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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.

The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public

2015 April 17
by Sheila

Below is the draft of a piece I’m contributing to the 2015 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities. Yesterday, I co-facilitated a fantastic working group at the National Council on Public History annual meeting with Chris Cantwell, Kyle Roberts, Jason Heppler, Lauren Tilton, and Brent Rogers, where we discussed the differences and intersection of public history and digital history. If you’re interested in looking in on the working group convos, check out our group Tumbler, This post comes out my thoughts on what I see as the difference in doing intentionally public digital humanities work.

I’m very interested in hearing your feedback, so please comment and discuss with me.

Recent calls for finding “public” audiences for scholarly work, engaging “the general public,” and for doing public digital humanities work are encouraging, but only when those calls are informed by the long history of “public” scholarly work with some understanding that the term is contested and changing. We should all acknowledge that is no “general public,” and that we need to get real about audiences.

As a digital public historian, I am attuned to the articles in the Chronicle and conversations–on Twitter, at meetings and conferences–from traditional and alt-academics who invoke “the general public,” when they think humanities professors are failing to be relevant to today’s students and citizens. Some academics respond to critiques of the state of humanities education by showing off digital humanities projects or demonstrate how they are integrating digitally-enabled pedagogy into their classrooms as ways to bridge those gaps between the academy and the public. Additional attention is given to the openness in humanities scholarly processes that capitalize on digital platforms and networks that enable and encourage sharing, remixing, and collaborating are highlighted as the best practices in public humanities. These examples signal positive changes among scholarly communities. But, these changes are drawing on the long tradition of public history work done in and outside of the academy for decades in the US.

On most days, most scholars have no real idea whom they are actually referring to when invoking “the public.” A public approach is challenging to most scholars, because it means identifying and considering audience before beginning a project. This may mean ceding some ground, but when done well, will result in successful public digital humanities projects.

It’s Online, Isn’t it “Public?”


Research projects, online textbooks, tools, course websites, online journals, or social networks are not inherently “public” digital humanities projects merely because they have a presence on the Web. Launching a project website or engaging in social media networks does not necessarily make a project discoverable, accessible, or relevant to anyone other than its creators. I have given enough panels and workshops on “getting the word out” to know that most academics are clueless in the area. The topic of “outreach” may sound like an afterthought and a one-way marketing blitz, but when done well, it is something that begins with the design of the project. Most important, the “public” should come first.

Doing any type of public-facing digital work requires an intentional decision from the beginning of the project that identifies, invites in, and addresses audience needs in the design, approach, and content long before outreach of a finished project begins. Without doing this kind of audience identification and seeing “the public” as people but an unidentified “other,” scholars may be in danger of blindly attempting to look outside of their own institutions and classrooms and seeing no one.

Digital humanities scholars and practitioners have been defined by the digital, which makes the difference in their humanities scholarship. The “public” changes the scholarship in any type of public history and humanities work, and should also in public digital humanities work as well. We should see the practices listed below as related, complimentary, but not necessarily the same.

Public + History = Public History
Digital + History= Digital History
Public History + Digital= Digital Public History
Public + Interdisciplinary Humanities = Public Humanities
Digital + Public Humanities = Digital Public Humanities
Digital + Interdisciplinary Humanities = Digital Humanities
Public + Digital Humanities = Public Digital Humanities

For those interested in pursuing public digital humanities, I encourage you to look to the history of public history and lessons and struggles in that field of practice.

Public History Roots

Public facing and engaging history work outside of the academy and the classroom is a long-standing practice. In the US, public history’s roots can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. White women and men of means volunteered their time to save and preserve community stories, objects, and places. The federal government didn’t get involved in the history business until the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Federal history and museum programs, such as the National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution, were grounded in practices borrowed and adopted by scientists and naturalists, and used in publicly-funded spaces. [To get a good handle on the history of public history and the historical enterprise, these three books are must-reads: Denise D. Meringolo, Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Robert B. Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940 (University Of Chicago Press, 2013); Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2006).]

