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Month: November, 2012

Mapping History Online: Quest for the Best Applications

After spending two months preparing tour materials for the Eastville Community Historical Society’s charrette, I’m now moving on to transferring those materials online, which means I’m starting to explore mapping applications. Today I’m just making note of what I’ve seen so far, but I would love other thoughts, suggestions, and advice.

And then it will look just like this!

Okay, well, no. But we can dream.

1) Since I’ve been working in ArcGIS so far, my initial experimentation has been with ESRI’s online service. The main attraction for me is simply that I could upload layers straight from my GIS files. However, it’s also interactive for the viewer, since you can turn on and off layers, click individual points for pop-up descriptions, zoom and pan, and change the basemap from satellite to street or topographic. It looks like people may even be able to add layers, which would be a great way to learn more from local or distant experts, but I haven’t used that feature yet so I am not sure if it requires annoying extras (like signing up for an ESRI account, which many visitors would not want to do).

The main problem that I’ve run into is just that the pop-up descriptions come from attribute fields in ArcGIS, which have a 50 character limit. Worse than Twitter! It’s hard to tell any kind of story in that few characters, and what info I’ve given so far is fairly reductionist and boring. I will have to work to improve those and also link them to fuller stories somehow, whether elsewhere on the website, in another medium, or even marketed as the attraction for coming on a tour in person.

Now that you’re warned, my small scale experiment at mapping a couple themes of interest is at http://bit.ly/SaLBN7

This is the only program I’ve used for this purpose, but I’ve also tried to do mapping for presentations or online exhibits on Google Maps and Viewshare, and I think those would be better for telling different stories about this neighborhood.

2) Viewshare has more helpful and attractive pop-ups in its maps, a lovely interface, and multiple visualization options. However, it requires data in a fairly specific format, i.e. an Excel spreadsheet with latitude & longitude, which is what has kept me from finishing my previous project using Viewshare: editing to include major changes is time consuing and tedious. Also, I had the information in ArcGIS tables already, I have a dissertation to work on, and I’m not sure how well it works for hyper-local mapping like this, so I went with something more customizable.

In the future, though, it might be wonderful for more long-distance mapping, like the voyages of Eastville’s whalers, especially combined with visualizations of demographic or economic information about African American and Native American whalers from Long Island.

3) Google Maps might actually be the best option for reaching visitors just learning about the area, or allowing others to contribute, since it doesn’t require special software. Pretty much everyone who would use an online map knows how to navigate it, it lets you see photos and reviews of nearby places, and it has street view, which would definitely help an online map give you the feeling of a walking tour. If you want to see a fantastic example, check out how Google is showing off UNESCO world heritage sites at the top of the page. It’s an archaeologist’s dream!

Coming back to earth, though (ahahaha!), on a very basic level, I’ve found that navigating between street view and an aerial map while progressing down a street isn’t that easy, it turns out. On an ethical note, I’m wary of pinpointing houses that are currently residential as historic sites on such a public forum without the permission of their owners. Finally, you can’t export nice-looking maps very easily. I’d like to explore the potential of Google Maps for heritage areas more in the future, though – it seems like there is a lot.

Are there others you’ve heard about, or used?



Eastville Heritage House

On Saturday I had the good fortune and excellent timing to be part of the Eastville Community Historical Society’s (ECHS) charrette. Today I’d like to spread the word about what a neat experience this was for drawing the local community into finding direction for the future.

What is it?

A charrette is a short term, intensive planning effort that tries to draw perspectives and reach consensus among multiple stakeholders. It’s a term mainly used in architecture for quickly coming to an agreement on design projects. It was an architect involved with the restoration of the ECHS’s Heritage House who came up with the idea. The general principle is that process is more important than product – it may be messier to let people disagree than to bring in a professional consultant, but if you’re not trying to work with the people you are working for, you might as well not do anything at all.

Why hold one?

The historical society is at a crossroads for the future in the sense of starting to plan several major projects, but needing to understand how these projects could best serve its community. Even though it’s located in Sag Harbor, NY, a major tourist destination in the summer, the ECHS is a very community-oriented grassroots institution, founded in the 1980s by local residents who wanted to preserve a historic AME Zion church building, still run by many of its initial members. It still draws heavily for its membership and audience from local residents of the historic Eastville neighborhood and the surrounding African-American resort developments.

