Imagining a NEH Digital Project for the Public

*Please note: this a mock grant proposal written as part of a class assignment and it does not represent the work of the named organizations

Oberlin College, the Oberlin Heritage Center, and the Oberlin African American Genealogy History Group seek a NEH Digital Projects for the Public Grant to design the Oberlin Community History Hub (OCHH), a website that will consolidate existing digital materials related to Oberlin’s history and will be a center for collecting new materials from the broader community. This project has three key goals:

  • It seeks to centralize the many disparate collections and digital materials related to Oberlin’s history that already exist to make them more accessible, searchable and browsable. This includes walking tours, photos, written guides, digital exhibitions, oral histories, digitized documents, and databases of buildings, monuments, and other historic sites in Oberlin
  • It aims to collect materials that represent and highlight Oberlin’s more recent past, the diversity of the experience of its residents, and the social and cultural life of the city by creating an easy-to-use site where anyone can submit a story, a photo, a document, or a video or audio clip.
  • It aims to be a “hub” or “center” of community life, a site that can bring Oberlin’s diverse civic and historic organizations together and that encourages local residents to build community online.


History Content

Oberlin is a small city with a big history and a rich civic culture. The town of Oberlin and Oberlin College were founded in 1833 as a utopian project to promote Christian values in American society. The college became the first in the country to admit women and African American students on an equal basis as a matter of policy. The town and college both embraced progressive causes and Oberlin became a hotbed of abolitionism before the Civil War and women’s suffrage and temperance in the late 19th century. Oberlin is known for its many “historical firsts,” but its history also offers a lens for understanding key forces in American social, political, and cultural history. What began as a community based on the ideal of racial equality has come to look more like the rest of the country, with segregated neighborhoods and churches. The town and college have weathered debates about civil rights, America’s role in the world, political protest, and identity politics. Yet Oberlin remains a community with a strong sense of identity and purpose and the Oberlin Community History Hub will highlight and explore its rich history, especially these core humanities themes:

  • The history of political protest and social reform movements in the United StatesOberlin has been a leader in many of the nation’s most important protest movements and this site will allow users to explore the many different ways that residents and students in Oberlin have fought for political reforms or social justice. Protest movements in Oberlin range from the very well-known—abolitionism and Oberlin’s importance on the Underground Railroad—to far less appreciated, such as Oberlin as a city that welcomed Japanese American students during World War II or Oberlin College as the site of the first student-run co-ops.
  • The role of individuals and communities in social changeOberlin’s history highlights the power of individuals to promote change and justice. The Oberlinians who died in John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, those who started the Anti-Saloon League, or the Oberlin graduates who went on to become leaders in the fight for women’s rights and racial equality all make clear the agency and capacity of individuals to challenge the status quo.
  • The intersection of religion, politics, and activismOberlin’s civic identity has been shaped from the start by its origins as a utopian religious community. In the nineteenth century, the college embraced the project of training Christian missionaries to travel overseas to spread the Christian religion. Oberlin’s African American churches have been leaders locally and regionally in the struggle for civil rights. Oberlin’s religious institutions have also been involved in the peace movement and fights for economic justice.         
  • African American historyOberlin is important to African American history in so many different ways. Its commitment to abolitionism led residents to test the Fugitive Slave Law. Local Oberlinians participated in John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and commanded black regiments in the Civil War. Many influential black political leaders graduated from Oberlin including Blanche Kelso Bruce (the first African American to serve a 6-year term in the US Senate), John Mercer Langston, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper. In 1900, fully 1/3 of all Black college graduates in the country had gone to Oberlin. Nine Oberlin men served with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, and Oberlinians went South to participate in the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.  


Description of Digital Technologies

The Oberlin Community History Hub will be constructed using Omeka Classic. Items ranging from individual photos to existing walking tours will be created as individual items in Omeka; tagging will enable items of many different kinds to be searched together. We will use digital tools to scrape images of Oberlin and their accompanying metadata from FlickR and to add them to the OCHH archive.

The OCHH will use the Omeka Contribution plugin to facilitate the collection of materials from visitors via an online form. Those who submit will be able to decide if they wish to remain anonymous and if they want the item to be made public. Contributors will retain copyright of their submissions unless they choose to designate a specific Creative Commons license. Visitors will be encouraged to submit not only their own stories or digital objects, but also any materials that they might have created using the archive (a history day project, for example, or a lesson plan). They will also be able to make and download posters using the collection

Omeka’s Geolocation plugin will be used to map the sites of different places and events. We will use the Simple Vocab plugin to create a controlled vocabulary for metadata and tags to make it easier to standardize contributions from users. We will also be building exhibits on different themes through Omeka in order to curate and interpret some of the material that the site will contain. We are using the Dropbox plugin so that we can store large files. We will also be looking for a way to support a visual browsing interface so that visitors to the site can easily get a sense of the scope of the collection and can explore it.


Target Audience

The OHCC is designed for anyone with an interest in Oberlin’s history. Its most immediate audience are community and college groups that are interested in sharing their information so that their materials can be made more accessible. We believe that a site that collects and consolidates the many existing digitized materials relating to Oberlin’s history will expand the audience for these materials and make them more useable by the public. The site targets Oberlin residents who are eager to tell their own stories and to learn more about their community. We will reach out to local civic organizations, to businesses, to schools, and to churches to encourage them to document their history. The OHCC will also target teachers and students—both in Oberlin and beyond Oberlin—who are interested in the many historical issues that can be explored through the city’s history. In the second phase of our development, we will be consulting with teachers to create grade-specific classroom lessons using items from the collection. The site is also designed to make it easy for teachers at both the secondary and collegiate level to develop community engaged history projects for their students.

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