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A Digital Collection of Historical Documents
to Enrich Teaching and Learning History:
A Pilot Project
Mellon Project Grant
Claremont Colleges
Spring 1998
 
Core Faculty: 
Andrew Aisenberg, History, Scripps 
Elazar Barkan, History/Cultural Studies, CGU
Janet Farrell Brodie, History, CGU  
Julia Liss, History, Scripps  
Stuart McConnell, History, Pitzer  
Lisa Sullivan, Economic History, HMC  

  

 
Support Staff: 
Leigh Johnsen, Project Leader, CGU 
Catherine Walker, Technical Advisor, CGU 
Phil Dreyer, Acting Chair,  
  Center for Educational Studies, CGU 
Jean Beckner, Special Collections,  
  Honnold Library 
Research Assistants: 
  Jay Collier 
  Amy Donnelly
 
 
Abstract: 

The purpose of this pilot project is to enrich the study of history among undergraduates in the Claremont Colleges and among first year graduate students at Claremont Graduate University through enhanced access to primary sources including printed and handwritten historical documents from the Special Collections Department of the Claremont Colleges Libraries and other repositories. The project will do this by developing an electronic database/website of such documents that will include full text, images, and bibliographic information--as well as tools to browse, search, and conduct analysis via the Internet. 

The project's central goals are to: 

    1. Afford students the opportunity to confront remnants of the past directly,
    2. To help them learn what kinds of questions can and should be directed toward primary documents, and, most importantly,
    3. To help students develop critical patterns of thought in using primary source materials and placing them in historical context.
The primary factor in judging the success of this type of project will be the faculty’s involvement in the development and use of this database/website. For this reason, the support staff will host a variety of workshops geared toward educating the faculty in the use of this digitized collection. The main focus of these sessions will be the incorporation of these digitized source materials into their 1998/99 course projects. 

One broader objective of the project will be to develop a course for history M.A. and Ph.D. students and for students in CGU’s Teacher Education Program that focuses on educating prospective teachers in techniques for preparing and using electronic documents in the classroom. 

Using Primary Source Materials to Change the Way We Teach: 

Our pilot project involves preparing a digital collection to enhance teaching history at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the Claremont consortium through historical documents made accessible on the Internet. If funded, the project will be exploratory in nature and admittedly experimental. Reviewers of this proposal educated as scientists are invited to envision the proposed project as the embryo of a virtual "laboratory" for hands-on experience in one branch of the humanities and social science. 

The project will start with selected history faculty from the Claremont Colleges who will identify documents (chiefly, to begin with, from the Claremont Colleges Libraries) related to courses the faculty are currently teaching. Material selected will then be scanned into electronic form as facsimile images. To enhance accessibility, participants in the project will transcribe each hand-written document into text, which, with the material already in printed form, will be encoded in Standard General Markup Language (SGML) to identify such features as names, terms, and concepts. In essence, encoding will provide the foundation for a type of electronic index to facilitate computerized searches. Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) will also be used in consultation with the instructors to establish links with related terms, documents, and Webster. 

The proposed project will enhance learning in part, simply through the availability of facsimile images. Such resources will enable students to interact with the documents in ways previously possible only among a relative handful of scholars. In some ways, the project will help "democratize" material that was once the preserve of an elite fraternity. In addition, students will have access to sources professional historians often use---census manuscripts in their original, untabulated form, for example---but that students do not commonly encounter. Professors participating in the project will be able to guide students through many of the questions that professionals in their fields address whenever confronted with primary material. Students will be able to look for patterns and inconsistencies, for instance. They will be able to clarify, refute, or bolster secondary accounts. Or, for example, they might be able to acquire personal insights about the documents' authors through analyses of handwriting, grammar, and sentence structure that would otherwise be unavailable through secondary resources alone. 

This proposal has been written with recognition that the emergence of the Internet has facilitated a proliferation of historical documents throughout cyberspace in electronic format. Behind it, however, is realization as well that two major related problems have also arisen with this digital revolution. To begin, handwritten documents scanned into electronic facsimile images for availability on the Internet have often been posted without typed transcriptions (to facilitate or make reading possible) and/or without accompanying apparatus like footnotes and bibliographies (to help users understand context). Second, only rarely have such documents been tagged with invisible electronic tags, thus effectively denying users rapid and thorough access to names, terms, and concepts mentioned within the material. Our project will attempt to avoid such pitfalls and promote our major objectives through reliance on an interdisciplinary team of experienced specialists recruited from throughout the Claremont Colleges. 

