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.

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