Metadata everywhere

In “Setting the Stage”, Anne J. Gilliland describes metadata as “the sum total of what one can say at a given moment about any information object at any level of aggregation.” Gilliland further notes that all information objects have three common features—content, context, and structure. So metadata includes not just the circumstances of the item’s creation (like the date a photo was taken), but additional information that might be used to arrange, describe or access that information object.

I fell into my last job in a DH lab because I had extensive experience with census records, Sanborn maps and historic architecture inventories. What I did NOT have was ANY training in database management, standards or archive creation.

I hit the ground running and did what seemed logical to me in the creation of a spreadsheet and standards for data collection in a project tracking former residents of a mill village. No one mentioned anything about core standards or set vocabularies, but I naturally created data fields in the spreadsheet based on the data that: 1.I knew we had access to and 2. By ways in which I thought the public, as well as academics, might want to search the data (in this case, 1920 census records). Weeks after I started the project we had a meeting, and someone asked about when a database would be created for metadata collection. I replied that I had never done that before but I’d be happy to learn how. A colleague chimed in that I in fact HAD already started the database and a data dictionary for metadata standards. While perhaps it didn’t follow industry standards to a ‘T’, I had unknowingly done something I didn’t have the words for. I was, using Gilliland’s description, collecting data on the content, context, and structure.


We encounter metadata every day and categorize things in countless ways. When ordering shoes on Amazon, I’m likely to first chose the size, style and price, but perhaps narrow down further by brand, color, rating. If the metadata behind the site isn’t properly structured, the computer won’t know which items to show me.

Within many industries, there is a specific set of standards for metadata related to that industry, and the fields can be numerous and technical. In addition to being industry specific they can be location specific, such as the Australian Recordkeeping Metadata Schema. In contrast to these industry-specific standards, the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set is a basic standard of 15 elements that can be easily implemented and understood for a variety of virtual as well as real objects. It is one of the most widely used metadata standards set and provides a simple way of categorizing something and listing its qualities to make it show up in machine searches.

It originated at a conference held by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in Dublin, Ohio in 1995 and is now run by the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. It was originally created specifically for organizing and retrieving web content. The 15 Dublin Core elements can be used to categorize descriptive or technical elements to help identify a digital resource. In addition to the Simple Dublin Core (the original 15 standards), there is also the Qualified Dublin Core which includes Audience, Provenance and Rights Holder, as well as a group of element qualifiers in additional ways. The Dublin Core’s usefulness has since expanded beyond web-retrieval though as a standard of organization across various platforms.The original 12 standards include:

  • Title
  • Creator
  • Subject
  • Description
  • Publisher
  • Contributor
  • Date
  • Type
  • Format
  • Identifier
  • Source
  • Language
  • Relation
  • Coverage Rights

A full list of DCMI Dublin Core metadata standards can be found here. These categories can be used to then narrow down searched but only identifying certain objects within the data set that fit the parameters and descriptors.



My team is working on creating a database for the May Weber Ethnographic Collection right now, and one of the concerns is that by using industry defined terms for the metadata it prescribes that the material can only be discovered or examined through a certain lens. By using set standards for organization of data (or organization of a website) does that limit the way people can interact with the object? What kind of interactions would organizing in this way miss?


Put a pin in it

I come from a family of clippers and filers. On my mother’s kitchen counter are stacks of articles, photos, brochures, and other ephemera with little post-it notes denoting who to mail the items to. Every few weeks I get an envelope from her filled with articles about hot new restaurants, tips for perfect pie crust, or old historic images she thinks I might want. We sometimes collaborate on making quilts and she’ll send me fabric swatches or patterns. In her home office, she keeps meticulous files for vacation ideas, recipes, and genealogy.

