Engaged Users and Reliable Backers – the Sine Qua Non of Sustainable Digital Collections

by Matthew Amyx

According to the Association of Research Libraries, sustainable digital exhibits or archives must consistently engage an enthusiastic user base and attract reliable donors. (ITHAKA S+R: Searching for Sustainability, November 2013, 16) Both cultural and academic institutions must address these challenges. (20) A multiplicity of financial supports also strengthens a digital archive, assuring that one source drying up will not threaten the viability of the project. (23) To facilitate considering how some of these principles play out, I look at Lincoln/Net, a product of Northern Illinois University’s Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project. Lincoln/Net contains over 7000 primary documents, bu its truly unique (at launch) function is the multiplicity of music and video media also on the website. While Lincoln’s own writings formed the heart of the collection when VandeCreek joined the project in 1998, it has since broadened its scope to use primary sources related to Lincoln to educate visitors on the historical context the Great Emancipator lived in. (For more information, see the 2015 Digital Humanities Quarterly article on the site.)

Attracting Users

In order to justify a project’s long term existence (and the funding demands that go along with it), one must be able to demonstrate an engaged and at least somewhat reliable user base. Lincoln/Net has achieved this on a few levels. First, the website contains an impressive array of primary documents and a functional search engine that attracts both academic researchers and lay history buffs. There would have been plenty such traffic alone due to the popular topic of Lincoln, but the inclusion of “peripheral” documents dealing with – among other things – the Blackhawk War, abolition, and women’s suffrage, selected and tagged based on relevancy to Lincoln, increases the site’s draw for researchers. The site also offers resources for schools, with a teacher’s section offering detailed lesson plans and discussion questions. However, there are no curated digital exhibits or suggested paths. (According to his DHQ article, VandeCreed was going for a Carl Becker-style “Everyman His Own Historian” feel that allowed visitors to blaze their own path through the site.) While I appreciate an “0ff-rails” option, I wonder if including an “on-rails” exhibit, especially one supported with music and video clips (interviews with scholars) from their collection could have offered school teachers a shared experience they could assign to their students. Doing so could open up more funding lines with instruction-based institutions. As the ARL report found, “The best online “versions” of the physical collections do not just translate them to the web; they transform and enhance them, making them potentially even more useful than their physical counterparts.” (29)

Attracting Funding

The site appears to be doing well with funding, however. A look at their About page reveals financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the McCormick Foundation, and several others. The project is strengthened by so many lines of support. I also know (from personal grant-research experience) that these sources (especially IMLS) require fairly detailed grant proposals, meaning that the ALHDP must have excellent sustainability plans. Part of those may be the institutional support they enjoy; they are supported by the University of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, Newberry Library, Illinois State Library, Northern Illinois University, and several other state and local organizations. These connections assure that Lincoln/Net will likely have access to fresh primary sources and expertise for some time, allowing them to update and maintain relevancy in their materials and curation. Universities can also offer free or subsidized space on their servers, another important sustainability consideration.


The Narrative Goals of “Fourth Star 1933”

by Matthew Amyx

The 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago offered to its visitors a look into the future and a hope that America could escape the doldrums of the Great Depression. Our team uses a combination of images, video, music, and interactivity to help our visitors experience the fair as a Midwestern child blown east by the Dust Bowl may have viewed it. While our lofty aspirations certainly outrun our actual skills and resources – and thus the final project may fail to fully capture such an experience -, we hope our website http://www.FourthStar1933.homestead.com (as yet unpublished) will demonstrate the capabilities of online story exhibits to educate through factual and emotional education.

The display functionality of Homestead Site Builder (the platform we are primarily using) allows for considerable narrative freedom. Although Homestead provide dozens of templates, users may also begin with a clean slate and format the background however they want. The intuitive interface and drag-and-drop mechanics facilitate quick and virtually limitless customization. These attributes allowed us to craft a template featuring the rainbow color scheme of the fair – an ability we thought essential for crafting the narrative experience.

