This is Kyle Mathers signing off

Stay Class New

With the end of this class, the semester, and (for now) my graduate school career it’s time to reflect on what I’ve learned the past few months and years. A degree in public history is meant to cover a plethora of topics and give you a wide variety of experiences in the field, similar to this class. The focus may have been “new media,” but what is new media? Apparently, it’s a wide variety topics ranging from Facebook to online encyclopedias. This class has tried to accomplish more and cover more ground than any other class I’ve taken. And I would say it was fairly successful.

We skimmed over a lot of topics and there were others I wish we could have spent more time on. We were able to gain some practical grounding in certain areas with our work in the lab or other assignments, but I would have liked to hone those skills a little more. But there simply wasn’t enough time to cover every topic in depth as much as I would have liked. That would require multiple courses, probably an entire degree field. The skills I have learned are already helping me create digital projects in my current positions. I intend to expand on these in the future to create even better projects.

Of all the projects I have worked on over the past two years, this has been one of my favorites. Part of that has to do with the content, but I found much of what I learned to be applicable to what I’m doing here and now. It has been a long but fruitful semester. Stay classy New Media.

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Bones on the move

Our project’s narrative, structure, and use of Omeka and social media were thoughtfully and throughly explained in Amber and Josh’s blog posts for this week. I wanted to delve into our project’s theme of movement by detailing how Lalime’s(?) bones found their way to the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum).

At the time of his donation, Chicago novelist and literary realist Joseph Kirkland had just published The Captain of Company K, characterized by one reviewer as “the greatest war picture ever painted except Tolstoi’s Sebastopol,” and was looking for a Chicago-related topic in anticipation of the city’s forthcoming Columbian Exposition. hearing a rumor that a skeleton found at a north side construction site might be that of Jean Lalime, he discussed the remains with fellow CHS member Fernando Jones. A real estate entrepreneur and politician, Jones was an early Chicago resident known for donning “Indian” regalia at CHS meetings and composing off-color poetry; he also frequently testified in court concerning real estate boundaries. Arranging for the transfer of the skeleton to the society the two men “entertained a delighted audience” at a quarterly meeting on July 21, 1891 “with clear and ample statement of all known circumstances connected with the killing of John Lalime.”

It is not known for certain that the north side skeleton and CHM’s remains are identical as they traveled a circuitous route between discovery and donation, passing from unenthusiastic construction workers to the Chicago police and the county morgue before Kirkland recovered them “at a merely nominal expense” over a month later.

Jean Lalime’s supposed bones have never truly been at rest. It’s true Lalime stayed buried for quite a long time on Kinzie’s property. However, it’s debatable that he was truly at rest; it’s difficult to speculate as to how Lalime would feel about being buried in his murder’s front yard.

Skyline Stories

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I looked at an online exhibition created by the Chicago Architecture foundation called Skyline Stories. The exhibit provides an introduction intro into some of Chicago’s most important and interesting buildings.The idea is to inform visitors, but also entice them to visit CAF or taking one of their tours. Nearly every architectural period and style is covered by the site.

The included buildings are:Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 1.47.30 PM

Chicago Board of Trade Building
Harold Washington Library
Inland Steel Building
Marina City
Marquette Building
Monadnock Building
The Rookery
James R. Thompson Center
Tribune Tower
Willis Tower

The architectural style, architect, history, and the construction are all briefly discussed through a series of four videos. Each video is only a few minutes in length.  A combination of interviews, graphics, and stock building footage makeup each video. The videos are hosted on youtube, but embedded directly on the site. The videos containing interviews and graphics that detail the architecture and construction are interesting and well done. However, there is usually one video that contains general shots of the building, with textual facts overlaid. The only audio seems to be elevator music. These videos could be improved by changing the audio. The facts could be voiced over or the actual audio from the video, the sounds of the city, could be played.

On the page of each building there are short blurbs about the architect, architectural style, and location in the city. These are accessed by clicking on a non invasive icon on the bottom of the page. The pages and videos are easy to navigate. The home page and each building page are clean and sleek looking. The ambient background noise is sounds from the city.

The content only provides overviews, but it is a decent, well executed introduction to these structures and Chicago’s architectural history. Hopefully CAF will continue to add buildings and further develop this exhibit.

Mobile Storytelling: Creating and consuming content on cell phones and tablets

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Chapter nine, Mobile Devices: The Birth of New Designs for Small Screens, examines the creation and consumption of stories on cell phones, ereaders, and tablets. Mobile technology allows people to read stories nearly anytime or anywhere. People can carry dozens, even hundreds of books with them wherever they go. They can start reading a story on one device and pick it up where they left off on another, so long as their devices have wireless capabilities.

Ebook sales have surpassed traditional book sales on Amazon. They are less expensive than print volumes, however there is a large front-loaded cost in purchasing an ereader or tablet. This cost can be mitigated by using the Kindle, iBooks, and similar apps on cell phones and computers.

Due to the proliferation of mobile devices developers and creators have had to rethink how they design websites, making them easily readable on the small screens of phones and tablets. Stories have also been optimized for mobile usage. Not only is the text formatted differently, the style and composition have changed. Authors are writing stories that can be finished within the 10-20 minutes people might spend waiting at the doctors office or for a meeting to start.

I read this chapter on my Ipad using the Ibooks app. The app enabled me to highlight sections, take notes on the page, and look up unfamiliar words. I still prefer a physical book, but the advantages of an eBook are too numerous and beneficial to pass up.  I’m able to quickly and cheaply acquire readings for class. I can also carry all of my readings for every class without toting around a heavy bag of books or print off numerous pages. An ereader or tablet is an essential tool for todays student.

