Mapping the Civil War Draft Riots

For my final project, I recently completed three digital exhibits – Civil War Draft Riots – Digital Maps for my Digital Humanities course (HUM 502) at the University of Southern Mississippi.  The learning curve was minimal, as I had done an exhibit for the midterm, “Murders in Mississippi.”   This exhibit is still on the same website if anyone wants to check that out too!  So, even though I needed to build three exhibits for the final project, I was not working from scratch.  There were relatively simple additional skills to learn: using map and annotation plugins, adding simple pages, and tweaking CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). 

Learning html and CSS coding was an adventure!  These code sheets structure and build the look of your webpages – the fonts, sizes, colors, layout, features, etc.  Dr. Walters gave clear lessons and instructions about it in class.  I completed the assigned Codeacademy tutorials, but then decided to undertake the more in-depth courses in order to get a better grasp of how it worked.  I took Michael Singleton’s advice and started with html first.  I found, much to my own surprise, that I enjoyed html and CSS more than I thought I would.  I do not consider myself a techno-savvy person, in fact, I usually avoid technical aspects because it usually bores me.  But the more I learned and understood about it, the more confident I felt about dealing with it.  It probably has to do with the language learning part of my brain.  I like learning foreign languages, I usually dive right in, but they are challenging for me to learn.  It requires a lot of repetitive learning until  I finally absorb languages.   It turns out webpage coding is quite similar to that (at least for me and how I learn). 

However, with html and CSS, it can be a bit intimidating at times.  When you go through a “canned” exercise in the tutorial, it appears simple and easy.  Yet, when you open a style sheet on your website, there is a lot more complex code.  Trying to figure out where to make the right changes to achieve the results (the appearance) you want is more challenging.  And, when you make changes, but you do not get the results you are trying for, it is frustrating.  You harbor a fear that you are going to screw up the code.  I don’t think I could even begin building a style sheet from scratch!  Yet, Dr. Walters gave great advice on how to handle this.  When you open the style sheet, save it under a temporary name, so that the original is intact.  Then experiment with another copy, and try uploading that to see if you can achieve the desired results.  If so, great, you did it!  If, not, you can always reload the original saved style sheet so that at least you can keep the style sheet intact.  Having learned some of the basics, and experimented a little, I am far less intimidated than I used to be about the technical side of things.  I have come to understand and agree that while I do not have to master website building (there are professionals for that), the more I know about it, the better a digital historian I’ll be.

Building my three new exhibits was simultaneously exhausting and rewarding.  It was exhausting in that the work is repetitive and often monotonous – finding suitable items, tracking down the metadata for each, uploading the images and entering the metadata, cutting and pasting the historical text, building page after page after page after page.  I knew it would be time consuming, but it was more time consuming than I imagined!  But, again, referring back to how my brain functions, I often have a tendency to underestimate how long it takes to complete a task (I’m optimistic and hopeful, maybe?!).  And, in all fairness, I have only completed one previous digital exhibit project prior to these three, so I did not have much of an experience base on which to accurately judge the time needed.  But I found that once I got going on it, I became more confident and efficient at it.  At times, I found that I was probably needlessly obsessing over this aspect or that aspect.  I wanted to perfect it (perfection as conceived inside the deep recesses of my brain).  Also, I wanted the exhibits to be “comprehensive” which actually translates to figuring out the point at which you’ve done a complete enough job.  It will never be “comprehensive” because you can always keep working on it and adding more.  I had to work hard to establish a point where I could say that “this works for now,” and move on to the next task.  When I got the exhibits all done, I felt immense feelings of pride and satisfaction (alongside relief and exhaustion! hah ha ha).  

There was very much that was helpful in this course.  Even basic things like how to establish a digital presence and assessing what your digital presence looks like were useful.  It is something you need to think over and consider if you want to extend yourself and your work into the digital world.  I learned to strongly consider making things as accessible as possible to others.  While entering metadata is task that is tedious and monotonous, I understand that it is very useful.  I really enjoyed transcription!  It is time consuming to decipher and properly transcribe and tag documents into the established format.  But, deciphering the arcane language of 19th Century American “cursive” and making it into an intelligible and easy to read format is a task that is very satisfying for me.  For me, transcription is also like learning languages or html & CSS codes, it is like cracking ancient hieroglyphs that were formerly inaccessible, but now is comprehensible and makes perfect sense.   Something about that is deeply gratifying.  Learning Omeka and building websites, like everything in this course, was challenging to absorb the technical parts, but ultimately an incredible skill to learn.  I never imagined I would be managing my own website that I had custom crafted, but now here I am doing that!  I am living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.   I feel like I have come a long way in a short time, and I am very pleased with the variety and types of instruction that I received from Dr. Walters in this course.  Dr. Walters has the ability to “cut through the chase” and has crafted a course sequence that delivered an optimal set of skills, a structure to learn those skills efficiently and effectively, and put these skills to use right away in a set of productive projects.

So, this course has brought me a long way into the journey of conceiving and developing historic content for the online world.  A year ago, I probably would not have conceived of myself as a “Digital Humanities” or a “Digital History” person.  Yet I understood that digitizing history was how the world had become, and how the world will increasingly be in the future.  I understood enough to know that there is a useful future for digital history, to reach people with your ideas and research beyond the traditional confines of academia, popular print and other media.  Not that this direction is always great – the alleged “History Channel” stopped being about real history decades ago and devolved into some weird alien planet (it is no longer about historical earth, that’s for sure).  I do not want to be complicit in the nefarious spread of misinformation, a problem that is plaguing 21st Century society. But after taking this Digital Humanities course, I have learned enough to consider that digital skills are highly useful and productive for undertaking history.  I will continue to learn the basics by taking the HUM 501 course.  I have been seriously considering the possibility of producing podcasts.  I am interested in learning more advanced tools like data scraping and QGIS so that I can bring to bear some advanced skills towards making my research better and stronger.