Category Archives: Digital Summer School

Digital Summer School: On The Line in Metropolitan Hartford, Connecticut.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in our annual Digital Summer School series which highlights digital humanities projects focusing on urban history. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Chris Cantwell conducted our first class regarding  the digital project Gathering Places, Religion and Community in MilwaukeeTrinity College historian Jack Dougherty leads our second course discussing his work on Metropolitan Hartford: On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs

Why did you establish this digital project, meaning why a digital book rather than your more traditional academic text? Who do you see as its audience and why?

Many historians have a bad habit of splitting our work into separate categories, such as “digital projects” versus “scholarly books.” Some institutional factors feed this division, such as revenue-driven publishers (who depend on book sales) and conventional tenure committees (who cannot imagine how to evaluate digital projects). But this false dichotomy between projects and books does not serve our broader interests as academic authors. In our field of history, as the average scholarly monograph sells only a few hundred copies, and the retail price tag approaches $50 per copy or higher, our audience is increasingly likely to search on the web for historical sources and interpretation, and to view these results in their browsers. In today’s digital context, dividing projects and books is not a viable path; we need options to merge them into one.

Our audience is increasingly likely to search on the web for historical sources and interpretation, and to read the results in their browsers

Kristen Nawrotzki and I made this general argument in our introduction to Writing History in the Digital Age (2013). Over twenty-five contributors and our publisher, the University of Michigan Press, agreed to share our peer-reviewed publication under an open-access license, where readers can discover and view the full-text book on the web (for free) or in print (for a reasonable price). Scholars holding full-time jobs in academic institutions operate primarily in a reputation-based economy. If readers can access our ideas with our names attachedand determine them to be of high-quality, then our value goes up. By contrast, if our ideas are locked inside hard-to-access books or behind paywalls, regardless of their quality, our reputations among readers will suffer. My thinking about these issues continued to evolve, and I experimented further with blending web technology and book production, as I co-edited a second open-access book, with Tennyson O’Donnell, Web Writing (2015), and launched an open-access textbook with Ilya Ilyankou, Data Visualization for All (in-progress).

These three works illustrate lessons I learned while working on my current book, On The Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs (in-progress, under contract with Amherst College Press). Set in Connecticut’s capital region, the book makes visible the hidden boundaries that have divided American cities and suburbs over the past century, as well as the civil rights struggles of families and activists who crossed over, redrew, or erased these powerful lines. As a work of history, On The Line blends textual narrative and digital sources into one book, with web and print editions. Perhaps it’s most appropriate to call it a digital-first book, because the richest edition is the one that appears on the open web. The narrative is wrapped around digital evidence — including interactive maps, oral history audio and video, and scanned documents — to make racial and class boundaries visible to broader audiences and to amplify the voices of people who challenged these lines.

Screenshot from 1985 video of Saundra Foster explaining why she and other Black parents were arrested by a predominantly White suburb in the “Jumping the School District Line” section of On The Line book-in-progress, 2019,

How did this project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Thanks to the wonderful Way Back Machine by the Internet Archive, I took another look at the first version of On The Line that I published on the public web in 2010. At that very early stage, I presented some dreams and demos to obtain grant funding and naively predicted to finish everything by 2012 (Ha!) This early version also reminded me that my previous publishing partner insisted I create two interconnected yet separate products — a digital repository (free) and a scholarly book (for sale) — each designed to stand alone, but to refer readers back and forth. Under this early model, readers would have to buy or borrow the book to read the text and go to the companion website to explore the interactive maps, videos, and other digital elements. Honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t finish on my initial deadline, under the restrictive terms of this proposed publishing arrangement, since the final product would have been disappointingly fragmented.

The truth is that the origins of On The Line can be traced back to my personal frustration with the status quo of scholarly communication. “Why separate the digital project and the book?” I recall asking. “Why not create a better book that unifies text and sources into one product?” I began exploring open-source digital tools that merged web and PDF publishing into one workflow. First the Anthologize WordPress beta plugin (by the One Week One Tool team at the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University), then the Pressbooks/Open Textbook/WordPress plugin platform (by PressBooks and BC Campus), and now I use the Bookdown package (by RStudio). Each step has brought me closer to an improved workflow: composing easy-to-edit text that cleanly produces a web edition,with embedded interactive maps and videos, and a PDF edition,with static screenshots and links to interactive web content. Fortunately, I work with a supportive group of current and former students, librarians, and IT staff, becausebuilding an ambitious digital-first book like this one involves many steps: designing and coding interactive historical maps; transcribing and hosting oral history audio and video; managing citations and external links; future-proofing; and embedding all of this content into web and print formats. I’m not a speedy writer, and managing all of these steps has slowed me down even further.

On a purely functional level, when considering the project’s internal structure, how did you think about incorporating aspects of On the Line such as its interactive maps, videos, and other features?

As a historian, my job is to tell meaningful true stories about the past. For this book in particular, the goal is to help readers see the “invisible” race and class boundary lines that have increasingly divided city and suburban residents over time, and to draw attention to the ways that families and activists sought to cross over or erase lines, such as movements for school integration and inclusionary zoning. Showing how these people tell their own civil rights stories in oral history video clips is more powerful than merely retelling their stories in the text. While working on each chapter, often with student co-authors, we continually ask these types of questions: How can we tell stories that connect with our present-day readers? How can we persuade readers to explore and accept our interpretation of the evidence? And how can we guide both local and distant readers through spatial and historical change in our place-based narrative of a central city and its diverging suburbs? Creating this type of book requires traditional research and writing, but also dreaming up digital sources — interactive maps, video clips, and digitized documents — to embed into the narrative and illustrate our analysis. Some of my best teachers in this genre have been digital journalists (such as Alvin Chang, formerly at, now at

For example, consider how historians have published over time about “redlining,” or discrimination in financial services based on people’s residence, typically linked to their race or ethnicity. Ken Jackson’s book, Crabgrass Frontier (1985), introduced many readers to the 1930s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and their color-coded neighborhood appraisal maps, which he quoted from and included an image of to demonstrate their segregative intent. Subsequent scholars such as Amy Hillier (2003) analyzed archival records with spatial computing methods and questioned whether actual HOLC lending practices matched this intent. A decade later, historians Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly and their colleagues released their Mapping Inequality digital history project (2016), with its impressive compilation of over 150 HOLC maps and appraisals, with commentary. In On The Line, former student Sean McGann and I co-authored a chapter that interprets this redlining history with a Hartford-area narrative. The chapter is illustrated with an interactive map of neighborhood appraisals created with the Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC) at University of Connecticut Libraries and the assistance of Trinity College graduate Ilya Ilyankou. The eye-catching redlining maps pull local readers further into the On The Line narrative, and allow them to explore archival documents for specific neighborhoods. But our book also argues that other federal programs,such as the Underwriting Manuals of the Federal Housing Administration, which are not as visually attractive as the HOLC maps, may have been more influential in segregating suburbs. Overall, this digital-first book delivers a hybrid combination of textual interpretation and interactive sources that, in my view, is vastly superior to the alternative: a separate book and web site.

Screenshot from “Federal Lending and Redlining” section of On The Line book-in-progress, 2019,

What role do digital projects like On the Line play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?

Based on local feedback, I know that On The Line has already begun to achieve one of its primary goals for Hartford-area audiences: to educate residents on ways that housing and education barriers have shaped our city and suburbs, and about the strategies used by activists and families who fought back against them. Although it’s still a book-in-progress, my student co-authors and I are publishing chapters and sources, as we complete them, on the open web. Our analytics tell us that thousands of readers have discovered this history, and dozens of local organizations and schools have invited us to give public presentations. Not bad for a not-yet-finished book.

As for the broader historical profession, another goal is for On The Line to help change the way we envision scholarly communication, by offering a reproducible example of blending textual narrative and digital sources into a book with both web and print editions. But I don’t have much evidence of progress to share. Look again at the wording of the question above, which refers to On The Line as a “digital project” rather than a “book.” It’s surprising to me how slowly the historical profession is creeping into the digital age, while keeping its traditional publishing paradigms intact. Relatively few historians appear to be writing digital-first books that genuinely blend textual narrative and digitized sources. I fully realize that these types of books require more work by collaborative teams, not just individual scholars; a wider range of skills not typically taught in history graduate schools; and sources of both start-up and sustainable funding. When I began work on this nearly a decade ago, I sincerely believed that more historians would be moving in this direction. Yet it still feels lonely to me. (While typing these words, I secretly hope to hear back from readers who will prove me wrong and share links to other digital-first books that blend text and evidence.)

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from East Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut, August 1897, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

It seems over the past few years two aspects of urban history have arisen 1) greater emphasis placed on education as key factor in suburban development notably in the case of your work here and others such as Ansley Erickson and 2) efforts by more academic and popular historians (I’m thinking of perhaps Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law which fundamentally synthesized a large body of work) to really grapple with how suburbs and their attendant segregation came to be. How do you explain these developments which in many ways are embodied by the project itself?

Yes, I’ve been very impressed by recent works on the historical relationship between housing and education, such as Ansley Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis (2016), Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (2017), and others. This may be a case where historians are just now catching up with our audiences. For several decades, privileged Americans and our politicians have understood the growing two-way equation between housing and schooling: where you live shapes your children’s education, and their level of education shapes their future income and where they can afford to live. So why has it taken historians so many decades to write about this?

The “Bridging the History Gap” section of On The Line argues that we have not fully understood how this dynamic relationship between housing and schooling played a central role in shaping metropolitan America because a prior generation of historians split these topics into separate bodies of literature and essentially drew boundaries around these disciplinary subfields. On one side of this scholarly divide, urban and suburban historians,such as Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, and Ken Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, described how housing policies and racial discrimination fueled the post-World War II decline of cities and expansion of outlying suburbs, but schools did not play a meaningful role in their equation. On one side, educational historians who followed the lead of David Tyack (The One Best System) focused on the rise and fall of big-city school districts, yet paid little attention to their relationship with suburbs. Whereas most educational historians halted at the city line, urban and suburban historians generally stopped at the schoolhouse door. So it’s a refreshing development to see newer historical works by Ansley Erickson, Matthew Lassiter, and others blur these boundaries.