The ECHS leadership is considering remodeling the basement of its Heritage House, a 1920s Sears Roebuck home that it restored in the 1990s, in order to create a larger space for meetings or exhibits; planning for the documentation and restoration of the St David’s AME Zion cemetery, which it now owns; and imagining how best to improve its tour programs and use its outdoor space. These are all big projects that require community support to be feasible and worthwhile. The charrette was the strategy chosen to introduce and discuss them.

How does it work?

I would describe the process on Saturday as “directed democracy.” In the all-day program, to which local people, members of government, clergy, and press were invited, the first couple of hours involved planners and facilitators introducing the organization and the issues on the table.

1. First, after a summary of the charrette process and goals, everyone introduced themselves. We handed out information packets with pens, paper, maps, history, strategic plans, and membership info.

2. All who were able went on a walking tour covering the neighborhood’s historic core and some of the preservation and tour issues we would discuss throughout the day.

3. When the tour group returned, everyone split into groups, and each group would discuss one of the four main planning areas: the heritage house, its grounds, the cemetery, and the tour program. Each workshop had two facilitators, and drafted volunteers to take notes and draw ideas. The facilitators introduced the issues that needed to be discussed and presented relevant information, like potential plans for the building, or methods and costs of cemetery survey. Open discussion followed, with the facilitators mainly trying to encourage people to join in while keeping discussion on topic.

4. At this point, we stopped for lunch, which was as long as we could fit in order to encourage people getting to know each other and talking openly. (After lunch, they fit me in for 20 minutes to summarize the historical research I’ve done here this fall, and what I’m hoping to do in the future, which turned out to be a great opportunity for me to meet people I should talk to about neighborhood history in the future! This isn’t a key part of a charrette though.)

5. After lunch, we split back into groups to try to come up with ideas and solutions for the issues we’d discussed in the morning. Then we came back together into a large session for an hour, where someone from each group presented their results, and everyone could offer questions and thoughts.

6. We thanked everyone and they left! The next step will be compiling all of the material people wrote and creating a draft proposal for future plans, which the ECHS will try to present to the community and gain feedback.

How did it go?

I’m still feeling the afterglow, since it was great to bring people together (a little over 30 total, which turned out to be close to the ECHS’s capacity), so I would say it went wonderfully. While this number cannot be representative of the entire local community,  and future efforts will attempt to reach out further, there were people from several different stakeholding groups, and all were enthusiastic to be involved. We all heard new ideas that the leadership hadn’t thought of (precisely the point of this exercise), and gained support and excitement for some proposals that were on the table. Including, fortunately for me, one that would contribute to my research!

Not to mention…it was fun. I feel so fortunate that I got to be involved. So if you’re in an organization looking for ways to engage the public, and you are willing to spend months planning, then maybe consider a charrette.

Iterative Mapping: local history as process

Making a neighborhood history walking tour map is not something the newest person in the neighborhood should do on her own. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working with a local history group this fall to make the map for a public planning event tomorrow, called a charrette , and for the group’s website and interpretive materials in the future. Yet while I have access to historical resources and technological tools, there is one necessary ingredient I don’t possess: local knowledge.

Initially it seemed simple to ask the neighborhood historian which sites should be included on the tour, add historical information from my research, and identify them on the map. That turned out to be very wrong. It turned out to be an effort that would take multiple drafts and much revision to find a consensus. But in the end, we couldn’t have made the product without the process, and thinking of that process as its own form of unfinished oral history has made it even more valuable.

Iteration one

How do you think of places that hold memories in your neighborhood? Do you think of them from the perspective of someone flying over, picking out houses from an aerial view? Do you separate houses based on when they were built, or the dates of important events? Almost certainly not. You probably imagine them as though you are standing outside the front door, or walking up the steps. You probably envision them in the consecutive order of travel, whether by foot, car, or bicycle. What almost nobody does is think of the place they live in terms of a mapping product that doesn’t exist yet.

