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Midterm Assignment – Nick Chkonia Isabella Bossa Seamus Glavin

The Valley of the Shadow Project

The Valley of the Shadow project depicts the daily life of two American communities – one in the north (Franklin County, Pennsylvania) and one in the south (Augusta County, Virginia) – before, during and after the Civil War. The project was developed by the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia, and dates all the way back to 1991, although the webpage itself went online in 1993.

The Valley of the Shadow project digitized a great number of sources and data to shed light into the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Franklin and Augusta from the time of John Brown’s raid (1859) through the era of Reconstruction (1865-1877). The primary research question is, as stated on the project’s webpage, to tell the forgotten stories of life during the Civil War era by giving voice to hundreds of individual people.

The project has had an immense significance for the humanities, and particularly, for the digital humanities. Not only has it received numerous endowments, grants, and awards, but it is also considered a pioneer in the early digital history. It is important to keep in mind that webpages did not exist until August 1991. The Valley of Shadow is then quite a long-lived project, and very few webpages can claim to have such a long history behind them. Its role as a pioneer in the areas of history and digital humanities opened the path for new projects and influenced and gave credibility to the digital history field. It is not in vain that Reviews in American History called the project a “milestone in American historiography.” The project’s pioneer status, however, comes with a price: the site looks and feels very outdated. In fact, the webpage seems to have been last updated in 2007 – exactly a decade ago. This lack of modern features and user-friendliness might dissuade users from exploring the incredible and unique resources the site offers.

In terms of information and sources, the Valley of the Shadow did an outstanding job. It allows users to study the Civil War, the events leading to it, and its aftermath, from a completely new perspective. The majority of times, history focuses on the big events, but ignores the impacts of these events on individual, average lives. This project, on the other hand, contains thousands of digitized primary source materials that enable users to get immersed into the daily life of Augusta and Franklin Counties’ inhabitants, and to have a palpable sense of how they lived, what they thought, and how the war affected their lives. Moreover, the statistics, maps, diaries, newspapers, official records, letters, and many other primary sources, show the immense differences that already existed between the north and the south, and can be used to study and analyze the causes and aftermath of the war at a micro-level.

The design of this project, although arguably impressive for its time, is laughably bad when compared to the sleek, minimalistic style of Web 2.0. The website does not seem to take full advantage of the visual medium and seems to fail with the visual analogy of a “digital library.” We can find written letters and diary records in the digital library presented as plain text. Clicking on any section, such as images, does not lead directly to those images but to hyperlinks to those images, with some descriptive text provided underneath. This is counterproductive as the entire point of having images is to present them, being a great detriment to the overall user experience.

Navigation can be described as nothing but unintuitive. The presence of a tutorial section for how to navigate the site and use its search engine is indicative of the site’s poor visual design, as the design of the user interface should provide all the answers for users. Although the site does have a metadata search option, its design is aesthetically unappealing, detracting from the overall user experience. Again, this can be justified when put into the context of its publication and hey-day, but remains as a point of critique from the modern view-point.

Nonetheless, the site is very accessible. The link to the project as well as its wikipedia page are the first two results of a Google search for “the Valley of the Shadow”. There are no restrictions on the viewing and use of the materials in this project, as the site itself gives credit to other projects that have used the information stored in their digital library.

The website is constructed in HTML and uses javascripting. For the layman, this means that the website is made so that users can navigate through it and see its visual components. On the back-end, the website still has access to a server storing all of its data, as us users can still access  and navigate through it on the Internet. But ultimately, the main flaw of the site lies in the fact that it has not been updated for a decade. Aside from its outdated design, this is noticeable in the lack of compatibility with modern software.

Clicking the animated theater map while running an up-to-date version of the Chrome web browser downloads an html file containing lines of machine code; code that is literally meant for machines to “read”. These animated theater maps were no doubt very impressive for their time, potentially providing a major locus for user interaction, however, because we could not experience these maps, we are forced to say that the site does not have any direct user interactivity, beyond allowing users access to a library of data they can freely download and use.  However, compared to other projects, such as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, the Valley Project has no options for users to directly upload files that could be of use to the digital library.

Being one of the first digital humanities project to be put on the World Wide Web, The Valley of the Shadow project has pioneered many successful qualities that influence the field today. Entering the archive, the user is met with three interactive diagrams formatted to enhance the project’s goal of comparing a county in the north to one in the south before, during, and after the civil war. The project is labeled as an “archive database”, and rightly so.  The site contains an immense amount of primary information from 1859 to 1870.  The information ranges from local statistics to church and tax records to letters and diaries to maps, with everything in between.  The information is connected well through extensive cataloging, which allows the multiple search functions embedded in a few of the website’s many tabs to work efficient and fast.  However, the project has a few shortcomings as well. While the search engines embedded into the website work like a well oiled machine, it can take up to ten clicks from the title page to find them.  The archive is almost so vast and well categorized that it begins to disinterest the user trying to sift through the various links in order to get to the actual primary content.  Also, while the site only has a small percentage broken features, the overall design could use some work, but there will be more on that later.