So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say greatest achievement or unique insight?

Years ago, when teaching or presenting about the history of cities, suburbs, and schools, I used to “talk with my hands,” waving them around in the air in my feeble attempt to visually represent racial and economic change across neighborhoods over time. Now I teach and give talks with interactive historical maps. Seems to be a much better way to communicate about urban history, and less annoying for the audience.

jack-dougherty-photoJack Dougherty is Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College. Since learning how to create interactive urban history maps, he spends less time talking with his hands. (Photo by Andy Hart)

Featured image (at top): The city of Hartford, Connecticut,  O.H. Bailey & Co. cartographer, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.

Digital Summer School 2019: Religion, Community, and Milwaukee

Editor’s note: With the July 4th holiday behind us and summer in full swing, The Metropole brings you our second annual Digital Summer School, our effort to highlight digital humanities projects focusing on urban history. First up, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Chris Cantwell and the digital project Gathering Places, Religion and Community in Milwaukee.

Why did you establish this digital project, after all, notable parts of the nation often bang away about “academia’s godlessness” yet you’ve constructed a digital project exploring the role of religion in Milwaukee’s urban development? Who do you envision as the audience?

The project really began with my commute. Every day I walk to campus and I pass by several houses of worship — none of which are occupied by the communities that built these places. There is an old Christian Science sanctuary that’s now the home of the Chinese Christian Church of Milwaukee; the former home of Milwaukee’s oldest synagogue that is now the university’s performing arts center; and the modernist A-frame Lutheran church that’s now occupied by the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. As a historian attuned to the ways religious devotions and urban environments shape each other, there seemed to be no better illustration of this dynamic than these church buildings. And that’s when it struck me: what else might we learn about the urban environment by studying the places where people gather to commune with each other as well as, in many instances, the divine? How might our understanding of Milwaukee change? How might our understanding of religion change?

So, the project really began as a way to satisfy my own curiosity about the place I live. As for the project’s audiences, they are twofold. First and foremost this project is for my students. The project is based in a graduate seminar I teach called Local History Research Methods, which is a required course for students in our public history program. It’s in this course that students work in pairs and then partner with a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple to write its history. The arrangement gives students a chance to make something that can support their careers while also creating something that could benefit the greater Milwaukee community, which is the second audience I envision for the project. Individual congregations have already used the research my students and I have conducted to craft mission statements or figure out who used to own the buildings they worship in. I’ve also been called upon by the media to talk about local religion. If this project can help raise the religious literacy of the community, I think it’d be a success.

Map Illustrating the Distribution of Unitarian Churches and their Congregations, 1962, Brennan Christianson and Roman Lulloff courtesy of First Unitarian Society Records, 1841-2017. UWM Manuscript Collection 175, box 8, folder 6. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department

Since you have a mix of analysis – textual, spatial, and visual – what kind of decisions did you have to make when building the project? What archives did you decide to utilize and why? What kinds of obstacles did you encounter in this regard?

As a project that is rooted in a seminar on research methods, it employs a variety of tools in studying Milwaukee’s gathering places. In fact, it kind of serves as a laboratory for students to try out the methods that we discuss in class. When we talk about how to read sacred architecture, for instance, students then go and look at Sanborn maps or pull building permits from the city’s archives to offer an interpretation of the gathering place’s built environment. When we talk about oral history, students then interview longstanding members of the community. But sometimes the most interesting materials students find are squirrelled away in a house of worship’s basement or attic. Bringing these sources to light and documenting their existence is one of the goals I had for the project.

A downside to this approach is that there is only so much one can expect students to accomplish in the course of the semester—and there’s only so much the general public will read online as well. It’s for this reason that I only require students to write a three-thousand-word history of their gathering place based around five to six images, documents, or artifacts. But to make sure the project provides pathways for more in-depth research in the future, students also write what we call “Gathering Place Reports,” which include summaries of their church’s history, a thorough timeline, and a complete list of archival repositories and published sources on these communities.

The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Have you heard from or interacted with any of the institutions or religious groups featured in the project? If so, what has that dialogue been like? If not, do you have an idea as to why you haven’t?

Well, in order for a community to partner with us they’re required to identify someone who can serve as a liaison between the students and the congregation. So, the project is premised on sharing authority with these communities in documenting their past. But what’s been interesting to me is why these communities are willing to open their doors to us. Some see their participation in the project as an extension of their religious mission; a chance to spread their gospel. Other smaller communities, meanwhile, see the project as a chance to get their stories placed alongside more recognizable histories. But for all the gathering places I have had a chance to work with, there are those who have turned down a chance to partner with us. Some are just too busy and can’t be burdened with two students poking around their sanctuaries. But there are other, more vulnerable communities who might not want the attention that participating in a project like ours entails. Making a space for these communities in the project and ensuring it reflects the diversity of the city’s religious landscape is actually how I intend to grow and evolve the project into the future.

What role do digital projects like Gathering Places play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?

I think projects such as this reveal how the lines between teaching, research, and service are continuing to blur for the discipline in the twenty-first century. Though based in the classroom, the project produces scholarship and does so in partnership with the community. This kind of collaborative, digitally-inflected inquiry is a future for the field, I think, and my hope is this kind of work can be as celebrated as other modes of scholarly production.

What has this project taught you about Milwaukee, and/or perhaps more broadly, religion in urban America?

Currently the site contains the history of only seventeen places of worship, so the sample size is small. But already I’ve noticed an arch in the history of urban religion that is perhaps worth pursuing in the future. Of those historic religious communities that have managed to survive through today, most have made an important transition. They’ve gone from having once been the center of a community—where the people who sat in the pews were also those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood—to becoming a community center whose membership is constituted by some kind of unique activity or mission.


The Sounds of St. Ben’s Community Meal Program, circa 1970s, created by Greg Lutz and Jarrod Showalter, Photo from Archives of St. Benedict the Moor parish. Community Meal program recorded on May 10, 2019 at St. Benedict the Moor. Interview with Mary Louise Stebbins was conducted by Jarrod Showalter, May 3, 2019.

This, for me, was crystalized in the project’s partnership with St. Benedict the Moor’s Roman Catholic Church this past semester. Founded as Milwaukee’s first African American parish, the church once helped anchor the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. But after blockbusting, white flight, and a federal highway that literally split the parish in two drove much of the community’s black residents away, the congregation declined. Only after a local meal program took up residence in the parish did the church revive. But as the church enters its second century, the congregation is trying to figure out how its past should inform its present. Once a segregated parish, St. Ben’s is now overwhelmingly white and the church has been having a series of town halls on what the community owes to Milwaukee’s black community given its history. The students and I were invited to one of these town halls, and it was moving to see history become so relevant.


CantwellChristopher.jpgChristopher D. Cantwell is an assistant professor of public and digital history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is also an affiliate faculty member of the religious studies program. His research focuses on the braided relationship between Christianity, capitalism, and collective memory in urban America, and has appeared in Religion, The Public Historian, Practical Matters, and elsewhere. A winner of the Midwestern History Association’s Alice B. Smith Prize in Public History, he has also curated a number of exhibits and digital projects on religion, journalism, and twitter bots.

Featured image (at top): Photograph of partially destroyed Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church, 1967, created by Cody Shreck & Ken Bartelt courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society Archives 



Digital Summer School: Harlem Education History Project

All good things must come to an end, and this is especially true of summer school. Whether talking about the 1980s Mark Harmon feature or the classroom, digital and analog, it’s come time to shutter our doors for a couple weeks as The Metropole takes some time off. We’ll re-open after Labor Day with a month dedicated to our grad student blog contest, “Striking Gold.” However, before we depart, we have one more lesson: this time from one of the most famous black enclaves in America, the Harlem Education History Project (hit them up on “the twitter” at @EduHarlem).

From curating online exhibitions to enlisting youth historians to highlighting the work of local Harlem educational institutions and more, the project organizers, Teacher’s College Professor Ansley Erickson tells us, hope to convey “the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of ‘crisis’ or ‘failure.'”

Why did you establish the Harlem Education History Project and who do you see as its audience?

My colleague Ernest Morrell and I started talking about what is now the Harlem Education History Project in the fall of 2012. We shared an interest in generating new scholarship on the history of education in Harlem – for Ernest, as a way to ensure that ongoing work of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, which he then headed, was historically informed; and, for both of us, as a way to address the surprising lack of scholarly attention to education in this storied black urban community. We also wanted to bring the robust intersectional and critical scholarship in recent African American history to bear on this important educational case. Both of us were motivated, as well, by the sense that much contemporary education discourse about city schools, about schooling in black communities, is markedly ahistorical, trading in reductive notions of failure that obscure a reality of continued, creative, and varied struggles to secure quality education in an African American tradition.

Harlem mass meeting re Hillburn [case] raised enough to buy school books, between 1945 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
As we imagined embarking on this new scholarly enterprise, we shared commitments about how we wanted the work to develop. We sought a multi-generational community of knowledge production, by which we meant a space that included not only scholars at different career stages (who joined us as contributors to an edited volume that is now completed and under review at a university press), graduate students at Teachers College and in the field, and local high school students (who we connect to through an after-school program called Youth Historians in Harlem, initiated by graduate student Barry Goldenberg and sustained with our support). It became clear that digital work would be central to these multigenerational connections. We first conceptualized the digital iteration of the project as a meeting place and a site for collaboration and sharing for those connected to the project.[1]

We were also interested in how working digitally could allow us to work in public in ways that traditional publishing structures and timelines and traditional archive spaces prevented. This interest was motivated in part by the broad values of access and engagement that run through many public digital humanities efforts, but it was informed as well by the particular institutional and community context in which we were working. Urban historians know well the troubled history of Columbia in relation to Harlem, the most striking moment being the 1968 attempt by the university to build a private gymnasium in the public Morningside Park; questions about appropriation of land and colonial dynamics in relationship to the surrounding community continue in many ways today, including around the university’s expansion into a new area of West Harlem. In this context, committing university resources to new scholarship on Harlem was at once deeply necessary and very fraught. We hoped that working in public, emphasizing access not only to completed scholarship (as in the edited volume, which will be fully accessible online) but to the materials of our inquiry and our work in progress, would be one small part of trying to do this work well. Others, including various kinds of collaboration with community members, are discussed below.

