Arguments and Digital/Public History

The issue of credit for digital and public projects is a key and not-at-all clear one within the academy. I have long claimed that public and digital historians generally have to do double duty. We are expected to develop exhibits, web sites, and other public-facing forms of communication to engage the public and train our students. This is while still meeting the same standards for peer-reviewed scholarly publication — a book with a university press and some articles for tenure, and another book for promotion.

There are a handful of dissenters of this assessment. Mark Souther, co-creator of Cleveland Historical, disagreed in the course of a UHA roundtable on digital urban history, pointing out that selective, thoughtful strategy could allow faculty to create digital/public products and scholarly products from the same base of research material. This is true — in some cases, publishing about public engagement experience can help cover both bases, as Andrew Hurley did, for example, writing about a St. Louis neighborhood in his book Beyond Preservation. The NCPH History @ Work blog is a great resource for these kinds of debates and discussion.

But I think most public/digital history faculty generally agree that they are expected to do more. My basic reading of this is because the nature of public projects is not well understood by non-public/digital history faculty. There is a clear understanding of what a scholarly publication looks like: a work of original scholarship based on primary source research, peer-reviewed in a recognized journal within the author’s subfield or sometimes a broader, discipline-wide journal. However, the expected primary source basis for a public or digital history product and how to convey primary research is not clear. There is no consensus format for citing primary source research in an exhibit, for example. Even if there were, it would normally be inappropriate or unnecessary for a public audience. The materials we point to are often secondary sources because they are intellectually and physically far more accessible to the public/non-specialist audience than a primary source collection. This inherently obscures the original research that goes into an effort like an exhibit. The wide variety of formats (like the wide varieties of sensory perception we have and media types to engage them) also throws things into confusion for evaluation and credit. How to “read” a museum exhibit? Or a web site? Or a data visualization? Is there an introduction, body and conclusion? Is there even a narrative structure?

I don’t blame non-public historians for not getting it all. It takes special training to work with all of these — the training that public/digital historians undertake. BUT it is an expectation we must have and we must impose on non-public/digital faculty — these are the people who create the positions and hire public/digital historians to their faculty in the first place. We must not hire the faculty without developing the appropriate competencies and processes for judging them.

Another way that faculty should think about the work of public and digital historians is in terms of arguments. This is a recognizable concept for academics. Historians are making arguments all the time. We are evaluating arguments, agreeing and disagreeing and revering the quality or novelty of arguments. However, because of the limited audience for scholarly publications, we are not winning arguments. Most scholarly arguments have little impact on society because few people read them and those only specialists. This is an awful failure of the academy. Our ideas deserve greater place in civic debate.

The original historical research on the HOLC redlining maps, for example, was by Ken Jackson in a Journal of Urban History article and a Bancroft-award winning book, Crabgrass Frontier. It had some public impact, especially through other public-oriented scholars and journalists. But Mapping Inequality will likely eventually surpass the impact of the book (even while it contributes to it) by making the wide variety of HOLC materials available directly to the scholarly and non-academic public alike enhanced by an accessible interface and contextualized by minimalist, updated interpretation written for the public. The project treads with Ken Jackson’s arguments but then cuts its own interpretive path.

Public and digital historians win arguments. They conduct research and communicate it in a museum or over the web or in person to shape public understanding of a topic. They take good arguments that suffer from jargon or otherwise mediocre prose and synthesize and edit them in new ways to reach non-specialists. They build on existing arguments and find new primary source material to explore or support the argument, and they rewrite it for the public. And the public pays attention to these arguments, in a way that they do not to scholarly publications. This is what stands equal with scholarly publication — the creation a work of historical interpretation and argumentation, based on original research, with impact on society. This more generalized or abstracted way of thinking about our work builds on the importance of arguments to put public and digital work on even footing with journal publication.

NB: For reference, this is informed by the 2010 OAH/NCPH white paper on engaged scholarship. It made the case that departments should value engaged scholarship, but did not make specific recommendations for how. I saw how it was a useful for opening a conversation about credit, but not one for closing with an agreement.

