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CHI Grad Fellow Post



February 7, 2016

Databasing Historical Records: Some of the Challenges

February 7, 2016 | By | No Comments

       Structuring a database is not an easy task. During this year of work, we have faced many challenges that have required from us great intellectual efforts and reflection. Nevertheless, I have heard from “digital humanists” and programmers that because we have a software developer, we are not making the database, that someone is doing it for us. The underlying argument is that we need knowledge on basic principle of programming such as HTML and CSS to claim authorship in the making-process. Having that programming skills today is helpful. However, that our participation on programming is limited does not mean we are not the main creators of the database. This blog shows some of the main challenges that make us -the historians- crucial for this type of project and it is, in part, an answer to technocratic point of views on the relationship historians and software developers.

First, the concept of the project –databasing baptismal records–, is ours. This project is not something that anyone could have imagined without the proper historical training. You need to know about sources, their internal logic, the institutions that produced them, paleography, and other language skills. It is important to decide the fields that can be extracted from the sources without violating the integrity of the documents. We have to respect historical concepts and to know that their meanings changed over time. We decided how to organize the fields in a coherent and hierarchical way. We need to translate our needs to programmers without historical training. We, historians, are the most important actor. Thus, HTML and CSS play a minor role to conceive the idea. The developing part is crucial, but should not be confused with the first step. This assertion is true for those cases where social scientists rely on programmers to materialize their projects.

      We had important elements in our advantage when we started this project. First, the digitized copies of the original documents are available online. The project “Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slaves Societies” (ESSSS) has digitized and posted online the parish records from Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, and Florida. Without this amazing repository, our database would have been impossible. These baptismal records are geographically, linguistically, and temporally diverse but, due to the centralized nature of the Catholic church, they are also homogeneous sources, regardless of language, period, and region. This circumstance makes them the perfect candidate to build a transnational standardized database. It makes also doable to move the data from the digitized documents to an accessible, searchable, malleable, and “cleaner” digital format. It sounds easier than it is though.

      Defining the categories or fields that will be in the search tool is definitely challenging. Even when the documents are homogeneous, there is often new information showing up we need to decide if it deserves an individual field or not. Databases must have a limited universe of regular fields to make them functional.  We restricted our variables to those that regularly appear in the documents and those which do not show up frequently are included in the field “Miscellaneous.” Deciding the fields is not the only challenge. Naming the fields is another difficult step. Take the example of race and ethnicity. Categories, language, and meanings of race differ over time and by region. For instance, the are sometime equatable categories of race from the Portuguese and from the Spanish-speaking world. Anglo-speaking regions have had different definition of race. In both cases, race categories are subjected to change over time. We do not want to violate the documents, thus, we kept race as it appears in the sources, including the original language. Something similar happens with African ethnic designations in the Americas. Across different regions, African origins are defined in every document as nations. We keep the term “nation” as it appears in the document, although sometimes these categories do not represent and ethnic identity that carried meaning in an African context. These decisions resulted after long discussions and after reading the most important historiography on the topic. There is always a great space for disagreement. The next post will discuss some elements we took in account while structuring our fields. 




February 5, 2016

This is my story: The beginning of reclaiming the past to look to the future

February 5, 2016 | By | No Comments

This is my story: Detroit 1967 is in the infancy of development. So, what is it again? It is a multimedia archive and repository that serves to catalog and historicize this canonical and significant time in the 20th century with oral histories from eyewitnesses and participants of the rebellion. This endeavor is a continuation of a project of promise and curiosity that started in summer 2009 when interning at the ABC affiliate in Detroit WXYZ ABC 7. Much of what has been written and indexed into the historical report is ahistorical, asociocultural and asocioeconomic and missing the qualitative and critical ethnographic approach.