Three African American boys playing checkers in summer playschool, Harlem, New York, N.Y, between 1940 and 1960, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As the project has developed – with our Omeka-based site now presenting a few collections of digitized primary source material, clips and complete oral histories, and digital exhibits – we’ve seen ways in which the site has supported the multigenerational engagement we were hoping for. A few chapters in our forthcoming edited volume cite oral history interviews conducted by students in my classes and housed on the site. A digital exhibit (in the pipeline, not yet published) created by a high school student links poetry as social critique across three generations: in the works of the Harlem Renaissance, in the writing of alumni from her school (as published in school yearbooks on our site), and in her own poetry. All of these connections are possible without a digital collection – but they have been facilitated by it.

The site’s audience has grown beyond those already connected to the project in two ways. First, our digital exhibits seem to draw the most traffic. This is in part via digital-only outreach, but also through the times they have been resources for authors’ and others’ presentations in various workshops, teacher professional development sessions, and the like. And second, as we’ve focused more intensively on “featured schools,” we’ve seen more use of the site by members of specific school communities, from people interested in accessing the material we’re sharing (much of it digitized at community members’ request) that is part of their own histories.

How did the Harlem Education History Project come into being? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to make it a reality?

This project has grown slowly, organically, based on relationships and based on pursuing new opportunities as they arose. And it is still in progress in every respect. In addition to the ideas and partnerships mentioned above, three key developments have made this work possible in our context.

African American woman showing a sign for an outdoor rally to a boy in Harlem, New York; “Today is NAACP Day” is on a marquee near them, photography by Ed Bagwell, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

First, I was able to build the Harlem Education History Project into my teaching work. Doing so provided a structured space to explore this history and the challenges and opportunities of working digitally. I teach two courses that have a topical focus on the history of education in Harlem with different methodological angles – one on oral history, one on archival sources. (Starting in 2016, these classes became connected to the Harlem Semester initative at Barnard College, which cultivates a set of community-engaged and Harlem-focused classes). Students’ final projects in these classes take the form of digital exhibits. From this pool of student work, my graduate fellows and I invite some students to refine their exhibits and move them through our peer review and publication process. (We would welcome exhibits proposed and created by scholars elsewhere, as well).

Second, the idea of “featured schools” gave us a scale at which to work that made many things – from collaboration to cultivating audience – more possible. In 2013 we started working with current and alumni community members at Harlem’s Wadleigh school building (it has been at various times a high school, junior high school, and secondary school, and now houses three schools.) Our work started with oral history interviewing, expanded to digitization of material of value to the school community – particularly, the rich sources that are the schools’ yearbooks. Increasingly, via a continuing set of meetings and conversations over the last year, this partnership is evolving toward more collaboratively-constructed oral history.

Third, graduate student leadership has been crucial in this work. Teachers College’s doctoral fellowships require a research assistantship commitment, and I have asked my students to focus their work on this project. Esther Cyna has been a fellow on the project for three years, and she has taken the lead in several ways – including researching, designing, and implementing our digital peer review process for digital exhibits. Cyna has also presented on our work at OAH, AHA, and other conferences. Rachel Klepper and Cyna have been key facilitators in our growing collaboration with Wadleigh community members as well, especially this year when I was away on leave and unable to attend community meetings and workshops in person. Youth Historians has been led over the past year by Matthew Kautz, Yanella Blanco, and Rhonesha Blache, whose work was funded by institutional fellowships that link TC students to work with local schools and students.

It’s crucial also to recognize obstacles we did not have to overcome. From this project’s inception, we’ve benefited from a stable, high-quality, sustainability-focused partnership with the digital humanities team at Columbia Libraries from this project’s inception. Rebecca Kennison, Barbara Rockenbach, Mark Newton, Alex Gil, and many others have been willing to talk about our ideas, the tools that exist (and don’t exist) to realize them, and in some cases to ask their skilled developers to help modify these when we needed. They have also made the quotidian issues of working online – in terms of updates, security, and more – things that we did not have to worry about. Having this support available to us without external fundraising has been crucial in beginning the work. Thai Jones and colleagues at the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been supportive partners as well.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy surrounded by African American children at the Morningside Community Center in Harlem, 1963, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from the Harlem Education History Project?

As the site continues to evolve, we hope it conveys the multiplicity and importance of stories about education in Harlem schools across the twentieth century, including in periods in which this complexity is often reduced to labels of “crisis” or “failure.” We hope that the potential of the digital – from listening to oral history clips to reading a digital exhibit organized around a map to moving back and forth between a chapter in a scholarly volume to related or divergent primary sources – make these stories more apparent and more engaging. And we hope that our exhibits (a small number now, but growing) attest to the range of analytical and interpretive approaches that these sources merit.

Although we continue to add to the project documentation on the site, I also hope that it conveys a sense of collaborations working to construct themselves, and reflects a humility about our work in this context. Looking back at our first conversations about the project, there are many things that we can imagine having done differently. We got started on this project via collaborative relationships within the university, building collaborative relationships with community members gradually along the way. At times this meant we needed to circle back to previous decisions and revise them, as in the case of our project name.

Each of the different collaborations on which this project depends has its own rhythm, character, and pressures – with Youth Historians and the schools and programs they attend, with the alumni and/or current communities at our featured schools, with scholars and community leaders who have been formal and informal advisors. Each is necessary as we seek not only to bring community knowledge to bear on university-based knowledge production, but to see university resources in the service of community knowledge-production.

What other projects or ideas most influenced this work?

Many projects and ideas circulating in digital humanities networks have been important provocations and, in some cases guides, for our work in progress. (This is not to claim that our work matches the aspirations or standards of these projects – but to recognize that we are learning from and thinking about their examples for our work, as others might want to as well).

Bookstore in Harlem, New York, exterior, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

These projects illustrate approaches to collaborative digital work in relationship both to the specific history involved and the contemporary landscape; some address the fundamental question that all digital historical work should consider: beyond what legally can be shared online as a matter of copyright law, what should be shared online and who decides?

Additionally, our approach to work in public around recent social history, especially with the stories of people who were not public figures, is informed by oral history practice and ethics. (For example, students creating digital exhibits around recent oral histories have contributed to a developing practice that ensures that oral history narrators have opportunities for feedback and response to exhibits that center on their lives).

Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones, and H. Rap Brown in Michaux’s Bookstore, Harlem, New York, photograph by James E. Hinton, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope the project goes in the future?

There are a few clear next steps, and other possibilities that may or may not come to fruition. First, once it is published, the full text of our edited volume will appear online as part of our site. We need next to decide what form this will take, but we have permission from the press that is now sending the volume for review to make the text fully available online with unfettered public access). We need to work especially to make the site not only include the book but have it feel a synergistic part of the work overall, connected to the primary source material and digital exhibits in the site.

Another next step is to build out the digital presence of our second featured school, The Modern School – which was an independent black progressive school that operated in Harlem from the 1930s through the 1990s. We partnered with a local history organization While We Are Still Here and The Modern School alumni community to host an event at which we collected several oral histories, and will continue to collect more. As these materials are processed, we look forward to building a collaboration that will determine how The Modern School’s history appears on our site.

Presenting any history digitally involves so many decisions – inclusion or exclusion, metadata, aesthetics, hierarchy – all of which involve choices. Who makes these choices, in a university-based and community-engaged project? In our earliest stages, university-based participants made many of these choices, in consultation with a few key community partners. Deeper collaboration going forward means navigating and recognizing the distinct positions that various participants occupy – people deeply invested in this history but less engaged in the digital; people for whom this is paid work, or those for whom it is volunteer work; volunteers who are retired, or are working full-time but still want to be involved, as a few examples among others.

Although connecting with local teachers has long been an ambition of ours, it is one that we haven’t yet seen realized. In the coming year, especially as one of our featured schools is undergoing a major regeneration and improvement, we are looking forward to connecting more with local teachers.

As a former teacher in a Harlem public high school, this is particularly important to me. I’ve been haunted by a bit of history that I had learned well after leaving high school teaching. I taught in the building that had been Junior High School 136. As Adina Back taught us in her work on the Harlem Nine, this very school was one of the hubs of mothers’ organizing against segregation in 1958. This concrete, geographically specific story raised questions for me that I should have thought more about as a teacher: was I connecting with my students’ parents as fierce advocates for their children? What would it have meant for my students to learn civil rights movement history with this example from their own school building, perhaps the same classroom where activists’ children attended and then boycotted? Whatever knowledge this project creates, it must be readily accessible to today’s teachers in Harlem.

Finally, in the next phase of this project we may return to a question we explored early on but then were pulled away from as other opportunities opened. What are the particular opportunities created for spatial thinking, analysis, representation in an intensively local digital project? What can you see, or what questions are raised, when various primary sources – from oral histories to archival documents – can be seen spatially, with metadata and an interface that allows for mapping as an exploratory process? Since we were asking this question in 2012, other projects have taken up this direction. We’ll be learning from their example.

EricksonAuthorPicAnsley T. Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; Affiliated faculty, Teachers College Institute for Urban and Minority Education; Affiliated faculty, Columbia University Department of History 

Ansley Erickson is a U.S. historian who focuses on educational inequality, segregation, and the interactions between schooling, urban and metropolitan space, and the economy. Her first book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016 and won the History of Education Society’s Outstanding Book Award in 2017. Her work has also been awarded the History of Education Society Prize (2016), the Bancroft Dissertation Prize (2010), and the Claude A. Eggertsen Dissertation Prize (2011). Her research has been supported by an NAE/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Eisenhower Institute fellowship, and a Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. 

