Thursday, December 15, 2011

Now That Class is Over

Now that class is over, I wanted to share my thoughts about this course, my professor and my latest NOVA experience in general.
1831 Wiehle Avenue, Reston
I've been taking classes at NOVA for a long time and I've had very good experiences there. Seriously, what other community college offers such an amazing selection of classes, like three different archaeology courses, day-long geology field trips to the Shenandoah, homicide seminars, and special topics like the History of Jazz? This semester my class was a special topic in history -- Introduction to Digital History. My professor, Charlie Evans, developed the course and was able to teach it with a very low enrollment. How lucky for me because it turns out that I was the only student.

This was good for obvious reasons but also a little weird because of the dynamics in class and because I really had to be prepared. The latter wasn't hard because I liked the assignments and readings but I do still have that fear of being the unprepared student who is going to say something completely random or not say anything at all. And not that I was going to blow off class but when you're the only one in the class, you pretty much have to show up and participate.

Class itself was intense because most days it was non-stop! It wasn't intense like a three-hour lecture with furious note-taking; it was like a continuous conversation that could make my head spin. No real downtime to contemplate (let alone check my Twitter feed), just a constant flow of conversation and ideas. For real, imagine having a discussion for two or three hours about something you're seriously interested in with someone who is as into it as you are. Good but intense!

Here I got lucky again because Dr. Evans absolutely rocked! Actually liking a professor was not something I considered too much before, but this was different because it was just the two of us. So thankfully, he was cool and easy to like. Even with a strong interest in the subject, I still have a short attention span and can get distracted easily, yet Dr. Evans somehow kept me engaged and on track. On days when I was in a bad mood or just having a crappy morning, he could bring me around within minutes and I could focus on whatever we were working on which was good because I didn't have any classmates to bail me out. Another thing I really liked is I could ask him something and get a candid response, not some hot air you might assume a professor would give.

Not surprisingly, this guy's wicked smart but he's not obnoxious about it or intimidating. He was very easy to communicate with in class and by email outside of class. He is genuinely interested in getting his students to connect with history and eagerly using technology to try to do this. Since this was a digital history class, it was fascinating for me to see how a professor tries to connect students with the past and how digital materials can enhance this.

Dr. Evans had told me at the beginning of the semester that one of the reasons he was teaching this class with only one student was because it was new and I was the guinea pig. He would also be evaluating how the course might work as an online class so that was something I tried to keep in mind during the semester.

Some things in the syllabus changed and some changed quickly. Dr. Evans had said the first syllabus he sent me was tentative so I'm not complaining, just explaining what changed. At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus said to read the textbook right away, in advance of the second class meeting, so I did. But then he changed it so chapter assignments pretty much matched with the weekly topics. This made more sense but since I had already read the book, I just had to review a chapter the week before class.

Another thing that changed were the tests. The first syllabus didn't have any which was fine with me because I get more out of assignments and projects, but then a midterm and a final were added. They were online and Dr. Evans had me take both right around midterm. Good to be the guinea pig because it turns out the final was testing some things that really should be assessed earlier in the semester, long before a final, which I told Dr. Evans. He also asked how long they took and what I thought about them. My only real complaint with them is that I had to do them through Blackboard and I remembered from taking exams in a couple of ELI courses that you can't do certain things, like "save" your work or use a backspace delete, so I wrote my exam in Word and then pasted it into the Blackboard exam fields. Even though it looked like my hyperlinks would work, I found out after that what my professor got was really just text. This would have been good to know before, especially for a digital history class, but if this class is offered online, then there's really no way around having Blackboard exams.

We did have some guest speakers. Andrea Odiorne who now teaches at NOVA came in to discuss Omeka, a free digital archives platform developed by Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. She had worked on Omeka and was extremely helpful in explaining how it worked and how it could be adapted. Dr. Evans had been using some of Omeka plugins for some of his work so he already had a good idea of its capabilities. Originally she was supposed to come in later in the semester but because a big part of my grade would be presenting a history project on the web, he decided to have her come in earlier. This really helped because after that class, I decided to use Omeka to host my project and I could get started using it it right away.

