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Editor’s Cuts: Collectors on the Radio

2015 October 27
by Sheila

As I enter into the final (crossing fingers) revisions of Stamping American Memory, I’ll be trimming and revising. Some sections have to go, because they don’t totally fit. Below is one of them. I’ll save a few sentences for “Who Collected Stamps?” but the rest is gone. So, I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure:


With the emergence of commercial broadcasting in the U.S. in the 1920s, listeners not only tuned in to hear musicians and comedy acts, but also listened to stamp collecting programs. E.B. Powers from Stanley Gibbons’s New York office hosted a program that broadcast on WJY and WJZ in New York, WOR in Newark, and WNAC in Boston. Newspapers listed daily programming from their home city and from other regions that reveal shows running from fifteen minutes to one half hour. Mekeel’s tracked philatelic radio programming and listed nine regular shows in 1932 broadcast from stations in Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. By 1936, more than 60 stations broadcasted philatelic shows. Those who listened regularly were exposed to stamp collecting practices and “the drama of the postage stamp.” 1

As radio emerged as a medium to advertise as well as to provide entertainment and news, it is not surprising that professional stamp dealers like Powers hosted the program and served as the philatelic expert. His presence on American radio not only spread the word about philately, but may have also encouraged the commercial side of collecting and investing. It is unclear whether Gibbons officially sponsored these programs, but it is easy to see how Powers could promote his company as the place to shop or consult for philatelic advice.

Radio not only broadcasted stamp collecting programming, but it also connected collectors and helped them obtain new specimens. When listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, one collector learned that the station received a letter from the United States Shipping Board vessel Cathlamet, detailing that the ship picked up the station’s signal on the radio while sailing near what is now Ghana on the west coast of Africa. While the station was thrilled that their wireless waves carried that far, the collector contacted the station and asked for the envelope bearing the letter read on air. To his delight, the director saved the envelope and the collector went to the station to pick up the envelope affixed with a stamp from the Gold Coast British colony (now the nation of Ghana). According to this individual, “stamp collecting and radio were working in harmony at last!” First published in the New York Times, this story was reprinted for philatelic audiences in the Philatelic West. 2

Other collectors combined an interest in short-waved radio with philately. Part of the thrill for George Mathewson and other amateur radio enthusiasts was communicating with hobbyists in other countries. To create a written record of such communication, each operator sent a letter or postcard from their hometown and country that the other would sign and postmark. For Mathewson, the act of receiving many foreign-stamped letters turned him into a stamp collector. Once he established contacts in other nations, he then actively requested stamps from those with whom he communicated. Additionally, as radio listeners tuned into as many stations across the country as possible, they then mailed out postcards to those stations who returned the cards with a unique (non-postage) stamp verifying contact. Radio hobbyists collected those cards and pasted them, with unique station stamps, into albums produced for this purpose, creating a type of “radio philately.” 3 Stamp collecting meshed well with radio enthusiasts’ interest in seeing how far their signals traveled and in connecting with others with similar interests.

As philatelic information spread in different media, stamp collecting attracted new practitioners and appealed to the interests of different people. Magazines, newspapers, and radio programs brought some activities that had been exclusive to philatelic clubs and publications out into a public realm. For collectors who did not belong to a club, this exposure increased their philatelic knowledge or allowed them to connect with the philatelic community through the media. This media presence also exposed non-collectors to the hobby and taught them that many people saw something special in stamps and spent time collecting them.

Building Histories of the National Mall

2015 October 15
by Sheila

BuildingHistories_homepageI am really pleased that the @mallhistory team published Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project ( this week. It is a comprehensive guide that details each phase of creating website, Histories of the National Mall. This is also the final deliverable for a project that was five years in the making.

One nice feature is that the voices of project team members are heard in specific sections they authored, that also demonstrate the range and breadth of the collaboration and cooperation that produced

For organizations in the early planning stages of a project, this guide offers an open source and replicable example for history and cultural heritage professionals wanting a cost-effective solution for developing and delivering mobile content. The guide offers lessons learned and challenges we faced throughout the project’s development, and we discuss how we measured success for this specific project.

This guide goes beyond a traditional case study and is divided into seven main sections, including the project’s rationale; content development and interpretative approach; user experience and design; outreach and publicity–including the social media strategy. This publication shares the project team’s decision to build for the mobile web and not a single-use, platform-specific native app. The guide also offers lessons learned and challenges faced throughout the project’s development, as well as how the team measured success for this digital public history project.

One aspect that most readers might not realize is that Histories of the National Mall grew out of R&D conducted by my colleague Sharon Leon and I in 2009, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Mobile for Museums. I have remained connected to mobile-driven content within the cultural heritage sector and for place-based public history projects.

Building Histories of the National Mall belongs to the long tradition of knowledge sharing at RRCHNM that encourages history and humanities professionals to be active designers and builders of their own digital projects, and for making processes as transparent as possible.

10 Years After Katrina, the Enduring Value of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

2015 August 28
by Sheila
Home in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward

Home in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward

(Originally posted on the RRCHNM blog, August 28, 2015)

Ten years ago, we knew as historians that we couldn’t assess fully the social, cultural, economic, and political implications of the devastating hurricanes in the summer of 2005. We did know that previous natural disasters had profound consequences. The 1927 Mississippi River Flood, for example, further fueled African American migration to northern industrial cities, and paved the way for federal intervention in southern states during the New Deal. Documenting the reactions and memories of individuals affected by Katrina, and then Rita, along the Gulf Coast, took on an urgency soon after the storms hit.