Making Mapping Inequality


Since we launched in October of 2016, Mapping Inequality has received a good deal of public recognition. National Geographic named it one of the top mapping projects of the year and Slate’s Rebecca Onion put it on the list of the year’s best digital history projects. Justin Madron recently wrote a summary of the project that gives a good overview of the data resources. I wanted to augment that with an account of helping pull this together as a faculty member, in order to give other historians a sense of the process and what a project of this scope entails.

It was somewhere early in graduate school when I first read about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in Ken Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. At the time, I was deep in coursework, barely starting on my graduate research and, while I was concerned about the practice and impact of redlining, it was not my first line of inquiry. Besides, I didn’t see this as a debate I could contribute much to. Jackson set the line of the debate that still dominates among historians, and Amy Hillier had just published her articles a year or two before, using GIS no less, which was totally beyond my grasp. Eventually I did develop some GIS skills with some intense summer work. It took me several years of thinking about the state of scholarship on HOLC and redlining, of developing a familiarity with the National Archives, and of getting a sense of big data possibilities before I began to think about a HOLC digital project. In fact, it was a set of trips to NARA and NARA II that was really eye-opening — how much material there was there and how increasingly friendly the institution was to digitization.
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Caldwell Walk — The Walk

Two colleagues agreed to walk the first half: Grace Hemmingson, a grad student, and Peter Schmitthenner, a faculty member (in both History and Religion and Culture). Another grad student, Katie Brown, wanted to walk but had a conflict, so agreed to do the last 5 miles of the walk. Mindy Quigley, a friend and the wife of a colleague, agreed to jump in for a couple miles in the second half. One more colleague, Danna Agmon, made me a period lunch based on a passage from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book — a sausage roll, a butter sandwich, apple turnovers, cookies, and apples.

Peter, Grace, and I arrived at the Cassel Coliseum parking lot to get onto the buses out to the Caldwell homestead in Craig County, which still exists. We left about 8am and I sat on the bus and talked with Mike Weaver, deputy commandant for the corps, who is a Tech alumnus and came back to VT after a life in the military and a Masters in Divinity from Duke.

Cassel buses

Caldwells had been living in the area for about a hundred years when Addison made his walk — descendants still live there now. We stopped in front of Mt. Carmel church, which was all closed up, got off the buses, and followed the cadets as they formed into two lines, one on either side of the rural road — 624. Peter knew the parts of the route — as a hiker and cyclist, he has been over all of these trails and roads many times. The weather was cool but clear and sunny. The cadets were loose and relaxed, joking with each other along the way. Their lives were going to get much better because the Fall Caldwell March marks the close of the Red Phase for freshmen, one of strict control of their lives. Peter, Grace, and I chatted about our backgrounds and generally caught up, passing the time pleasantly. The route was gently rolling, without too many big ups and downs, surrounded by farmland, for the first 3 or 4 miles. We turned onto 626, then onto State Route 42/CR 629, then stopped for a break of about ten minutes at Bethel Church. I saw one or two cadets I knew in the course of things, Grace knew several cadets from her undergrad time at VT, and Peter knew many cadets from his classes.

After a downhill walk in single file along 42, we turned off onto a farm property and the cadets got their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, a mediocre but multi-course and portable meal), then we started the long trek up Sinking Creek Mountain. It was about a mile on the horizontal axis, but rose from 2400 to 3300 feet. The first 2/3 was grassy, so it was just a matter of walking slowly or taking a break after short segments. The moderate altitude and the steepness made everyone short of breath. About 2/3 of the way up or so we reached the edge of Jefferson National Forest and the trail turned to some loose dirt, which was hard to keep your footing on. I fell in with the first group going up, E20, who recited Jodies, military cadences, to keep their spirits up. We made it up to the top, and the Appalachian Trail followed the top of the Sinking Creek Mountain ridge. This was where everyone stopped for lunch, so we had about a half an hour to sit and eat. Peter and Grace came up with the last group — Grace had an especially heavy pack and Peter switched with her to even things out. It was cool and a little breezy, which was a nice contrast to the heavy sweating everyone did on the way up. This was about 9 or so miles in and I was feeling a little worn, but basically strong. I had a delicious lunch. The sausage roll, especially, was dynamite. The only thing missing was some coffee. (Next year remind me to swing by Idego with a Thermos in the morning.) In the month leading up, I had taken 2 ~10 mile walks with the same socks and shoes that I was using, so I was feeling pretty good. I didn’t sit down much, even on the breaks, so I didn’t stiffen up and I didn’t have any problems with blisters. One of my key worries, based on my marathon experience, was chafing, so I had made provisions by getting some body glide, an excellent and simple product.