First, we tried doing a digital walking tour to identify sites, an idea inspired by Activehistory.ca. I thought that looking at houses on Google street view, then zooming out to see where they were on an aerial photograph, would bridge the historian’s and my knowledge: she knew places from the ground, and I could only make sense of them on historic and aerial maps. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The street view was difficult to navigate as though we were walking along the road, the foliage sometimes obscured facades, and the historian found it hard to see the screen in general; this was partly a generational difference between the two of us and partly due to a lack of practice on my part, but it turned out to be easier to simply go out and walk the route.

Walking, and going home later to spend some quality time with existing maps (and even Google street view), helped in terms of location, but we had to do it again later to check that the historical maps, the new map, and the historian’s knowledge all matched up.

Iteration two

The first map attempt I made identified each site by family names, but checking on the location of each site raised questions as to those names. Members of the society referred to historic houses as, say, the “Smith house,” referring to an early or important family who lived there. Yet many families in the neighborhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been closely related. Sometimes there were multiple Smiths at the same time. Sometimes descendants remained in one house or moved around the area for generations. Sometimes the Smiths the historian considered important were tenants, not owners, so their presence is less well documented. Sometimes I didn’t understand why we were talking about the twentieth century Smiths when the nineteenth century Joneses who lived there were so interesting. So…which Smiths?

I tried to fix this on my map by giving the houses or house sites names of the families who lived there in chronological order: the Smith house might become the Jones-Smith-Carter house, for example. This became confusing and difficult to read, however, and still didn’t answer the biggest question: what made these families important?

Iteration Three

The next round of revision really dealt with the question of significance, and I asked many more annoying questions about why specific places mattered to local history. This was a great way to elicit information about why people today think history matters.

The society director helpfully  suggested that there are three themes for three time periods in the neighborhood’s history: its early history as a racially and ethnically mixed, working class whaling settlement; its twentieth century reinvention as an African-American vacation community with strong connections to Harlem; and its identity as the home of several prominent African-Americans within a famous resort area today. (This is clearly anonymous in name only, because that’s a lot of clues.)

The historian, on the other hand, identified some early houses in terms of the whaling history, others because of their Native American occupants, and others in more personal anecdotes, as the homes of descendants of settlers and people who helped her reconstruct neighborhood history when she founded the historical society in the 1980s. Her knowledge isn’t structured in terms of time periods, it is structured by place. More on that next entry.

Iteration Four

I tried to combine these different perspectives on local history by numbering each site and creating a separate booklet for the key, doing away with the site names completely. For each number, I named key themes in local history that it tied into so future tour guides can simply say, “today we’re doing the whaling tour,” and go to the sites identified as relevant. Then I structured the content by year or time period, adding information about which families lived there and what they did.

This met everyone’s approval, and then the corrections to text began. Others noted entries where more local knowledge would help flesh it out, where names were confused, or where the significance wasn’t clear. We went through several more drafts of the text before it met everyone’s approval.

Iterations five and beyond?

We’re finished with the map for the tour tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished. I hope that at the event tomorrow, local residents will give us more information to flesh out our history. My research is ongoing and I am already finding more relationships between different households through time.

More importantly, focusing on the process by using a map to spark memories, call on local knowledge, and gain input about what is important about this neighborhood has been a “product” in itself. It has been such a useful exercise that I would gladly do it again, rather than calling the picture and text a finished product. Local history is a living thing, and in a way, remembering history is making history.

Rolling Jubilee: thinking through the objections

A day before the official kickoff I wanted to collect yet more Rolling Jubilee links, but at this point there are enough basically similar summaries (like the New York Times’) that I’m not going for comprehensiveness. On a practical level, the issues are whether the forgiven debts will be counted as income, i.e. taxable, and whether the entire movement will “work.” The major topic of discussion today on an ideological level seems to be why debt would be chosen as a rallying point.

According to Bloomburg Businessweek, IRS policy on forgiven debt could prove a problem, since it is considered income the debtor receives. The IRS provides a very unhelpful one sentence guideline saying that gifts are not counted as taxable income, but doesn’t specify the legal definition or proof of gift in this case. Presumably the Rolling Jubilee will try to record its actions as gifts, so as to not make its beneficiaries subject to taxes on their debt. I will relieved to see this verified though.

