Montevallo Water Tower

A Brief Account of My Journey Through College: Practice with TimelineJS

When I was conceptualizing what type of timeline I wanted to create for this assignment, I initially wanted to construct one focusing on the history of my university. However, after piecing mine together, I noticed that the website for my university’s archive already has a very similar (and much more thorough) timeline containing this material. Because of this, I decided to do away with my old timeline and create one focusing on a brief account of my journey through college. I really enjoyed putting together this timeline because I’ve never really taken the time to imagine how my college experience has developed in any chronological sense. Since I’m in my last semester of undergrad, I think it is a nice way to look back on how I’ve spent the last few years of my life!

I’ve never used a timeline tool  of any kind before, so I was glad to find that creating my timeline was quite intuitive. I found the site’s tutorial very helpful, as well. I only ran into trouble when I failed to enter appropriate dates in the date column (Summer 2012 vs July 2012), but I was able to figure out what I’d done incorrectly by entering the error message I was receiving into Google. I think this tool provides a number of ways to make my project more engaging and visually dynamic. It was really fun watching a rather uninteresting spreadsheet morph into a functional, attractive timeline. If I can find the material during my research to support a chronological narrative, I would very much like to incorporate Timeline JS into my Century America project.

I have added my timeline below and as a page on my blog.

 

Montevallo's famous "Hands" Statue

What’s Out There?: Digital History on the Web

Effectively constructing a digital history website is based, at least in part, on an understanding of what has already been done by others. This week I spent a few hours analyzing a selection of digital history websites to see how effectively others have utilized digital media to advance historical research, presentation, and pedagogy. This blog post will focus on three websites, in particular:

Gilded Age Plains City: The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of Lincoln, Nebraska, a digital history website affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, examines the murder of John Sheedy in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent, much-publicized, murder trial as a method of understanding urban development in the “Great Plains” of the United States. This website has a number of positive qualities, both in terms of aesthetics and content, that I believe help to further the author’s narrative. In my opinion, the greatest strengths of the website are its strong narrative and its use of a number of interactive or descriptive tools to help explain this narrative to the reader. Since the concept of space is so central to the story of John Sheedy’s murder, the architect(s) of this website deemed it important to include a “spatial narrative” section dedicated to rooting the reader in nineteenth-century Lincoln, Nebraska. This section covers the interconnected social, cultural, racial, and economic contexts of the burgeoning city, allowing the reader to develop a more meaningful connection to Sheedy’s story. The website also includes a timeline, an interactive map, a glossary of unfamiliar terms used throughout the website, and a page of brief biographies about the major players in both the murder story and in the history of Lincoln. The website’s strong focus on explaining background and contextual information makes the site accessible to a larger population of readers and researchers, which I believe is one of the main benefits of digital history.

From a visual standpoint, the website’s organized and well-labeled appearance gives the reader the impression that the site is managed by professional, historical scholars. Links to individual pages within the website are well marked, and I found it quite easy to navigate between the various sections of the website. As I searched through each page and followed the narrative, it seemed to me that the authors were mindful of the way in which digital presentations almost inherently lead to a fragmented narrative. Despite the fact that the information was arranged over numerous webpages, much of the story was still arranged in a conventional, chronological format, which made it easy to stay immersed in the story. Another aspect that I particularly liked was the website’s inclusion of primary source documents, including photographs and items from newspapers, in its archive; in my opinion, the inclusion of these materials helped to ground me within the minds and experiences of Lincoln’s residents.

The Gilded Age Plains City website showcases a number of features that I think, if included, would strengthen the Century America project. I liked that the website’s author(s) included the scope and goals of the project on the site’s first page. Having essentially read their thesis, I was able to focus in on the subjects that the author(s) seemed to find most meaningful. I also liked the website’s incorporation of descriptive elements and interactive technologies into the narrative; in particular, I liked the incorporation of biographical information, the timeline, and the map of Lincoln, Nebraska. Because of its strong narrative, useful, explanatory tools, and appealing visual elements, I think the Gilded Age Plains City website is a prime example of an effective synthesis of digital media and historical scholarship.

The second digital history website that I examined this week was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. The first thing that struck me upon examining this website was the apparent lack of emphasis placed on visual aesthetics. This website sticks out in my mind as a prime example of how poor website design can detract from both the authority of a website’s information and a website’s ability to convey this information. As I read through the main text on various webpages (under the “Explore” option), I found that I was distracted by numerous, oddly-organized links placed along the left-hand side of the text. I wasn’t exactly sure whether I was supposed to access these links as I read through the passages, or whether they just contained superfluous information. I’m sure that some of these links contained valuable maps, text, and other tools, but their organization and appearance deterred me from accessing many of them. On a more positive note, under the “Browse” option, the website showcased a wealth of documents, images, and other materials, all of which were laid out in a more accessible format. It also included sections dedicated to a timeline and a glossary, which, as stated above in the section on Gilded Age Plains City, I believe are valuable resources for any digital history website. In short, I think the use of a browsing option (for images, documents, etc.) is a great resource for a digital history project, and I hope to include such a feature in my Century America website. However, this website has also impressed upon me the need to focus on making my website visually appealing. I am certain that Liberty, Equality, Fraternity has wonderful information and documentary evidence about the French Revolution, but the design of the site discouraged me from pursuing any of this information.