One of the very cool things was getting to hear Rob Nelson from the University of Richmond speak on Digital Humanities. So this was actually part of the course schedule but I can't remember ever having a professor in college have me attend something like this where audience was otherwise all faculty. Earlier in the semester we had looked at what universities were doing with digital humanities, like UVa's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, UMd's Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Mason's Center for History and New Media, and Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab. I especially liked what Richmond was doing because of the focus on Virginia history, so getting to hear Rob Nelson discuss some of those projects was a wonderful opportunity for me. A few concepts he introduced, like topic modeling and algorithms, were intriguing but beyond me, yet it was still exciting to see what they're doing and I marveled at the resources and support they have there.

Dr. Evans encouraged me to try things like Google Analytics and Zotero and I used both with my project. I tried to be aware of new digital tools and use those that I could. My iPhone was great because not only could I take photos and notes but I used a GPS app to photograph and map the surviving schoolhouses. I already posted about a couple other things I tried, like using Facebook and a digital microfilm reader, and I even tweeted a few discoveries and observations during the semester.

But I looked at technology as a tool and still relied on my  research abilities to gather and evaluate information for my project. I had used the local history libraries and the Library of Virginia before so I was comfortable knowing where to go and what to look for, whether to a library or a website. Talking to people -- longtime residents of Northern Virginia who remembered now demolished schoolhouses, a descendant and major researcher of the architect I was studying, a librarian who immediately recognized the architectural style and pointed me to other schools -- was invaluable and could never be replaced by a website.

So would this class work as an online course? I'm not sure that I can fairly judge that. Though I did a lot of work on my own and and the assignments were based on the web, I got so much out of the classroom time and interaction with Dr. Evans that I can't imagine it being entirely online. To be able to look at the same site or tool at the same time and actually see what the other was demonstrating or explaining was a major plus. I could ask questions right away and also share things I thought were relevant. He was just so great to work with! I didn't have any classmates to interact with and I didn't have the benefit or distraction of their questions and observations either so that's hard to judge, although if we could follow classmates' blogs, then we would still get a sense of their ideas. Maybe a combination of some class meetings and some online would work, if that's an option.

Well, time to wrap up this wrap-up and give a huge thank you to Dr. Evans who made driving to Reston every Wednesday morning at rush hour so worthwhile.
Morning rush, 7 December 2011, westbound Dulles Toll Road

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Project Update: Content Complete

So after organizing the exhibit with pages and sections, I was pretty much all set to add copy and I had started to do that when some more photos came through. I had really needed images showing the Ballston and Franklin Sherman schools as schools. The only images I had showed them as they were used after the schools had closed.

A couple weeks ago I sent a message to the Arlington Historical Society and we had exchanged emails but I didn't think I would hear back in time. Then late Sunday night, they came through. One great thing about this being a web project is that I didn't have to wait for a high-res file because the image I had found online was adequate and I just needed their permission.

I also reached out to Bob Stoy, a genealogist with a great website about his family from Northern Virginia. He had an excellent photo of Franklin Sherman when it first opened and not only did he let me use it, but he sent two other images of the school.

But, because there's always a "but" with my school projects, I couldn't find the documentation I thought I had identifying Robinson as the Franklin Sherman architect. I was sure I had it but when I searched through my notes, I couldn't find anything. I'm still convinced it's his work. It just kills me not to be able to have the paper trail.

Probably shouldn't admit this here but my notes were sort of a mess. I'm used to taking notes and getting photocopies and with this project I was also taking photos of the subjects, taking photos of source materials, and using Zotero. So I had to search four or five different places for every fact. I thought I was on top of it and I guess I was because I did have a lot of good documentation, but not being able to find what I needed for that one school seriously pissed me off. Maybe I never had it but that's so not like me.

So the only thing left to do is send thank you messages and links to all who shared photos.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Project Update: Virtual Distraction

When I was in college, I could never go to the library to study. I tried a few times but sitting in the stacks with my still-in-mint-condition textbook, I was still surrounded by hundreds of volumes that had other information I might want to know. I couldn't concentrate on my textbook when I knew there were so many other books begging to be looked at. It didn't matter where I sat, I would find something more interesting, more appealing to read. Welsh mythology, bridge engineering, whatever -- nothing was off limits!