Now for the more principled critiques. Doug Henwood’s, for instance. He asks,

But why the intense focus on debt and its relief? Debt could be an excellent point of entry into a discussion about many other things. Why so much personal debt? Because wages are stagnant or down, unemployment is high, yet the cost of living continues to rise. Why so much mortgage debt? Because until sometime in 2007, housing inflation (meaning tax-subsidized homeownership) was practically the American national religion. Why so much student debt? Because higher education is too expensive—in fact, it should be free. Etc. But Occupy has inherited a lot of American populism’s obsession with finance as the root of all evil, without connecting it to the rest of the system.

He has a point – our economic system runs on debt, but it’s a tool, not the root of the problem. The inequality that makes debt a means of increasing one’s wealth for a company like Bain Capital or an individual like Donald Trump, and an tightening shackle for millions of less famous people, isn’t necessarily the fault of banks. It has to do with wage stagnation, the casualization of labor (a phrase I hate because it makes it sound fun to have your hours, benefits, pay, and security reduced), out of control medical costs, predatory lending practices, and the rising cost of higher education, to name just a few factors. Given those realities, Henwood asks, is it radical enough?

Seth Ackerman and Andrew Ross discuss the same question of whether attacking debt is really the best direction in Strike Debt, the Debate. Ackerman, playing devil’s advocate to Ross’s full-throated support, points out that Strike Debt doesn’t have a clear policy end point – in fact, he’s not sure of it’s point in the first place:

Strike Debt essentially takes the form of an open-ended propaganda campaign, with no defined end-goal.

And I have to confess to being a little unclear even about the fundamental message of the propaganda: is all debt illegitimate, or just some debt? Should only some debts be cancelled, or should all of them be—in which case, wouldn’t we also lose most of our savings? Should there be a permanent end to the existence of debt; if so, what kind of system should replace it?

Maybe open-endedness and ambiguity are useful, though. If the clear purpose of the Rolling Jubilee were to completely overthrow our banking system, I would object to it as impractical in reality but destructive and ill-thought-out in theory. If it were a complete rejection of the concept of debt, I wouldn’t support that either; debt can be incredibly useful for bridging insecurity.

On the other hand, if left ambiguous, we are free to interpret the Rolling Jubilee as a goodwill effort of peer-to-peer support, and as a small scale protest against inequality. If left open-ended, it can inspire ideas that are more grassroots and culturally based than specific policy demands, which is something I think a lot of critiques of the Occupy movement miss.  How do you measure if something like that “works”? Doesn’t the publicity this experiment is getting mean that in a cultural sense, it already “works”?

Both articles are correct that Rolling Jubilee doesn’t identify sources of common struggle that everyone shares, since debt is widespread but not inevitable. In fact, Ackerman and Ross’s discussion brings up the point that consumer, mortage, medical, and student loan debt all exist for different reasons and because of different choices and circumstances. Medical debt is generally viewed much more sympathetically than credit card debt. Again, I think that this may be a feature, not a bug. By refusing to distinguish between types of debt as “good” or “bad,” “accidental” or “chosen,” Strike Debt proponents may be missing nuance, but they’re also refusing to buy into the association of money with virtue.

This is a big deal. The idea that having “bad debt” means you deserve any suffering it brings you is all too closely tied to the idea that our incomes reflect our work ethics and our values, and that if you are in bad financial straits, you must be lazy or misguided or otherwise at fault. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true; we all make mistakes and some of them relate to money. But poverty doesn’t exist because all poor people screwed up, and five minutes of Mitt Romney’s time is not actually more productive than my entire year’s work. If we credit ourselves for our good fortune, and blame others for their bad luck, we are less willing to help each other. Refusing that entire line of thought is a exercise in empathy, and a good reason for joining in an effort of mutual aid.

Disagree? How come?

Now let’s see how this thing starts rolling….

