Public History

Technology’s Influence on Public History

Demolition of the Febrey Estate on Upton’s Hill, Arlington March 23, 2021

At the end, over 160 years of history came tumbling down in a matter of seconds. Despite a heartfelt and very public effort to save the Febrey Estate, the owners were permitted to proceed with its demolition. Historic preservationists vainly attempted to leverage social media, including Facebook, and a petition, to mobilize local residents to challenge Arlington County’s board to preserve the property. However, it was too little and too late. Buried among the ruble is suspected Civil War soldier graffiti, and other 19th century artifacts there were unable to be saved or documented.

But in regard to advancements in technology and their impact on public history, the lessons learned from the “Save Febrey” campaign are worth noting. First, there is no doubt that social media is a game changer in getting the word out and creating awareness. The one victory in the Save Febrey effort was getting Arlington County’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) to recommend that the Febrey Estate be designated historic. Unfortunately Arlington County’s board did not act fast enough to confirm the status. As a result a permit to destroy the house was issued prior to a formal vote.

A second and more important lesson, is the future role that technology is going to play in what author Barbara Heinisch, describes in her 2020 article “Citizen Humanities as a Fusion of Digital and Public Humanities?” Ms. Heinisch points out that this fusion will permit citizens to be more engaged and contribute to policy and democratic processes. The failure to save the Febrey estate is in part due to the general lack of awareness of the site’s history. Unfortunately the ability to uncover the historic forensics was a monumental task. Only as a last minute, and desperate attempt to scour the digital repositories did some interesting public stories surface. One positive result of the experience is that many of these stories can now be shared.

It was clear from the recent historic preservation effort, that a few people can not emulate decades of historical research. But the one area that technology can help is in the “wisdom of the crowds.” In the case of the Febrey Estate the discovery of a Civil War drawing for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated publication confirmed that a portion of the house date back to the 1850s,

The Army in the Advance – Alfred Lumley 1861
Rear of the Febrey House – March 2020

While the drawing has been there for over 160 years, it took the action of a local resident to bring it to everyone’s attention. The drawing sparked an interesting debate, but the architectural proof and visualization was irrefutable. What was compelling is that Lumley documented the name of the family, Febrey, in the drawing’s notes. Barbara Heinisch asserts that technology’s influence on citizen humanities will lead to “mutual exchange and knowledge co-production.” This digital collaboration and engagement is where technology will have the most immediate impact.

A third and final lesson learned, is the need for local governments and historical organizations, to invest in online digital collection platforms. The demolition of the Febrey house, without any defined plan to curate or document the historic structure is tragic. The cost of these online collection platforms have been drastically reduced. The Omeka open source platform is a perfect example of how accessible they are right now. But the cost of full-time historic research staff is still an obstacle. Arlington County staff were limited in their ability to collect and curate the rich historic potential that the estate represented. The Febrey example demonstrates that if public history programs are going to succeed they will need to leverage public participation. Large-scale crowdsourcing projects are now manageable and their impact is worth the effort. Labor intensive activities such as tagging, transcribing or annotating research data, can now be supported by vetted volunteers. According to Ms. Heinisch, this could also “encompass forms of participatory (action) research or co-creation, such as initiatives in which the community has the lead or shares stronger responsibility with academics or co-develops research questions, research designs or project management.”

The local impact of the destruction of the Febrey house is still to be determined. But the public reaction so far has been one of dismay and disappointment in their county’s government to act swiftly enough to preserve such a historic site. One thing for sure is that in the historic preservation movement, advancements in information technology will continue to have a significant impact on citizen humanities and public history. For the citizens of Arlington it is hoped that the demolition of the Febrey estate will serve as a reminder that it takes a “village” and the “wisdom” of the crowd to preserve and protect its heritage.

Public History

Project Progress Report 3/22/21

For this week’s progress report the number of curated items are now over a 100. Also, the contribution feature has been implemented and successfully tested. Once you start to have dozens of items you start to get a better feel of the collections and can start thinking more about what type of exhibits you want to develop. For “Mapping the Civil War” I have decided to try to present at least three “stories” or exhibits for my public launching of the site.

While collecting the items and uploading the necessary metadata it becomes apparent that there is a lot of interesting historical information. Most of this content is not easily associated with an item unless you create companion documentation. As a result, the “exhibit” interface provides a venue to capture some of the more interesting historical information. I would encourage the Omeka developers to explore ways to improve this “storytelling” process. It is clear that people learn better through stories and having a better way to present these historical vignettes would make Omeka a better product.

Another plugin that I am going to explore during the next week is Neatlines “timeline.” I think a timeline functionality would provide a better historical overview for visitors. The great think about a timeline is that the site’s users will not have to memorize dates, but rather have a visual reference to aid them. Fortunately, the associated time frame is only two years, and I already have identified the important dates that I would want to display. What this means is that I will need to either add additional items with more specific date references, or go back and ensure the current items are updated to include them.

Finally, the feedback I am getting from site testors has been good. This includes adding content and searching for items. The platform seems to be robust and I have not noticed any technical problems worth mentioning. However, I imagine with any first time “collection” project, it is the curation process that eventually becomes the real challenge. In my case, the availability of items to curate and upload is significant. So my challenge is being selective. I am only trying to focus on higher quality or more interesting items to include for now.