This proposal recognizes a need for expertise in library science, computer technology, documentary editing, and, to direct the ultimate use of the electronic documents, professional instructors at the college and university levels. Beyond this experimental pilot stage, ultimate plans also call for recruitment of seasoned educators from grade school through junior college for input on approaches for students under their care. 

Visualized Applications: 

Generalized Approaches: 

Women's History 

Suppose that an undergraduate instructor has put together an ambitious class in the history of women in America from colonial times to the present. Among primary documents selected for study are several significant segments of diaries--each about twenty pages long--from women who lived during the era of the American Revolution, the antebellum and Civil War years, and the turn of the twentieth century. Staff members have scanned the diary segments into electronic form, transcribed them, and inserted codes that, among other tasks, enable students to search each document for subjects that the instructors have identified. 

With this arrangement, students could compare handwriting, punctuation, and sentence structure, thus gaining insights into their subjects on a personal level that would otherwise be impossible. They could search electronically for repeated names and terms and draw inferences from context about significant people and events in the life of each writer. Similarly, they could search by subject and compare evolving attitudes toward such crucial lifetime experiences as family, work, and marriage. Comparisons could then be drawn between the experiences of these particular writers and the conclusions of secondary books also assigned for reading.

Colonial America  Suppose that another instructor has put together a general course in Colonial American history. Assigned readings include two lengthy letters between male participants in the First Great Awakening, a widespread and contentious revival during the 1740s that, according to some historians, helped establish the atmosphere for the American Revolution. Each recounts a different version of the same events, disputes the other's, and arrives at a unique conclusion. Handwriting, sentence structure, spelling, grammar, and haphazard organization betray limited education on both sides. 

Some students will no doubt groan in despair at the prospect of struggling with handwriting virtually illegible in places, but--as with the women's history course--they will become better acquainted with each writer after reading the electronic facsimiles. Encoded electronic transcriptions will enable the students to search for differing versions of the same events (which appear at different points in each document), compare those accounts and their interpretations, and assemble a chronology. Thus, students will be equipped with basic tools to wrestle with issues in relation to the trustworthiness of each author and the accuracy of each version.

The Nature of the American Union  In another hypothetical course--this one on the U.S. Constitution--suppose that the instructor wants students to consider the nature of the American Union. The major question at hand is the supremacy of the national government; specifically, how have attitudes among political leaders changed in the past toward the power of the federal government? A related issue asks what brought those changes about. 

Among readings for this course are selections of documents from the handwritten papers of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, a major states right advocate before the Civil War, and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who articulated the supremacy of the federal government during Reconstruction from the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

For samples of Chase material, the instructor chooses items from the Chase Papers collection at CGU, scans xerox copies of the originals, and has transcriptions made and encoded for names, terms, and subjects. The instructor processes Calhoun's documents similarly, but selects the South Carolinian's samples from an existing website in Washington, D.C., then links these to encoded transcriptions in Claremont. 

The results enable students to search the writings of both men by subject, compare and evaluate the results, and analyze the political thinking of these leaders as they evolved over time. Students would also be invited to evaluate the validity of each writer's position.

Specific Application described by Prof. Janet Farrell Brodie:  I anticipate putting a diverse array of documents into the digital collection created by this pilot project for use in two courses I will teach in 1998/99: for a Pitzer College undergraduate course titled "The Bomb in American Culture," which explores and analyzes the ways in which the atomic and hydrogen bombs affected American society and culture in the post-World War II/early Cold War eras, and in a graduate seminar on the environmental history of the American west in which we will look at the exploration of the west, reactions of different groups and individuals to the diverse ecologies of the west, and the cultural and policy impacts of Americans’ reactions to the west. In the course on the bomb students will explore popular cultural source materials to understand how Americans from different classes, regions, races and ethnic backgrounds grappled with the implications of nuclear weapons. Among these sources will be comic books, advertisements, popular fiction and articles from national media such as Life Magazine and Readers Digest. Undergraduates already have considerable familiarity with popular culture, but one principal purpose of the course will be to use materials I have put into the digital collection in order to teach students the methodology and analytical skills for deeper understanding of such sources. In addition, the Internet contains a vast number of materials about Cold War/nuclear issues that students can easily access but that they are not necessarily able to put into adequate historical context. A number of websites, for example, expose aspects of the radiation experimentation with human subjects that occurred under private and governmental auspices in the 1950s. In the course students will be engaged with these sites for analytical and intellectual purposes. 