Erickson co-directs the Harlem Education History Project with Ernest Morrell, Coyle Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017-18, she was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

[1] Initially we worked across various platforms – a WordPress blog for conference information and other events, a CommentPress site for contributors to our edited volume to share and comment on one anothers’ drafts, as well as an Omeka instance for digital versions of primary source materials. Gradually, we reconfigured our Omeka site to do the work the blog had been doing as well.

Featured image (at top): New York, New York. Phillipe Schuyler, child prodigy pianist, leading a group of children in the Harlem Center for Children in singing her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at the children’s benefit for a nursery in Harlem, Roger Smith, 1943, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: Black Perspectives

In the era of Black Lives Matter and under a presidency that stokes racial division and traffics in lies, the website Black Perspectives feels all too relevant to our times. “[I]n order for Black lives to matter, we must engage the matters of Black thought,” Associate Editor J.T. Roane noted in an interview with The Metropole. Though not focusing solely on urban history, Black Perspectives nonetheless provides insight into cities around the globe and the people that inhabit them–particularly people of color. Executive Editor Keisha Blain, Associate Editor Ibram X. Kendi, and Roane have endeavored to create a “critical digital public” that will enable readers to slice through the “chicanery” of the modern news cycle and the layers of false historical discourse.

Libertad para Angela Davis, New York Committee to Free Angela Davis, 1971, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What was the impetus for creating Black Perspectives? Who do you see as your audience? 

Within far too many American mainstream institutions, including its academic ones, the communities of the African Diaspora are either ignored, labeled as incorrigible social problems, or marked as helpless victims. Black communities are rarely and inconsistently acknowledged as the progenitors of generative intellectual thought, as producers of information with meaningful bearing on the matters we face as a global society.

We understand that Black intellectuals, those formally trained and those practitioners invisible from the purview of formal academic acknowledgement, are important to historicize and recall collectively, especially given our great perils, including the realities of peak oil, the violent reterritorialization of our cities, the mounting immigration and refugee crises. I approach my writing and editing for the blog from the premise that Black intellectual histories contain insights about our present, ones that can help us shift the grounds of the perilously anti-Black world we inherited through slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and racial capitalism. I see this as critical in shaping and invigorating a critical digital public, such an important task in an era when inequality in information accessibility is sharpening and in which a faction of the country has embraced outright chicanery.

Black Perspectives combines original historical research and contemporary social analysis organized in part through the basic understanding that that in order for Black lives to matter, we must engage the matters of Black thought.

I’m proud to serve in the capacity as associate editor for a platform that can produce such stunning public commentary as the July 2018 forum organized by Keisha Blain and Phillip Luke Sinitiere to honor the life and work of Sandra Bland. Taken together the pieces charted Bland’s death three years ago within histories of state violence and resistance, honored Bland’s important social justice activism, and poetically mourned the premature snuffing of her flame.

What do you hope people take away from Black Perspectives

I hope that people come to view the matters of Black thought as myriad and complex engagements with social, economic, political, and intellectual problems as they emerged within the various historical contexts of the Diaspora. I hold these as a key roadmap to the Black Radical Tradition and as the intellectual seeds for unrealized but not unrealizable futures.


Rosa Parks with Los Angeles Mayor, Tom Bradley, his wife Ethel Bradley (far left) and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (far right) at the Black Women’s Forum salute to Parks, Los Angeles, California, 1988, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did Black Perspectives come into being and what obstacles did you have to overcome? 

Black Perspectives was organized as an accessible digital platform in 2017. It is an outgrowth of the AAIHS blog, which was founded by Christopher Cameron in 2014. Under the sage leadership of chief editor Keisha Blain and associate editor Ibram X. Kendi the platform has become a recognized site for information about the histories and ongoing work of Black communities to make sense of, survive, thrive, and lay the groundwork for a different world. Some of the obstacles we face are unique to the particular precariousness of being junior Black faculty writing publicly in ways that the academy still doesn’t fully embrace as “the work”—i.e. the print form journal articles and books that guarantee tenure. Other obstacles are the speed and nature of online platforms like Twitter where people can use anonymity to be cruel and violent. We have had to learn to take real-time feedback in stride and to brace ourselves and ignore some of the vileness that comes with the territory.

Where do you hope Black Perspectives goes in the future? 

My hope is that Black Perspectives will continue to expand to include longer-format, more in-depth pieces within our repertoire as we transition to an online magazine format. My hope is also that we will continue to remain accessible—i.e. on the free side of a pay wall—as we also infuse public discussions with the critical insights derived from Black intellectual history.

African American Children, Chicago, IL, photograph by Russell Lee,  April 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How does Black Perspectives speak to urban history and what does it tell us that other sites don’t or can’t?

Much of my writing for the platform centers in the ways that urban Black communities from Philadelphia to Havana historically and in ongoing ways express alternative, often heterodox visions for cities and their futures. I hold these dissonant intellectual traditions about the urban form as the containers of epistemologies vital in the face of the radical criminalization and displacement that defines Black urban life from Detroit to Rio de Janeiro. They can help us to make sense of what is happening and also help us to draw forward out of latency processes and practices that resonate with and edify contemporary struggles to make the city livable for all.

headshotJ.T. Roane is assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is also part of the University’s urban futures initiative. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia, which historicizes multiple modes of insurgent spatial assemblage Black communities articulated in Philadelphia in the second half of the twentieth century. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.

Featured image (at top): African American school children holding signs of protest against Norfolk school board’s treatment of black teachers, Norfolk, Va., June 1939, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: Renewing Inequality

Undoubtedly, one of the break out digital humanities projects of the last decade is Mapping Inequality: Redlining in America, the impressively ambitious and ultimately very successful work resulting from the collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland including LaDale Winling, Nathan Connolly, Richard Marciano, Brent Cebul and directed by Robert K. Nelson out of the University of Richmond.

In 2016, Forbes ranked it as one of the five GIS projects changing the public’s conception of institutional racism. As University of Iowa’s Sarah Bond wrote of Mapping Inequality: “Such spatial analysis allows us not only to see how racism is instituted, but also to see how historical decisions continue to have an impact on the U.S. today.” Nelson, Cebul, and others have embarked on a new digital initiative on a topic close the hearts of urban historians, urban renewal, with Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacements, and Race, 1955-1966. The two historians sat down with The Metropole to discuss the motivations behind Renewing Inequality, the complexity of mapping urban renewal projects, and the insights they hope to provide into the process of post-World War II economic development.

Urban renewal demonstrators protesting plans to redevelopment Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, (outside City Hall, NY), January 19, 1962, Prints and Photograhs Division, Library of Congress

What was the impetus behind Renewing Inequality and who do you envision as your audience?

Renewing Inequality is the sequel to Mapping Inequality, the earlier project we created around the maps produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. We were and continue to be pleased to see journalists and other users of Mapping Inequality make connections between the federal government’s urban policies in the 1930s and the landscape of inequality–particularly along the lines of race–in American cities today. That said, in no simple way did redlining cause or alone shape contemporary inequality. And it wasn’t the only federal policy or program that shaped that landscape.

The urban renewal projects that the federal government largely funded in the third quarter of the twentieth century were arguably just as, if not more impactful than, redlining – and in many cases renewal was the solution prescribed for neighborhoods whose decline was sparked or accelerated by redlining. Those renewal projects ended up displacing hundreds of thousands of families from their homes, they destroyed hundreds of communities, and in many cases they accelerated urban decline rather than abating it. And throughout, families of color disproportionately bore the highest costs of displacement, over-crowding, and entrenched urban decline.

In short, we created Renewing Inequality for much the same reason we created Mapping Inequality: we hope to make more people aware of how the brunt of federal urban policy refracted through local government priorities and elite leadership fell upon the poor and people of color, the impact of which continues to be felt today.
How did this Renewing Inequality come to fruition? Were there any obstacles did you had to overcome?

Urban renewal was obviously a very complicated program. One challenge we struggled with is how to offer an account–a history–of the program where the point was not obscured but instead revealed by the data. The students we worked with spent hundreds of hours entering and correcting data. We ended up being pretty aggressive in selecting the data we used and discarding much of it. We collected, for example, tens of thousands of individual pieces of data that categorized how much of each cleared project was re-zoned or re-purposed for commercial, industrial, residential, and public uses. None of that is visualized or shown in Renewing Inequality. In order to focus as much as we could on the enormous impact of the program on people we decided to foreground data about displacements and either bury pretty deep or entirely ignore other data we collected (which was painful!). We also developed a more qualitative section of the site devoted to the social and planning history of the program – its lived experience – which we call “The People and the Program.”

Land development project (“Southwest Redevelopment A”), Washington, D.C. Map showing redevelopment and problem areas, architect Keyes, Smith, Satterlee & Lethbridge, between 1951 and 1955, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Another challenge that we faced, which is an ongoing struggle, is finding maps for individual projects. There were thousands of urban renewal projects funded by the federal government in hundreds of cities and towns. It has been surprisingly difficult to find maps for many of these projects, particularly in some of the smaller towns. We’re confident what we have in Renewing Inequality is the largest collection of urban renewal footprints created to date, but it’s still far from being comprehensive. Then again, we also learned that many urban renewal projects –the program funded local code enforcement initiatives, for instance–did not have officially defined project boundaries and therefore maps. But the qualitative historical record suggests that these sorts of programs were almost certainly targeted on specific neighborhoods and people and, in the case of code enforcement, could accelerate displacement by means other than condemnation, eminent domain, and razing homes.

What role do digital projects like Renewing Inequality play in the field of history? Where do you see this project and others like it going in the future?

In urban history, in particular, urban renewal has most often been studied at the scale of the largest cities. In terms of sheer number of people displaced, the Chicagos, Detroits, and New Yorks are clearly the most significant. But what our data also makes clear is that renewal was a program most often deployed in smaller cities of 50,000, 25,000, even 10,000 or fewer residents. If the twentieth century was a century of urbanization, many of these urbanizing cities participated in urban renewal, and often with devastating effects upon residents of color and their urban fabrics. So our hope is that this project joins more recent efforts by scholars such as Douglas Appler and James Connolly to encourage urban historians to broaden our conception of what counts as “urban” in urban history. In the case of urban renewal, a preponderance of programs were deployed in cities like Rome, Georgia or Easton, Pennsylvania. Being able to visualize this historical reality is one way to begin to broaden our field of view.