Rolling Jubilee Link Roundup

Today I’m seeing a lot of buzz online about Rolling Jubilee, a debt relief effort organized by a group in connection with Occupy Wall Street. The short explanation is that the group is buying debts in default for about $15 per $100 worth of debt and simply discharging the obligations, relieving random individuals. It’s a protest against the way the sale of debts in our financial system tends to benefit large corporations and even rich individuals, and a form of anonymous peer-to-peer support.

This is literally fascinating and exciting me so much that I cannot focus on my actual research dealing with systemic inequality in 19th century America. So I’m rounding up some links here for anyone who’s interested and hoping that will help me walk away until later.

Rolling Jubilee (official site)

Matt Yglesias: “Occupy Distressed Debt: Can we save the world with loan forgiveness?” (a critique that I’m not sure gets the point, but he’s prominent and the comments section is full of questions and debate)

Natasha Lennard: “Occupy Gets Into the Debt Market” (exploring potential problems – the kind that might happen if it were successful, though!)

Tim Worstall (Forbes): “Finally, an Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind, the Rolling Jubilee” (general explanation that brings up an interesting tax issue and approves it as a market-based solution)

Huffington Post: “Rolling Jubilee Offshoot of Occupy Wall Street To Offer Debtors $1 Million Bailout” (summary with videos – but it’s already surpassed $1 million!)

And here are a few from an explicitly Christian perspective – relevant given the origins of the jubilee idea, and very expressive of why this is so appealing.

Fred Clark: “Rolling Jubilee: Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”

Bethany Keeley-Jonker: “Rolling Jubilee as a model of God’s Grace”

Richard Beck: “The Rolling Jubilee”


I think this is really exciting even though I don’t think that debt itself in our financial system is inherently harmful. Credit can be a useful tool for individuals and businesses, and in a systemic sense it helps lubricate economic expansion. In the past few years we’ve seen how too much separation between the paper value of debts and the actual value of assets can be highly destructive (thanks for 2008, Wall Street!), but also how the contraction of available credit can hold back growth. I don’t think that a financial system based heavily on credit is something we need to eliminate.

On the other hand, I do think that when debt becomes crushing (e.g. through medical bills) or contributes to our country’s increasing economic inequality, that is a problem. I like the idea of a “people’s bailout” because it’s appropriating a tool of the powerful – the ability to buy and sell debts for pennies on the dollar – in a symbolically rich grassroots way. I like that it’s something we can actually do, rather than recognizing pervasive structural inequalities and feeling completely paralyzed. I even like that it doesn’t depend on the government, just on individual good will and generosity. “Will it work?” is not a yes or no question, and I think it’s already working as a beautiful idea.

This is a quick and shallow post, so please let me know your thoughts, if you think I’m getting something important wrong, or if you have any other links to suggest. And now…back to the 19th century for me.

Mapping local history (part 1)

This fall, my early stage dissertation research and volunteer work with a neighborhood historical society have converged around mapping. Since I finished the latest draft of a map for a historical society walking tour this morning, the intellectual and social purposes of mapping have been on my mind, but so have the practical challenges of doing it with and for a local history group. This will be the first of multiple posts discussing mapping as a skill archaeologists can use in the service of public history, offered in “real time” from someone trying to learn through experience.

I became involved with this historical society early on in my dissertation research, learning from the officers but also trying to point my research into a direction they would find useful. It is a community volunteer organization run by people living within and near one of my research sites, so it provided an easy way to get involved with the local community and a descendant group. When I learned that an important public planning session, called a charette, was in the works, and that they needed a neighborhood map for a walking tour, I immediately volunteered. I had learned to use GIS in graduate school and was beginning to work on my own maps of the area.

The map and a key to the sites it identifies will be used for walking tours on the morning of the charette, but mapping has also turned into a method of recording and organizing the information for the tour itself. The society’s historian has been conducting tours based on her own research for years, but there is no documentation of what she includes, and the society relies on her memories. The tour map needs to identify all the sites the historian might mention and why she says they are important. It has to include the legacies of 170 years of history as they exist today, but also be easy to read and follow on the ground, and translate into an online resource for potential visitors. An ideal would be something like this map of Arrow Rock, a national historic landmark:

Arrow Rock walking tour map

My goals for mapping as a researcher are slightly different. I am studying the growth of two small communities through neighborhood settlement, architecture, and cemeteries. In the future, I hope to add more archaeological data through geophysics and field survey. This means that I need to create both historic maps of the neighborhoods at different points in time to look for patterns in their physical layout, and contemporary maps showing existing historical and archaeological resources. For my purposes, precision and comprehensiveness are more important than public accessibility, and each map should not mix time periods.