I was raised so much in that culture of saving, organizing and sharing that I have grown to have files of my own. As a former chef and caterer, I keep binders of organized recipes still despite the fact that I have suddenly, with graduate school, become the kind of person who eats frozen waffles and wine for dinner. When she sent me travel articles or I came across interesting looking places in the past, I’d write them in a travel journal (to be forgotten until I wrote the next place in it). I have a beautiful collection of vintage travel postcards, but they live tucked away in a box on the shelf. When Pinterest came around it was like, “aha! THIS is what I needed.” I’m a visual person, and filing things the traditional way never seemed to do these ideas justice. I wanted to interact with them, use them, be inspired by them.

Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest, grew up a collector too. From stamps to bug collections, Silbermann gathered and sorted and analyzed as a child. Below is an image he shared at a keynote talk of his bug collection, which he refers to as “Pinterest 1.0”


toteAfter a stint as a business analyst after graduating from Yale, Silbermann moved to Silicon Valley to pursue his tech entrepreneur
dreams. He worked for Google for awhile making product upgrade recommendations. He was given the job after telling his interviewer “I really, REALLY, love the internet,” which is something that he later looked for in his own Pinte
rest customers, the fascination with the limitless possibilities and combinations that the internet affords. He left Google to launch an app called Tote, which let shoppers sort items they liked. Although it failed, similar ideas were used to start Pinterest.

The first prototype for Pinterest was launched in May of 2010 to only a small group of colleagues and family members of designer Ben Silbermann, and more recent partners Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra. Beyond a core group of die-hard fans, around 5,000, the app didn’t immediately take off. “We didn’t have an engineering problem. We had a design and community problem,” Silbermann said. The company organized meet-ups with these users to help better design the next iteration of the project, inclusing allowing users to pin directly from other sites. These fans in turn grew the presence of Pinterest, by, of all things, pinning. Silbermann and partners were shocked to see the ways that people were using the site, in ways they had never imagined. One fan named Victoria who was the first to create pinboards, was then made into the company’s community manager.

By January of 2012 there were almost 12 million users, which makes Pinterest the fastest site to reach the 10 million users mark. According to an October 22, 2012 article in Forbes magazine, Pinterest became the third-largest source of referral traffic on the Web. Here is a video of Silberman talking about the trials he went through starting Pinterest.

Pinterest, which runs on the idea of generating a rich user experience, is Web 2.0 at its best. First and foremost, the image plays the largest role, unlike Web 1.0 models that were reliant on text. Also, while the company is still making money, it is not at the expense of the customer. Customers have, as noted above, always had a major role in the decision-making and design process of Pinterest. As a platform, it facilitates interaction in a variety of ways, for users who want varying levels of interaction. While I use it just for personal board making, those boards and pins have been shared countless times, connecting me to people with similar ideas, inspirations or goals. An Ireland board I created has hundreds of followers


While users are ultimately making a database, Pinterest requires no special skills or programming knowledge, a hallmark of Web 2.0. Available on all types of devices, it allows users to use their boards anywhere they go unlike my files and boxes of things left hiding in closets. It is also an improved upon existing media technologies, a key component of 2.0. Pinterest is a great improvement over bookmarking on your computer. Pinterest uses components from other media to improve users’ experience and give it a familiar feel. From hashtags and chat functions to the ability to follow a pinner, components are borrowed from Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Pinterest also allows for increased cooperation from outside sites and between media industries blurring the lines of proprietary information and ownership.

Pinterest has grown from mere bookmarking and cataloging to a tool used for finding inspiration and planning everything from vacations to weddings to, perhaps public history agendas? Could this tool be used to connect people to history or direct them to museum or preservation websites? Silbermann has been quoted as saying that Pinterest’s mission is, ironically, to get people offline, out exploring, talking and making. Does this hold true when it comes to history?

For the past few years, I’ve been working on a small team creating a website called Digital Loray, which seeks to preserve the history of an infamous mill village in Gastonia, NC. We came across a video taken at the Loray Mill in the 1930s and played around with a variety of ideas about how to best get public input about IDing people in the movie.

One graduate student came up with a proposal to use Pinterest to add screen shots of faces in the film that people could then comment on.