So having to do a project on the web is like sitting in the stacks the night before an exam. And I'm interested in my project, I like my project but there are so many distractions just a click away. Parental controls could keep me off Twitter and ESPN 3, but they don't protect me from the Library of Virginia, historical newspaper collections, and other sites I legitimately need to use for my project. Once I get into one, I start thinking of all the other things I want to look up or could learn. I'm back in the stacks at WVU.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Project Update: Social Media

I've been trying to nail down what happened with the two schools Robinson designed in 1914 for Arlington. Specifically, his commission list shows the Ballston School in February and the Barcroft School in March, and both were identified as being in Alexandria County, which is what Arlington was called then. I had planned to go back to the library in Arlington to see what the school board minutes said.

But then earlier this week, the Arlington Historical Society posted this on Facebook.

This is a digital history class and we've discussed using social media for research, so how could I resist? I posted what I knew and asked for suggestions on the Barcroft School. Not only did I get a response but also a link to some digitized maps.

Then AHS posted a fine image of the former Ballston School after it had become a restaurant and an explanation with sources!

Earlier in the semester, I might have been willing to see what others came up with but I really did have to figure out quickly what the deal was with the Barcroft School. So I went to the library today and found my answer, which I posted.

But what a great response from AHS and its helpful Facebook fans! Love how one person asked what my documentation was and added that it "may be a bit optimistic," because that was dead on. I had said that the schools were built in 1914 but really what I knew is that the plans were commissioned then.

I "like" Arlington Historical Society!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Well, good timing on the copyright lesson! The next day I met with a representative of Alexandria's community band which will be celebrating its centennial next year. I'm going to be working with her to put some of the band's history on our website, using historical photos, music programs, photos of their awards and hopefully a recording of one of their upcoming performances.

When I expressed some concern about what musical selections we could use because of copyright and royalty issues, she pointed out that a Sousa march would work since those works are all now in the public domain. She had studied music law and quickly rattled off the years 1923 and 1976 and spans of 28 years and author's life plus 70. It was good to know that she was right.

One thing we talked about was sampling because it had been a big topic when she was in school. The number of notes, a phrase, a bassline and a loop could all be interpreted differently. And since I'm musically illiterate, my only contribution to that part of the conversation was that I only recently recognized the bassline from a Will Smith hit as being from a '70s disco song. While I'm sure that Smith's writers and producers knew that it was and maybe even got permission to use it, it occurred to me how much from the massive realm of popular culture is protected and that we may not even recognize it, especially when the newer use becomes so prevalent that we can't recall the original product.

Or in the case of one of Sousa's most familiar marches, where we recognize the spirited patriotic music, yet may not have a clue that the name of the song is "The Washington Post March" or know that it was actually written at the request of the newspaper's owners.
Courtesy: Library of Congress
No worries though since this song is in the public domain, but what published by the Washington Post is? Not as much as I want.

The Post began publishing in 1877 when copyright lasted 28 years and could be renewed for another 28. So what was published before 1923 should be in the public domain but that depends how it is accessed. ProQuest digitized the Post from 1877 to 1994 as part of its Historical Newspapers Collection and ProQuest makes its terms of use very clear to users:

"This Proquest® product is made available to you solely for personal or internal use.You may not publish, broadcast or sell any materials retrieved through the product or use the materials in any manner that will infringe the copyright or other proprietary right of ProQuest® or its licensors. Downloading of all or parts of the product in a systematic or regular manner so as to create a collection of materials comprising all or part of the product is strictly prohibited, whether or not such collection is in electronic or print form."

This means that ProQuest owns the copyright on its version of the Post, even for the content that the Post doesn't own anymore and is now in the public domain.