Navigating metadata and information in ruins

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The average visitor clicking through an online exhibit or browsing an online collection probably does not care to know where that artifact came from, who took that photo, or when that document was written. However this information is invaluable to anyone hoping to conduct research using the exhibit or collection or learn more about its content. Metadata tells us the who, what, where,when, and how of artifacts, documents, books, and many more resources utilized in exhibits and stored in databases.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s onliCapturene exhibit Time and Navigation: The untold story of getting from here to there apply utilizes metadata for the content of the exhibit.  In the Multimedia Gallery each resources has its own page. For every artifact, document, map, photo, and illustration seven categories of metadata are included: caption, type, image date, credit, origin, creator, and call number.
All of the information is unobtrusive and clearly labeled in a column to the left of the image. A direct link to the Smithsonian’s catalog entry, where users can find more complete metadata, is also provided.  Users can also add social metadata via social media links at the bottom of each page.

In contrast to the clarity and consistency of the Smithsonian’s exhibit the metadata for the Chicago History Museum’s online exhibit The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory is ambiguous and sporadic.  To view the metadata of a specific photo or document the user has to click on the photo, which pops to the center of the screen, and the metadata is then listed underneath the photo without any categories or explanation. CaptureAlso, not every photo has the same amount of metadata. Some documents have three or four categories while others only have one. The user can also choose to view the resources in list view where the metadata is listed to the right of the photo, but it still lacks categories. Luckily, the call number CHM uses is listed, so users can fill in the missing data using CHM’s online database.

Properly formatting the metadata is just as important as much you include choose to include. For our final project the metadata will be consistent and clearly categorized. It’s more important to have some metadata that is clearly organized and useful and having more information that is confusing and frustrating to users. We will need to decide which categories to use, but including what institution the content came from and its call number will are essential since we have used resources from multiple institutions.

Fake artifacts acquire real meaning

counterfeitauthenticmagn_158687Since beginning my internship at the Chicago History Museum I have had many interesting and informational discussions with my supervisor, the chief historian and executive vice president. One of the most memorable conversations we had took place during a tour of the museum’s collection areas. Russell was showing myself and some new staff members interesting items CHM has in it’s collection. Such as Lincoln’s moccasins, display dolls from Marshall Field’s windows, and the skin from the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The provenance on that last artifact is tenuous at best.

The skin was purchased by Charles Gunther in France for his museum in Chicago. Eventually CHM purchased Gunther’s collection, including the snake skin. According to a herpetologist at the Field Museum the skin appears to be from an anaconda or python. It’s mounted on a plaque with hieroglyphic markings, which after consultation with a calligrapher, were determined to be gibberish.

As it happens CHM has a few possible “fake” artifacts in their collection, including a possible fake of the wooden gun that John Dillinger used to break out of jail and supposedly preserved tea from the Boston Tea Party. Russell said he enjoys having these “fake” artifacts in the collection because they not only make for good stories, but they reveal more about the past than the existence of swindlers. These “fake” artifacts illustrate the objects that people thought held great value, monetarily and historically. Most of the supposed replicas or fakes are so old and their histories so intertwined with Chicago’s that they have acquired value in their own right. Even the fakes have meaning to them now.

Encyclopedia of Chicago: indispensable resource or burdensome responsibility?

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The digital edition of the Encyclopedia of Chicago is a virtual gateway into the vast history of the city. Through thousands of entries, images, maps, and other historical sources the history of Chicago can be explored. The online encyclopedia is a combination of an archive, a museum exhibit, and a historical narrative. The site is free to use and without advertisements. It is sponsored by the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University.

The digital Encyclopedia of Chicago is fairly unique. A quick Google search revealed other major American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Washington D.C.) do not have online encyclopedias dedicated to their urban history.

Nearly every conceivable topic has been covered by the two types of entries in the encyclopedia. Schools, organizations, people, places, events, businesses, teams, concepts, ideas, movements and much more are covered by the authored entries. These entries are written by professionally trained historians and scholars, none of the encyclopedia is crowd-sourced. Most of these entries attempt to remain purely factual, however some more complex topics require interpretation, such as politics and the police. These lengthier entries usually contain a short bibliography at the bottom of the article.

The other type of entry are the historical sources, such as maps, images, tables and graphs, and documents. The historical sources are used to support the authored entries, but some sources stand independently. Each primary source is referenced to the contributing institution with a accession/call number making the original easy to find.

CcAQVFzWIAEIWitThe encyclopedia is highly accessible. Users can search every entry, you are able to browse alphabetically through the authored entries, historical sources or both, and nearly every article contains links to other relevant articles within the site. This is one of the largest advantages the digital edition has over the print edition.

The site has a “Special Features” section that contains interpretive essays, interactive maps, galleries, indices, and tables, and an informative users guide.

This digital encyclopedia is an invaluable resource for both professional historians and urban history buffs. However, the site does have troubling drawbacks. There are multiple inaccuracies throughout the encyclopedia that are difficult to correct. The site is currently housed on servers at Northwestern and its current technology will not allow the entries to be updated.  Over the next year the site will be transferred from Northwestern’s care to a cloud based platform. It is during this transition that updates can be made. However, combing through all of the entries and choosing which ones need to be updated is a monumental task that will be executed in several phases. I guess that’s why museums have interns.

This move highlights multiple issues that arise when maintaining a free online history site. The site has become a fantastic resource for the public, but it has also become a burden on Northwestern and its partners. For whatever reason the university has decided it no longer wants to maintain the site in its servers (lack of resources, technology, or will power).  The site has not been updated since 2004. This is almost entirely due to the limited nature of the outdated technology, the technology simply will not allow the site to be updated in its current form. The transition to the new cloud based technology should allow for easier updates.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago is a fantastic resource that the public will continue to use due to its high degree of accessibility and the breadth of its content.  This site illustrates a success of the history web and the great amount of resources and effort it requires to maintain such a site.