There was some disagreement with the Jefferson National Forest where the Corps can get permission to walk in the forest with a large group, but not on the trails, on the thought that it would be too destructive to the trail. Thus, they have to blaze a new trail themselves each year. I don’t understand this and it seems like there must be something missing to the story. The takeaway is that once we started moving again, we had to veer off the trail and trek through brambles and what not, winding back and forth over spongy and rooty ground that was not very sure, and heading down at a fairly steep angle. Overall, not pleasant, and I was a little worried about rolling an ankle or slipping and banging a knee or something. I had several tiny slips, but there was one where I slipped on a steeply angled flat rock and landed on my butt, with my leg bent back. Fortunately, there were no weird forces or pressures — my weight went onto my butt, instead of onto my knee, and I didn’t hurt anything. This is a serious drawback to going with the Corps. This a nonsense solution and should not be tolerated. We got word that one cadet twisted her knee badly and limped down to the logging trail where a truck could pick her up, and was done for the day. I saw several slips and falls — fortunately, a Corps EMT was along for the trip — and there could have been much more serious injuries.

The roundabout route seemed to have put us about 45 minutes or an hour behind schedule. We had been planning to get to Caldwell Fields, on Craig Creek Rd., by about 2:30, when buses would take people back to campus. We got to Caldwell Fields about 3:00 or 3:10. Peter and Grace peeled off, we said our goodbyes, and I headed east on Craigs Creek Road for the second phase.


This route, being closer to Blacksburg, was more familiar to me and wast totally straightforward with the exception of scaling Brush Mountain. I walked solo for about an hour, texted supporters with updates when I had cell service, and listened to music. I was feeling tired but still good — no trouble spots on my body, I had drunk plenty of water throughout the day, and Craigs Creek Road was fairly deserted. It didn’t have much of a shoulder and cars were driving fast when they came through, but overall it was fine. The challenge was going to be Brush Mountain.

The Brush Mountain climb was just as high and nearly as long as Sinking Creek, but all wooded — tougher to get your bearings visually. I had found a spot to step into the woods on Google Maps that approximated the Corps’ route, so when I got there, at a crossing with Craigs Creek, I started heading south. The plan was to head due south up to the Brush Mountain ridge. I made the mistake of reading my surroundings and going a bit by feel, climbing to the top of a ridge. Once to the top, I saw a drop and another, higher ridge. These were steep, so I had to climb on all fours at times, and had to stop every three or four steps. I did this a couple times and got a bit discouraged. I could see the sun through the treetops and had a compass, but aimed roughly towards the sun to have a consistent navigation point, in the southwest at this time of about 4:30. After another ridge or two that then took me down to a little creek again, I was getting discouraged and worried. Down at the bottom of a ridge it was dark, and there were lots of fallen trees and things to twist your ankle upon. It was chilly in the shade, and I was lamenting not having a jacket (which was mostly unnecessary for the day’s hike), because what if I got lost and was out there after dark? I was cursing myself for not packing for a worst-case scenario — matches, a blanket, an extra phone battery. On one of the ridgetops I still heard a car on Craigs Creek Road and realized I had been moving too much to the west and not enough to the south. I pulled up the compass and map apps on my iPhone and, though the compass had precise position down to the second, the map app put me south of the VT airport. It did not inspire confidence. Worrying scenarios were playing out in my head. Should I press forward or head back to Craigs Creek Road? I scrutinized the topographic map again and concluded that I had been crossing a series of finger ridges that led down from the Brush Mountain ridge, and I needed to get to the top of a ridge and head due south on the ridge until I made it to the top. The way was brambly and I got quite a few scratches, some serious. There was evidence that a path had been lightly trod, but I couldn’t tell if this was by humans or animals. A due-south path made sense, but after 45 minutes in the woods I hadn’t seen another soul and was late to meet my fellow walkers. The good news was that I could see flecks of sky through the trees at the top of the ridge up ahead. It could very well be the top of Brush Mountain, or at least someplace where I could see the lower surrounding land.

