Friday, August 18, 2017

Spokane Historical at 500 (Stories)

In 2012, my students and I launched a modest digital project: Spokane Historical, a website and smartphone app for local history. It was a shameless knockoff of a similar project in Cleveland, and in fact we licensed their software. Students in my digital history class researched and wrote 30 stories of local history (mostly in the downtown core) and we put them online. It was kind of cool:

Ye olde Spokane Historical, 2012.

We got some nice local publicity, and my bosses seemed to like it, so I kept having students write Spokane Historical stories each quarter. The stories online grew from 30 to 60 and more. At first I wondered if we would run out of stories, but as I came (through the writing of my students) to know the city better, I realized that would never be the case. The chronological and geographic range of the stories expanded as well. This spring we posted our 500th story: Chief Skolaskin: Dreamer-Prophet and Political Prisoner by Nicolle Southwick.

This seems a good point at which to stop and reflect a bit on this remarkable project--how it began, how it has shaped my teaching and career, and where it might go next.

In the summer of 2008 I quit my job as a tenured professor at Missouri Southern State University to take on a new, joint position at Eastern Washington University and the Washington State Archives. Digital Archives. The job was to revive the Public History program at EWU and to use it as a bridge for collaborations with the Digital Archives.

I was looking for a digital project to do with my students. The "Jesus phone"--the first iPhone--had recently come out, and it occurred to me that with if people were going to be walking around with personal computers in their pockets, ones that connected to the internet and included GPS locations, there ought to be a way to use those for place-based storytelling. Somehow.
Image result for jesus iphone
The next year I attended the Museums+Mobile conference, a two-day virtual conference to connect museum types with IT types. The second day was mostly vendor presentations along the lines of "Here is a neat platform we built to sell tacos but you could use it for history!" The platforms were either not quite suited for history work, or expensive, or were in the business of getting you to provide free content so they could sell it. My mind was turning with ideas that I did not know how to implement.

(I should add here that I do not code, or know how to query a SQL database, or anything like that. My training is in ethnohistory.)

A few months later I was at the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola. At a random dinner I met a friend of friend named Mark Tebeau, then a history professor at Cleveland State University. He showed me his digital project--a smartphone app called Cleveland Historical. I was entranced--this was exactly what I had been looking for. I asked if there was a chance to adapt the software to other communities. He answered that he had come to Pensacola looking for such partnerships. The next year Spokane Historical was launched, using Mark's Curatescape platform.

Spokane Historical transformed my teaching. Writing Spokane Historical stories became the go-to assignment in all my classes. In a digital history class, students will produce rich stories with multimedia like this one. In other public history classes, the story assignments will be simpler, requiring only text and images. The Spokane Historical story assignment fills a lot of public history pedagogical goals. Students learn the importance of place. They learn to do the kind of fine-grained local research that is common in public history, consulting property deeds, newspapers, oral histories and the like. They learn how to write for a public audience--"Tell a bigger story, using fewer words!" I tell them.

EWU students learning archival research at the Eastern Region Branch of the
Washington State Archives,  guided by Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld.

The digital aspects of the Spokane Historical assignment are also instructive. Students learn about copyright and permissions. They master some basic tasks like cropping and resizing photos and working with a database. In the digital courses they conduct oral histories and edit audio and video.

Each time I teach a public history class I work with a community partner, and Spokane Historical is often the means of our collaboration. My students have partnered with local museums, community advocacy organizations, local governments, and the National Park Service. Spokane Historical has greatly increased the reputation and visibility of my department and university. And Spokane Historical has taught me about my community. And we get to go on trips! Most classes include a field trip or two to the neighborhood or other place that we are interpreting that quarter. I am not from Spokane, and when I took this job I knew next to nothing about its history. After five years of editing stories, I have a pretty solid knowledge base, one that helps me in other public history work. Thanks, students.

There have been some downsides. When I began this project I was naive about the amount of editing that is required to bring student work up to a publishable quality. Fortunately, my department and the state archives provide funding for two graduate assistants to be assigned to the archives and public history program. Students like Julie Russell, Lee Nilsson, Frank Oesterheld, Anna Harbine, Zach Wnek, Allie Honican, Logan Camporeale, Charlie Byers, Josh Van Veldhuizen and others have edited hundreds of stories, untangling prose, hunting down additional images, and organizing stories into tours. Without their help I would have given up on this project after the first year.

The great visibility of Spokane Historical means that I am often mistaken for the historical society. Every week I get at least one email from a stranger who found Spokane Historical. Can I accept a donation of grandma's photo album? Can I help research a History Day exhibit or a genealogical project? Just this morning a Canadian Scholar asked what more I knew about A.K. Mozumdar.  Sometimes they skip the email and just mail me something--an unidentified 100-year-old photograph of a woman that was taken in Spokane Falls, or a collection of yearbooks from Hillyard High School in the 1910s. I forward these queries to people who know more than I do and the objects to the local museum.
Do you know me? This showed
up in the mail one day.