Skyline Urban Renewal Area, Arapahoe & 17th Streets (Commercial Buildings), Arapahoe & Seventeenth Streets, Denver, Denver County, CO, photograph by William Edmund Barrett, after 1933, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the next steps we’re taking is a partnership (still in its infancy) with MASS Design Group on an exhibit tailored to urban designers and planners that might alert them to the history of urban renewal in mid-sized and smaller cities. As with Mapping Inequality, our goal will be to explore the connections between past policies and present inequalities, and, in this case, help urban planners and designers to think more capaciously about the roles of history, enfranchisement, and scale when designing plans for cities across the spectrum of urban forms. This partnership should result in some new applications within Renewing Inequality, so stay tuned for updates to the site.

Urban renewal has been a very big topic among historians, what misperceptions or myths regarding it do you hope to correct?

We’ve mentioned the need to consider smaller and mid-sized cities, where the majority of renewal projects took place and which continue to be the preponderant but too often overlooked urban form in the United States. But another aspect of urban renewal that we visualize though perhaps we don’t emphasize enough is the evolving, surprisingly plastic goals of urban renewal. What began almost exclusively as a housing and development program came to encompass broader goals over time (often when planners and policymakers were faced with resident activism against the local plans). Urban renewal funds were used to advance the expansion of university and colleges by the late 1950s, to take the first steps toward hospital-based redevelopment of deindustrializing cities, and later to rebuild areas decimated by natural disasters. For instance, five of the six cities in Alaska that received “urban renewal” funding received it as disaster funding after the 1964 earthquake that caused a devastating tsunami. The “Valdez Area” project “displaced” the entirety of that small town as it was moved several miles west to a seismically stabler area. These were larger scale programs akin to the earlier uses of the program, but over the course of the 1960s, the program was amended to include much smaller scale interventions: programs for city beautification through tree planting, parks, and playgrounds; citizen outreach meetings and planning initiatives; and even grants directly to homeowners to rehabilitate their homes rather than raze them. Though the backlash to the program brought it to an end in 1974, for over a decade leading up to its demise the program was continuously amended to incorporate critiques of the mega-block style that dominated in the 1950s and early 1960s. We’ve tried to capture this evolution in our legislative history of the program.

Transportation Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. Schematic section from A Revitalization Plan for the City Core of Cincinnati, Ohio ,planning, Victor Gruen Associates, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Considering the success of Mapping Inequality, how do your hopes or aspirations for Renewing Inequality compare? Similar? Different? Why? 

One of the tragic ironies at the heart of the success of Mapping Inequality is that it derives from the perverse beauty and clarity of the HOLC maps themselves as well as the ugliness and equally clear racism so often voiced in the accompanying area descriptions. The forcefulness and intelligibility of these materials has led to a great deal of visibility for our site. But those same qualities have also led some to point to redlining as a monocausal agent leading to all sorts of instances of urban inequality today. Renewing Inequality complicates those monocausal explanations of contemporary inequality. While complexity isn’t always the best route to attracting eyeballs, Renewing Inequality offers a very data-rich, comparative, and nuanced portrait of the ongoing effort to redevelop cities at midcentury that helps to explain not only ongoing forms of inequality but why it is that downtowns in places as seemingly distinct as Lawton, Oklahoma (population 61,700 in 1960) and Boston share characteristics like modernist, megablock, center city developments.

Featured image (at top): Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model, wide view, architect Paul Rudolph, between 1967 and 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

unnamed.jpgRobert K. Nelson is director of the Digital Scholarship Lab and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program at the University of Richmond. He has authored, directed, or edited digital humanities projects such as American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History, “Mining the Dispatch,” and an enhanced edition of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. He teaches and writes on antislavery and slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.

Cebul_BBrent Cebul is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarship sits at the intersection of urban and political history with topical interests in federalism, inequality, and political and economic development. His first book is Illusions of Progress: Business, Poverty, and Development in the American Century (under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press). It is a history of how and why 20th century liberals repeatedly convinced themselves that stimulating business growth might fight poverty. At Penn, Cebul is also a Mellon Research Fellow at the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Digital Summer School: Nursing Clio

While most of the projects highlighted by our Digital Summer School series have been place-based–such as the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, Gotham, Chicago Elections Project, and even Tropics of Meta, though to a much lesser extent (somewhat Sunbelt, California leaning)–Nursing Clio represents a broader approach focusing on gender more than any one place or region. Launched in 2012, Nursing Clio has become one of the leading blogs in the academic universe and though not strictly urban in its orientation, cities and suburbs factor sharply in its coverage. One of its co-founders, Jacqueline Antonovich, sat down with The Metropole to explain how it came into being, where it’s going, and what insights she and her fellow co-editors have gleaned from the experience.

The San Francisco Women’s Building is a landmark internationally recognized for its mural, MaestraPeace, which honors women’s contributions around the world, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Why did you establish Nursing Clio and who do you see as your audience?

We started Nursing Clio back in 2012, right in the middle of an election year. If you remember, things like reproductive justice, affordable healthcare, and same-sex marriage dominated political debates and news headlines. In that one election cycle, the House passed a bill that weakened the Violence Against Women Act, the Senate blocked a measure to address sex-based wage discrimination, and several red states attempted to roll back access to abortion, repeal Obamacare, and increase efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ communitites. And of course, we had Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” Todd Akin’s definition of “legitimate rape,” and Foster Friess’ “aspirin between the knees” contraception advice. The media labeled it a “war on women”–and it was. In debating these issues, however, pundits, politicians, and reporters often failed to include any actual women. There was also a discernible absence of historical scholarship in these conversations that could have provided important context to these issues. Our goal, then, was to create a digital project that could amplify the voices of women by providing the space and scaffolding for both scholars and non-academic audiences to comment on these connections between past and present. We believed that a collaborative blog project was not only intellectually appealing but genuinely necessary.

What do you hope people take away from Nursing Clio?

The San Francisco Women’s Building is a landmark internationally recognized for its mural, MaestraPeace, which honors women’s contributions around the world, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nursing Clio’s mission statement emphasizes the goal of connecting historical scholarship to contemporary issues related to gender, health, and medicine. Our tagline, “The Personal Is Historical,” adds an important dimension to the groundbreaking feminist claim that “the personal is political.” So I hope that the big takeaway for our readers is that “everything has a history,” as Jim Grossman says, including everything you think you know about medicine, health, and the body.

How did the Nursing Clio come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

In 2012, I conceptualized Nursing Clio as a first-year doctoral student at the University of Michigan. The project was born from a public humanities graduate seminar taught by Matthew Countryman. The final project for the course was to create a project that would engage the public in some way. I contacted five other gender and medicine scholars across the country and asked them if they wanted to be co-founders of Nursing Clio, and from there we worked together on developing the theme, scope, and content of the blog.

In the six years since its founding, Nursing Clio has grown to a staff of eleven volunteer editors from various backgrounds. The editorial team includes tenured and tenure-track professors, public historians and museum educators, and historians working outside of academia. The contributor base is similarly diverse: Nursing Clio has published essays from over 150 writers, including academic historians, public historians, art historians, sociologists, anthropologists, K-12 teachers, community health activists, graduate students, and others.

Like many collaborative projects, we’ve faced our share of obstacles. About two years in, we took a hiatus to reconceptualize the back end of the project. A few of our co-founders left, we brought in new editors, and developed a new and more streamlined method for editing and publishing. The biggest lesson I’ve learned as an executive editor is that fostering a deliberate feminist space for collaboration means everyone on the editing team has an equal voice and decisions come through consensus. And although the blog is an important project, in the end, it’s just a blog. That means that sometimes life, jobs, or just self care comes before Nursing Clio and that’s totally ok. In fact, I think that’s been the key to our longevity.

The San Francisco Women’s Building is a landmark internationally recognized for its mural, MaestraPeace, which honors women’s contributions around the world, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope Nursing Clio goes in the future?

Our goal for the upcoming year is to possibly create a funding mechanism for Nursing Clio. This is sort of a contentious topic among our editors. How do you ethically monetize a project like this? We would love to be able to pay our writers, and maybe ourselves one day. I’m also looking forward to establishing a paid internship program that will allow undergraduates and graduate students an opportunity to learn digital publishing skills.

So far, what moment or event related to Nursing Clio comes to mind when one ask’s about its greatest achievement or most unique insight?

I am incredibly proud of our Power of Protest series that we produced in 2017. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, the editors held a Skype meeting to brainstorm ideas on how to effectively respond to our collective sense of despair and helplessness. We put out a call for writers to contribute to a series focused on historical protest movements across the world. We were not prepared for how many submissions we received. But the very act of protest has a long and complicated history, one that defies geographic or temporal boundaries, so I think we tapped into something very tangible and accessible for historians across subfields. We covered topics as varied as AIDS protest funerals, Bolivian housewife hunger strikes, squatter’s rights in the UK, disability sit-ins in San Francisco, and even children’s letters to US presidents.

The insight I gained from this series was twofold. First, blogs are a unique platform that can quickly respond to political and cultural moments in a way that journals and books cannot. Second, the informality of a blog allows for more flexibility in content. Many of the essays in our Power of Protest series were about health and medicine, but many were not. Collectively, however, they made a powerful statement on what protest could and could not achieve. For these reasons, I think scholarly blogs, podcasts, and even twitter threads are indispensable and important tools for historians.

More broadly, one important achievement of Nursing Clio is that we take a deliberately feminist approach to our peer-review process. Our process is not blind – our writers know exactly who is editing their piece – and this method allows for the editing process to be a friendly conversation, rather than a sterile (and sometime adversarial) process. As one of our editors, Cassia Roth, told me recently, our editing process could be a lesson for the rest of the profession. We are a public history blog. We have rigorous peer review, but we do so to help our writers flourish.