Edward Ayers, the project’s director, decided he wanted to have an in-depth look at the north and south before, during, and after the civil war. While he had the original idea and may have been a great manager, much of the groundbreaking work attributed to this project is a result of others who worked on the project with him.  Ayers and his team constructs their idea of comparing the two counties well, but leaves the argument up to the user to create.  This does not necessarily mean the argument is weak.  The user just needs to do more work to create and support it.  The only piece of bias is their decision to choose Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

While the project does not have a step-by-step process of how the site was created, as a whole it is transparent like tap water.  Although it takes three clicks to find the about page, it clearly displays who worked on the project and when.  The page also gives a fairly in-depth overview of who helped the project by giving them space, funding, and even tech support.

 

Seamus Glavin

Nick Chkonia

Isabella Bossa

Writing Assignment 2

When searching for an example of archive development to review on the NYU libraries website, the hyperlink to “Internet Archive” caught my eye [1].  Clicking the hyperlink, I was redirected to “archive.org”( a domain name bringing flashbacks of the dotcom bubble) where I was met with a very sleek, minimalist, and an oddly familiar user interface. There is a search bar with an option for advanced search, allowing users to filter their search by even the most minute of metadata. For the more casual user, there are logos representing each of the six categories of items this archive contains: websites, books and text files, video files, audio files, software, and image files. Under each category there are options to filter items within categories by views, title, date of publishing, etc. Overall, this website is superbly designed and highly accessible to even the least tech-savvy user.

Founded in 1996, the Internet Archive acts as a massive, nested archive: an archive of archives. It houses over 11,000,000 fully accessible books and texts, 550,000 ebooks, 3,111,794 movie files, 3,279,326 audio files, 162,139 software files, and 1,407,404 image files: a total of more than 19 million files. The website collaborates with over 1100 library institutions and other partners such as the Boston Public Library, the Live Music Archive, and the Metropolitan Museum. The archive itself has developed the “Wayback Machine”, a tool allowing users to search for cached versions of more than 279 billion web pages throughout the years.  Even looking at versions of the website throughout the years, using its very own “Wayback Machine”, I found that the site’s layout and design were constantly being updated and that its current state looked absolutely nothing like its early years in the mid 90s. [2]

The Internet Archive is highly credible, with meticulous citations and metadata for each individual item in their collection, allowing for amazingly efficient searching and categorization of data. In their text collection category, in the “about” section, I found a description of what the archive aimed to and a short description of their sources. They transparently state their partnership with certain libraries and their methods of collecting data and even state that they encourage “… [the] global community to contribute physical items, as well as uploading digital materials directly to the Internet Archive”, offering a hyperlink for users to create an account and begin uploading digital items instantly, even offering another hyperlink to help with applying a Creative Commons license on how the uploaded items will be used by the archive. [3]

Overall, this is a phenomenal example of a digital archive project. The sheer breadth of the items found in this archive, its comprehensive and easily navigable interface, and the professional transparency offered by the site’s founders and owners is nothing short of commendable.

 

Nick Chkonia

Sources Used

[1]”Research Guides: English and American Literature: Digital Collections and Digital Humanities projects (open access).” Digital Collections and Digital Humanities projects (open access) – English and American Literature – Research Guides at New York University. Accessed February 13, 2017. http://guides.nyu.edu/c.php?g=276589&p=1848819.

[2]”Top Collections at the Archive.” Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://archive.org/.

[3]”EBooks and Texts.” Free Books : Download & Streaming : eBooks and Texts : Internet Archive. Accessed February 13, 2017. https://archive.org/details/texts&tab=about.

Writing Assignment 1 – What is Digital Humanities?

Digital Humanities can be understood and defined as a field and as a process. Even as a field, it is hard to establish clear-cut boundaries and limitations on what it is and what it isn’t. Is the hardcore medievalist, using no other digital tool than a text editor, a Digital Humanist alongside a modern scholar, who finds him or herself entrenched in digital databases and scanned copies of manuscripts? It seems that, regardless of the particular digital tools and media used (and the degree that they are used) in the research, processing, and presentation of information in the field, Digital Humanities is unified by its “common methodological outlook” [1]. As discussed in class, Digital Humanities is not defined only by the use of these tools, nor is it simply the study of contemporary culture, but rather, it is an interdisciplinary field, an amalgamation of various disciplines coming together that seeks to both shape and study the transformations of human culture.