I plodded on for another twenty or thirty minutes and finally came to a clearing. Just 30 feet away was a paved road. I stepped out and wondered weather it was Jefferson Forest Lane, my goal street, or if I had gotten totally turned around and was back on Craigs Creek Road. 50 meters on I saw a house and walked towards it. No one seemed to be there. A little farther on was an intersection with a street sign that was turned around. One of them was Jefferson! But which one? I looked down one road and saw buildings that had to be Blacksburg. I thought about walking down without confirming but decided on caution, not wanting to head in the wrong direction. I walked back towards the house, and saw a car come to the intersection. I flagged down the driver, asked which road was which, and where Preston Forest Rd. was. She told me, I walked a quarter of a mile on and found it, and was back on my way. I had felt tired and my legs were burning on the Brush Mountain ridges, but once I set foot on Preston Woods Drive, I knew I would make it. I reconnected with Mindy and Katie, who had arranged to wait a little bit and meet me later, but together, and after a half mile down Preston Woods Drive, Paul drove up with those two and Alice. Paul joked that the registrar’s office was closed so, unlike Caldwell, I would not be able to enroll in classes when I got to Virginia Tech. I had run out of water, so Mindy gave me some, and, in just a minute, we were happily chatting, three quarters of the whole walk done and the two hard parts in the rearview mirror.

We got to Mount Tabor Road, which was just about the only danger we faced on the whole walk. Traffic was light, but there was little to no shoulder, and of course no sidewalk, so in a couple of cases we had to really crowd against the edge of the road and hope a driver would be responsible as they came around a curve. I had brought bike lights, but it was still light enough that they wouldn’t show to drivers. After about 45 minutes or an hour, Paul and Alice pulled up to collect Mindy and gave me a Gatorade, which I downed quickly. I had a 3-liter bladder in my backpack and refilled it once during the hike, but I had anticipated one more water stop at Caldwell Fields that wasn’t there. Katie and I were about a half mile from North Main Street and started getting walking/biking paths, which tided us over until we reached the place where the sidewalk ends. The sun was setting, and that part of Main Street is bleak. We got to Patrick Henry and cut across to Giles, in order to pass my house and the Agmundzas, where Ernest was staying and ready to cheer us on. We got there with the last light, stopped and talked for about 10 minutes. I didn’t sit down because I was worried about stiffening up. When we were done catching up, Katie and I headed off into the darkness for the last half-mile to the Caldwell statue on the upper quad.

My feet were really sore and my left hip was hurting with each step, and a scratched leg was a little bloody, but I still had energy and a decent stride. It was fairly anticlimactic getting to the statue. No one was around, and since I had gotten back onto paved roads I knew I would finish, so it wasn’t too much of a relief. Katie and I took some photos with the statue, then headed off to The Cellar to meet up and debrief with Peter and Grace, which we had arranged earlier.



NOTE: My best calculations using web-based distance-measurers indicate 8.25 miles to the base of Sinking Creek Mtn, on the private farm land; 12.5 miles to Caldwell Field (possibly more based on the winding, bushwhacked path); 16.75 miles to the turn-in point for Brush Mountain; 18 miles to Jefferson Forest Rd.; and 24.5 miles to the Caldwell Statue.

Caldwell Walk — The Prelude

William Addison Caldwell

William Addison Caldwell

I first heard of Addison Caldwell’s walk when I took a Historical Methods class to the library for a tutorial on library resources. The online catalogue is named “Addison,” and the librarian made reference to the Caldwell legend. Caldwell is deemed Virginia Tech’s first student (way back when it was Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College). He lived in Craig County and is reputed to have walked to Blacksburg to register for classes. There is a statue of Caldwell in mid-stride in VT’s upper quad near Major Williams, the home of the history department.

This intrigued me, since I am always thinking about placemaking and what makes a community special. This founding legend, like Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon, seemed like a powerful story to tell about Virginia Tech’s service to rural Virginia, the powerful desire for education and the economic mobility it enabled, and the importance of overcoming difficulty, as Caldwell dropped out and later came back to complete his degree.