Image “July, 1967 — Investigation Team checks conditions at Washtenaw County Jail, in cell filled with detainees from the Detroit riots” by Flickr user Wystan used under CC BY 2.0

As a media professional and oral historian, I’ve arranged a couple of interviews and reached out to a few universities libraries (University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Wayne State University) for research assistance, as they have materials that would support my research and educational target of free and accessible information. Also, I’m reading several texts on urban rebellion, Detroit and racial segregation to compliment all of the newspapers stories I’ve read in The Michigan Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. 

Forging the technical aspects of this project, to build the website, I’m using Omeka, it is a content management system developed by George Mason University for the humanities. I’ve used it in my master’s program, so I’m quite familiar with the program and its setup. Without being excessively techie, to make the material available, the oral history metadata synchronizer is a plug-in that will make my video and transcripts a great body of scholarship working as one.

The research will transform the digital space with phenomenal stories from willing interviewees and from there begin to change the narrative of the four days of chaos, the city and nearly fifty years to follow to one of unrelenting perseverance. Following the uprising Detroit became an urban scientific experiment being poked, prodded, exploited and devastated. In Fall 2009, Time ran a special report announcing their year-long assignment focused on Detroit, examining what went wrong with the motor city. Their report would confirm my scientific experiment theory but expose other massive infrastructure issues that to some extent seemed orchestrated e.g. deindustrialization of the city, massive white and Black flight and job outsourcing.

This is my story: Detroit 1967 will get people to speak their truth of events in time for the 50th anniversary and add to what happened to this once thriving mecca.

If you would like to contribute to this project or know someone who would be of great value, please send me an email at



February 2, 2016

AHA presentation and discussion of BARDSS

February 2, 2016 | By | No Comments

       In January, we presented our project, the Baptismal Record Database for Slaves Societies, at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association.  This was the second time we showed our project in public. The first time we did it was during a workshop organized by Vanderbilt University, by professor Jane Landers in November 2015. On that occasion, we presented BARDSS in front of renowned scholars working in several digital projects related to African slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade. It was an exciting opportunity to discuss many topics of great concern for digital humanists working on databases today such as how to standardise fields, how to put together different databases about similar but not the same topic, or how to define conflicting concepts such as race and nation which usually change dramatically along the Americas. After two intense days of discussion, the only implicit agreement was that there is a need to link diverse but related digital projects on slavery. In that direction, professor Walter Hawthorne coordinated a group of panels for the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association.

      Our presentation at the AHA had little to add to what we already have done three months before at Vanderbilt. At that point, we had already agreed with our programmer to work on the visualization/search interface. Thus, we presented how we envisioned this interface. Most important, we showed the different search tools that users will have available and the charts and graphics that the system will create after this search. We discussed again some of the challenges we faced while drafting BARDSS. Some of them, already pointed out, were, for instance, to choose what fields from the documents deserved to be in the main search tool and not in the miscellaneous section or how we would treat different languages across the Americas. We were not sure at the beginning of this enterprise if we had to translate definition of races, even if this would be possible. We kept race definitions it in their original languages, and the reasons we took these decision will be another blog content. Rather, I would like to focus on one of the main issues that we discussed at the AHA: Is it possible to merge different databases in a single database?

The question raised because some of the similarities of the projects presented at that panel. In particular, because professor Patrick Manning presented his interesting project of creating a meta-database of human population. The questions were addressed mainly to him because the ambitious character of his project. There are basic fields, all we agreed, that can be compared or subsumed into a single project, such as sex, age, height, professions. There are other databases related to specific universe of documents that make little sense out of their documentary logic. A database on runaway slaves had particularities that does not exist for other type of databases like, for instance, date of capture. The same applies to projects on liberated Africans that contains non-replicable data such as the capture of the ships where the slaves were transported to the Americas. The main challenge is –this is still the issue- to create a dialog among different projects; Is it possible to create at least a sort of soft linkability. This is a discussion still opened to more points of view.


