Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cultural Tourism and Digital History

This fall I am working with several collaborators and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site (http://www.nps.gov/liho/) in Springfield, Illinois on the development of digital cultural tourism materials to be used with smart phones and other hand- held devices. This type of resource represents a significant opportunity to make the intellectual capital represented in historians' works, as well as primary source materials, available and accessible to a segment of the general public likely to be receptive to them: individuals and groups visiting historic sites.

For this work we have assembled a diverse team of collaborators, including my colleague Stacey Erdman, Technical Coordinator for Digital Initiatives at Northern Illinois University Libraries (http://www.ulib.niu.edu/DigitalInitiatives/stacey.cfm), Dr. Jeffrey Smith of Lindenwood University (http://www.lindenwood.edu/contact/facultyschedule.cfm?x=JSmith), Ashley Michels, an NIU student, and Mike Taylor of our university's Digital Convergence Lab (http://www.dcl.niu.edu/) .

Dr. Smith  is a history professor who has also worked as public historian in various capacities. He is responsible for writing concise (300-350 words) tour scripts weaving historians' interpretations of major themes in antebellum American history together with stories associated with each location. Ashley Michels in a senior at Northern Illinois University studying Broadcast Journalism. She will serve as the on-camera presenter of Dr. Smith's scripts. Mike Taylor is a media developer employed at Northern Illinois University's Digital Convergence Lab. He is responsible for bringing together the various digital objects produced by collaborators into a coherent, web-based unit.

Users will access project tours by using a smart phone's camera function to photograph a bar code displayed at each of the ten locations discussed, at which time their device will open a browser to a web page (optimized for use with mobile devices) displaying project materials. Mike Taylor has employed this technique, as opposed to the development of an App, in order to make project resources available to the broadest variety of devices possible.

The materials we are developing will add to the experience of Lincoln Home National Historic Site visitors by shedding light on the lives of Abraham Lincoln's neighbors. In recent decades the National Park Service has reconstructed Lincoln's neighborhood much as it stood in 1860 by restoring surviving structures on adjoining blocks. Park Service personnel presently offer guided tours through the home that the Lincoln family occupied in the years before their removal to Washington, D.C. in 1861, but are not able to devote similar attention to the nearby properties.

Our project tells some of the stories attached to these restored homes (and in several cases, now-vacant lots), bringing summaries of historians' findings together with selected primary source materials in order to explore the political and social context in which Lincoln and his neighbors lived. These discussions can in turn illuminate significant themes in antebellum American history.

After reviewing the history of each structure or lot with Lincoln Home National Historic Site Historian Tim Townsend, our project collaborators selected ten with the potential to illuminate significant aspects of the historical record. For example, we have chosen a lot on which the home of Jameson Jenkins, an African-American drayman, once stood. Dr. Smith's script for this portion of the project discusses Mr. Jenkins' role in the Underground Railroad, as well as its political and social context. Another script discussing the structure occupied by Harriet Dean and her family in 1860 describes the girls' school that Mrs. Dean led there, exploring the nineteenth-century notion of women's "separate sphere."

Each tour will consist of a video file featuring Ashley Michels presenting Dr. Smith's script, filmed on-site before each structure or lot. Period images, drawn from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project's Lincoln/Net site (http://llincoln.lib.niu.edu), as well as other sources, will also appear over Ashley's voice, a technique commonly used in documentary film.

In addition to a narrated video/audio tour, the project web site will present links to short readings, in an audio format, from primary source materials discussing the location or major themes under discussion, as well as several period images, as available.

Users may also consult the above project resources on a web site, attached to the larger Lincoln/Net site, which has been optimized for use with desktop and laptop computers. This site will also feature additional resources, including additional images unsuited to display on mobile devices' small screens and complete versions of the primary texts from which readings have been drawn.

This project represents a new aspect of the approach to digital history first explored with the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project's Lincoln/Net site, in which I have attempted to bring together primary source materials with original interpretive resources in order to encourage members of the general public to take up what history teachers would call active learning. The advent of digital technology and the Internet made Lincoln/Net possible. The rise of wireless technology and hand-held devices like smart phones now make it possible to put a significant amount of each of these resources (primary sources and interpretations) before a user while they explore an historic site, literally in the palm of their hand. 

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