But the fundamental feature of this story to me was the walk. 26 miles (or however many we estimate it to be) was a challenging but manageable distance. I used to run marathons, so walking the same distance, even as a former runner, seemed achievable. A year ago I started looking into the possibility of this, and found some research on Caldwell, and started speculating about a route. When I found that Caldwell’s walk happened on October 1, I announced to my public history class of graduate students last fall that I was doing the walk in 2016. I learned that the Corps of Cadets does the walk in two segments as a freshman rite of passage, with the first half in the fall on the Saturday nearest October first.

One of my key concerns was finding a reasonable route that was not on highways like 460 and as little as possible over rough, untrammeled brambly forest. I wasn’t looking to kill myself, and I suspect Caldwell would have tried to take as easy a path as possible, over existing trails and dirt roads. Just as today we would drive on paved roads and highways now to get someplace far away, we wouldn’t even consider dirt roads or two-track (or going off-road) unless they were the only possible route.

A few weeks ago I got ahold of Lt. Col. Chuck Payne, deputy commandant of the Corps of Cadets, who organizes the Caldwell walk. He has the route that the cadets take each year and showed and explained the route to me. He invited me to come along with the cadets as an outreach effort, and I accepted — it seemed reasonable to see and undertake the route with the support of the Corps, at least for the first half.

The walk was on. I had about a month to get ready, including upping my walking game, and I announced my intentions to some friends and colleagues, inviting them to come along.

Writing to Re-Learn to Write

I’ve finished revising my book manuscript, Building the Ivory Tower. It was a long time in coming and, for the last several months, it was just revising. I had a copyeditor go over the whole thing, then read the whole manuscript aloud and made prose edits, then went over the footnotes with a research assistant, then did captions for images. It was all pretty much fixing and tweaking, no real creativity or new writing. Now that it is turned in, I am back in the archives, and looking at a more or less blank page or screen. How to build a new project up? I’ll have to remember — and I’m returning to my blog, which hasn’t seen an update in 2 years, to aid in that process. Stay tuned to this space.

Re-Time Shifting and the Single Parent

A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.

My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.

What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.

This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.



I’ve had the film and slides from Myanmar developed and am starting to scan them as time allows. As I hoped, the Mamiya worked like a charm. You can see what I mean above. Shot on Velvia, things just look great, and this is a fairly dark, shadowy shot. Around New Years we traveled to a beach spot on the Bay of Bengal to enjoy the really beautiful water, beach and weather. On our last night there, we got the kids a ride on the ox-drawn cart. Really a great trip within an overall great trip. I’m glad I got some of these kinds of shots to go along with the digital photos I took.


It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

It was one year ago that my wife took her last breath, soundlessly, as I changed for bed in her hospital room. There was no gasp or moan or soft closing of the eyes. Simply a silence that I did not notice until I finished changing and turned to gaze upon the love of my life and realized she had slipped from this world.

Marrying Kathryn Bosher was the most meaningful event of my life. Even the birth of our son flowed from the energy and drive and meaning that she gave to every moment of our time together. The contrast between life’s beginning and life’s beginning could not be more stark. After my son’s birth I remember so clearly the buzz of the delivery room and the nursery and the activity and support on the neonatal floor. I remember walking triumphantly from the Penn Hospital, strutting down Spruce Avenue at about 1am with visions of the future before me as I headed home. All was promise and congratulations. Sitting in the room with Kate’s body as the nurse came in and out, then the doctor, then the family, all was silence and all was past. I chose not to witness the indignity of being zipped into a body bag. Her spirit had left already.


Marrakech Street

I am exceedingly excited for two reasons. First, my son and I are getting ready to travel overseas. We’re visiting Myanmar, where my brother-in-law and his family live. Second, I bought ten rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 and have my Mamiya C220. I first bought this camera in early 2009 to take to Morocco for this same BIL’s wedding. The shutter blades were stuck so I disassembled it as well as I could and got them working again. It has been my favorite film camera ever since and it was worth the weight to bring it on this trip, which will probably be once-in-a-lifetime.

Marrakech Night

We’ll be staying a few weeks so I hope to get a decent sense of how the city of Yangon works and take plenty of photos.