Blog Post #6: Conducting an Environmental Scan / Reviewing a Digital History Project


This week, my Digital History class was asked to look around at other digital projects to find similar work being done and to review the work.

My digital project uses mapping, timeline, and storytelling features to allow for a cultural and musical “treasure hunt” with famed Federal Writers’ Project researchers such as Stetson Kennedy, Alan Lomax, and Zora Neale Hurston. I am using a platform called VisualEyes to make my digital project. Because my project centers on music, I looked around for another VisualEyes project that also features music. Interestingly, the only other VisualEyes project that I could find that centered on music was a digital thesis project by my fellow University of Central Florida colleague, Robert Clarke, entitled “The Spatial Relationship between Labor, Cultural Migration, and the Development of Folk Music in the American South”.

I examined and reviewed Robert Clarke’s thesis project by using the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Digital History Review Guidelines. I addressed the following areas:

Content: Is the scholarship sound and current? What is the interpretation or point of view?

According to the project’s creator, Robert Clarke, the purpose of the project is to “reveal the spatial dimensions of three distinct regions —the greater Chesapeake (Virginia/North Carolina/), the coastal lowlands and Sea Islands of the Gullah Corridor (Charleston/Savannah), and Louisiana (New Orleans). The end result is an educational and potential research tool that affords viewers a more dynamic perspective on the relationship between agricultural slave labor, migration patterns, and folk music than is possible with text alone.” The project is well researched and contains a variety of primary resources such as census records and accounts concerning migration patterns, field recordings, diaries, and other personal records. Clarke also includes a plethora of maps. His inclusion of a variety of historic maps is impressive. Among the many maps featured in the project, Clarke includes a hand colored map from 1828 showing the various tribes of West and Central Africa, a map of the Atlantic World during the Slave Trade’s rise in the Americas, and other maps from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection including an 1815 map of New Orleans, a 1825 map of Charleston, and additional maps of Virginia and South Carolina. There are plenty of other maps to explore as well. Clarke also includes a tobacco cultivation timeline, a rice cultivation timeline, and information about sugar cultivation in Louisiana. Clarke’s point of view concerning the influence of African music on southern folk music is backed up by his research. The project is current and has sound scholarship.

Form: Is it clear? Easy to navigate? Does it function effectively? Does it have a clear, effective, and original design? Does it have a coherent structure?

The project’s purpose is clear and the project is easy to navigate. However, because the project is a few years old, there seems to be an issue pertaining to Map Scholar that does not allow proper navigation on the interactive map. Sometimes, I click on a hyperlink and nothing happens; the information simply will not load. Still, the project’s design structure is coherently organized.

Audience/Use: Is it directed at a clear audience? Will it serve the needs of that audience?

The digital project seems to be directed at a wide audience. Educators, students, music lovers, professional historians, or even arm chair history buffs would appreciate the informative content about the African origins of folk music in the American South. The project offers quite a lot of material pertaining to the topic, so I assume that it would serve the needs of most members of the audience. The project allows for a guided experience, but users can also click around and explore it at will. Therefore, they are free to research aspects of the topic that are of particular interest to them.

New Media: Does it make effective use of new media and new technology? Does it do something that could not be done in other media—print, exhibition, film?

As a historian who seeks to examine music in my thesis project, Clarke’s project appeals to me. One of its major strengths (other than those amazing maps) lies in its inclusion of audio clips of songs. The project centers on music, so Clarke utilizes audio and video files to tell a story pertaining to the African roots of southern folk music. The project features audio clips such as a Chesapeake folk song called Old Corn Liquor, a video/audio clip of Mrs. Bertha Smith and The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island, South Carolina, an audio recording of Esau Jenkins describing the significance of the “Shout”, audio of Ben Bligen singing, a recording about the Sierra Leone Shout, and a Gullah-Geechee Special Resource Study. The use of the audio files, video files, and the visual spatial dynamics make the project come to life. Had Clarke chosen to write a traditional thesis, I do not think that his project would have been as powerful. It simply would not have been enough to just read about the music. After all, music is meant to be heard.

As either Elvis Costello or Martin Mull once said (it is debated), “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Clarke’s digital thesis project indicates that he understands the challenges of writing a history master’s thesis about music. Clarke cleverly includes an auditory approach to convey his argument. That is what I attempt to do with my VisualEyes project as well. I thought that my idea of writing about folk music and then supplementing my research with visualizations and audio recordings was an original concept, but Robert Clarke and other digital historians are increasingly turning to digital platforms like VisualEyes. Clarke’s approach shows that modern historians do not have to limit their research to simply writing about historical topics, particularly when it comes to examining music and history.


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