And there have been professional advantages as well. Because of Spokane Historical, I have been able to serve on NEH review panels, been approached to review books on regional history, given guest lectures, put together conference presentations, and am even sometimes mistaken for a digital historian. When it was time to go up for promotion to full professor, I put forth Spokane Historical as my major piece of scholarship, equivalent to a peer-reviewed monograph. There was a little push back, but with some strong letters of support from public historians at other institutions (thanks guys) I received the promotion.

It has been a wonderful five year ride, with no end in sight. The Curatescape platform has continued to evolve, and the partnerships keep branching out. In this past year we worked with Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area to create two historical tours of their unit, a project which also led to one of the students getting a National Park Service job after she graduated.

At some point it might make sense to export the project into GIS or something. We will see what the future holds. For now, though, it is more great student stories on Spokane Historical.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Whatever Happened to Dick Slocum?

On my way back from a recent conference in Boise, I stopped at a little thrift store in Uniontown, WA, to stretch my legs and look around. A plastic bag labeled "Old Record from Military Man to Family" caught my eye. I bought it.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, indoor

The record came in a custom mailing envelope from the American Safety Razor Corporation and was postmarked from San Francisco, California in 1942. Addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Slocum in Priest River, Idaho, and with a return address of simply "Richard" it was obviously a something a son had recorded as he went off to war in the Pacific Theater. The graphics of the envelope and the record itself are interesting. Men and women, soldiers and civilians, link arms around the record, showing unity of purpose. Above their heads are the slogans "Buy Stamps" and "Buy Bonds."

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling

The back of the disc features "Authentic scenes of Gem Blade reporters making thousands of free voice-o-graphs throughout the nation."

Image may contain: 7 people, people smiling

The Museum of Obsolete Media tells us that Voice-O-Graphs was "a recording system about the size of a telephone box that allowed people to record their voices directly onto a phonograph disc." Developed just before the Second World War broke out, companies like Gem Razor hit on the idea of providing free recording booths at military training centers, along with "reporters" to help soldiers use the unfamiliar technology. It is not clear how many soldiers recorded their messages in this way, but from the prevalence of these recordings on Ebay and the like it must have been tens or hundreds of thousands. The recording machines became popular novelty items at carnivals and the like into the 1960s. Today, roots rocker Jack White has a restored 1947 Voice-O-Graph at his Memphis Record store, where patrons can record their own discs for $20. (You can listen to some of these modern recordings at the link.)

“ Soldiers of Hispanic descent were integral in the war effort overseas and at home. Special Services soldiers stationed at the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation during World War II made a difference in the morale of soldiers...
Hispanic soldiers at a Voices of Victory mobile recording studio in Riverside,
California. Image courtesy of the National Archives.
So what about our Richard Slocum and his record? I wondered if it was even playable, and if I had any gear on which to play it. The record itself reads: "Play this on any phonograph--Use any needle." Sounded encouraging. I have a turntable that has settings for 33 and 45 rpms, both of which proved too slow. With a finger assist to speed it up, however, I was able to play the record so that it was perfectly audible. Check it out!

"Hi Mom and Pop! Boy it sure is swell down here, we're having a fine time." Dick begins. "I guess you won't have me home this Christmas but we'll be home next anyway, so what's the difference?" He mentions some fellow sailors from his hometown (he calls them and himself "kids") and sends well wishes to friends and relatives. "I'll be seeing you whenever I get my first leave. So long." he concludes. The recording is brief and poignant. He is so young, so optimistic. It is as if the war is a lark to him, and he has little idea what he is entering into.

So what happened to our young blue jacket from Priest River? Unlike the last time I tried to follow up a local boy setting out to the Second World War, I am not sure. Richard Slocum is a more common name than you might think, and I am really not very skilled with and similar resources.

So I ask you, Dear Readers, what happened to Dick Slocum? Where was he deployed? Did he survive the war? Marry and settle down? And does he have surviving ancestors, who might like to hear this record? Anyone want to take a crack at telling the rest of the story?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Digitized 78s at the Internet Archive

Ladies and Gents, Dear Readers, I present to you, direct from 1924, The Walla Walla Fox Trot:

This goofy gem is actually from a popular Broadway musical of that year, Flossie. It is one of 25,000 records digitized by a Philadelphia company, George Blood Audio LP. The the George Blood collection is now a part of The Great 78 Project, which describes itself like so:

The Great 78 Project is a community project for the preservationresearch and discovery of 78rpm records. From about 1898 to the 1950s, an estimated 3 million sides (~3 minute recordings) have been made on 78rpm discs. While the commercially viable recordings will have been restored or remastered onto LP’s or CD, there is still research value in the artifacts and usage evidence in the often rare 78rpm discs and recordings.

Here is the landing page of the George Blood collection, where I found this little gem. Like the wax cylinder recording archives I have blogged about before (Wax Cylinder Recordings Online and Exploring turn-of-the-century social history via wax cylinders), this is another great resource for exploring the past--and also for free music to use in podcasts and the like.

Explore! You might fine something like "Pussy Pussy Pussy" from the Light Crust Doughboys:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Documentary on the Spokane Indians in the War of 1858

Except for the one joker who comes on at minute eight, this documentary about the Spokane Tribe in the War of 1858 is quite good.