While the project never really got off of the ground, as the people recognizing the faces were often not on social media and preferred watching the movie in person to identify people. But it made me wonder in what other ways people were using Pinterest to interact with history? I first searched for pins related to Lewis Hine, a photographer who documented child laborers in the same mill, and recorded scenes of American working life throughout the US in the first decades of the twentieth century. Not only were there hundreds of his historic photos, but they had also already been divided by theme, region, type of industry and other groupings.



Even narrowing the search to specifically look at images Hine took at the Loray Mill, nearly every photo that I am aware of was already included on Pinterest. From an archiving and cataloging perspective, this shows the feasibility of using tools like Pinterest to highlight private collections or image databases. This iconic Loray image below has been pinned on  over 1,500 different boards.


Lastly, the National Council for Public History has a great board for next year’s conference. Knowing that the audience (conference goers, historians) are likely to want to interact with the history in any city they visit, they filled the board with historic photos and buildings that might spark interest in local Indianapolis history.



Judging solely by the number of pins, shares, and boards that have historic themes, I think many would be surprised to see the amount of history being shared on Pinterest, no longer just a site for impossible looking baked goods and headache inducing crafts.


Meme-ifying Grandma

Rather than choosing a stock photo to create a history related meme, I chose instead to use old family photos and records. I’m involved with a few public genealogy groups who are often posting memes, yet they are generally just text based and don’t include photos. I created 5 and posted them to a Facebook groups of genealogists.


The two that got the most “likes” were this census records meme, and an image of my grandmother and great grandmother cleaning their recently cleaned fish.


Open Durham: a place for community history

In Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig elaborate on what they call the “History Web”, a place where historians and the public can explore history in new and innovative ways as collaborative partners that bring different skill sets and viewpoints to the table(14-15).

Immediately I thought of Open Durham, a website that I have volunteered writing and doing research for since 2012. My friend Gary started a blog in 2006 called Endangered Durham, which focused on historic preservation and the loss of significant architecture in an ever-changing Durham, NC. Like Jim Zwick’s Anti-imperialsim in the United States, 1898-1935, his site started as part hobby, part academic endeavor and evolved into something geared towards researchers or amateur historians. While Zwick’s site appears to now be defunct, Endangered Durham evolved into Open Durham and is alive and kicking.

While many blogs struggle to gain readership, the community gravitated towards Endangered Durham immediately. Early commenters and sharers included architects, city planners and preservationists (his original intended audience) but also generations of people who grew up in town and wanted to share their memories of place. The site was still ultimately a blog though, with the most recent post on top, perhaps not the best way to organize a community’s history.

As the number of viewers increased and the public contributed more of their own history in the comments, the site began to evolve with the way people were using it. With over 2,000 locations by 2010, the site was in dire need of a map (also useful in that many street names and numbering systems had changed). Gary also wanted the community to take more ownership of the project and grow it into a layered, multimedia history of Durham by the people. Yet the original goal of the site serving as an important architectural record for the town still remained.

The result was the creation of Open Durham, whose core was built on Endangered Durham posts. I joined the project a year or two after the migration of the project to the new site. Much of my work has involved entering tax and land records, historic register entries, architectural metadata and information from city directories and census records. With over 5,000 buildings now mapped and over 1 million page views, Open Durham has become an important local history source. While longevity was a concern,  Gary recently donated the site to Preservation Durham to ensure its longevity as a community resource.

Open Durham now features over 5,000 entries and is ever growing. Each of the blue and green clusters features hundreds of individual red pins for buildings.

From an accessibility standpoint, Open Durham is successful. There are no barriers to searching on the website. Almost any Internet inquiry into Durham history will have Open Durham as a top result. In order to post comments or contribute and add new buildings, people do need to sign up, although the registration process is free and only requires filling out 3 or 4 fields.

Open Durham’s search function works well, but doesn’t allow you to filter much when you get multiple results. The best way to search is by map like above, as most people don’t know the exact address of their old school or favorite flower shop. Users can zoom in to the right intersection and see if there is any information entered about the location. This is not an obvious navigation choice from the main page though, which instead maps just the Top 10 searches for that day. Yet once found, it functions in a way familiar to anyone who has ever used Google Maps. Posts are also grouped by neighborhood.