But not all photos published by the Post could be included in what ProQuest digitized. Some, like wedding announcement photos, would still be owned by the studio that shot them, shared them with the Post but never transferred rights to the Post. Not all photos taken by Post photographers were owned by the Post like they are today. Louis Johrden, identified as the Post staff photographer who took a photo of a fallen Alexandria police officer's funeral procession in 1928, may have actually retained the rights to his photos. His work is blocked in the ProQuest version of the article, which I'm posting part of below, with no intent to violate ProQuest's terms and conditions of use.

Courtesy: ProQuest Historical Newspapers Collection
Today I received a copy of another Alexandria police photo taken by James Thresher and published by the Post in 2007. I paid $19.95 to a service called Pictopia to get a 5x7 print for "personal use only" and was reminded on the packing slip that I "do not have permission to duplicate or republish in any medium" this image "without the written permission of The Washington Post." So I'm not going to but I will post this link to the image.

To use a photo, article or other content for other purposes, you have to get permission from the Post or its agent. What you want to use and how you want to use it determines where you go and what you ask for. The Post provides a page with the appropriate contacts for these rights and permissions.

Life plus 70 is extreme, unless it's a murder sentence, and I don't like it but I get it. My dad worked in publishing for most of his career. When I was little and he would read me a book, he would start at the title page and then turn to the copyright page and read it out loud. I think he did it to annoy my mom but I always remembered it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Project Update: Visit to Richmond

Thursday's trip to Richmond was a very good one. I had planned to check out the School Buildings Service collection and books related to Robinson's work at the Library of Virginia. Then I got a call the day before from Bob Boynton of Boynton Rothschild Rowland Architects, the firm that has Robinson's plans and records, and he said I could look at the materials they have in their office.

I didn't expect to find too much with the School Buildings Service records since most are stock plans developed by the Commonwealth in the 30s and 40s, but I hoped some of the records with renovation plans would have a layout for Robinson's original building. I did find one for the Bailey's school but the best thing, especially for a digital history class, were the new microfilm scanners!

The film gets loaded into a reader that displays on a monitor. The images on the screen can be scanned and saved to a flash drive as a PDF. Here's still of the display but a YouTube video on the ScanPro 2000 shows a lot more.

The quality of the images is excellent! This is how the floor plan for Bailey's turned out.

I can only imagine how helpful this will be for newspapers and handwritten records.

The visit to the architect office was a great surprise, too. The plans are stored off-site and retrieving them would be expensive and time-consuming for the firm, but I was thankful to see what they did have -- photographs of Robinson's schools in Richmond and Tidewater, a scrapbook of clippings from the 1920s, a list of school building commissions and an index to school drawings.

These helped me positively identify two of three schools I thought were Robinson's work. Both Herndon and Round Hill were listed, although Floris wasn't. Floris looks like a Robinson school, but maybe a contractor simply modified the plans of the Herndon design by removing a floor to build Floris.

The records also added a couple that I just can't figure out -- Ballston and Barcroft schools in Arlington. According to the records, these schools were commissioned in early 1914, but the research I've done indicates that these schools were built at different times. Ballston was built in the 1890s and looked just like the Hume school. The Barcroft school was established in a church building in 1908 and a new school building opened in 1925. I'll need to check the school records again to see if I can find anything to explain what was going on in 1914.

The last question I had was the Lucketts school which is a frame building that has some similarities to Robinson's schools at that time but I just haven't been convinced that it's his. The records show "Lucketts School (Stock)" with no date. Since I've seen two other Loudoun schools that look like the Lucketts school, perhaps Robinson provided stock plans for a frame building that Loudoun used for more than one schoolhouse, with Ashburn (below right) being built in 1911, Lucketts (below left) in 1913 and Aldie in 1915.

Always easier driving back home in crappy weather and slow traffic when you have lots to think about and new info to work with!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Project Update: Altoona High

In 1904, only a couple years before he moved to Richmond, Robinson designed a new high school in Altoona, where he was a partner in the firm of Robinson & Winkler. I've been curious if to know if it looked anything like his schools in Northern Virginia. After seeing these early postcards of the Altoona High School, I would have to say it doesn't.

This grand three-story brownstone with an ornate dome cost an estimated $250,000. It was demolished in 1974.

Time to focus on Virginia!