Sara Bijani


January 30, 2016

Simulacra and Simulation and my Journey into the Third Order of Copyright Law

January 30, 2016 | By | No Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to protect a representation these days. Anyone remember reading Baudrillard? I remember reading that whole treatise on simulated reality years ago and associating the whole thing with war and television. These days, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about copyright. Just kidding. I’m pretty sure he was thinking about high modernity and everything that travels with it, including copyright. “Capital, which is immoral and unscrupulous, can only function behind a moral superstructure,” a hellish and mundane everyday space from which rules of ownership and entitlement emanate, along with all the other things that make the late industrial age go round.[1]

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Lisa Bright


January 28, 2016

Changing Directions – Introducing TOMB

January 28, 2016 | By | No Comments

As Katy mentioned in our recent Digital Archaeology Institute blog post, she and I have decided to take our project in a different direction. We originally proposed a project called ossuaryKB, a mortuary method knowledge base. However, as we’ve been working toward the project over the last semester, we hit quite a few roadblocks. After sitting down recently we realized that ossurayKB wasn’t really the project we had a passion for. What we really wanted to make was a tool that was more orientated towards the public learning about mortuary archaeology. So we are proud to announce our new project… TOMB: The Online Map of Bioarchaeology.

TOMB will center around an interactive map featuring case studies and exemplars from mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeological studies. The site will be a space for students and the public to learn more about this field, and still serve as a place for anthropologists to share their research and provide updates. For more details on the project description, please see Katy’s blog post.

This refocusing of the project means that my goals for CHI will also change. Previously I’d discussed the challenges surrounding building a SQL database for ossuaryKB. TOMB will require a different set of technical resources. Over the next three months, I will build the functional structure of the site using a combination of Bootstrap and Leaflet . Specifically, I will be using the open web mapping application template developed by Bryan McBride called bootleaf.

The bootleaf template is available on Github (, and well commented. Although I’ve created a website centered around mapping before using bootstrap (Mortuary Mapping), I used CartoDB to make the maps. This will be my first time using leaflet. Thankfully my project partner Katy used bootleaf to create IELDRAN, and have excellent comments on her use of bootleaf on her Github repository(

We’re both very excited about the potential TOMB creates, and I look forward to sharing my bootleaf learning experience.

Nikki Silva


January 27, 2016

Mapping Morton Village: Creating the Interactive Map

January 27, 2016 | By | No Comments

Creating the Interactive Map

For the past two weeks, as Autumn Beyer worked on coding our site, I have been working on the interactive map for our joint CHI Fellowship project – Mapping Morton Village. I had some problems at the beginning, including a computer that would not function and some confusion as to the format required for the map data, which have both been remedied. We are using Mapbox to create the maps, which requires the maps to be georeferenced (i.e. assigning real world coordinates to the map). I already had shapefiles for the map – however our map was not georeferenced to real-world coordinates, but to our own site grid. I contacted the co-project director for the Morton Village Archaeological Project, Dr. Michael Conner at Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, IL and he was able to send me georeferenced shapefiles (Thanks Mike!). Read More

Autumn Beyer


January 26, 2016

Mapping Morton Village: Coding the Website

January 26, 2016 | By | No Comments

Mapping Morton Village — writing the basic code for the website.

For the past two weeks, I have been working on the code for my joint CHI Fellowship project with Nikki SilvaMapping Morton Village. We knew the general structure of what we wanted the site to look like and using a bootstrap theme I created the foundation for our website.

However, I did have some issues at the beginning. I first attempted to combine two different bootstrap themes (a header theme and a footer theme), to get the look that we wanted, which turned out to not be the best approach. There were contrasting CSS styles that caused the footer of the website to not stay in the correct place and or have the size we wanted. After trying, for longer than I would like to admit, I realized that I needed to just start over!