Michael Mizell-Nelson, the late-public historian from the University of New Orleans, reached out to CHNM’s late-director Roy Rosenzweig to discuss the possibilities of creating a community-sourced digital project to document the aftermath and recovery of Hurricane Katrina. With so many residents relocating, collecting online gave anyone who had been displaced an opportunity to share their reflections and document their stories. This became even more important following Hurricane Rita three weeks later, when some Gulf Coast residents evacuated a second time, some never returning home.

The Center collaborated with the University of New Orleans to form a team that built read more…

Mining HDMB

2015 August 28
by Sheila

Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I wrote a post for the RRCHNM blog post discussing the history and legacies of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which I helped to create.

One advantage to collecting online first, is that we have thousands of sources available for close reading that are discoverable by browsing or key word searches. My colleague Mills Kelly has highlighted some of those individual stories on his blog today.

HDMD also provides content ready for computational analysis, and research can be done at scale. I hadn’t had the time to do any myself, until this week.I started with the HDMB databases in PHP MyAdmin and downloaded a few tables as CSV files.

At first, I wanted to some basic calculations and summaries of the contributors to include in the About section of the project. For researchers, it is important to know whose voices are speaking and represented. As a project creator, I wanted to see where we succeeded and failed in outreach efforts. We asked each online contributor a few optional demographic questions so that we could better track who was sharing stories, photos, and other digital materials with us. What I found is that few contributors shared any of that demographic information with us (gender, race, year of birth, occupation).  We also asked for contributors to share the location or zip code of where they were during the storms, and then after the storms, to get a broader sense of the migrations. All of these questions were optional, intentionally.

The project team debated these issues intensively. As historians, we wanted to collect some general demographic information about the contributors. We also did not want a long list of required questions in an online form to discourage someone from submitting a story. Balancing out those needs was tough and we decided that collecting the reflection or the photograph was a priority.

The next table I examined contained the full list of all items, and I extracted the descriptions. In the second iteration of the site, completed in 2006, we mapped text from “stories”, and image and other file descriptions to the Dublin Core description field.

I uploaded that CSV into the Voyant Tools to surface word patterns and trends across the 25,000 + digital items. In addition the ubiquitous word cloud, I could also see word frequencies and view relationships of terms in context with others.

keywordsincontext Not surprisingly, place names featured prominently in individual contributions. To look beyond the names of cities, parishes, or states, it is possible to create a list of “stop words” that removes those terms from the analysis. Without place names, it is possible to see that HDMB’s contributors frequently mentioned “people,” “home,” “house,” and “family.” By examining those keywords in context, it is possible to see how mentions of “house” relate to the descriptions of physical damage and destruction. While usages of “home” often discuss the emotions of leaving or returning to a damaged house or city. It is possible to identify other emotional terms, such as “loss” and “angry,” and see that “hope” is invoked as a verb and a noun more often than both loss and angry.

In thinking through what other patterns might become visible, I decided to run that corpus through a light-weight topic modeling tool.

At first, I ran all item descriptions and asked for 20 words for 20 topics.


As I ran the text, I continued to refine the stop word list. I noticed that contractions were split, so that “don”, “ll”, and “ve” were coming through.

Once I created a good stop word list, I decided to run a CSV with the Story item type only, and reduced the numbers of topics and terms per topic.


I was able to get a good hint at who some of the contributors were, as the terms students and school featured prominently in the stories. Students, teachers, and/or parents discussed how the storms effected their school years.

It is possible to see that this digital collection would be useful for someone interested in reading first-hand accounts about evacuations; life in temporary housing, such as in shelters or hotels; relief efforts; the challenges of returning home to deal with damages;  the emotional challenges faced in the recovery process and the roles of families; the financial burdens faced by storm survivors; and the impact of local, state, and federal government in a disaster.

With these topic strings identified, I then drilled down and read individual text. In the earliest years of the project, I read many of the contributions but 10 year later, had forgotten so much of what I had read.

This exercise allowed me to rediscover some of the resources in the site. I also did a lot of old-fashioned browsing through the collections of photographs.

As I turned up topics, I really wanted to discuss these trends with Michael and Roy, both whom are now gone. I found that researching in HDMB was surprisingly emotional for me. I can imagine that this anniversary has been difficult for the millions of people who were intimately effected, and who are still feeling personal losses of varying degrees ten years later.

DH Job Hunting

2015 August 7
by Sheila

I’m often tagged in tweets or Facebook posts, asking “where do you find digital humanities job postings?”

“Digital humanities” jobs exist in many different forms across different professional fields and disciplines. When seeking a digital humanities job, I recommend that the seeker narrow her focus to the kind of work that she wants to do and in what type of profession.

Below is list of suggested places to find digital humanities jobs. Some of these lists contain digital jobs only, while others require the seeker to browse through more general listings. Remember that not all jobs are posted publicly–DH or others–but are circulated by word-of-mouth. Old fashioned networking is still a good method for finding alt-ac DH jobs.

Please leave comments if I have missed any other good places to find digital humanities job postings, and I will add them to the list.

DH: all fields and professions



Digital Public History and Humanities (all)

Faculty, Post-Docs, Admin



CHIM Forum 2015 Presentation

2015 June 8
by Sheila

Below are the slides from a talk I was invited to give at Catholic University’s Cultural Heritage Informatics Management Forum on June 5, 2015. I want to thank the forum’s organizers from the CHIM program, Youngok Choi and Ingrid Hsieh-Yee, for inviting me and for organizing this event, which also highlighted some of the great work done by their students and alumni.