A little background: This documentary was funded by the Wellpinit School District and was approved by the Spokane Tribe. Varius Media made the film, which was directed by Trask McFarland.  It explicitly views the war from the point of view of the Spokane Indians, which is long overdue. Some of the details that come from the native experts who are interviewed are things I had not heard before. I was moved to hear Spokanes singing the death song that was first sung by a member of their tribe before Wright had him hanged. It is amazing that this song has been remembered and performed for 170 years.

My own involvement with the film was not extensive--I was interviewed for a couple of hours, out of which they used two snippets. Which is fine--the film maker put the native voices front and center, as they should. It is also good that they used my friend Don Cutler to frame the events of the war, as his new book on the conflict is great.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Tweeting Spokane's Great Fire of 1889

Anna Harbine, Tom McArthur, Logan Camporeale and Katie Enders tweeting
the Great Fire of 1889 at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Here is a fun project that came together quickly, and is going live even as I type: Spokane historians to re-enact the city’s great 1889 fire, on Twitter.

On August 4th, 1889, the frontier city of Spokane pretty much burned to the ground. The fire could not have been more dramatic. The blaze started at 6 p.m. and Spokanites were confident that their new, state-of-the-art fire fighting equipment would take care of it. But the city official in charge of the water works was off fishing, and a mechanical failure deprived the firefighters of water. The inferno raged into the night, as a firestorm devoured the entire downtown in about three hours. The scene was chaotic--a burning man leapt from the second story of a hotel, while the mayor rode through the crowd on horseback looking for someone who could fix the water system. The next day Spokane was a pile of smoking ruins.

Dramatized view of the Spokane Fire from a 1930s bank mural, now at
the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture
The story has everything you need for a great digital history project, including drama, tons of contemporary documentation including newspaper reports, letters, photographs of the ruins, and artistic representations. So when a local history enthusiast, Tom McArthur, contacted me with the idea for live-tweeting the event I knew it was a good one. However, he came up with the idea on Monday night, and the fire anniversary was Friday. Could we pull it together that quickly?

I shared the idea with some local historians and institutions, including two employees of the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, Anna Harbine and Logan Camporeale. They loved the idea, and quickly obtained permission for the museum to spearhead the effort and to use their Twitter feed.

So yesterday we met at the museum for about two hours and hammered out the tweets. Harbine, the museum archivist, had a long table ready with writings and photographs about the fire. Harbine and Comporeale were there, along with Katie Enders from the Spokane Historic Preservation Office, Tom McArthur, two people from the museum's marketing and social media, and Spokesman reporter John Webster. We agreed on a hashtag of #greatfire1889. We talked a little bit about some of the issues and agreed to tweet in the present tense, to do things in real time as much as possible, and to tweet about the fire from August 6 to a somewhat arbitrary end point of August 14th. We created a shared Google Doc and started punching out the tweets.

It was a blast. We each worked from a different resource about the fire, books and letters and newspaper articles, and pulled out striking and dramatic bits. The 144-character limit of Twitter was not as much of a problem as I would have thought, and we quickly figured out that 144 characters equaled about one-and-a-half lines on the Google Doc. We tried to keep the Tweets roughly chronological as we added them to the document. The Google Doc had the great advantage of allowing everyone to see what the others were working on and avoiding duplicate tweets on the same subject. We added brief citation notes to each tweet, not to be tweeted but to document where we had found the information in case there were questions later. We also looked at some of the dramatic photographs that Harbine had identified from the collections and wrote tweets to highlight those images.

After ninety minutes or so we had in excess of thirty tweets that did a really nice job of telling the story of the fire. Camporeale then assigned times to each tweet. The tweets went into Hootsuite, a social media tool that allows one to schedule tweets in advance, each set to be tweeted at the right time.

Honestly I went into the meeting yesterday thinking that we would agree that it was too late to launch such a project for the next day and we should do it next year. But the enthusiasm of the MAC employees swept us all along.

Live tweeting a historical event would make a great classroom project for digital and public history courses. This presentation lays out how they did a similar project on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has some good tips. Here are the steps as I see it:

  1. Pick a historical event. Something dramatic, well-documented, and with contemporary interest. It needs to be an event that took place over a few days, not months. Choose a time period that you will be tweeting, maybe 3-7 days?
  2. Choose a hashtag. Make sure that it has not been taken.
  3. Assemble some resources. It really worked well to have different people pulling their tweets out of different sources. Resources could be a mix of physical and digital, with digitized books and newspapers offering a rich set of perspectives. Make a Google Doc with links to the digital resources.
  4. Write the tweets. If I were working with a larger class, I would organize the Google Doc a bit in advance by making headings for each days tweets. Encourage students to find relevant images to attach to the tweets.
  5. Schedule the tweets with Hootsuite or a similar social media manager.
Publicity is also a concern. Which Twitter account will be used? Who will retweet the tweets? Can you get local media interested? In the #greatfire1889 project we lucked out that the local newspaper took and immediate interest. In fact, our project was on the top of the front page today: