Part of my dissertation is to create an online archive of the documents I find. Thanks to the Hist 698 Digital History Techne class I had with Fred Gibbs this semester, the technical work of this part of the dissertation is now done. I used Omeka with the Scripto plugin (which is really a bridge to a MediaWiki installation) for the archive, and an Exhibit from MIT’s Simile project for a quick and dirty display of data and a map plotting the location of several of the tunnel locations.
Also part of the course, is to give a brief presentation about the final project, which is taken from this post.
I had two goals for this course.
- Create an quick and easy way to display the location and information about some of the tunnel sites using a selection of documents.
- Create an online archive that would allow myself and others to transcribe and translate the documents.
I was to use the Exhibit tool to complete the first goal. Set up was a bit more difficult than planned. I had an Exhibit working for a different project, and was finally able to massage the data into a copy of that code, and integrate it into the website using a WordPress Template.
This allowed me to display the data in three different views. First is the map, as seen above. I was able to show the tunnels in the two different groups identified in the documents. The A projects were existing tunnels, caves, or mines that were to be retrofitted and improved before factories could be moved in. B projects were to be completely new underground spaces.
A third view shows all of the items separately, with all of the available data.
Ideally, this information would be stored in a Google Spreadsheet to make updating and adding a cinch, but I was not able to get that working, so the data is in a JSON file instead. It would also have been neat to pull the information from the archive. Perhaps that can be built later.
I also set up an Omeka install to host the images I had previously digitized from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I not only want an archive, but also a way to have others transcribe and translate the documents, so I installed the Scripto plugin which is dependent on a MediaWiki install as well.
The ability to transcribe and translate is also an integral part of my dissertation. I want to argue, and show that historical work can not and should not be done alone. One way to do this is to get help from the undergraduates in the German Language program here at George Mason University. The German Language director at GMU is all on board to have some of her upper level students take on translation as part of their course work. This not only helps me, but helps them learn German by looking at interesting historical documents (and hopefully get them interested in history), but also helps future researches to be able to search and find documents easier.
This was the hardest part of the course. I’m really good at creating digital stuff because that is what I do all day. But I’m a little rusty on the historical interpretation and asking questions. What also makes this hard is not knowing completely what data I have yet.
Part of the problem with coming up with good, probing questions, is that I haven’t had a lot of time to look at the documents to see what is there. Also, there is not much written on this topic, so I’m kind of figuring out the story as I go. It’s a lot easier to read secondary works and ask new questions, or ask old questions in different ways. But there are no questions yet, except what happened.
The bigger questions, in light of this course, should be about how does this technology that we learned help understand the history, or help generate new questions. Will displaying the data in different ways help me make connections and inspire ideas that I would not otherwise have made or thought? Do the digital tools allow me to process more data than I could do non-digitally?
Another stumbling block (or is it a building block, it’s all about perspective, right), comes from my recent trip to Germany for research. While there I met with Dr. Ulrich Herbert at the University of Freiburg. He’s somewhat of a scholar in the area of slave labor, and has kept up to date on the writings regarding the underground dispersal projects. His wise suggestion for my dissertation was to focus on a single tunnel site, rather than trying to write about the organization responsible for all of the dispersal projects. Such an undertaking would take a life time, he said. So now I need to focus on just one tunnel, rather than all of them. Fortunately, Dr. Herbert put me in contact with the Director of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial, Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner. With his help, I may be able to find a specific tunnel to focus on, and make my trip in July 2013 that much more profitable.