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December 18, 2015

This is my story: Detroit 1967

December 18, 2015 | By | No Comments

They [the media] just referred to it as a riot. Down on the ground it looked like a rebellion. But the media and the power structure had a lot of things wrong,” said Ed Vaughn, activist and businessman in Detroit.[1]

This is my story: Detroit 1967 is an oral history based multimedia project, which looks to residents and eyewitnesses to tell their stories of surviving the most devastating riots the city has ever seen. It allows residents to correct the highly media reliant narrative of what occurred without accounting for the systemic and institutional injustices Blacks say were the bedrock for the rebellion.

“It’s going to be a long, hot summer!”

The narrative of the Detroit uprising, also known as, the “Great Rebellion,” mostly told orally includes largely truth and ends with urban legends e.g. agent provocateurs. In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 23, 1967, outnumbered and unprepared officers arrived at a Blind Pig on 12th Street and Clairmont Avenue in the Virginia Park neighborhood prepared to shutdown a bar operating illegally with its liquor license. Patrons of the bar were celebrating the return of two Vietnam soldiers. The details following the raid inside the club and what occurred outside is obscure.

Frustrated residents terrorized, harassed and brutalized by officers known as the “Big Four” fought back, thus the rebellion was born. The “Big Four” were a group of four officers known around the neighborhood to make life unbearable for Blacks. Residents vandalized businesses, looted and/or set them ablaze.

“One thing the riots were not. They were not a massive Negro uprising against white people. There was little hatred in the Sunday outbreak. There were Negro and white looters and snipers fought by Negro and white policemen and soldiers. It wasn’t basically race against race. This needs to be emphasized because some terms used to describe what happened—Negro riots, ghetto uprising, negro rebellion—don’t really describe what occurred in Detroit.”[2]

The four-day rebellion was by far the most devastating on record of the 20th century until the L.A. riots of 1992 following the Rodney King verdict. As expected, there’s conflicting information as to the loss and damages. Forty-three people died—at least that was what was reported. More than 2,000 people were injured; over 7,000 people filled the jails in the city and the overflow on Belle Isle; city firefighters either put out, watched or ignored the calls for roughly 2,000 building fires and millions were reported in damages.

The paradox of this leaderless uprising it drastically shifted the demographics, economics and politics of the city, reinforcing white flight to the suburbs, black flight to other urban centers and ironically black resistance to stay put and rebuild. “Let white America know that the name of the game is tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. Motown. If you don’t come around, we are going to burn it down!”[3] said H. Rap Brown, political activist, former chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and Minister of Justice for the Black Panther Party (BPP). Unlike most American cities, the rebellion tore Detroit apart and led to the slow and painful decades long demise and deterioration for the country to see, a city lost to the false promises of rebirth, growth, urban renewal and globalization.

During the long, hot summer of 1967 more than 100 cities went up in flames. The following year, roughly the same cities would once again erupt in violence as an emotional response to the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In no way is this project attempting to pathologize Detroit as the mecca of urban uprising madness; I’m simply giving those who’ve needed to speak their truth on the subject a platform to do so and a means to correct it all. Essentially, This is my story: Detroit 1967 is adding to and correcting the historical record as to what really happened July 23, 1967 and the days to follow, as well as, its cause.

Image " Detroit, MI" by Flickr user JasonParis used under CC BY 2.0

Image ” Detroit, MI” by Flickr user JasonParis used under CC BY 2.0

[1] Kim Hunter “1967: Detroiters Remember” Against The Current, September 1997,

[2] “As We See It: Sift Ashes for Reasons Behind Ghetto Outbreak” The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), July 27, 1967.

[3] Kate Stacy “July 1967: Rebellion” Solidarity—Against the Current, July 2007,



December 18, 2015

Attuning to Cultural Differences through Community Soundscapescapes

December 18, 2015 | By | No Comments

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.17.05 AMAs new(er) communicative landscapes emerge, humanities educators and research in the teaching of cultural heritage have enthusiastically embraced digital and visual culture. From more (g)local understandings of cosmopolitanism to understanding how locative literacies and contemporary technologies are mediating youth identity making with place, the digital has made its mark. Despite this renewed emphasis on multimodality, however, the aural and sonic possibilities of composing with and through sound is ignored. In response to this tuning out, #hearmyhome is an “everyday” cultural heritage informatics project that interrogates how individuals write community through and with sound. Examining everyday people produced soundscapes, #hearmyhome inquires how hearing difference and listening to communities may re-educate the senses and attune us towards cultural difference. Ultimately developing materials that hear, recognize, and sustain community literacies and cultural rhetorics, #hearmyhome asks us to take heed of the frequencies and rhythms of culture as we architect, design, and teach towards more equitable landscapes for learning.