Public History

Exploring Your Landscape

DC Historic Sites ( represents the next generation public history mobile experience. The site is both on the web and there is a mobile application as well. While its navigation is quite simple, it is rich in content and offerings. DC Historic is great for both tourists and long term residents. It has a effective map interface, and links to proposed tours, sites, and stories.

DC Historic’s “theory of history” is to help visitors learn more about the District of Columbia’s important and irreplaceable “historic places and spaces.” The primary source of the site’s content is based on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, the city’s official list of properties deemed worthy of recognition and protection for their contribution to the cultural heritage of the nation’s capital.

DC Historic Sites was developed by the DC Preservation League, Washington’s citywide nonprofit advocate solely dedicated to the preservation, protection, and enhancement of the historic resources of our nation’s capital.

A unique feature of the site is a link called “random stories.” It is an effective place-based technique that the project uses to promote engagement. By selecting a random story, users can discover something new about the city, even if they have lived in DC for a long time.

But the most interesting feature are the well defined walking tours, currently numbering at 18, that provide visitors and residents alike, an opportunity to walk and talk about their history. What makes the tours interesting is the well written historical interpretations that are provided. DC Historic sets a high bar for other cities to follow, but the formula is simple and effective.

Public History

Project Progress Report 3/15/21

Mapping the Civil War in Arlington is proceeding rather well. The “curating” is straightforward and I hope to have over two hundred items in the collection by the time I submit it as a final project. Since the project is going to have a post-project phase I was able to get some assistance and add some rather cool functionalities. This includes a map feature and a contribution feature. It reflects well on the Omeka developers that the platform is quite agile in providing the option to add plugins. I am learning more about other more expensive alternatives, like “Past Perfect.” Many museums use it for managing their collections, however, I understand that it is rather on the pricey side for providing a public facing.

For the next week I will be testing the Contribution function and develop a social media strategy as to how I would like to promote it. I will be conducting an online presentation to the Arlington Historical Society on April 8th, and I would like to feature it.

Finally, in regard to challenges and any problems, I continue to struggle with how much Dublin Core metadata is necessary to input. I guess if I had a grant and hired a part-time assistance I would have the time to make sure everything is properly notated. I suspect that additional reviews will be necessary to maintain some consistency. The good news is that the majority of items are from already existing collections. So this will help. Finally, I am also trying to normalize the use of standard tag definitions, and limit the number of collections. The use of inconsistent tag labeling becomes self evident once you start adding dozens of items. Omeka has a rather decent aid to helping us curators and hopefully like a gardener, I will be able to “weed” out the duplications or redundant tags.

Public History

Annotating Oral Histories

A considerable amount of historical content today is multimedia, including both audio and video files. Most of this content is interviews and this creates a significant problem for curators. There is a need to index this content to enable future researchers to be able to easily search and discover what is contained on these files. The solution is programs like the University of Kentucky’s Oral History Metada Synchronizer (OHMS). OHMS is an online tool for enhancing access to online oral histories created by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries. Oral history involves audio or video recordings on time-based media. In order to be practical an indexing application has to provide the users a means to precisely identify the start and stop times of a segment.

OHMS was developed as an open source application. It is the next best thing for those not wanting to invest in speech recognition and artificial intelligence indexing services such as Microsoft’s Video Indexer. However, it’s layers of complexity and different levels of indexing are time consuming, For a large project it may make one reconsider paying for the service.

For my testing of the application I used an interview I had conducted with Steve Phan from the National Park Service.

Public History Uncategorized

Project Progress Report 3/8/21

I am pleased to report that there has been much progress in starting the “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” project. The basic site theme and layout has been worked out. Also I have started populating dozens of items in the hosted Omeka platform. I think the first challenge that needed to be overcome was understanding the item, collection, exhibit hierarchy that Omeka provides inside the box. Then ensuring that item definitions, and collection descriptions were logical. Finally, the were the need to conceptualize how exhibits were going to be developed.

At this point in the project, a persistent problem is inputing the metadata and tags. There is a reason that this type of work is specialized. Since I consider myself a forest type of person, working on the individual trees seems tedious and laborious. Building this collection right, will take some time and some other sets of eyes.

For this reason, I also want to include a contribution feature to encourage other people to upload files and the associated metadata. I would compare this to Tom Sawyer encouraging other boys to paint the fence. It is my understanding that Omeka has a plugin that supports this feature. I am seeking some assistance to help me set this up.

One bright spot so far is the “mapping feature” that Omeka provides. Since the title of my project includes the word mapping, having the ability to place an identifier on a map to locate a geographic reference to an item is pretty cool. I think for students this will be a popular feature, especially if they want to see if anything happened in Arlington near where they live.

For next week I am going to spend time on better defining tags and collections. Also, I am planning on creating specialized pages for resources, videos, and lesson plans. I realize that the collection or curating process is reiterative and it is necessary to revisit and constantly add information as necessary.

Finally, it did not take too long to get familiar with the Omeka platform. The basic functionality and navigation are well thought out. I’m glad to see that you can add additional themes, and someday, if my grant is awarded, hire a graphic designer to create my own custom theme. Words of advise to those that will someday have to do a similar project. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Do your homework and review collection sites that work well. This will make all the difference in feeling confident to proceed.