Antonovich grad photoJacqueline Antonovich is an Assistant Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her current research focuses on women physicians, reproductive surveillance, and medical imperialism in the turn-of-the-century urban American West. She is also the creator, co-founder, and executive editor of Nursing Clio. Jacqueline received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2018.

Featured image (at top): Mural: Women of the Wiregrass, 126 N. St. Andrews Street, Dothan, Alabama, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, April 1, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: Chicago Elections Project

After sojourning to the East Coast to visit the Gotham Center’s Gotham blog last week, we now travel to capital of the Midwest, Chicago, where LaDale Winling and others have embarked on an ambitious project that combines political science, history and GIS mapping to create the Chicago Elections Project (CEP). Winling, who has both a new book out, Building the Ivory Tower, and worked on the very successful Mapping Inequality project, sat down to discuss the roots of the CEP, the challenges faced in putting it together, and what makes Chicago such a worthwhile case study for urban political history.

This is the fourth in our Digital Summer School series, including the aforementioned Gotham blog, the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, and Tropics of Meta.

Harold Washington Library Center, Passing ‘El’ Train, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

In the summer of 2017, I was doing some research on Oscar DePriest and Arthur Mitchell, the first two black Congressmen from a northern district, DePriest as a Republican and Mitchell, a Democrat. Devin Hunter, a fellow Chicago historian, told me that the Chicago Public Library held detailed election results for their two head-to-head elections in one of their collections, so I went to check it out.

“The map captures the results of the 1936 election for Congress in IL-01 in Chicago, a rematch between Oscar DePriest and Arthur Mitchell.  Mitchell won re-election in 1936, but it was largely due to districts with white voters.” – LaDale Winling

The Harold Washington Library of the CPL has nearly a hundred thousand “aperture” microfilm cards of detailed election results, down to the precinct level, going back to 1886. They have data for municipal, state, and federal elections and primaries, as well as the precinct and ward boundary maps to go with them. It was exciting and nearly overwhelming to find such a treasure trove of material on urban political history. It was also extremely frustrating to wrestle with the microfilm reader and squint at the faint and grainy data in negative on the screen. Through social media inquiries, I heard from a few historians that they had used this collection before, with some of the same difficulties, and the wheels in my mind began to turn. Margaret Garb at Washington University had used this collection in her recent book Freedom’s Ballot on black politics in Chicago.  Also, Richard Anderson, who is just completing his PhD at Princeton University, had digitized some elections for his dissertation on post-WWII Chicago politics, called ‘The City That Worked.”

One of my fundamental ideas as a digital historian is that there is value in providing access to data, something I saw, for example, when a group of my collaborators made the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining maps available through Mapping Inequality. Since there was established demand for these election results, I thought there would be opportunities to broaden access and simply make it easier for people to conduct the research they were already doing.

[Alderman Edward Vrdolyak (aka “Fast Eddie Vrdolyak”, standing, center) gesturing during a meeting of the Chicago City Council with Mayor Harold Washington, as Alderman Edward M. Burke stands behind him], photograph by Lee Balgemann, May 11, 1983, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
In addition, access to this data and digital mapping resources can help us think about urban political history in new ways—as diverse coalitions, independent individuals, and communities with shifting interests and alliances. We often use the metaphor of the political “machine” to describe urban politics. That image and concept can obscure the variety of political activities, patronage employees and power centers operating in cities. A political machine can be decentralized and some of the key connections may be between the ward offices, precinct captains, and the local voters, rather than through city hall. We know this, and some of the best urban political history accounts for this. However, the research burden of investigating the variety of neighborhoods and communities in a large city can be very challenging—that spade work often gets lost in favor of synthesis or providing context.

Finally, I want to emphasize that elections matter. Studying these popular expressions of political sentiment is an important way of understanding social change. My suspicion is that we often rely on qualitative explanations and narratives for political change without drawing on the messy data where voters express their actual choices.

In terms of audience, we want to provide for scholars, to reach journalists, and to connect with the public at large. Chicago historians and urban political historians who have already been using the microfilm will get better, easier access. Chicago journalists will be able to draw on this material for data visualization and to craft more detailed and meaningful stories about Chicago politics that go beyond the typical mayoral narratives. Chicagoans interested in the history of their city, their ward, their precinct, or their neighborhood will find something about the history of their communities. Chicago loves to talk politics and this will help us do it better.

Why Chicago?

Chicago has been a well-studied center of urban sociology and urban politics that, through the tradition of scholarship coming out of the many Chicago universities, has strongly shaped the way we think about urban history. By taking this new look at Chicago, we can enable an interesting set of inquiries about neighborhoods, political figures, and policymaking that can be a model for other cities around the country.

I also lived in metro Chicago (Evanston) for several years in graduate school and studied the University of Chicago and surrounding for a chapter in my book, Building the Ivory Tower. It is a place I return to for archival research each year, so Chicago also makes sense for me logistically.

How does GIS contribute to a data-rich effort like the Chicago Elections Project and what do you hope people will take away from this?

We’re in the early stages, but when we launch, I envision this project as a comprehensive data resource for Chicago political history – one where users can appreciate the multitude of Chicago political figures, the fine-grained geography of city neighborhoods, and the interaction between space and politics. We live our lives in space, build community in space, and spatial relations structure our politics, whether it be racial segregation, the provision of civic infrastructure, or other investments. So we’d like people to appreciate the historical importance of counting votes, getting out the vote, of targeting appeals to specific neighborhoods and demographics. We recognize all of these things in contemporary political campaigns and elections, but they are hard to reconstruct and do justice to in historical research. Digital data management and mapping technologies help us handle this type of research.

Through a project like this we can also teach history students and research assistants digital skills in the course of building the site and collections. History students learn GIS, HTML coding, image editing, digital archiving, and data management by working on some pieces of a larger digital project as part of their college or grad school experiences. They can go on and apply these skills to their own research or to their career work after graduation.

The historic Chicago Theater, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This project is in its early stages. What obstacles do you face?

Building any new collaboration brings questions and challenges – how much time people can devote to the project, whether we have compatible interests and visions, how we can accumulate the resources to pull it off – and that takes time to negotiate and navigate. There is a set of supportive participants and advisors with interests in Chicago politics (Richard Anderson, Margaret Garb, Brad Hunt, Nora Krinitsky, Christopher Manning, and Christopher Reed, in addition to me), which has been a great help, and we would always welcome additional collaborators.

We next would like to find an institutional home for the project that is publicly engaged with the city of Chicago. Chicago Public Library administrators have not yet agreed to host this as a digital project. It takes a while to reorient institutional priorities and we’re working to get the library to take this project seriously. Some of the staff has been very cooperative in facilitating the digitization phase of the Chicago Elections Project, but we’re just at the start of a long process. Scanning; data entry, checking, and cleaning; creating relational databases; and drawing digital maps in ArcGIS all take a long time and a lot of labor.

Chicago Federal Center, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, July 27, 2007, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

The ambition is to catalyze a data-enabled, spatially-informed way of approaching urban political history, so building relationships with scholars in other cities could help start that process and demonstrate the possibilities elsewhere. I have just started conversations with a library in New York City that also has a large collection of elections data somewhat like Chicago’s, which may be the first step.


Chicago Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest wholesalers’ building. Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

The career of Barack Obama prompted several projects examining Chicago politics, from the Making Obama podcast to David Garrow’s book, Rising Star, and Gary Rivlin’s book on Harold Washington, Fire on the Prairie. What does this project have to contribute to our understanding of the already well-trod topic of Chicago politics?

All of those very good projects rely on narratives that are fairly triumphant about racial dynamics – either voters’ acceptance of African American candidates or black elected officials’ skillful navigation of racial politics.

David Axelrod, who worked for both Harold Washington and Barack Obama, tells a tale about how Harold Washington’s mayoral tenure helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s rise. It’s a neat story, and he illustrates it by saying on election night for the Senate primary in 2004, Axelrod checked a northwest side precinct where Washington had faced protests and white opposition. Washington lost the precinct, 10 to 1, but in 2004, Obama carried the precinct. Axelrod’s takeaway is that Chicago grew more tolerant, even in its most regressive neighborhoods, because of Harold Washington.

It’s not as tidy as that. Groups like the “lakefront liberals,” who were supposedly strong supporters of Washington, voted for his opponents, in many precincts, by large majorities. Northwest side precincts were changed as much by demographic transition as by any changes in hearts and minds, and this spatial and voting data helps us investigate that in detail.

So this project can help scholars bring together comprehensive data resources with excellent, synthetic scholarship. The combination of data and narrative can help us enrich the stories that we tell, improve our arguments, and help us appreciate both the optimism and the failures of our very messy democratic process.

Featured image (at top): Chicago silhouette, Chicago, Illinois, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Winling-Headshot2.jpgLaDale Winling is an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, where he teaches U.S. urban history, digital history, and public history.  He is one of the co-creators of ‘Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America’ and a forthcoming project on U.S. Congressional elections, both part of the American Panorama digital atlas from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond.  His book on universities and urban politics, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2017.

Digital Summer School: Gotham

Digital Summer School began with Tropics of Meta where co-editors Romeo Guzman and Alex Sayf Cummings talked about the old and new initiatives at the academic/cultural website. We then moved the classroom to the Midwestern metropolis of Milwaukee as Amanda Seligman discussed the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Today, we travel to New York City and The Gotham Center. Peter-Christian Aigner explains how Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City came into being and where it hopes to be going in the future.

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience? ​

I started Gotham three years ago, for a simple reason—it didn’t exist. New York City has an unrivaled number of libraries, museums, universities, and buildings dedicated in one respect or another to its history, of course, and some of them have blogs that occasionally spotlight the many treasures in their archives or the many wonderful programs they do. But there was no regular digital space, and certainly no obvious place, no headquarters online for all the scholars who do research on New York City history. And that just seemed insane.

There are hundreds of academics, in so many disciplines, who have done research on New York City history, so many every year. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of books, articles, etc., have been published on the subject, much of it recently. And that’s because New York City is, and has long been, America’s unofficial capital. People outside the five boroughs may dismiss that as egotism, and historians of different regions might cite their area’s significance, but the fact is that New York is this country’s most important city, historically speaking.

