The Kennedy Political Union: A Window into AU History

This semester I worked with the American University Special Collections to produce new content for the online exhibit, Eagle Lore: Windows Into American University History. This exhibit serves as a digital resource for students, faculty, staff, and those in the AU community who wish to explore American University’s rich and diverse history. I worked with the university archivist, Susan McElrath, and three other history students.

Project Goals           

The purpose of this project is to provide a searchable database of images from American University’s Special Collections, while offering a cultural narrative of AU’s past and present. The online exhibit currently features a series of historical images from the AU archives that represent the campus and experience of students attending AU from its founding to present day. The site highlights student life at AU, AU’s involvement in WWI and WWII, and famous student protests.

Susan McElrath considers Eagle Lore to be “a work-in-progress” because it is continually updated with new content. My team and I have contributed to the expansion of this exhibit by researching, digitizing, and writing captions for several new sections. These include highlighting AU’s arboretum, the Kennedy Political Union, university presidents and chancellors, and fraternity and sorority student activities. Over the course of the semester, I have worked on creating a new page representing the student group, The Kennedy Political Union.

Digital Exhibit Process

My team first came together for a meeting with the archivist in the AU library. At the meeting we discussed the purpose of the exhibit and the project goals. By the end of this meeting we each left the archives with a clear understanding of the individual goals we were asked to achieve. Securing access to the collection was made possible by working with AU as a stakeholder, and was made simple thanks to the assistance of Susan McElrath.

As outlined by the archivist, the project was divided into three phases. The initial phase involved selecting images from the digital collections stored on the library’s hard drive. For the section on the Kennedy Political Union, I carefully selected images that would reflect the diversity of guest speakers at KPU events since its founding in 1968. In addition, Susan recommended that I select a mixture of color and black-and-white images to enhance the page.

The second phase required designated time in the archives to compile the metadata for the images. For every image selected, I had to find the original photograph in the special collections so that I could properly record the image’s copyright information. After compiling the metadata into an Excel spreadsheet, Susan helped with uploading the photographs onto Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform used for creating this digital collection and exhibit. After, I renamed the files and entered the metadata into the Omeka catalog record. In addition to the KPU images, I updated the metadata for other images in the collection.

In the third phase I researched the KPU speakers, created an exhibit page, added images and wrote captions. I used another AU database that catalogs all issues of the student newspaper, The Eagle, to find a news article for every KPU speaker I featured. Next, I drafted captions and an introductory text. After familiarizing myself with Omeka as a digital tool, I decided on a layout for the KPU page that would be user friendly and visually pleasing. My end product is the addition of the “KPU” page, found in the “Life at AU” section.

KPU Exhibit PageKPU Exhibit Page 2 

Connections to History and New Media

This project closely connects to many of the course readings from the semester. Wayne Clough’s Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, an essay on Smithsonian Institution’s digital technologies, argues that “technology has created a golden age of opportunity” for museums, libraries, and archives alike because technology has the power to connect and extend the exchange of information between individuals. He contends that, “digital technology exponentially increases the capacity of individuals to engage with our collections and upload their own stories” (Clough, 2). This project answers Clough’s call for access to the special collection and content on the history of American University. This exhibit will not likely reach new audiences, but it does provide both a searchable database and a narrative of AU’s cultural history for the AU community.

In this project, my team and I collaborated to create a viable digital resource for students, faculty, alumni, and staff. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum attests to the purpose of digital humanities in academia by suggesting that both the use of new media and digital humanities initiatives can provide a collaborative space in which researchers can “gather data, work together, share findings, argue, compete, and collaborate” (Kirschenbaum, 56).  In using Omeka as a tool, we were able to add metadata simultaneously and create web pages as multiple users. This proved useful as we each began the research process.

According to Roy Rosenzwieg and David Cohen in, Digital History: Owning the Past, the flexibility, manipulability, and accessibility of digital media are some of the best advantages in using the web for historical purposes. A large portion of this project involved collecting the metadata for the images. Rosenzwieg and Cohen also raise the challenges of copyright and fair use. During the research process, I found myself digging up the rights for the images and consulting with the student newspaper records to make sure proper credit is given to the photographers. While writing captions, I was challenged with finding a collaborative voice, in which I had to let go of any personal authority over the content.

Although we used the templates in Omeka for our page layouts, Dan M. Brown’s book, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning provided useful how-to explanations of concept models, web site development and deliverables. Brown offers recommendations for establishing clear communication, concept maps, and wireframes, to guide the final product.

Joe Lambert’s book Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community argues in favor for the use of media and tools to help document and share a story.Using Omeka as tool for expanding AU’s digital collection and exhibit has been an exciting experience.                                               

Personal Reflections

This project required archival work, research, interpretation, design layout, and learning how to use the digital platform, Omeka. My experience working in the American University Archives, collaborating with peers, and using digital technology in the curation of this online exhibit has proved successful and a worthwhile endeavor. Our additions to Eagle Lore expand the historical narrative of AU by offering new content and images.

As a future suggestion for the exhibit, I would recommend the addition of a map. Our class spent a great deal of time discussing the significance of visualizations in the humanities and creating our own maps. Karen Kemp’s The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, emphasized the impact of digital tools and spatial history on the humanities, as did other scholars such as, Richard White, John Corbett, and Edward Tufte, and Stephen Robertson. I would recommend using visual tools to contextualize a piece of AU history. I would suggest a map visualizing the diversity of AU students and their place of origin, showing population by home state or country. There could even be two maps representing student origins, one from the early years and one from the present. This would show how AU’s student body changes over time and would help demonstrate the AU initiative for reflecting diversity.