Photoshopping History: Lane Technical High School

Since our project group has decided on a topic for our exhibit, this post will discuss images that we might use for that project, rather than those I took on my initial archive visit. Our exhibit will compare the histories of Lane Tech (a technical school for boys) and Flower Tech (for girls), their gendered approaches to technical education, and the ideas about men’s and women’s roles that these approaches reveal. The images below are from the Chicago History Museum’s collection of photos from Lane Tech, taken in the early 1900s for the Chicago Daily News. I am a Photoshop novice and can’t claim any expertise about how the tool is used, or even about what it might be capable of, but this post will discuss a few ideas about how these photos could be edited in Photoshop in preparation for display in our online exhibit.

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Baseball player Jake Sommerfield of Lane Tech High School (1928). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

As you can see below, the collection contains several images of sports teams, an integral part of education at technical schools like Lane. For this image, I would most likely crop the edges where writing and holes in the photo are visible, to keep from distracting from the dynamic main subject.

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Lane Tech football players standing on an athletic field (1913). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

This image of football players is a nice group shot, while still having few enough subjects that it retains a portrait-like quality. I might increase the contrast between the sky in the background and the players’ faces so that their expressions are clearer.

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Lane Tech football players standing on an athletic field (1913). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

Here’s another shot of the football team from the same day. In Photoshop, I might crop the edges where white strips cover the images, and/or I might try to zoom in a little on the shot so the viewer could see the subjects’ faces more clearly.

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Lane Tech basketball players posing in a gymnasium (1929). Image from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

Finally, here’s another group shot, this time of the basketball team standing single file in height order. Again, I would crop the edges so that the writing is not visible. Perhaps there would be some way to draw attention to the “Tech” sign in the upper left corner, a good visual indicator for the photo.

I’m excited to see what’s actually possible for these images in Photoshop–though I’m still wondering about copyright and permissions. Even if these images are used with permission, is editing of this kind allowed? How do digital historians work within the limits of “fair use” when editing photos for this kind of project? Those issues will have to be explored as we continue in the process.

The Lessons of Goodreads for Public Historians

The book sharing and cataloging site Goodreads has unexpectedly become an important part of my social media use over the last couple of years. Having always been a voracious reader, I initially saw little use for the site, because I wasn’t sure what it could add to my reading experience. I decided to give it a shot on a whim in 2013, however, and nearly three years later I’m still a regular user. In this post I’ll briefly sketch the history of Goodreads and offer some thoughts both on why I’ve found it useful and on what it might have to offer to public historians.

Goodreads was founded in 2006 by entrepreneurs Otis Chandler II and Elizabeth Chandler in order “to help people find and share books they love.” Otis Chandler describes his inspiration for the site as a virtual version of your friend’s bookshelf, which has always sparked readers’ ideas about what they might like to read next.You can befriend or follow other readers on the site and see updates about what they’ve read recently and what they thought of it.

books-vs-computersIn 2011, Goodreads expanded the “friend’s bookshelf” model to include something more contemporary: algorithms. The company acquired the recommendation engine “Discovereads,” which analyzes the books on your lists and how you’ve rated them and offers you recommendations about what similar titles you might like–perhaps the equivalent of a knowledgeable librarian. By 2012, Goodreads membership was growing rapidly. The site reached 11 million members in October of that year, and had hit 12 million just one month later. In 2013, it was acquired by Amazon.com.

My own enjoyment of Goodreads is due to the way it combines its cataloging and organizational functions with the social angle. I use it to save books I want to read in an easily accessible place, and to keep track of what I’ve read in the past and what I thought of it. I could easily keep an Amazon wish list or my own personal journal of books instead, but the ability to share my list with my reading friends and see what they’ve enjoyed enhances the experience. Perhaps most importantly, while Goodreads offers many more avenues for participation (book clubs, writing detailed reviews, making more use of the algorithm’s recommendations), I am able to engage at the level I find necessary and pleasant, and no more.

What can public historians learn from Goodreads? Probably many things, but its dual nature as a personal archive tool and a social media site comes to mind. Perhaps museums and archives with well-trafficked online collections might consider adding some social functionality to their sites, to encourage researchers and casual viewers to engage both with the materials and with each other. Most important to the success of this or any social media site, however, is understanding the audience’s needs and how you might best meet them. Goodreads took advantage of the algorithm technology without allowing it to overwhelm its original mission, to allow users to more easily share their love of reading directly with one another.

This article relies on information from the Wikipedia article on Goodreads.

Online Exhibits: Some Thoughts on Process

One thing that has become clear from my recent perusal of some different digitization projects by museums and archives is that “online exhibitions” of text, images, and objects should not be created equal. While digitizing documents and images and making them available in a repository or in a curated online exhibition can be very successful, museums in particular need to think more carefully about whether it is worth digitizing the objects in their collection. After all, what museum professionals and visitors have long understood is that there is something about sharing the same physical space as an artifact that gives it power; it’s what draws audiences to museums in the first place.