So, the goal was to provide a “blog” for scholars, like the Gotham masthead says. But I struggled a bit with that label, because the Gotham Center takes seriously the mission of NYC’s public university, our institutional sponsor: “knowledge for the public good.” We sometimes do programming strictly for scholars, but we are a public history organization, even if we are based in a university (CUNY’s Graduate Center). We’ve always sought to make scholarship accessible to non-academics, and have always included other professionals in the historical world (curators, educator, archivists, filmmakers, preservationists, independent scholars). So I did not want our digital publication to be exclusive. I wanted a broad range of contributors and followers.

College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

Well, in terms of professional value, I think Gotham provides a unique space for younger scholars in particular to engage with other professionals, share their research, and gain writing experience. Ideally, we can be a place that helps identify the next generation of New York City historians.

In terms of intellectual value, I think beyond that shared locus of conversation Gotham offers not only a place where one might apply the latest method or theory of urban history, but also perhaps a counterpoint to the pointillism of the field now, where the focus on a single place allows us to really dig deep and fill out collective understanding in a particular setting. Both approaches, the global and local, are obviously needed.

And generally, I feel there’s just a desperate need still for this kind of work, in public education. Mike Wallace established The Gotham Center at a time when New York seriously lagged behind other world cities in presenting its historical resources to locals and tourists. There was little collaboration between our great historical institutions, and the oldest, biggest one, New-York Historical Society, had in fact closed and nearly sold off its collections only a few years before. The idea was to establish a place that could network and support the many institutions and individuals who kept the history of this city alive, and make the public — including civic leaders — aware of New York’s rich history, and why it matters. Although in some ways the situation has improved, in others we are no better off, collectively, than all those years ago. New York History, for example, should be celebrating its hundredth anniversary next year. Instead, fifteen months after the Board of Regents dissolved the state’s 120-year-old historical association, it’s still very unclear whether—in addition to being the only state in the country now without an organization promoting and preserving its history— New York will lose the journal and conference that were attached to NYSHA. Ten years ago, Ken Jackson gave a wonderful speech before the state library, laying out the case for New York as the “most historical” state in the nation. Mike Wallace is finishing up the last volume in a brilliant trilogy making that argument for New York City, across the centuries and virtually every area of life. But there is still very little appreciation of these facts by the public, even locally. And there is little obvious collective power still among our historical organizations. So, I hope with Gotham, just like all the programming we’ve done at the Center, and the new programs I am working to establish, we are pushing back against this situation.

College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

It wasn’t hard, just time-consuming. Daniel Wortel-London (ed. note: his work has appeared here on The Metropole as well), the blog’s first associate editor, then at CUNY’s Graduate Center, provided crucial help. But the work itself has not been difficult. We benefited, I think, from our association with The Gotham Center, and the niche we filled. Traffic has grown steadily and handsomely. Conversation is now far less about how to fill our calendar and far more about how we can deliver the high-level content we present to new audiences.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We’ve got a few exciting new ideas we’re pursuing. I’ll leave it at that, but I’m very optimistic about Gotham‘s future. The potential has always been great. We mostly feature new original content, book reviews, interviews, etc., and obviously that is valuable. But we are looking to expand into different areas. It should be a place that discusses New York City history everywhere one finds it: in museums, libraries, schools, the arts, TV and film, memorials, tourism, etc. And I would like to see it become a place where experts regularly comment on social, cultural, political and economic debates in New York City, from that historical perspective. We recently doubled our editorial team, and have begun exploring new partnerships, with these long-term goals in mind​. But transforming into something larger (e.g., more than a semiweekly publication, like it is now) may ultimately require some kind of backing.

College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In regard to the Gotham Center, New York City has been a subject of study by urban historians for decades, with so much already said about NYC, how does Gotham Center approach the Big Apple with fresh eyes?

In my younger days, I used to think “How much could there be to say about ___?” I don’t  often have such thoughts anymore. There are still many new frontiers in New York City history, as there are in U.S./world history generally. What hasn’t been researched—huge, important subjects—consistently astounds me. And so long as we have new theories, there can be hundreds of people writing about New York City every generation, and still  many mountains to cross. We could, for example, see a lot more research on “the outer boroughs.” There’s an over-focus on Manhattan, logical as that is. As on city limits. “Metropolitan history” is more or less the new consensus among suburban and urban historians, but I’m sympathetic to complaints that (as in other fields) practice hasn’t really kept pace with the professed methodology. Finally, I’d say the point we constantly make at the Gotham Center is that New York City is the best lens for learning about the history of the United States. So long as that is true — and it is —  learning about its past will always be vital.

unnamed_3_origPeter-Christian Aigner is the director of The Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and the founding / managing editor of Gotham. He is currently writing a biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contracted with Simon & Schuster. 

Featured image (at top): College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Digital Summer School: The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

In our second installment of Digital Summer School, Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian and co-founder of the online project the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE), discusses the challenges, triumphs, and goals of the EMKE.

Twitter handle for EMKE: @MkeEncyclopedia

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Urban history encyclopedias have been around for two generations. The first major U.S. project, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, started with a print edition and transitioned into the digital environment. Smaller Midwestern cities (Indianapolis, Louisville) and the largest cities in the US (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) followed suit. Some projects were print-only (New York, Los Angeles), some were hybrid (Chicago), and some are born digital (Philadelphia). The two of us who are lead editors on the project (Margo Anderson and Amanda Seligman) both had previous experience with historical encyclopedias—Anderson on the US census and me with Chicago. As scholars, we know how convenient it is to have access to short, focused analyses of specific topics. It can be a big timesaver for researchers—but only if they are confident in the reliability of the encyclopedia. We also knew that Milwaukeeans are passionate about their history and believed that Milwaukee deserved an authoritative, scholarly encyclopedia of its own. We also hope that students and scholars who are researching Milwaukee will turn to the EMKE to support their projects.

View of the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

We have three major goals for our readers. First, we want to be a starting point for research on the Milwaukee area. We have worked hard to unlock history from archives and libraries, which non-scholars may find intimidating or not even realize exist. But we don’t want to be an end point; we want to inspire our readers to go deeper. Our entries have “for further reading” suggestions and footnotes to guide readers to new sources. To that end, once we realized how much material has been produced on Milwaukee over the past century and a half, we also published a spin-off print project, a Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee (Marquette University Press, 2014) based on the work of one of the first graduate students who came to work on the project.

Finally, we want our readers to leave the project with a stronger sense of how history is written. We developed what we call the “Underbook,” which readers can access by clicking on the “Explore More” button at the end of some entries. In addition to the footnotes and bonus images, right now the Underbook contains “Understories,” a genre we invented for this project. Understories narrate the process of research, so that readers learn about how historians know what we know. One of my favorites is underneath the “Borchert Field” entry. It was written by a student who went from my history methods class to being an undergraduate and then graduate fact-checker for the project. I like his piece, “How Microfilm and the Internet Get Along: A Demonstration,” so much that I assign it to new groups of history methods students. It helps them see that new information storage technologies do not necessarily undermine old ones. I was also really proud of the first undergraduate who did image research for the project. A few years after leaving us, she turned her Understory—about a mysterious postcard showing what she called “Baby Hammocks”—into her own digital history master’s project at George Mason University. To me, these two pieces illustrate exactly the kind of articulation of research and teaching that universities are meant to produce.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Wisconsin St., Milwaukee, 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’m not sure it has “come to fruition” quite yet. As of this interview in mid-June, we have 334 entries live, 105 entries scheduled for release, 115 entries waiting to be scheduled, and about 150 entries working their ways through our editorial process. We also have a Research Assistant hard at work identifying images to accompany the entries (a process that has completely changed since we first envisioned it, thanks to librarians digitizing their collections). The first phase of the project will feel more finished when we have gotten all those entries out and illustrated, and have cross-referenced all the content, loaded the maps, and made some technical tweaks to our platform (like fending off the increasing number Russian bots who keep registering as if they planned to leave comments for our site).

Obstacles? Even for experienced research-oriented scholars, putting together an enormous encyclopedia as a first digital history project has a lot in common with doing prelim exams and writing a dissertation—every aspect of this project has been a learning process, most of them with steep learning curves. First of all, there is simply a huge amount of new content to think about. But it also has involved coming to terms with work processes that ten years ago we were not only unfamiliar with but did not really know existed. When we started in 2008, I didn’t even know the terms “metadata” or “project management,” words that I throw around every day now. Nor did we have a clear path to raising the $3 million (a goal later lowered to $2 million) that we expected it would cost to build and staff the project. I’m so grateful to all the people and institutions who have shown their confidence in us by investing their time and money in the project.

The Pabst Mansion, one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most notable landmarks, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We hope that the project gets more deeply institutionalized in Milwaukee. When I talk to donors and public audiences, I tell them that having an urban history encyclopedia for our region is like having an art museum, an opera company, a zoo, or a baseball team (all of which Milwaukee has and of course are covered in the EMKE). We want to the EMKE to be a basic civic institution in the Milwaukee area.

To get to that point, there is a lot more work to do. We need to build our public relationships through in-person networking and social media; to build out our non-text content with more images, digitized primary sources, and static and GIS maps; and we need to solicit and consider a lot more feedback through our public comment capacity. Fortunately, we continue to find excellent students who see doing this work as a worthwhile part of their education.

When did you start to consider yourself a digital historian?

The tower of City Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I have struggled with a lot of imposter syndrome over accepting the label “digital historian.” One of the first times I asked myself whether I was a digital historian, I ran smack into a suggestion that I couldn’t possibly count unless I knew how to code. Several years into the project, my departmental colleagues and I decided it was unethical to fail to train our students in digital history, and I drew the straw that gave me the chance to teach the graduate seminar (at least until we hired someone I considered a real digital historian onto the faculty). Even when teaching that course, I blogged about it as “The Reluctant Digital Historian.”