The map on the front page of the website shows the Top 10 results for that day of searches users are making on the site. While a great way to discover “new” old buildings, it can prove confusing for new visitors.

The most common parallels I saw between Open Durham and “History Web” examples Rosenzweig and Cohen gave was with sites that functioned as places of memory and contemplation, sometimes in places that no longer exist. The Brainerd, Kansas: Time, Place and Memory project in many ways mirrors much of the content on Open Durham, especially in the now demolished, formerly thriving African-American community of Hayti. The memories have always been there but needed a “place”, even if virtual, to put them, as the actual places were no longer standing. The fact that Open Durham was created years later though allows it to have a more multimedia approach and updated look.

While data are an important aspect of the site, images play the most prominent role. Here, users can search the buildings mapped by neighborhood by clicking on one of the corresponding neighborhood photos. While not a traditional archive, it serves as such in many ways.

Open Durham gives the public the opportunity to reminisce from their couch in Nevada, or from their phone while sitting in the very building of the post they are looking at. More than any town I know, the residents of Durham are quite in tune with the history all around them. Citizens remain active in fighting against the demolition of historic properties in favor of shiny new high rises. Millennial are flocking to Durham in part because of the living history all around. This is in part due to Open Durham. While those elsewhere may not know about the website, thousands of current and former residents use it often, both as a place to reminisce about a former date-night pizza spot, or as a place to confront the lost past, such as in the now demolished Royal Ice Cream , home to a sit-in years before Greensboro made them popular nationwide. It creates a dialogue about history and preservation, and gives voice to the people. It serves many function for many people and evolves based on need. More than anything, it has created value for local history.

Many civil rights sites in Durham that are important to both local and national history are no longer standing, making websites like Open Durham all the more important. Pictured above is Malcolm X Liberation University, started in Durham.


For the past few years, I worked for a digital humanities (DH) lab in North Carolina. On more than one occasion, after talking to a co-worker on a Monday, I would find out that numerous people had all attended the same DH lecture or met up at a conference. Feeling left out, I’d always wonder why I hadn’t heard about it. Twitter, they’d say.

Last week I re-activated a Twitter account that never really got off of the ground. I befriended (followed? note to self: learn lingo) historical organizations, digital humanities professionals, related university groups, and also more public-centric or public-created history sites. While I can see how Twitter is great for those within the field of history as a way of networking, finding out about conferences, sharing journal articles, or promoting public talks, I am unsure if it is the best social media platform for the sharing of history with the public or creating a dialogue about history.

I am fresh off of reading Roy Rosenzweig and Dave Thelen’s The Presence of the Past, so perhaps my views are a little clouded by its remains. There is a disconnect between how the public uses digital media to interact with history and the type of social media content that many history related institutions are putting out into the Twitterverse. The public use digital media to reminisce about history and as a learning tool, preferring a more desirable and compact package. Academics on the other hand use Twitter for self-promotion (not that I’m knocking that), sharing journal articles that many in the public can’t access even if they can see the post, and links to conferences that the public cannot attend.

While there are some organizations that are using all of Twitter’s capabilities to interact with history and the public on a greater level, as a whole there isn’t much of a conversation going on, especially in the big scheme of Twitter. Following the popular hashtag #digitalhistory, I came across countless instances of academics using it with some sort of promotional intention. When people used the tag and asked for input, help or collaboration though, they generally got NO responses. Algorithms used to consolidate tweets and posts like @dhnow were perhaps useful, but again were missing the interactive, conversation component.

Follow-through and consistency are issues with many in the field, myself included. Priorities change, calendars fill, passions wane. The Edgewater Historical Society had one single post three years ago, likely started by some well-intentioned volunteer. Without a commitment to any long-term social media agenda, the society is missing out on an active audience of young locals that chose to live in the neighborhood because of its history and sense of place. Interestingly, with the vacuum created by no Edgewater Historical Society Twitter account, other local organizations filled in to promote the history (and preservation of history) in the Edgewater and Andersonville neighborhoods on Twitter.