The above example of a historic map with study areas overlaid, from IUPUI, is the sort of thing I would find helpful:

IUPUI campus historical and archaeological survey area

(There are differences, though – in my case the survey area blocks shown would be more like small squares for test pits in residential areas, or one larger rectangle for geophysical cemetery survey. Highlighting entire archival study areas, as in this example, would not be useful for my neighborhood-level research. Still, this is the most representative sample I could find.)


These varying goals require different maps for different purposes, but some of the work I am doing can be used for both, especially collection and digitization of historic maps, comparison of historic and contemporary landscapes, matching specific house sites with census schedules, and documenting some information known through the historian’s oral history research in the 1980s.

In some ways creating the tour map has been more difficult than expected, in part due to the slow nature of collaborative work, and in part due to some technological tools not being quite as helpful as I had anticipated. This has meant that the process has required multiple map drafts for weekly meetings, which has turned it into an iterative activity. I want to keep these posts relatively short and manageable, so in future updates I want to discuss digital tools and how they have helped in collaborative work (or not); why iterative mapping is useful for the process as well as the product; the eventual results of the map and charette; and how we at the historical society envision using, distributing, and adding to maps for public history in the future.

Suggestions or advice from those with experience and inspiration are, as always, most welcome.

Book review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson’s book shot to the top of my to-read list this fall based on the enthusiastic recommendations of people I work with at a small local historical society. The society launched a series of book discussions this summer, and when they read The Warmth of Other Suns, the building had standing room only because so many members were thrilled by the book’s resonance with their own family histories. “This book is incredible,” I was told. “You have to read it.”

I spent my first two days of power loss last week doing just that, and if I had to describe the book in one word, that word would be “’Epic” with a capital E. Wilkerson’s history of the Great Migration is a brilliantly crafted history that explores a phenomenon with huge scope through the personal narratives of three migrants. She describes an exodus of African-Americans from the South during the Jim Crow era from 1915-1970, in which millions of individuals and families moved along railroads and highways to the cities of the North and West.

Her stated missions include, first, understanding the boundaries and composition of the Great Migration, since she writes that its size and decentralization have made it difficult for historians to even recognize as a movement. Short chapters on the demographics and history of the migration scattered throughout the book put the personal stories in a broader context, as to statistics and additional anecdotes woven into the individual narratives. On this front alone, the book was worth reading, since it fleshed out an area of recent American history I knew little about, yet has great significance for millions of American families. Second, she argues throughout the book that even though African Americans were citizens within their own country, their movements to places like New York, Chicago, and California share the structural patterns and demographics of international migrations, such as “leapfrogging” to distant destinations based on the knowledge of previous migrants, stronger educations and employment records than those in the destination cities, and struggle with new forms of discrimination and hierarchy in those destinations. This, I believe, was a deft and well-supported insertion of an anthropological argument into a work of popular history, which I wish we saw much more frequently! Moreover, based on this argument, she debunks the assumptions of prior authors that “urban social problems” in the North and West are due to the influx of southern migrants.

The book is readable because it is anchored in particularities, not abstractions, though. Wilkerson writes that she was inspired by her own mother’s experiences, and she conducted oral histories and interviewed 1200 people. Yet she chose three people for her focus, and the book is most fundamentally the story of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and their journeys to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles from the 1930s through the 1950s. Wilkerson writes their biographies from birth to death, and all three are fascinating, representative of different threads of the migration, and too complex to sum up in a blog post. Any anthropologist should envy her combination of historical breadth, theoretical argument aimed toward non-specialist readers, and most importantly, close long-term relationships with her three central subjects. As an archaeologist, I was also excited by the quiet impact of materiality in Wilkerson’s writing; she often describes the physical environments or material products of her subjects’ labor, making her history feel more real, and connecting individual lives to larger economic systems and broader experiences.