But despite my self-doubt, “real” digital historians and Twitterstorians have consistently offered warm welcomes into the club and affirmation that my work matters. The beauty of digital history is that—like history in general and unlike, say, mathematics or language—none of us is born with an intuition about the contents or how to do it. Working on the project gives us a chance to learn a bit more than we already know. Where I have come to at this point is that anyone who uses any kind of digital tool to understand or create historical knowledge is standing under the digital history umbrella. This even includes some of the EMKE authors who aren’t particularly tech savvy. Some struggle with how to make their word processors create hanging indents so that bibliographic entries are properly formatted and some send their entries in by email because they don’t want to bother with the backend system our IT team built to organize our workflow (I have only dealt with one entirely non-digital author, whom I located by phone and who sent in a typescript text). It also includes me. By now I have learned enough code to fix—or at least diagnose—minor problems that crop up, and just this week I am trying to learn how to use WordPress to format our tables. There are so many different kinds of digital history skills and platforms that no one person is going to master them all, just like no one historian can know the history of the whole world in real depth. What makes a project like ours functional is bringing together people with complementary skills, each of us knowing or learning a couple of pieces, so that we can somehow manage to pull the whole thing off. History, and digital history, are collective projects.

amanda-seligman.jpgAmanda Seligman (@AmandaISeligmanis Professor of History and Urban Studies and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has taught since 1999. She holds an AB in Classics from Princeton University and a PhD in History from Northwestern University. She is author or coauthor of four books, most recently of Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (2016). She is also a co-editor of the Historical Studies of Urban America series published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Featured image (at top): Sign for the Milwaukee Public Market, a popular shopping venue and gathering place in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood called the Historic Third Ward, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Digital Summer School: Tropics of Meta

Distinguished urbanist Matthew G. Lasner of Hunter College recently completed his term as Exhibitions and Media Bibliographer for the UHA newsletter, and in his outgoing comments he shared some wry and accurate advice with editor Hope Shannon: “I’m certain far more of our members would be interested in digital projects, new websites and tools, etc. than in a list of exhibitions that have already closed (which what I’ve been serving up the last several years).”

In his remarks, Professor Lasner actually paralleled our internal discussions at The Metropole. With the explosion of the interwebs, digital scholarship has taken on a new life and importance within the field of urban history and in the culture more broadly. There are so many worthwhile online sources, so how does a historian began to tackle them?

The Metropole, a digital project in its own right, wants to be part of the solution, and so from July through August we will be running Digital Summer School. Much like our Member of the Week format, each week we will highlight a different online digital project. We’ve tried to create a diverse list (particularly in terms of subject matter, geography, and demography), but more generally the goal is to increase the visibility of each project while hopefully sparking discussion regarding the place of digital scholarship and the role of digital scholars both within the field of urban history and more broadly among the general public.

With this in mind and on the eve of the World Cup, The Metropole wanted to provide a launch the series with Tropics of Meta (ToM) which itself just launched “The Other Football,” a new initiative coinciding with the famed international soccer tournament. Undoubtedly, ToM has been covering much more than football over the past eight years; it has served as a digital clearing house for a variety of academic pursuits. Senior Editors Alex Sayf Cummings and Romeo Guzman give us the inside details on one of the internet’s longest running academic/culture blogs.

ToM co-founder and Senior Editor, Georgia State University Historian, Alex Sayf Cummings

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Tropics of Meta (or “ToM”) was founded in early 2010 by Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft. Its goal was to bring together early-career scholars, both in-grad-school and just-out-of-grad-school, to create some kind of online forum for discussing their own work and historical scholarship in general. The aim was to provide a space for the feeling of camaraderie and intellectual community that many of us found lacking as we moved into the dissertation-writing, postdoc, and junior faculty phases of our careers. At first, we did not know exactly what form it would take, but we settled on a blog platform.

Our original audience was really ourselves and our small network of historian friends. We did not think much about traffic, site stats, or social media outreach in the beginning. However, over time our roster of contributors expanded, and with it the reach of the site; we soon began to run into strangers at conferences who said they liked the site and read it regularly. Since our focus is very general — “historiography for the masses” is our motto, and the site ranges from urban studies to legal history, from sports to foreign policy — we tend to grab a readership across disciplinary bounds. Our main audience remains within academia, but we also attract a good deal of traffic from general-interest readers who find articles by searching terms such as “civil war total war” or “female gremlin” or “what was the orginal purpose for sanctuary cities” online.


Photo. Guzman..jpg
ToM Senior Editor and SEMAP co-founder, Fresno State Historian Romeo Guzman

What do you hope people take away from it?

We really want ToM to show that scholars can use an online platform to present original research and synthesize scholarship in a way that is engaging for any reasonably intelligent and curious reader. We also try to cultivate a voice that can be intellectually serious but also wry, funny, and freewheeling, while still focusing on publishing substantial, longform writing.

ToM has hosted a variety of different digital and public history projects over the years — the South El Monte Art Posse’s (SEMAP) East of East and the Valley Public History Initiative’s Straight Outta Fresno and The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno State). As the co-director of SEMAP and founder and director of VPHI, Romeo Guzmán has served as director or co-director on all these projects, as well as an editor at Tropics, with Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, and Ryan Reft contributing as editors on various initiatives. Sean Slusser, an adjust at Fresno State and PhD Candidate at UCR is the co-director of Straight Outta Fresno. In all these projects, Tropics of Meta has served as a space to promote the original work of students, faculty, and independent scholars; to invite community members to contribute to the archive; to share what we are collecting; and to begin to use digital archives to actually publish scholarship.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Tropics of Meta has really come to fruition through the unstinting effort of our editors and the generosity of dozens of contributors who freely shared their creative work over the years. It’s an extraordinary thing considering the fact that early-career scholars — nervously sweating the job market or awaiting decisions about promotion & tenure — have no definite assurance that this work will “count” for them in professional terms. We do believe that writing for ToM has redounded to the benefit of many of our contributors, though, as digital work is increasingly valued by the academy and the public at large. (Numerous contributors have had their pieces re-published widely by major news outlets worldwide, while others have found career opportunities in part because of their work for the site.)

One of our biggest challenges has been developing a collaborative structure and workflow that makes sure pieces get solicited, posts reviewed and edited, feedback given, books reviewed, pieces pushed out on social media, and so on. We’re all pretty allergic to having a hierarchical structure and did not want to recreate a little mini corporation, but having some kind of effective organizational communication is really a necessity. We’ve tried different ways of collaborating over the years (Gchat and Google Docs, Slack, and so on), and we’re still feeling our way through this even now. What has worked very well, though, is our current structure: senior editors and associate editors, who solicit new contributions, spearhead new projects, and edit and give feedback on posts; a larger team of senior writers who contribute frequently; and a digital content coordinator who focuses on our social media outreach.

 Where do you hope it goes in the future?

With all these projects Tropics of Meta serves as a really important place-holder. Instead of waiting for the entire project to be done or for a digital collection to be created, we are able to improvise and build and share as we go. To use language from SEMAP’s East of East, in many ways our digital presence allows us to center the community and public and to remain in touch. The process itself is really important with or without a goal, but we are also always thinking about ways to translate the work into bigger projects of lasting significance, such as an actual digital archive or a book manuscript. For example, East of East: The Making of Greater Mexico, 1700-2017 (edited by Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, Romeo Guzmán, and Ryan Reft) is currently under review at Rutgers University Press.

Playing Cards for “The Other Football” project

So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say “greatest achievement” or “unique insight”?

That is a great question. We think Tropics of Meta and SEMAP are similar in that they are ultimately grassroots projects in the sense that they happen because we dedicate time and energy to them. For the most part, they aren’t housed in an institution. So perhaps one of the greatest achievements is getting so many folks to believe in our idea and to lend their time, energy, and expertise. Perhaps also the credibility that we’ve gained and doors that have opened up as a result of these projects. Guzmán, for example, got a job as a public historian based on his work with SEMAP. And of course, it’s pretty awesome that we’ve convinced so many people that a small working-class community east of East Los Angeles is vital to understanding the history of Southern California and California in general.

Jaime Ramirez playing card (front) from “The Other Football”

In general, we have just come to understand that the so-called borders within the field of history — between public history and… non-public (?) history, digital and non-digital, academia and the public, institutions and local communities — are far more porous than people often think. Sometimes they hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to engage faculty, students, activists, artists, and community groups, young and old, scholar and non-scholar, in really dynamic conversations.

What have you learned about Fresno or what surprising aspects of Fresno have been revealed to you through your projects?

We just started The Other Football this spring, but we’ve already learned so much about soccer in Fresno and more broadly about soccer in the U.S. It’s a cliche to say that immigrants brought soccer to the U.S., but it’s absolutely true. The history of immigration to the United States can’t be separated from the history of soccer in the valley. Perhaps the most clear example of this comes from the work of Guzmán’s undergraduate student Tyler Caffee. His work has shown that it was an Iraqi immigrant who brought soccer to Visalia and started its first high school soccer team.

The other insight relates to a lot of conversations about soccer in the United States. The

Jaime Ramirez playing card (back) from “The Other Football”

USMNT’s failure to make it to the World Cup has raised a lot of questions about U.S. soccer and its pay-to-play system. Often times folks will use “formal” and “informal” to describe soccer worlds in the U.S., pay-to-play vs “Sunday Leagues” (or adult leagues). From Fresno, we’ve learned about the vital role that folks who move between these two worlds can play. For example, in 2018 Fresno welcomed its first professional soccer team: Fresno FC. This USL team was made possible because of the groundwork that the PDL team Fresno Fuego had created. Fuego was successful because it brought together these different soccer communities. There are a ton of really important individuals who made Fuego possible, but I’ll just mention one to illustrate this point. Jaime Ramirez, Fuego’s first coach, attended Pacific University and eventually became the men’s head coach. As a head coach at one of two four-year universities, he has created a club team (pay-to-play) for kids in a working-class neighborhood, coached adult teams in the San Joaquin Valley, and recruited first generation college students. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of his former players — Tony Alvarez — spearheaded the founding of Fresno Fuego. In short, the movement of individuals between these two worlds is vital to the healthy growth of soccer in the United States. I think we’d do well to find ways to replicate and encourage this type of movement.