From this broader perspective, Digital Humanities can be viewed as a process rather than a product. A process that, starting in the 1940’s with Roberto Busa’s work on digitizing the writings of Thomas Aquinas in Index Thomisticus[ 2], continues on today with projects such as Lev Manovich’s work on “big cultural data” [3] and the Walt Whitman Archive [4]. The field constantly developing in tandem with wave upon wave of technological advancement. With larger amounts of data being analyzed, and subsequently, larger amounts of databases being created, Digital Humanities changes and challenges the ways we interpret and organize data, both as researchers and as consumers of research, even to the point where the line between researcher and consumer becomes muddied.

Sources Used:

[1]Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Debates in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed February 06, 2017. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/38.

[2]McCarty, Willard. “Humanities Computing.” 2003, 1226. Accessed February 06, 2017. https://blackboard.hamilton.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-614534-dt-content-rid-807556_1/courses/CNMS_201W_01_SP2017/McCarty_Humanities_Computing.pdf.

[3]“Cultural analytics.” Software Studies Initiative. January 2014. Accessed February 06, 2017. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/cultural-analytics.html.

[4]Folsom, Ed. “The Walt Whitman Archive.” – The Walt Whitman Archive. October 2007. Accessed February 06, 2017. http://whitmanarchive.org/about/articles/anc.00142.html.

Lab 1: Cultural Analytics & Visualizations

The Stanford Literary Lab focuses on trends in literature across time, region, and ethnicity. We found that each project was collaborative, with researchers also working on several different projects at once. They analyze these patterns by using computational modeling, for example in the “Fanfiction: Generic Genesis and Evolution” they study the development of genre by analyzing a large amount of stories to see how tastes and styles change over the course of twenty years.

What makes the visualizations we looked at useful is their ability to take large and complex datasets and simplify them, presenting them in both a useful and clear and intuitive form.

The Chicago Planning Agency uses visualization software to inform people at all levels in the community (be they city planners, working in media, businessmen, etc.) of the conditions of the city, providing greater transparency about the city’s state.

Make Grey Your Best Friend argues that the use of the color grey is helpful and useful in visualizations. Good design and simple contrast in the use of color is central in making any visualization useful.

The Hyper History website elicits a great amount of nostalgia with its design bringing back memories of 90’s AOL Online web browsing and the crunch sound of dial-up internet connections. Underneath this oldschool veneer lies a subtle complexity and functionality, making the site surprisingly reliable and accessible.

Novel Views shows complex graphics showcasing complex textual analyses of the novel, Les Miserables. This leads the reader to navigate through the information, drawing them in to really engage with the information. The information that is presented can’t be understood at first glance, but once the reader understands how to navigate the data visualizations, they can get a lot more out of it than from a standard pie chart or textual synopsis.

We think that the criteria for a successful data visualization is varied. There is no one standard. Each visualization is useful in its own context. In the end, it comes down to matching the style of the visualization with who the audience is, what data is being communicated, and what you want the audience to get out of the data.

For websites, clear and understandable navigation is crucial, while the use of color is very important in map graphics to help show data across regions. For graphs, the use of color and design choices helps to make information more accessible at a glance for people of all levels of skill and knowledge.

Analysis: Whatizit mines through large texts (up to 500,000 terms), identifying key terms, linking them to public databases, allowing users to access these databases by clicking on those hyperlinked terms. Whatizit is customizable and allows users to target any field (names, fields of study, scientific terms, etc.), giving instant access to relevant information on those terms.

Visualization: TagCrowd, for example, can be used to input large amounts of text to show the frequency of words. The larger the word, the more often it shows up in the text, making it easier for someone to identify the key ideas or themes that show up in the text. We think that this tool would be most useful in comparing multiple sources of texts, from different authors (for example), than using it to just analyze one text in particular.

Nick Chkonia , Dylan Thies

 

DH projects analysis

The Charles Darwin Library Project

http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/collection/darwinlibrary

The Charles Darwin Library project seeks to answer the question: what did Charles Darwin have in his library and personal collection? Through a focus on the books and manuscripts containing his annotations, researchers hope to provide readers with insights into Darwin’s mind. What was he thinking about and inferring from the texts that he read? What sorts of books did he value?

The Charles Darwin Library project uses scanned images of heavily annotated books, pamphlets, notes, and periodicals from Charles Darwin’s personal collection.  His notes, manuscripts and readings lists are also components of the project. The researchers go about obtaining these documents by asking museums, libraries, universities, and persons who are in possession of pieces from Darwin’s library for permission to either collect previously scanned documents or if they themselves can scan the original documents (with a high-fidelity scanner, most likely).  As a result, the  bulk of the files for this project are images and digitized text files.

The CDL project has thoroughly indexed Charles Darwin’s annotations, allowing anyone to parse through this database through  relevant keywords.  In order to make these documents accessible to the public, indexes and transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations have been made searchable on the site.

 

Nick Chkonia, Dylan Thies