The public history movement that we know today emerged in universities in the 1970s, responding both to the employment crisis in the US (marketability of history majors) and to the social and labor history movements, engaged communities to question existing social, political, and cultural structures and inequalities. As Denise Meringolo observes, for many self-identified public historians working in universities, and even museums, in the late twentieth century, the “public” was generalized and that unspecified audience was also passive. Public history, offered scholars new ways of communicating (ie, through a museum exhibit), but didn’t necessarily push those scholars to rethink the structures and relationships involved in that communication flow.

Oral historians like Michael Frisch encouraged historians to rethink their roles as facilitators and share authority by interviewing individuals, and listening, and recording those recollections to give individuals a voice in the historical record. As Tom Scheinfeldt has argued, this tradition from the mid-twentieth century forward was “highly technological, archival, public, collaborative, political, and networked,” which represents another branch in the genealogy of digital humanities. Steven Lubar’s oft cited “7 Rules for Public Humanists”
is rooted in and draws very heavily from the public history tradition.

This impetus drove Roy Rosenzweig, a radical labor historian, to found the Center for History and New Media in 1994 with a mission to use digital media to democratize the process of doing history. The work we do at the Center is grounded in a public history methodology that is collaborative and recognizes that “the public” is people.

Who is the “public”?

The public is no one if you don’t intentionally identify specific people, groups, communities, and then design a project from the beginning with, for, and about those people. Too often, “the public” becomes the default category of anyone other than ourselves, which can often mean no one. If you have to ask after a project, tool, or program is built, who the audience will be, you built something for yourself. Creating a public digital humanities project must start with “the public,” ie your audiences, users, participants, from the beginning. Public audiences should be imagined as people with interests, lives, agendas, and challenges. To humanize those audiences, the Smithsonian Learning Lab created named personas who represent real teachers, the primary audience for their new digital initiative. Understanding that most historians would not consider audiences from the early stages of digital projects, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig devoted an entire chapter to audience in Digital History. Sharon Leon will continue to push scholars in this area in forthcoming publication focused on “user-centered digital history.”

Identifying and collaborating with specific audiences is key to designing and building a successful public digital humanities project that will be relevant, useful, and usable. This means engaging and working with those groups to identify needs, assess functionality, and measure the effectiveness of the project’s platform for communicating ideas at all stages. For Histories of the National Mall, for example, we created paper prototypes for user testing before customizing the Omeka site. We tested content before fully researching and writing the “Explorations,” and we sent graduate students onto the Mall, with friends and family members, to test different iterations of the site, multiple times, before the beta launch. For the original Omeka grant, we surveyed museum professionals before, during, and after the beta release, and conducted focus group testing to gauge needs, assess the effectiveness of the software to meet those needs, and the usability of the administrative interface. These are all important, and time consuming, steps necessary to include in any project’s work plan.

Projects also must be accessible to those identified and potential audiences in a few distinctive ways. First, any public digital humanities project should be designed in ways so that people of all abilities can access it and the content on the web. Second, build in ways that reach your primary users on the platforms they use. This may mean designing mobile first to reach people who access the Web only from a mobile device. If your primary users communicate on one specific social media space, be there. If your uses speak multiple languages, your platform choice must allow for that content to exist and be publishable in those languages.

Third, the language, symbols, and navigational paths embedded in the digital project must be understandable by the primary users and participants. A public digital humanities project should never make the audience feel dumb or uninvited to the party. If we prioritize our needs and assumptions as academics, we are more likely to make that mistake.

Naming is important as well. Name a project something meaningful to your audiences—or intentionally is not associated with a known term. Omeka, for example, fits into the latter category. The Swahili term embodies what the platform is designed to do: display or lay out wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack. But the word itself was distinct enough for most users that we could adopt it as the name of a new piece of software. Naming Histories of the National Mall, on the other hand, required that we be direct and tell tourists visiting the National Mall that this site was about the history of that public space. Acronyms and clever naming can work for some public digital humanities project, but you do not want to alienate or mislead your targeted audiences.

Public, First

To do public digital humanities, then, the “public” piece needs to come first. Always.

This process is challenging and often requires a lot of analog work. If you feel that you don’t have the skill set to engage in this type of work, try reaching out and collaborating with a public historian, or perhaps a community activist, to help build your digital humanities project from its early stages. They will share with you lessons they have learned from the field and help you to begin rethinking approaches and methods in new ways. And, you may find you’re building a fabulous new digital thing together that is relevant, useful, and productive for your publics.

