through the newspapers from the period, and I am placing additional scanning requests for newspaper articles. I am also requesting digitized versions of poems, writings, and images from the yearbooks. I will be doing the same for the academic bulletins tomorrow and Saturday.

I have started to experiment with my Century America website. Let me know what you think about the theme, concept, and layout! All feedback is welcome! My site can be found here.

Interesting Finds

I found a lot of interesting institutional documents this week as I was digging through the archives here at the University of Montevallo. While perusing the administrative files, I found a file box containing freight records from 1919-1922. These documents provide insight into the types of items the university purchased during the period. The following items were freighted to Montevallo in the above mentioned years:

  • syrup
  • laundry machines
  • pipes
  • coffee
  • flour
  • brooms
  • ink
  • twine
  • stationary
  • sugar
  • diary feed
  • grits
  • books from the Democrat Printing Company
  • various fruits, including apples, oranges, bananas, cranberries, and lemons
  • bacon
  • cheese
  • sulfuric acid…
  • Purina cow chow

I could continue the list for several pages, but I think the above listed items are representative of the purchases made during the period. Information such as this could be valuable in helping me to understand how the university functioned and met its needs during the period. I also found quite a bit of useful information in The Peoples Advocate, a local newspaper from the period. Within the 1918 run of this periodical, I found the names of numerous (upwards of 30 so far) Montevallo men who were drafted. Within this same periodical, I also found a list of some of the individuals in Montevallo who purchased Liberty Bonds. I plan to search for information on these individuals to provide my project with the “human element” that I have been trying so desperately to find. Thanks to my university archivist, Carey Heatherly, I also managed to locate the Alabama Department of Archives and History WWI Gold Star Database. This site lists the names of five Montevallo men who died in WWI. Even more importantly, this site has images, biographies, and bioforms of some of these men. I will be in contact with the state archives about using this material, and any additional materials they have, on my Century America site.

I also received a number of scanned images this week, including the featured image for this blog post. This image, taken from the Annie Crawford Milner Archives and Special Collections at the University of Montevallo, is one of Main Hall Library in 1910. While it was taken somewhat before the period we are interested in, I have decided to take a broader approach in depicting my town and university during the WWI period.

Navigating an Uncertain Path

This week has been a challenge for me in terms of deciding just exactly what I would like to do with my project. Based on the kinds of sources that I have been locating, I think that a chronological narrative would be the best overarching format for my site. Many of the sources (yearbooks, bulletins, institutional minutes) that I have been reading are divided chronologically, so I think organizing my website along similar lines would make sense.

However, while the sources that I have been finding provide marvelous information about the Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute, I am also finding that most of the surviving documents are institutional, not personal, records. Because of this, I feel that I am missing a human element in my project so far. One of the main challenges I will have to face will be transforming dry, institutional records into an exciting, “human” narrative. I know we discussed several ways of doing this during one of our class sessions, so I am not “paralyzed” by having to compensate for this particular challenge. I just need to be mindful of my potential audience as I write my narrative. However, this prospect is proving to be somewhat problematic, as I haven’t really decided exactly who is or will be the primary audience for my Century America website. I am assuming that most of the individuals who will access my website will be affiliated with the University of Montevallo or the surrounding community, but because this is not a particularly homogeneous audience, I am uncertain of the tone, depth and breadth of information, and style of narrative that I should employ to best serve this audience. Given that some of my site’s viewers will not be members of the academy, I do not want to exclude them by adopting an overly-academic writing style. However, I also want the website to be a thorough, analytical, and meaningful depiction of Montevallo in the period of the Great War, and I want the research that I’ve done in preparation for the project to be highlighted.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I also haven’t found as much material related to the community of Montevallo as I would like to have found by this time. Perhaps, at least in part, this is because Montevallo lacks some of the local, historical societies that some of my colleagues have been able to utilize. I will continue searching for these types of resources; at this stage of my search, I may reach out to local officials for help in exploring community resources.

Another research matter I have been contemplating is one of scope. Should I only be focusing on things related directly to the war, or should I be painting a broader picture of the school and town during the war period? In my opinion, the sources that I am finding are more suited to a broad narrative, dealing with war-related and non-war-related information. I certainly want to focus on how the war impacted the Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute and the community, but I would like to touch on other aspects, as well. As I am conceptualizing my website now, I am thinking of it as a holistic portrayal of the school and community rather than simply as an examination of how Montevallo was directly impacted by the war.

Feedback, anyone?