Tona Hangen

DigitalWorcester

DigitalWorcester is an Omeka-powered digital archive, a collaborative creation that I conceived and developed starting in 2008. My students add to this collection as an outgrowth of their participation in my courses, each developing a small digital history project to extend the website’s scope and reach. DigitalWorcester offers my students opportunities to create and publish digital scholarship, make primary source materials public through digitization, and explore historical dimensions of their immediate surroundings in multimedia. Through partnerships with local historical institutions, it has gotten students off campus and into archives, cemeteries, houses of worship, private collections, and attics. In its first year, over 150 items were added to the archive and I expect it to grow at the pace of about 50-100 items each year. It’s my hope that over many years, the site will become richly textured and an invaluable resource beyond the Worcester locale, to anyone with an interest in American urban life and social history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This project has provided some special pedagogical challenges as well as possibilities. For most of my students, the assignment to create a digital history project is entirely different from anything they had been asked to do before, and requires some training (explaining metadata, the basics of digital history, overview of the Omeka software platform). Yet they end the project enthusiastic about their work and feel they have made an important contribution to internet resources about their own city. For example, in Spring 2009 and then again in Spring 2011, students in my social history class visited the Worcester Historical Museum’s archives to explore the records of a charitable home in the early 20th century, the Edwards Street Temporary Home and Day Nursery. Social workers had meticulously kept handwritten records of each family who received services there, most of them residents of Worcester’s immigrant neighborhoods. Students chose one family’s file, digitized, deciphered and made a transcript of the entire casefile, and then wrote the family’s story based on those sources, puzzling out the account and trying to fill in the interpretive gaps left in the record (see the students’ projects from Spring 2009 here). This project greatly enlivened our class discussions of the “immigrant experience” in America by providing each of my students with a vivid, sometimes tragic, personal account to work with. Through becoming the expert on that one family, each student gained unique expertise within the class, as well as greater empathy for the real people who are the subjects of history–in this case, people who left us no record of their own, but whose stories deserve to be remembered.

In my survey courses, I kept the project simple and straightforward: scan one object or photograph from the college’s uncatalogued archival materials or from a loaned collection of unbound materials from the Worcester Public Library, take one high-quality digital photograph of a building or other location in the city and find out its history, or interview an older resident of Worcester and process the interview into an MP3 audio file. For my social history course the project is a little more involved, since it asks students to commit to several hours of archival research off campus in the collection of the Worcester Historical Museum, process and translate multiple .jpg images of casefile cards, and develop a thoughtful narrative of the family’s experience. In my fall 2009 American religion class, students visited a house of worship, church, or shrine in the greater Worcester area. From that fieldwork, their digital project involved making a site report: a multimedia portrait of the congregation or religious community as a way of documenting 21st century local religious history (a project modeled, on a much smaller scale, on Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project at Harvard University).

DigitalWorcester uses the Omeka software, an open-source web publishing platform developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I use DreamHost to host the site. Without extensive prior web development experience, I am what the CHNM calls a nontechnical end-user, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn quite a bit about how to set up and maintain an archive online that uses a MySQL database as its back end, and a user-friendly searchable interface for the public site. The site was featured at Worcester State College’s “Celebration of Scholarship and Creativity” in April 2009, and was the subject of a feature article in the college’s magazine in the fall of 2009. I participated in the CHNM’s “playdate” for Omeka users and developers in June 2009 on the George Mason campus in Fairfax, Virginia, to improve and update the site and to collaborate with other Omeka enthusiasts.

Header image credit to Maren Mecham

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