I love train travel, so reviewing Railroads and the Making of Modern America for my project was an easy choice. I like the aspect that they are looking beyond records and documents to explore the impact that the train had on the growth and development of this great nation. This site gives us a glimpse of how people’s lives were interwoven through the railroads and how that changed the course of history in many cases. I was a bit disappointed that the historical aspect of this site focuses primarily on the mid to late 1800s and doesn’t explore much in the 20th century. I’m working on a project where the railroads played a vital role during the Great Depression and the years surrounding it. I’ve been in contact with the lead researcher for this website, he is interested in my research (though I’m just a novice at this). I thought it was interesting the the same researchers were instrumental in the creation of several of the sites that were reviewed – and that those all focused on the same time period in history, mainly the Civil War era. You could see the similarity between those sites. One of the presentations noted that when that class was completed, the website updates seemed to stop, which does not reflect well on the ‘sharing’ aspect of digital humanities and limits is usefulness as a research tool.
So, here is my attempt to embed my Prezi into this blog. I’ll post the script, too, so it makes more sense. If I figure out Slideshare, I’ll update it so the audio is part of the presentation.
1. If you follow Highway 14 west from Madison, it soon becomes apparent that small towns are about 7 – 10 miles apart. You pass by a historical marker that tells the story of a once-thriving community. You pass through sleepy villages, clusters of homes and abandoned buildings – remnants of stores and businesses. Those too were once bustling communities. One thing that all of those communities had in common was the railroad. In the early days of rail travel, that is how far steam trains could go before they had to ‘refuel’. And where they had to stop for water and wood, a town sprung up. As people became less dependent on trains for freight and travel, many of those same towns withered and died. Helena (hell ee na) was one of those towns. It was once a thriving community situated where the Wisconsin River and the railroad met – it was a shipping point for lead shot for the Civil War, and for lumber. Helena was seriously considered as a location for the state capital when it was moved from Belmont. It now little more than a memory – all that remains are a few homes and a tavern. Helena’s demise is a direct result of the change in railroad use.
2. Railroads and the Making of Modern America, a website produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is exploring phenomena such as this to gain a better understanding of how railroads contributed to social changes in America over time. Their premise is that the railroads “triggered unexpected outcomes in American society”, and “became wedded into the fabric of Modern America”. The website is coordinated by a team of experts in the fields of history, geography, and digital technology, who are actively involved in related research projects. It receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities—Digging into Data Competition, The American Council for Learned Societies—Digital Innovation Fellowship, the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, and from the UNL Office of Research.
3. The website creators noted that historical records are numerous and quite complete. Their goal, according to their website, is to “use digital medium to investigate, represent, analyze and document” their findings, and in particular:
- To capture and represent the social history of the railroad
- To create interpretive visualizations
- To build upon the base of historical geographic information system or, GIS, of the growth of the railroad over time.
They do this through what they call, the ‘assemblages’ of data, and interpretations that should be considered multi-media experiments in the presentation of digital history. As such they define the site as a digital history project. That is reinforced by the partnerships with other universities and libraries in the US and other countries
4. The website is straightforward and is easy to navigate. It uses drop-down menus accessible from each page, as well as lists on the sides of some pages. The home page contains lots of information, including links that define digital history projects, and an About Us page that acquaints readers with the project, and the researchers and their backgrounds. It contains links to information within the site as well as external links to related websites, blogs and projects such as the Aurora project, which provides apps for historical visualizations. It cites pertinent research publications. The site is not static, new information has been added to the collection within the past two weeks. The website goes beyond an overview of the function of railroads to looking at other aspects connected with the railroad such as Native Americans, slavery, politics, war, manufacturing, agriculture, technology – and how those things influenced the development of North America. One of the limitations of the website is that is focuses primarily on the latter half of the 1800s. There is not much information from the 1900s. I’ve actually been in touch with the project leader about information about the role that railroads played in the hobo culture during the early to mid 1900s.
5. This website captures the essence of digital humanities – using technology to look at big data, and in this case big history, in a new way and to share that information. It is defined as a digital history project, and as such incorporates John Unsworth’s Scholarly Primitives of discovering – representing – annotating – comparing – sampling – illustrating and representing. Others are encouraged to submit their research to be included on the website. Graduate student projects are included, with links to those individual websites. The Copyright Statement notes the information is published freely for educational and research use.
6. In keeping with scholarly primitives, the website offers thorough search options with a number of criteria and tools. Those include language analysis tools, an index of topics, data visualizations, and mapping. It provides thorough annotation of all documents.
7. The website is a good example of illustrating information in a number of ways, including animations, charts, graphs, databases, maps and GIS images, copies government documents and reports, and an extensive photo collection. I thought one of the limitations of the site was locating photographs.
8. I see the primary focus of this website as a research and teaching platform, so the main audience is educators, college students and researchers. That is evident in the layout of the information on the website, as well as the links for teaching materials. The information is used mainly in history and geography courses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The site would be easy to use for students of any age, or for anyone who might be interested. The site also offers opportunities for researchers and students to share their work.
9. So, does the train arrive at the station? I think Railroads and the Making of Modern America is a strong example of a mature digital humanities website. It does add to the larger body of knowledge of the disciplines and to the inter-disciplinary field of digital humanities. The site is designed well, it is straightforward, comprehensive, easy to navigate, and easy to use. It exemplifies digital humanities, especially well in the aspect of sharing information, with links to information within the site as well as external resources. It provides an avenue for researchers and students to share their discoveries including links to their websites, and highlights newly updated information. This website meets the objectives of the creators by providing a digital resource for research and investigation, and by adding to the GIS mapping of historical information.