The Edgewater neighborhood is overflowing with potential for historic material to share via Twitter. Showgirls Betty Lee Foote, left, and Eileen Mc Dermott work at the Edgewater Beach Hotel’s typewriters between shows in 1944. The neighborhood was one of the top entertainment destinations in the US, and the center for much of Chicago’s tourism for numerous decades. Photo courtesy of Chicago Herald-American Archives. 

The Rogers Park West Ridge Historical Society posts somewhat consistently but also has the manpower of Public History students to count on. Yet in digging deeper on Twitter, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between student status and Twitter use. The Loyola History Graduate Student Association also has only around 10 posts in the past year, which are mainly reminders about meetings for people within the group. There is no recent mention of their upcoming conference or an extension of the proposal submittal deadline. They are also not using the platform to connect students to DH and PH resources out there on Twitter (or elsewhere, say like retweeting a public talk at the Newberry). The student blog, the Lakefront Historian, has only tweeted 11 times so far in 2016, and used the platform mainly to share links to blog posts rather than for interaction. The main Loyola History Department’s Twitter feed makes the most use of the resources and capabilities of Twitter within the department.

If anything, I felt that public digital history sites run by non-academics had better web presence and put the history front and center. This realm of public digital history was not only more interactive, but featured topics more geared towards the public. History Timelines is a public-created database of historic content. While their main focus is the timelines on the website, their presence on Twitter helps with visibility and reaching a larger audience. These types of posts were far more likely to be retweeted or commented on. Zinn Education Project also has a strong public connection on Twitter, and is a favorite among high school and college professors hoping to use more digital methods in their classrooms to teach history.

Here’s a visual breakdown on Storify of the successes and missed opportunities that I saw in how historical institutions and others are using Twitter to share or interact with history.

To say that the public is not interested in history would be over-generalization. While there are numerous factors that can influence one’s interest in history, one that is greatly overlooked is the importance of age. As a rule, as people age they are more interested in their past, from where they come from to wanting to re-evaluate the past based on new experiences and interactions. Facebook has an older average user, and is already a site for much sharing of history.

As someone who started as a hobbyist historian, Facebook has been a surprising source for me for knowledge about not only history, but the digital humanities as well. While many Twitter handles for history institutions had possibly a few hundred or a thousand followers, there are public Facebook history sites with 15,000 or more members. Posts within the group often end up with a hundred comments and numerous shares. The community is constantly helping each other become better historians. Not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new, hear a different perspective, or get to provide input based on my own unique knowledge and experience.

It should not be our goal as historians to just analyze and write about history in journals no one will ever read, but rather share history through various methods to try to reach the largest audience possible. This experience needs to be reciprocal. Not only do we need to package, promote and share our research in easier to consume packages for the public, but we need to remember what we can learn from them to become better historians. Until the majority of “the public” uses Twitter, I’ll still be checking into two sites to get my history social media. And when people say, “Where did you learn so much about (ex.)identifying historical photos based on their cardstock” and I can say, Facebook. (Actually, an 87-year-old woman on Facebook, and her husband, who isn’t on Facebook, but often ends up chiming in with her typing. )

I learn something new every day on Facebook.
Rather than political content, more Kardashians or ads for shoes, Facebook instead is always recommending history related content for me. #nohashtagneededitjusthappens


Sinful Network or Divine Service

My father’s side of the family was one of the two original Amish families that came to the US, before it was a country. With every generation, little alterations were made to my ancestors’ beliefs or community Ordnungs as society modernized around them. Much like the histories recounted in Diane Zimmerman Umble’s piece, “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” the adoption of the telephone was likely once an issue of contention in my family.