Growing the Fields (cross-post)

2015 April 2
by Sheila

(Originally posted to the RRCHNM blog:

Last summer, Sharon Leon and I (Sheila Brennan) led a team at RRCHNM with the challenging goal of increasing capacity within the fields of history and art history for doing digital work. We started with novices and invited them to learn with us for two weeks last summer. At the end, those digital novices transformed into ambassadors who are engaging with the growing community of digital humanities practitioners and who serve as advocates supporting digital history and digital art history work at their institutions and in the fields at large.

The Need

Recent studies conducted by Ithaka S+R document how historians and art historians are reluctant to engage in digital methods and to integrate those methods and related tools into their teaching. The cycle perpetuates itself as these established scholars are then unable to mentor graduate students or even to point them to appropriate training opportunities. These same scholars may also dissuade junior colleagues from pursuing digital work.

Even as digital work is receiving increasing recognition in academic circles, one major question remains for faculty interested in digital humanities and in new publishing mediums: will it count?

Despite decades of amazing work in digital humanities, the skills and methods that are central to pursuing this kind of work have only just begun to penetrate the larger community of historians and art historians. This lack of understanding digital humanities methods and projects then makes it difficult for those scholars to review digital projects, at any stage, for professional journals or for a colleague’s promotion and tenure dossier, never mind advising students interested in pursuing digital work themselves.

Throughout its 20 years, RRCHNM has organized and taught hundreds of workshops on a variety of topics and tools to many different audiences. We have learned that short workshops aren’t enough to transform attitudes and approaches to the scholarly enterprise. For established scholars, who are experts in their fields of study, novices in all things digital, and who may doubt the scholarly rigor involved in digital work, finding training that meets them at their skill level and addresses their disciplinary habits and concerns can be a challenge.

Experimental Summer Institutes

In 2014, Sharon and I organized two summer institutes and crafted curricula to help address these issues. Re-Building the Portfolio ran in July and served 24 art historians, funded by a Getty Foundation grant. Doing Digital History ran in August and served 23 American historians funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

We framed the daily work by grounding it in the latest digital humanities readings, and then applied what they read in hands-on tutorials that let them test different tools that enabled different kinds of digital humanities work. We offered breadth and also provided each participant with the building blocks for advancing their own digital research projects and developing digitally-inflected pedagogy.

When we started each institute, all 47 of the participants were anxious. Most worried about falling behind on the coursework, getting lost in the daily tutorials, feeling confused, and that they would be the only ones feeling this way. Participants discovered they weren’t alone in their fears and that they had a new community of colleagues with whom they could rely on for support. Each participant established their own domains, installed open-source software, blogged, planned new learning activities for their students, and began rethinking their research projects.

If you’re interested in seeing the daily work, see the schedule or download the curricula for Doing Digital History and ReBuilding the Portfolio.

Measuring Outcomes

At the beginning of each institute, we did not know how participants would respond to the intensity of the two-week curriculum. We measured progress in two major ways. First, during the institute we surveyed participants a few times to gauge the pacing and instruction, and we adjusted schedules and our approaches accordingly (ie, allowing more time to discuss the readings in the morning sessions). Second, to measure the overall effectiveness of the entire curriculum to change attitudes and practices of the participants, we crafted a pre-institute survey that asked four questions related to our goals and asked the same four questions at the end. In the post-institute survey, we also asked more typical questions following workshops, about overall satisfaction, if participants felt their voices were heard, and if their personal learning needs were addressed.


  • If you were asked to review a digital project for a professional journal in your field of expertise, would you feel comfortable saying yes to the request?
  • If you were asked to review a colleague’s digital work for promotion, would you feel comfortable assessing its scholarly impact?
  • Do you feel comfortable presenting or discussing digital history or digital art history work with your colleagues?
  • Do you feel comfortable supervising students who want to use digital tools in their history or art history scholarship?

To our delight, 100% of Doing Digital History and ReBuilding the Portfolio participants responded that the institute faculty and facilitators improved their understanding of digital humanities and digital history or digital art history. All participants left as confident digital ambassadors with a todo list, new skills, insights, and motivation to pursue digital work and become active participants in the growing community of digital humanists.