So, What Does This Look / Sound Like?

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.22.00 AM#hearmyhome will function as a mobile website with a participatory map-archive of soundscapes composed. Given #hearmyhome’s pedagogical intent, the project will be built and co-constructed through a series of “sonic events” happening across February, March, and April. As a participatory cultural heritage informatics project, we hope to circulate the project through a variety of writing partners/organizations (e.g., National Writing Project, #CLMOOC, #WalkMyWorld, Becoming 3lectric) in hopes to gain new followers and participants. Outside of the more participatory aspect of the project, #hearmyhome will also include archived cultural soundscapes taken from pre-existing audio-based community literacy sites/projects.

Interested in an Audio Overview? Listen here and follow us on SoundCloud!

Want to Participate?

Using the #hearmyhome tag, users will have the opportunity to input basic profile information (i.e. first name, age, where they live, text descriptors), and record the everyday soundscapes of their communities, rituals, cultures, etc.  Audio, comments, usernames, and locations will pull into a live map hosted on the mobile site. #hearmyhome will only pull in social media updates for users with geotagging services turned on (Instagram, Vine, Twitter) and #hearmyhome included in post. In addition to the “live” map hosted on the mobile site, sonic curricular resources for youth and teachers interested in composing everyday cultural heritage with and through sound (lesson/project plans, etc.) will be included and hosted on the site.hearmyhome3

Focusing on “everyday” cultural heritage, #hearmyhome demonstrates how youth and adults can hear and listen to better understand difference and community literacies through expansive personal learning networks (PLN). Illustrated by the mobile site’s larger open-networked soundscapes map, #hearmyhome is an affinity space wherein participants share both knowledge and life experiences (through sonic events and audio) as a way to form interpersonal relationships and create a fuller understanding of community and culture.

For more information and up-to-date announcements join our mailing list at

Photo “Trip Planning” by Flickr user Shawn Harquail. Used under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license



December 8, 2015

Politics and Form : The Armed Services Editions

December 8, 2015 | By | No Comments

As a CHI Fellow, I’m undertaking a large-scale text analysis of the Armed Services Editions, a collection of novels sent to US Soldiers during WWII to “fight the war on ideas,” to consider issues of politics and literary form. I first stumbled on the Armed Services Editions a few years ago, while researching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. You may recall Jake’s description of Robert Cohn, early in the novel:

He had been reading W.H. Hudson. That sounds like an innocent occupation, but Cohn and read and reread “The Purple Land.” “The Purple Land” is a very sinister book if read too late in life…For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a French convent, equipped with a set of the more practical Alger books.

I was working on a project on modernist reading networks, and this passage jumped out at me. I looked into The Purple Land and found that it was chosen to be a part of the Armed Services Editions in World War II, 16 years after the publication of The Sun Also Rises. Cursory research into the Armed Services Editions led me to the Council on Books in Wartime, a committee of publishers that assembled during World War II and contracted with the US Military to produce cheap paperback editions for US soldiers abroad. The goal (and slogan) of the Council on Books in Wartime was to use books as “weapons in the war of ideas.” Books had an important role to play in the war effort, the CBW wrote, because “Books can help us recover our past and teach us what a tough-fibered people we can be when we have to. Books can tell us what our enemies are like. Even prizefighters study their opponents carefully.[…]Books can tell us what our allies are like.” All of this was vitally important to such a “total war.”

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