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Actual color palette used by the fair designers. (Image courtesy of MSI for research purposes only.) The rainbow array sets the 1933 fair apart from Chicago’s “White City” from the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition.
Basic Color Scheme of Website
Basic Color Palette for FourthStar1933

We also wanted the website to sound like the fair, so we embedded media players on each page (except those with automatically-playing video) to play public domain, period jazz music from archive.org.Each page has different music. Ideally we would curate the selections based on the feel of the page, but we do not have time for that currently.

Just as visitors to the fair use a map, visitors to FourthStar1933 utilize a map-based menu page that allows them to select the exhibit they want to visit next. Homestead’s easy-to-implement mouse-over feature makes it possible to highlight accessible sites while maintaining a brochure appearance rather than breaking the narrative with a traditional site navigation layout.

Labels appear over accessible sites when they are moused-over, but otherwise the map appears as it would to a visitor in 1933.

The first page opens with a film showing – through still photographs and clips of footage from archive.org – scenes from the early 1930s. Laid over these images is audio telling the visitor’s story: you, a preteen child, travel from Kansas to live with your aunt in Chicago. You have been sent east by your parents because the family farm has been devastated by the Dust Bowl and your father is struggling to find credit for repairs because of the country’s financial collapse. You are downcast because of your family’s situation, and this reflects the attitude of the country. But then you see the fair, the glories and promises of modernity, and you wonder if perhaps things will get better after all.

A brief clip illustrating how each exhibit fits into this narrative introduces each of the five locations on the map. Each exhibit also features a hidden object game, where the visitor must find their ticket located somewhere on the outside of the building in order to see what’s going on inside. This way, again, the structure of the site reflects the narrative of a visitor, who must select where they are going on a map, get a ticket, and then visit the site.To my mind, this approach really utilizes the display functionality of Homestead Site Builder for crafting online exhibits, offering narrative devices unavailable to the featured object or collection features on a site like Omeka (although FourthStar1933 does link to an Omeka account  in case the visitor wants to learn about the images used in creating the exhibit.) For social media, we may have a “wish you were here” feature for Facebook and Twitter, just as you would send your friends a postcard from an actual fair. The intro video could also be used as a preview for the online exhibit that could be included in social media posts for advertising.

Films from the Home Front: Public History with Archival and Recently-Produced Video Components

by Matthew Amyx

The website “Films from the Home Front” showcases footage of life on the British Isles during World War II and a project studying this topic by students at Whitehawk Primary School in Brighton, England. While the site shares many similarities with simple archives or collections (each film is accompanied with a good amount of metadata and you can browse by theme) there are no search functions or finding aids. The site contains more of an exhibit-type feel, with interviews, student work samples, and the main “Films” page laid out as a timeline – a very cool feature. However, the video selection feature on pages with film, whether archival footage or modern production, requires a separate window for playback and – at least in my case – having to select a media player app. This clunky design broke the exhibit experience somewhat for me. Additionally, the audio and video quality lacked polish.

Whitehawk Primary School was the site of air raid trenches during World War II. The schoolchildren are often taken there for history lessons, which explains why the school is linked with this project. In addition to the timeline with historical footage mentioned above, the Whitehawk part of the site includes video interviews with veterans and citizens who lived through the war. The children themselves are asking the questions at what appear to be large community events, but the filming and audio suffer due to the informality of the setting where multiple interviews are going on at once. The site itself apologizes for this, saying “Please be aware the sound quality for some of the recordings is not ideal as they were recorded in a busy school hall.” Still, the earnest students are adorable when questioning the seniors, who are also obviously eager to share. The website is not just digital public history, but the record of a moment of inter-generational local community public history as well.

While the site is both educational for kids and useful for researchers, the poor audio/video quality suggests that maybe some more pre-production planning in how these interviews would be preserved would have been nice. Additionally, they should tinker with the site so that videos play automatically on the same page – not requiring a separate download. That would preserve the exhibit feel of the website.



Bioshock’s Steampunk Pedagogy: Teaching History through Large Scale Games

by Matthew Amyx

In Chapter 7 of The New Digital Storytelling, “Gaming: Storytelling on a Large Scale”, Bryan Alexander analyzes storytelling techniques in Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Rome: Total War. Having played the first two titles, I have been giving serious thought to whether educators could create a AAA gaming title (or something very close to AAA) that taught civic literacy, processes, and critical thinking covering an entire year’s worth of History, say Western Civilization I or American history between 1492 and 1865. My interest in this possibility was further piqued by the release of Bioshock Infinite, a title similar to its predecessor but with a setting based on the 1893 Century of Progress World’s Fair that taught about American nativism, xenophobia, racism, theocracy, progressivism, and other topics relevant to turn-of-the-century politics. In this blog I will analyze storytelling techniques in the Bioshock series (some of which Alexander mentioned for Bioshock, some new to Bioshock Infinite) that could be ported to a large-scale history survey game.

Incentivizing Side-Learning

Above:Voxophone from Bioshock Infinite. Right: Audio Diary from Bioshock.



Audio Diary

In the Bioshock games, the narrative is moved forward by a combination of linear events and cinematics that are, to use the industry term, “on-rails”. You can’t decide whether to watch these events or not. This is great for teaching students, because they’ll have to watch the content to achieve victory in the game. (I am skeptical about the ability of a more player-driven narrative like Fallout to achieve period-wide history goals.) However, cinematics do not inherently incentivize players/students to pay attention. Rewarding attention is much better done through the games’ audio diaries (called “Voxophones” in Infinite). They are hidden with various levels of concealment throughout the game, and often contain side bits of story just as mysterious and haunting as the main cinematics. But they also often include codes to open safes containing loot or the location of hidden weapons or supplies. Players are given an incentive to find and listen to them, but they will value their discoveries more because they chose to go “off-rails” to find them.

When I make my theoretical large-scale historical survey game, I will want to include a great deal of the content in “optional” side questions and looting mechanics, but find a way to reward the player/student for searching for and remembering those interactions. For example, I could hide historical documents related to the period of the level around the environment. Once found, a voice actor will read part of the document. (This audio will continue after the player puts the object down and goes back to the gameplay interface, much like the radio mechanic in Fallout 3. I would prevent the player from muting or skipping the audio – which would be considered bad design in a commercial market game, but is necessary for my pedagogical goals.) I would also include points, perks, or some kind of personalization (like clothing) with each piece of historic side document, encouraging the player to look for them.

Setting, Ambiance, and Periodization

City of Columbia
City of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite, loosely based on Chicago’s 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition (although the Sky Line seen here is from the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair).

Bioshock Infinite is set in an alternate reality where the Columbian World’s Exposition of 1893, in a fit of nativism, hyper-patriotism, and religious fervor secedes from the union by rising into the clouds (aided by steam-punk nuclear power brought by time-travelling twins.) While the actual cities of Columbia from Infinite and Rapture from Bioshock are fictionalized, the atmosphere reflects a period of history through the neo-Classical art style of the famous White City and Raptures submarine Art Deco/Noire. The soundtracks contain period music, both in style and content. (The time-travel element in Infinite even brings in music from the future – Beach Boys – but intentionally highlights the anachronism for story purposes, giving players an even greater sense of culture periodicity.)

City of Rapture
Just as a stroll through Infinite’s Neo-Classical City of Columbia teaches lessons on nativism and theocracy, so a jaunt through the underwater Art Deco Rapture from Bioshock gives a primer on Cold War politics, objectivism, libertarianism, libertinism, and more. Fictional cities teaching real historical themes and processes.

These audio-visual environments actually form the fans main cherished memories of the game long into the future, and that has a lot to say about whether digital storytelling must be primarily linear or not. The main protagonists’ stores in the Bioshock or Fallout series are interesting somewhat and their narrative must be linear for gameplay purposes. But players actually form their impressions of the game-world (and, for my conceptual history survey game, a historic place and period) in halting, piece-meal, and non-chronological ways – through the music and art of the world, audio diaries, posters on the wall, and conversations with non-playable characters that are rewarding but technically unnecessary. By encouraging players/students to look and listen carefully to pick up these pieces, and by keeping these pieces non-linear, we require players/students to think about narrative and historical processes themselves. In the gaming world, these types of games often lead to fan-theories shared over social media as enthusiasts argue over the meaning of obscure bits of story and culture in the game. There a literally hundreds of such YouTube videos with millions of hits related to the time-bending Bioshock Infinite. What’s exciting for a historian like me is that in most of these videos they will take time from the sci-fi narrative discussion to contextualize the game with the history of the period, including religion, politics, art, and technology.


Both Bioshock and Infinite are great examples of digital storytelling, their fictional on-rails elements notwithstanding, but the historical narratives useful for educators in them are non-linear, environmental, and even a little phenomenological. I imagine that if I one day help create history survey games that could replace traditional text-based curriculum in classrooms (and I think this is very possible), I would have to have a linear story because evaluation methods will be tied up in the student completing the game. But pedagogically I would spread the content around in an incentivized, non-linear fashion to promote exploration, a sense of accomplishment and agency, and discussion between students over cultural meaning and historical process. Now just to find funding and learn how to make computer games…

Jobs Are Like Fish-Shaped Candy Bowls: Reflections on an Informational Interview

by Matthew Amyx

Steve’s candy bowl looked a little like this, except it had a lid and was a little less whimsical.

On Tuesday March 29, I saw down with Steven Rosengard, Assistant Curator at the Museum of Science and Industry, to discuss jobs in museum collections. I chose him as my interviewee because – in addition to me already being there for my internship – he works with one of the coolest collections in the country at my very favorite museum. He chose to field my questions because he is a cool, friendly guy. (Incidentally, he’s also an accomplished fashion designer, and has competed on Operation Runway.)

I asked for his advice on creating metadata. He advises getting at least three people’s take on a project, and demonstrated what he meant by holding up a fish-shaped dish lying nearby. He asked me how I would describe it. I attempted a description based on dimension and, of course, its piscimorphic quality. He nodded, but then added that I could also call it a candy-dish, made of a particularly lustrous material (which I have since forgotten), and of a particular color. I wouldn’t have thought to include color in metadata. He then noted how many possible metadata synonyms there are for train (locomotive, rail-car, transportation) and that getting multiple people involved in brainstorming metadata preparation can tease out possible tags.

My next questions revolved around acquiring a job in the field. Having invested heavily in my education – with a few more years to go – I worry a lot about landing a lucrative job after getting my PhD that will allow me to pay off my Masters degree debts. Unfortunately, Steve’s tale – which he called “a very Chicago story” – didn’t really make me feel better. He does not have graduate school training specifically in public history, but gradually moved up the museum chain after being initially employed through the reference of a former coworker at an unrelated administrative position. (Of course, his fashion training is very relevant to his work in the collections as he knows intimately how to preserve and display the dizzying variety of materials in the collections.) He acknowledges there are not enough job openings in the field, and prospective workers have to be patient.

Despite these honestly quite depressing realities, he did bestow on me some very good advice. He advises people to really understand the business side of the field, learn how to work with and manage others, and – of course – network. He also really recommended being well-rounded in the skills of collections and archives management, which makes me glad I’m at Loyola which seems to do a great job at multi-faceted public history training. Training which will hopefully gain me a job somewhere in the field of history – jobs that appear – like fish-form candy bowls – shiny, useful, and sadly rare.