Changing the Plan: The Evolution of a Digital History Project

Before speaking with anyone about our ideas for a digital history project focused on Oberlin, Ohio, my collaborator Megan and I envisioned developing a website for Oberlin similar to the Histories on the National Mall Project. Our original idea was to create a website that local residents and visitors could use to easily find out more about people, places, and events in Oberlin’s history. We planned to create several curated “walking tours” focused on different aspects of Oberlin’s history, and hoped as well to allow community members to add Omeka objects to what would be an ever-expanding collection. But our interviews (I did three–one with a local resident with two teenage kids, one with the head of Oberlin’s heritage center, and one with faculty member in Oberlin’s Comparative American Studies Program) have completely changed our idea for the project.

What we discovered—and in some ways already knew—was that there are already a large number of different Oberlin-related digital history projects in various formats. The local heritage center has created two different walking tours using Powerpoints loaded on IPads. Several different groups, including the Oberlin African American Genealogical Association, have created thematic walking tours using the IZI app. There is a digital project about one of the local cemeteries, any number of Omeka and Scalar projects about Oberlin College’s history and famed alumni like Mary Church Terrell, and digitized documents of all kinds. Yet much of this material is spread out in many places. It’s not all easily accessible and many people simply don’t know such resources exist. Several other issues that emerged from the interviews also shaped our thinking. We heard that the pre-loaded self-guided walking tours available at the heritage center have not been that popular and that their visitors much prefer to take walking tours in a group with a live guide. Another interviewee told me that what she loved about walking tours was going out in a group and having the chance to interact with others and hear stories from a guide, which is not what an online walking tour does well. We also heard about other needs in the community. Oberlin’s 19th century history is richly documented, but there is much less material on the more recent past. The heritage center has oral histories that need to be transcribed and they are eager to have assistance in conducting more histories. They are looking for ways to involve community residents who are heavily invested in preserving Oberlin’s history in the work of building collections and making them more accessible.

Our new idea for our project is to build a platform that will both amplify the visibility of existing digital history materials and will make it easy for community members who care about Oberlin’s history to get more involved in the project of making it and preserving it. Our new project is to build something we are calling either the Oberlin Community History Center (OCHC) or the Oberlin Community History Hub (OCHH). The hub will collect existing materials all in one space and hope through tags to make them searchable across collections. We will, for example, have a section on Oberlin Walking Tours where each existing walking tour will be an Omeka Object (with web links or information about how to access it), and then featured in an exhibit so a user can quickly discover what resources exist. There will be a similar feature for existing digital history projects. A third section will feature oral histories and will make it easy for listeners to tag or index existing oral histories and to volunteer to collect or transcribe others. Another section of the site will offer a place for anyone to contribute their own Oberlin stories. Modeled on the Bracero archive, users will be able to submit materials of different kinds—photos, short reminiscences, video, artifacts.

Over time, we hope to develop a section for teachers that would offer ideas and lesson plans about how to use the site to teach history at different grade levels. This site could be used to teach both Oberlin’s history and historical method. A college instructor, for example, could require students to each do one oral history, to transcribe it, and to upload it to the site. The OCHH will be a kind of community-created archive, as well as a clearinghouse for existing work created by different organizations throughout Oberlin.

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