With that in mind, I have been thinking about the process of developing an online exhibition that does not merely offer a recreation of physical galleries, but that takes advantage of technology to do something new. Having looked at the Mütter Museum’s Online Exhibition offerings and considering what is successful about them, I can share some thoughts.

onlineFirst, the project must be well-conceived and its purpose well understood. What void would a digital display of materials fill? Who is the audience? It’s not worth the expenditure of money and staff time if the exhibit doesn’t add much to the museum’s current offerings. The Mütter’s digital exhibitions, such as this one on astrology and medicine, seem designed to highlight a few documents and images from their collections along a certain theme that would be too small for a physical gallery but that is appropriate for their website.

Second, where do the images in the exhibition come from? For a curator based at a museum, perhaps just from your own collections; but for an independent researcher or a scholar looking to draw materials from various sources, it is important to make sure that you can get the rights to use the materials you want (or that you are comfortable with the risk of not having the rights, as we discussed in class the other day).

Third, how will the logistics of the project get done, and how much will that cost? That includes the cost of scanning or photographing materials; building an infrastructure for an exhibition; publicizing it; and perhaps maintaining it into the future. Particularly for small, underfunded institutions whose audiences are mostly local, it is important to weigh whether a digital exhibition is more valuable than, say, more public programs.

With so many museums suffering from a lack of funding, it is crucial to consider what online exhibits can offer that make them a worthwhile expenditure, and whether the institution has the technical and social media savvy to make them pay off.

Public History Twitter: A Case Study

Based on a brief and unscientific survey of Twitter use by several public history institutions, there appear to be two different levels of the platform’s use. The first and more basic employs Twitter as another outlet for marketing announcements that are also made elsewhere on the institution’s web presence (new exhibitions, programs and events, important historical dates pertaining to the museum’s subject matter). Institutions at this level may sometimes highlight items from their collections or feature short biographies of individuals connected to their topic, but in general their Twitter “voice” is not particularly distinctive, and their Twitter content doesn’t offer much that can’t be found on their other digital outlets. The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago is a good example of this level of use. Most of their content is announcements, fundraising appeals, and the occasional retweet of another cultural institution or event related to their mission. Since February is Black History Month, they have recently been featuring photos of notable African-Americans–but those tweets usually link to Wikipedia pages about the individuals, rather than to DuSable’s own content. It’s not that their Twitter use is out of keeping with their mission, which reads:

To promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions, and experiences of African Americans through exhibits, programs, and activities that illustrate African and African American history, culture and art.

Featuring notable African-Americans certainly helps advance this mission. But it’s questionable how much this Twitter use does for the DuSable as an institution. Followers interested in learning more about Aprille E. Jackson (the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering) or in Matthew Henson (a black Arctic explorer) are directed to Wikipedia or Biography.com, rather than back to the DuSable where they may be inspired to explore the website or even plan a visit. Though clicking on the “Tweets & Replies” tab reveals that whoever runs the DuSable’s Twitter account does sometimes engage with followers who tweet questions or criticisms, in general the voice of the Twitter account is a fairly bland institutional one, little different from the tone of postings on the museum’s website.

A second and more successful level of Twitter engagement by public history institutions involves a well-developed voice and focus for the account that uses Twitter’s potential to go beyond content offered by the museum’s other digital outlets. The Twitter account of the National Museum of American History is an example of effective use of the platform. Most of the tweets follow a “Today in history” theme, which justifies frequent posts and makes them relevant to the casual viewer. These tweets link back to content from the museum’s blog, keeping viewers engaged with the institution’s official outlets. The NMAH’s Twitter account also makes use of its membership in the large Smithsonian network, featuring objects from other museums’ collections as well as its own. The operator(s) of the account make use of hashtags and jokes that demonstrate a familiarity with the conventions of Twitter and that make them stand out as savvy users of the platform. Finally, the Twitter account sometimes links to ongoing research projects, such as with this tweet about collecting at the Iowa Caucuses, which can get its audience involved in following these initiatives while also educating them about the ways in which history is an ongoing process:

When comparing these two institutions’ use of Twitter, it is very important to remember how any institution’s resources (or lack thereof) may affect its ability to use social media in an effective way. As a member of the Smithsonian network, the NMAH likely has more money, staff time, and expertise to devote to developing an effective Twitter feed and to creating or posting the web content that supports a good feed. Even larger museums like the DuSable may lack the resources that make this possible. They may have to make trade offs between investing in social media platforms that may turn out to be ephemeral and investing in their collections, research, programs, or other priorities.