In the graduate seminar on topics in the environmental history of the west I expect to have students analyze documents from a number of Honnold Special Collections including late 19th-century Southern California agricultural records from the McPherson Collection and manuscripts documenting women’s daily lives in nineteenth-century California from the Rude-Frankenfield Papers; in addition, I will bring documents from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Archive into the digital collection for student analysis. 

Finally, in both courses I expect to experiment for the first time with at least one web-based requirement. A student confronted with an assignment to design an interactive history on any issue, event, person, or problem is immediately confronted with complex methodological and historiographical issues: what to include, how to construct an explanatory framework or narrative, how to evaluate the sources. While the library of digital sources will teach students certain types of source analysis and the web-assignments will teach them research skills; the web-design requirements will begin to teach students to understand what it is to think like an historian, what it means actually to "construct" history. 

Although I have taught both courses before, this would be the first time I will have used digitized source materials or that I will have required engagement with the Internet in a course. Mellon funding, therefore, will have changed the way I organize and conceptualize both of these courses. 
 

Utilizing Available Resources: 

As this is a humanities project, the core faculty, support team, and students have access to the Humanities Electronic Media Laboratory and its director, Catherine Walker. This facility is located in CGU’s "Humanities House" at 740 North College Avenue. With the use of this facility, the project will have access to the latest software for multimedia and electronic editing, including Netscape Communicator, Director, Photoshop, Premiere, PowerPoint, and Author/Editor (SGML). This facility also has the latest in hardware technology, including five Pentium MMX computers running Windows 95. Resources at the facility also include a flatbed scanner, a digital camera, a film scanner, two video conferencing cameras, and video editing capabilities. We also plan to take advantage of any multimedia equipment available at the repository site, such as flatbed scanners. Through this proposal, the only additional equipment necessary is a portable drive that will be used to transport the scanned materials (from the repository locations) back to the Humanities Electronic Media Laboratory. 

Project Plan: 

During the next six months, the project team proposes to accomplish the following: 

1) Develop and implement a project plan for selecting and converting primary source materials from the Claremont Colleges Libraries and elsewhere into digitized formats that can be accessed via the Internet. This step would involve core faculty and advisors exploring potential material for inclusion, the selection of appropriate documents, a graduate research assistant scanning these items and developing electronic versions, and a team leader overseeing all work performed. 

2) Develop awareness of the potential for classroom use of electronic documents among core faculty. This step (overlapping with the first) would involve hands-on demonstrations in scanning techniques and web page development and critical evaluations of related literature and similar websites elsewhere. These sessions would take the form of workshops offered by the support staff. 

3) Develop and launch the project's website. The primary audience of this website will, of course, be the students who enroll in one of the core faculty's classes. However, users off campus will also be encouraged to explore it and offer comments potentially useful for subsequent refinement and elaboration. 

Part of a Bigger Plan: 

With this pilot project under way, participants intend to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities Focus Grant. Funding from such a grant would enable participants to build on lessons learned from their experiences at stage one. Present plans call for a conference at which students, historians, and librarians from the Claremont campus who participated in the pilot project would assemble with multimedia specialists, editors, educators, and other concerned constituents from throughout the nation. The goal of this conference would be to assess the potential for using historical documents to enrich the learning experience and to formulate additional innovative approaches. Participants would be encouraged to publish analyses of their own experiences as articles and/or possibly as a collection of essays. 

Subsequently, participants in this project also plan to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities Materials Development Grant. At this stage, all major elements of a larger campus initiative will be in place, allowing it to become an integral and evolving segment of the curriculum. We envision an enlarged database/website of significant historical documents prepared largely by graduate students, continuing contact with librarians, educators, and other allies on campus, and formal courses at the graduate level in document editing and teaching with historical documents.