The largest positive growth we saw was in the number of individuals saying that they are comfortable reviewing digital projects for scholarly impact in promotion cases, which we see as a real intervention in effecting change in academic culture and practices.

ReBuilding the Portfolio

Survey data summary compiled by Spencer Roberts

Survey data summary compiled by Spencer Roberts

The cohort of art historians began their institute more comfortable than the historians discussing digital work with their colleagues and in their ability to review a digital project for a professional journal. The largest area of growth for the art historians was in reviewing for promotion. At the beginning of the institute, only 35% of the cohort felt confident and by the end the total increased to 76%. As a group, the art historians were less confident than their historian colleagues in their ability to supervise or mentor students using digital tools. At the end of the institute, 36% were more comfortable advising, with many more unsure than not.

Doing Digital History

Summary of Doing Digital History surveys, compiled by Jeri Weiringa


The historians began less confident in their ability to review and discuss digital work than their art historian colleagues. At the start, only 26% responded that they were comfortable assessing digital projects for scholarly content in promotion cases and 74% were not sure. At the end of the institute, the percentages were almost reversed with 79% feeling comfortable reviewing and only 21% remained unsure. We saw a 53% positive growth rate. Across the four categories, we saw a remarkable shift in confidence as not a single historian answered “no” to any of the questions at the end of the institute.

By inviting 47 historians and art historians to engage with digital humanities theory and practice, they were able to better re-examine their own professional assumptions and naturalized processes to see that scholarly production can take many forms. Through analysis of existing projects and through building some things from scratch with their own sources, participants learned how to read, analyze, and interact with digital scholarship.

Looking Ahead

Based the numbers of applicants for both institutes, and separate inquiries, we see there remains a substantial unmet need for beginner DH training that also addresses disciplinary needs. We heard anecdotally from participants that some felt that other outlets for DH training didn’t address their needs as historians and art historians. Even scholars working at institutions with a DH presence found it difficult to get training beyond tools workshops. Also, a few felt like they weren’t prepared to take deep dives into specific digital humanities methods or tools offered by other DH workshops. After taking our summer institutes, however, they felt much more prepared to pursue other types of training.

Even with all expenses covered, everyone cannot afford to leave their institutions, families, and lives for two weeks. We have been asked about preparing an institute that is shorter, and even longer. We think that two weeks is the optimal amount of time for an introduction to the broad field of practice that is digital humanities, while diving into disciplinary-specific projects. This time allows for participants to be removed from their existing structures and commitments long enough to immerse themselves, experiment, and see the possibilities for changing their research, teaching, and professional practices.

Running an institute for two weeks also requires a big commitment from the host institution and requires a strong team (ReBuilding Team, DoingDH Team). While Sharon and I led each day, RRCHNM research faculty and visiting instructors helped to shape some individual days of instruction. We also relied on a solid crew of four graduate teaching assistants who led tutorials, provided one-on-one assistance, responded to the backchannel discussions, and updated the institute’s online schedule to reflect any new sites or tools mentioned during the day making the course websites invaluable resources. The logistics of coordinating an institute are not easy and we couldn’t have pulled everything off without the dedication of Jeny Martinez, the RRCHNM office manager. Additionally for each of the two-week institutes, Sharon and I were unavailable for other project work at the Center. Unlike other academic units, the Center operates on a 12-month calendar.

Even with all of these challenges, we enjoyed focusing on one project at a time, teaching as a team, and getting to know our awesome participants.

Some may ask why we aren’t charging for training. We have in the past on a very limited basis. But, we prefer to offer affordable training opportunities that are open to a wide audience, because it aligns with the Center’s mission to democratize history and humanities work. To offer free training, we applied for grants. We have been lucky to receive support from the Getty Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, who are committed to funding training programs for novices in digital humanities.

Future Institutes

This summer, we are developing an institute for art history graduate students, Building a Digital Portfolio, funded by the Getty. We hope to have other opportunities in the future to offer additional institutes for historians and art historians. If we do, we will be sure to announce them on the RRCHNM blog and circulate the news on social media.