I am the first generation to grow up without Dutch speaking grandparents. None of my living relatives are visually identifiable as being Mennonite. I did not grow up on a farm. Only about half of my cousins grew up in the Mennonite church. I don’t even own a prayer kapp. Yet I often think of the alternate life that I might be living if it wasn’t for the incremental notions of modernity that my relatives adopted, both for better and for worse.  Many in the Amish and Mennonite church were adamantly opposed to the adoption of the telephone by church members, so my family’s use of the telephone starting in the 1960s was ultimately the turning point for what forms of communication my future would hold.I grew up talking to my Mennonite grandparents by telephone although they lived hours away. My cousins, aunts and uncles all stay in touch and share old photos and stories through Facebook.


When the telephone was first introduced, it was life changing for those living in rural America. For farmers, it was a way to connect with the agriculture markets, banks and other businesses, saving the precious time it would take to venture into town or farther. For many, practicality was a big selling factor, with the phone being a lifeline during an emergency, fire or health scare. Women in the household, often relegated to the home and miles from the nearest neighbor, could extend her sense of community and socialize (perhaps even gossip). From most of society’s perspective, the telephone was an improvement on earlier modes of communication. Going off of Gitelman’s reasoning below, society adopted the telephone because it DID something for them. They could see the new media’s usefulness.

“The “crisis” of a new medium will be resolved when the perceptions of the medium, as well as its practical uses, are somehow adapted to existing categories of public understanding about what the medium does for whom and why.”

Lisa Gitelman, New Media 1740-1915, xii

Yet for the Amish and Mennonite, also farmers, also cut-off from civilization, the phone challenged everything they stood for and their very community. With life focused around their own community, the appeal of networking with the outside world was of little concern, although there were a few early Amish adopters of the new media when it came out around the turn of the century.

My own family long ago converted to what would be known as Old Order Mennonite, which is, while still traditional, somewhat more liberal in their relation with the world. The Mennonites have always looked outward. They continue further in school, do mission work around the world, and are accepting of those who leave the faith. Their ideas of community are ever expanding. In fact, Mennonites are now in dozens of countries and have millions of followers, whereas the Amish are confined strictly to the US. Yet, only two generations back, the telephone was, perhaps rightfully so, still seen as a threat to even more lax Mennonites like my relatives.

The Amish live their simple lifestyle because they find no need for worldly pleasures or thoughts of self. They often think of themselves in relation to the community. The phone would promote ideas of individualism, and would inspire people to chatter and gossip rather than devoting themselves to spiritual work. As Umble notes, one Amish man referred to it as the “devil’s wires”(139). The phone was the connection to the sinners world, and even over-hearing something on a party line could inspire those from within the community to sin.

The same medium, the telephone, is seen as a way of bringing together community in one instance, and driving it apart in another. The Amish, unlike most other communities, rely almost exclusively on oral communication. It is at the core of who they are, passing down skills and scripture and songs to the next generation, in their own language no less. Very little is ever written down. So, while the phone may have been an improvement over, say, the telegraph for one farming family, it was not an improvement for the way that the Amish communicated (from their perspective at least). The phone would  not have revolutionized their way of life as it may have for an Englisher neighbor. If anything, it threatened it.

As Umble notes, “new ways of communicating threatened to change the face-to-face character of communication and orient communication away from the home toward the outside world.” For the Amish, how they communicated WAS how they preserved their culture, sense of community, skills and traditions. This is not simply a Luddite-esque view about technology, it is a risk to their very being. Their “old media” was in fact their ONLY media.

Gitelman noted that many falsely think by allowing one form of new media to take root, you are ultimately allowing for the possibility that an older form of media may be endangered in the process. Oral storytelling and face-to-face communication, more so than any other medium, will never be obsolete or replaced by the telephone or another medium, but it can be enhanced. In my family at least, the old and new mediums live in unison. The telephone, and later the internet, have encouraged my family to stay in better touch, share memories more, and continue oral traditions both in and out of the home, as we are often not in the same place at the same time. This is not as Gitelman describes “supercession”, with old media becoming obsolete. If anything, the new media is helping my family use the old media in new ways, to “improve upon the human capabilities” (xix). Perception is everything though. My great-grandparents pictured above were the last die-hards of many of the old traditions, the old stories. I am sure they would feel differently about the telephone and interconnectivity than I do.