This impressed me so that it left me wrestling with how to teach it. There are numerous ways it could inform an anthropology curriculum: from providing a fine example of the use of oral history, material descriptions, and ethnographic writing, to exploring the structure of migrations, to considering the social roots of inequality close to home, to supplementing lessons in African-American historical archaeology. At a basic “101” level, Wilkerson’s narrative could help students struggling with the concepts of structure and agency: she stresses how each individual saw his or her migration north or west as an isolated and personal decision, yet the shared experiences that drove them to leave and the sum of their individual decisions reshaped the social landscape of the United States.

Make no mistake, I would love to teach from this book! The problem is that it is a long book, over 500 pages, so it would require a significant portion of an undergraduate level course to cover completely. Yet the theoretical arguments and personal narratives are woven together throughout the book, so excerpts of one or a few chapters would detract from the work’s overall power. This is the drawback of something Epic.

What do you think of Wilkerson’s book? Would you work it into a syllabus, and if so, how?

Tapping into the Wonders of the Internet

Why start a public blog, allowing me to embarrass myself (or worse) in front of people who would otherwise never know of my existence?

Simply put, there are conversations I want to join and tools I want to learn to use. The DigiWriMo idea seems like a good way to get motivated, get company, and set goals. It is also a great opportunity to do my favorite thing: make lists.
Goals, ahead!

1) I hope to practice writing relatively short form pieces on topical issues, methods, and books. I hope to learn from the examples of my favorite group and individual blogs in anthropology and history like Savage Minds, Context and Variation, the US Intellectual History Blog, and active history.ca. Their authors’ thoughtful book reviews, discussions of teaching and public outreach, and pieces on issues of public interest reach across the particularities of subfields and show how academic thought and the “real world” are connected. This is a skill that, of course, I would like to develop.

2) I’d like a space to practice and discuss experimenting with new tools for visualization and outreach. In archaeology, digitally recording, analyzing, and visualizing data is a regular part of the research process, from georeferencing historic maps to GPS-based field collection to database creation and statistical analysis. Using GIS has gone from a specialization to a basic skill. Using digital and online programs to share is something you’re less likely to learn on a project or in class, at least in my experience so far.

Why does everyone love WordPress so much? What can we do with programs like Viewshare or Omeka to tell the stories of smaller sites? For example, what can I produce for the local historical society I work with to add to their website? (Last summer, working on an online exhibit using Google Sites and Viewshare taught me that learning curves always make things take longer than you expect – in fact, I’m still not finished. The more motivation to try, the better.)

3) There are great conversations going on over Twitter and various blogs about teaching, with people sharing their ideas, their successes, and their self-critiques. I would love to join by reporting and sharing my trials and results when I teach classes or work on public programs.

4) A couple of non-academic blogs I follow post frequent roundups of interesting links. These posts are usually among my favorites every week, and they introduce me to new sites, writers, and issues. I plan to do the same.

5) The volume of writing DigiWriMo requires will allow me to write some posts to keep waiting in the wings. I’ve been meaning to start a blog since last summer, but committing to write every few days, or writing extra posts for when I can’t, has been intimidating. I won’t be posting 1500 words a day because, first off, that’s more than anyone would want to read, and second, I’ll be accumulating some spare posts.

6) Dissertations require focus, but sometimes tangents are so interesting! I’m very concerned with class and labor issues in the US today, not only a century ago. I love reading a good work of medical anthropology, straight up ethnography, or even popular nonfiction that really resonates. I adore cooking and food history. I look forward to dipping my toes into other areas while…continuing to swim in the pool of historical archaeology? I don’t think that metaphor works.
Do you have any recommendations of people to read, tools to use, and practices to follow for a beginning blogger?

A quick plug for (and at!) the public library

The library is open, the lights are on, and power strips are on every table so people without power can charge their phones and computers. How can I not praise it? Libraries are one of my favorite public goods. They don’t just do the minimum of preventing or minimizing suffering and disaster (which is, of course, incredibly important), they actually do positive good beyond just offering a large selection of books (also incredibly important, but extremely obvious).