The third, digital history website that I examined was one for the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project. This digital website focuses on providing a dynamic recreation of a 1622 sermon given by John Donne on Gunpowder Day. Upon first examination, I noticed that the site’s homepage was cleanly organized and labeled, with a link to an overview about the project, which I always consider to be a plus. However, the introductory information under the overview tab, including the project’s purpose, framework, and outcomes, was not smoothly integrated. While all of the information necessary to explain the project was present, it did not flow logically, and I found it very difficult to stay engaged in the text. In addition, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project website has several visual elements that are not pleasing to the eye or useful in serving the website’s goals. The website’s author(s) highlight(s) a number of terms in the site’s text in bold without an apparent reason for doing so, other than to draw attention to the terms themselves. On the homepage, links to other pages within the website are highlighted in bright, red text, which I found to be distracting and unappealing. The website utilizes a number of attractive, color images and artistic, visual models, which help to break up the text very nicely. However, while visually appealing, some of the images seemed to be placed arbitrarily throughout the webpages, which, in my opinion, added nothing to my understanding or appreciation of the project. Furthermore, the site seemed to draw excessive attention to various visual models created for the project; these diagrams and images appeared so frequently that they became redundant and lost much of their effectiveness. The same can be said for much of the information about the acoustic modeling portion of the project, the detailing of which I found to be overly-descriptive and uninteresting. In my opinion, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project suffers from a case of misplaced priorities. It focuses too much on detailing the project’s methodology and descriptive information, including sections about the physical conditions of the churchyard in which the speech was given, the weather, acoustics and ambient noise, Donne’s style of preaching, and other factors. I am certain that all of these factors were important to the completeness and success of the project, but I wish that they had spent more time and space on the website arguing about why any of it, including the speech itself, matters historically (although I have no doubt it does matter). If I can say anything about the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, it is that it sounds absolutely fascinating, and I think it deserves an equally-fascinating website.

Reynolds Hall, one of Montevallo's oldest (and most haunted) buildings

Surveying the University of Montevallo’s Archives

After making three trips to the Annie Crawford Milner Archives and Special Collections at my university, I have more of an idea of what resources I will be able to utilize for this project. On a positive note, there seems to be an abundance of materials available for use in the Century America project. The bulletins from the Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute for the years 1914-1918 are available, and I believe that they will provide useful information about the focus, goals, and mission of the university during the aforementioned years. The 1917 Technala, A.G.T.I.’s yearbook, contains a section on the war and its effect on the Institute; the Technala yearbooks have been digitized and are available for view online. Volumes 1-3 of the University of Montevallo Board of Trustees Minutes cover the years 1895-1922, and these volumes contain an abundance of information about the university administration’s decisions and actions in light of the war. President Palmer’s presidential papers for the war years are also available, and these documents provided a general understanding of the state of the university during this period, as well as some information concerning the surrounding community. More information about the surrounding community can be found in the archive’s holdings on The Peoples’ Advocate, a local newspaper from the periodI have already read through this newspaper’s printings from 1916, and I suspect that it will be a valuable resource for constructing my portion of the Century America project.

Several secondary sources are available to help provide context for the project and to point me in the direction of additional primary sources. For example, the book Montevallo: The First One Hundred Years by Eloise Meroney may be of some use in helping to understand Montevallo’s early history. I have not yet come across any physical artifacts from the period, but I will continue to seek out any such objects that may be available. Also, while I have not yet viewed any images from this period during my three archive trips, I have been told that there are several that may be of interest to us.

From my initial searches of the archive at Montevallo, I think there will be a large body of material to work with. I have spoken with Montevallo’s archivist, Mr. Heatherly, and he informed me that I have viewed roughly one-third of the archive’s holdings on the World War I period. Most of what I have seen so far are university documents and publications, but I will also have access to images from the period. In addition, the University Relations office sent me an email containing an oral history account written by Lillou McCain, a student who attended the university from 1918-1925. This account mentions Armistice Day and the impact of the Spanish Influenza on Montevallo. As I continue examining materials, I hope to find more visual sources and more documents that address life in the community surrounding A.G.T.I. There may be documents or images of this type in the Shelby County Archives in Columbiana, Alabama. I will continue exploring possible sources of documents or images about the Montevallo community in the coming days.

A sample of Montevallo's famous red-brick streets

Getting Started: Week One of the Century America Project

 

I spent several hours last Thursday in the archives of my university, and during this time I found several interesting documents that I think will be helpful in shaping my contribution to the Century America project. The Alabama Girls Technical Institute, one of the predecessor institutions of my university, operated a farm and a dairy both before and during the period we are researching, and many of the pertinent documents that I have read so far deal with the Institute’s struggles with labor uncertainty as it related to food and milk production.  I also found a Food Conservation Bulletin from October, 1917, that was distributed by A.G.T.I.; this bulletin provided a number of recipes designed to conserve food items, including sugar, meats, and dairy products. These types of efforts seem to have been an important method of saving funds for the Alabama Girls Technical Institute, whose Board of Trustees Minutes frequently mention financial strain during the war years. In the same source, there are later recordings of influenza outbreaks among the students and faculty, events that seem to have affected the campus in a significant way.

I’ve previously done research on the early period of my university’s history in the 1890s, and I’ve enjoyed reading more about how the institution has evolved and adapted in subsequent decades. I look forward to heading back to the archives again this week!

Century America Archives Day One