The idea of being a virtual intern at the Smithsonian was something I found fascinating and looked forward to with much excitement. I love contributing to crowdsource projects such as Wikipedia because it makes me feel that I am part of something bigger than me. Whatever I can do to help advance knowledge, sign me up! It was in the same spirit I approached my internship at the Smithsonian. I knew it was a learning experience for me but what motivated me more than anything else was the fact that I was contributing to something bigger than I am, something that could have a great impact.
As a graduate student, I lived in Washington, DC for four years. I loved both the political and cultural dynamics but never saw myself living permanently there. I often looked forward to the summers when I could step away from this fast-paced city to the beautiful mountains of West Virginia or the rainforest villages of Africa. I never had a chance to experience some of the summer celebrations at the Smithsonian. In the summer of 2014, I attended my first Smithsonian Folklife Festival. That year, they were celebrating Kenya and China. It was so beautiful, and I realized how much I had missed all these years. I knew that a lot of work came together to create such a wonderful celebration each year. I was delighted to find out that my internship will be with the same institution that organizes this celebration.
My internship is a perfect fit for what my digital interests are. As part of my internship, we are working on an ESRI Story Map that tells the story of about 418 National Endowment for the Art’s National Heritage Fellows. These fellows are celebrated in this year’s Folklife Festival, and the story map will be unveiled as part of that celebration in June. Part of my assignment has been to research and write short bios of about 130 words or less and also find an important quotable quote from them. To do this, I needed to research articles on them, listen to some podcasts, watch YouTube videos, etc. I found out that writing short bios is more difficult than writing longer ones because you have to identify just the most important and relevant information and you write them in a way that the reader is drawn to find out more about the artist. As a historian, I enjoyed this kind of work because I felt like an investigator trying to find out relevant information that will help me construct my case/story. In the process of doing this, I learned about so many types of musical instruments I never knew existed, and I became familiar with different music genres and artistic forms.
The skills I have learned through this internship are relevant to my digital project, developmentschemes.com. Through this internship, I discovered that I have been using the wrong tools to execute this project. I am using Omeka and Curatescape for my project, and I have done a lot of customizations to try to get these digital tools to achieve my goals. I have done this without much success. I should have been using ESRI Story Map to do this project. My project tells the story of development schemes in Africa. There are so many development projects littered across the continent. Some have been successful, and many have been unsuccessful. I want to bring them together on a map so that people can easily locate these. I am also trying to crowdsource the information. I want people to be able to tell their stories of these schemes through audio and text.
The coursework leading to the internship was helpful in understanding the important of these digital tools not only in visualizing data but also as interactive educational resources. In writing these bios, I always had in the back of my mind the fact that people’s online attention span is limited. Anything can easily distract them and take away their attention. To keep the readers focused on the story map, my writing has to be engaging; it should be able to pull them in to continue interacting with the map. The coursework prepared me for this kind of work. Even in my project, instead of writing lengthy posts that people may abandon halfway, I am learning to write for the digital audience. This kind of writing can be hard for historians as we tend to write a lot. I feel like I am learning how to write all over again, this time for the digital audience. The coursework taught me to think differently also, to think of my digital audience. While we did not use ESRI Story Map in the coursework, the different tools we learned and the background information we studied prepared me properly for this internship.
Doing this internship has led me to a greater appreciation of the work of digital public humanities. My supervisor saw this work as important work. This was not her first time working on a project like this. In 2013, they worked on One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. She shared this project with me and showed plenty of support for my project which she believes is of great value. She even took steps to arrange a meeting with the ESRI team so that I could share my own project with them to see how they would support my project. It was a privilege to work with someone who is excited about digital public projects and saw great value in them. She saw them as important work through which many people would learn. I finish this internship even more excited to continue my project.
From someone who knew next to nothing about digital public humanities only a few years ago, I am proud to call myself now a digital scholar as digital scholarship has become an integral part of my research and teaching. I owe a great debt to George Mason University for introducing me to digital history and directing me to the relevant resources that have made me a better scholar and teacher.