First, if you or your kids like museums, public libraries often have museum passes. A few years ago I worked at the Boston Children’s Museum, which is a fun place but fairly expensive for a family buying individual tickets. Library passes were incredibly popular ways for people to plan trips. Definitely ask at the circulation desk what options your local library might have.

Second, public libraries have all the magazines you could want! Many of them have evening hours! If, say, your power is out, or you’re camping out and it is pouring rain, or you’re in a new place where you don’t know anyone and you’re just bored out of your skull, it’s wonderful to be able to go sit with a magazine or several after dinner. I have done that at this particular library in each of those circumstances, so believe me, it’s true.

Third, they plan activities. I joined a library murder mystery book club on Long Island. It’s a lot of fun.

Fourth, in addition to novels and nonfiction, you can get cookbooks! As a grad student I’ve developed a love of beautiful and interesting cookbooks and a budget that can’t really keep up. Last summer, ordering “Plenty” on ILL kept me entertained for about a month of flipping through and trying things out. (It also introduced me to green couscous and green pancakes, both of which I recommend.)

In conclusion, libraries are fantastic. Use them, enjoy them, and help keep them open!

What’s your favorite perk of the public library?

(This entry was written 11/1/12)

Hello, World!

(Written 11/1/12, posted 11/6)

Happy beginning to Digital Writing Month! I am writing from a seaside town on the east coast where school has been canceled for the week, electricity is still out at home, and the library has power but no internet. The library has a surge protector on every table for people to charge their phones and computers, and it’s pretty busy; in the quiet area where I am, someone just asked a student and her mother, “Could you maybe talk any louder?” It is, ironically, the deprivation of online distractions and the inaccessibility of the archives and cemeteries I would normally visit that makes it the perfect time to start blogging; without my regular research activities, and with the added motivation of writing along with many others for Digital Writing Month, it can move to the top of the to-do list.

For today, I will introduce myself. I am a graduate student in anthropology, conducting the early stages of my dissertation research in historical archaeology. While I’m doing this research in what is today a rich resort area, I’m really concerned with the less famous but more representative parts of American history that are well preserved here: the growth of working class, ethnically mixed communities and the strategies families and households used to navigate economic instability and change. For two months I’ve been trying to piece together the landscape and demographic histories of two neighborhoods where people marginalized in Anglo-American society – Native Americans, African Americans, and Irish immigrants – made their homes. From the early 19th to early 20th centuries, they worked at sea, on farms, for wealthier households, and in a growing tourist economy. They faced discrimination, indigenous land loss and legal disenfranchisement, and economic upheaval of the decline of a major local industry, which employed at least one member of most families.

Through history and archaeology, I hope to learn about the formation of modern inequalities and identities in the United States by exploring three questions in these communities:

1)      Whether families with different ethnic backgrounds employed different household-level economic strategies,

2)      Whether patterns of residence and material culture mark shared experiences of class or occupation during and after the whaling era, and

3)      How people engaged the material culture of everyday life, including “above ground” remains like historic photographs, architecture, and tombstones, to symbolize different facets of their individual and cultural identities within their diverse community and toward their broader society.

In the process, I am aiming for a collaborative research design with a public history component. This fall I have been working to make contacts and communicate with local and descendant communities, which can be a long and uneven process. I have also been working more closely with a small local historical society whose members have been wonderful advisors to my research and collaborators in making that research something concretely useful. In preparation for a community planning forum in about two weeks, we are creating tour maps of the neighborhood and documentation of its historic sites that combines the society’s past and my current research with the wealth of local knowledge of the society’s historian.  I am excited to work with the society on other projects in the future, since it has been such a pleasure this fall.

Soon I’ll write more about my goals for this blog, since they actually do not involve writing about my research constantly. But because I do anticipate writing a lot about the contemporary world, I hope that explaining how my research relates to the development of “modern life” hints at why an archaeologist might be interested in the recent past, or even the present. If you have suggestions on how better to phrase what is the written version of an elevator pitch to non-specialists, or questions that you’d like me to address here or in the future, your comments are welcome!