This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.

All I Really Want to Know

Witness above my state of mind halfway into the VSA Chicago Summer School. You know– just typical, casual vacation thoughts.

I set out for this highly-anticipated educational adventure on June 14th. A hellacious, weather-delayed 23 hour journey to Chicago allowed me, at the very least, to finally read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. In my sleepy delirium I may have taken too much from it, but I think it provided a nice amount of beautifully-written backstory for me to feel vaguely acquainted with a city that I’d never visited before. In it, Cronon argues that the intertwined nature of “city” and “country” are well-illustrated within Chicagoland history. One could not exist without the other, and it is therefore misleading to think of them as disparate entities.

Particularly resonant was the book’s structure recalling childhood journeys into the city; I can relate to that, and it got me thinking. Like Cronon, as a child, I had very distinct ideas about what defined a city: Fire-belching smokestacks, panhandlers, police sirens, unfamiliar smells, and huge buildings. Whenever I entered this space, seemingly so different from my suburban stomping-grounds, I found it sensorily overpowering and existentially confusing.

The very same things that I found overwhelming as a child now fascinate me. As I’ve mentioned before, I love cities. It doesn’t bother me that they’re fast-paced and smelly and loud: to me, they feel alive. Cities are made of thousands of moving parts, most important of which are the people.

Reflections of/on/for a city. Photo my own.

At this point in the Summer School, we hadn’t heard very much about the people that populated this city, made it grow at a magnificent rate, toiled and drank and dreamt and died here. Those stories are my favorite stories. To tie in with Cronon, lots of those people came from the “country,” which provided not only raw goods and resources like lumber and wheat, but skills, sweat, votes, and tax dollars. The resulting crowded jumbled mass of rich and poor made social inequality starkly visible, and unavoidably so.

So where does the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition fit into this dynamic? The Fair represented Chicago’s resurrection as a world-class city, literally risen from the ashes of The Great Fire of 1871 and its unfortunate cousin of 1874. Following the upheaval of the previous few decades, which included such devastating events as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair and trial of 1886, and a major typhoid epidemic in 1892, it was also supposed to symbolize the tripartite triumphs of science, “order,” and capitalism.

To this end, the Columbian Exposition was built as an engineering marvel. As we would later learn in a lecture by Dr. Diane Dillon of the Newberry Library, it was majestic and awe-inspiring and architecturally important. It was also illusory. The monumental buildings were constructed of plaster and hemp, not built to last. And following the deconstruction of the fairgrounds, dubbed “The White City”, the city’s repressed disorder reemerged in the form of the 1894 Pullman Strike. Famed architect Solon S. Beman designed several buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition as well as the town of Pullman. Only a few years later he would find himself designing George Pullman’s burial monument, wherein the polarizing industrialist was interred encased in concrete, secure from any desecration at the hands of labor activists or disgruntled employees.

George Pullman burial monument in Graceland Cemetery
George Pullman burial monument at Graceland Cemetery. Photo my own.

Because social discontent was so clearly lurking beneath the surface throughout 1893, how did that impact the experience of the Fair? How did people interact with these sham buildings, with the overtly nationalistic tones of the exhibits, and with each other?

I recently learned about Ellen RichardsRumford Kitchen, an exhibit in the Department of Hygiene and Sanitation at the Fair. There, at a highly popular functional restaurant, thousands of patrons were served “wholesome” meals alongside a great deal of erroneous nutritional information and, as Charlotte Biltekoff argues, presumptive ties between a given person’s food consumption and their moral fiber. This was a bold statement to make in a city where income inequality necessitated consumption of cheap chalk-adulterated milk and mystery meat from meatpacking plants so disgusting they would inspire the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act a few years later, in 1906. So how readily did people accept this message at the Fair? Could working people afford to attend at all? And so we return to my original question- where would those thousands of people relieve themselves, whether they gulped down Pabst Blue Ribbon or medicinal spring water? This inquiring mind wants to know.

I’m settling in at APS and enjoying the work and workplace atmosphere. My second week was much like the first, involving lots of digitization and image treatment of the aforementioned Franklin Post Office Book, but this time with the addition of Technical Difficulties- an unavoidable but still odious aspect of doing digital work.


I’d hoped to have the digitization phase of the project finished this week, but my progress was slowed by issues with hard drive storage space, diminishing image resolution quality, and fickle image treatment software. I found myself scanning portions of the book over and over again while troubleshooting and desperately pleading with the computer to function for at least an hour before requiring a reboot. I’m pretty sure it looked something like this:

In a panel at the James A. Barnes Graduate Student Conference this spring entitled “The Importance of Being Digital: How Can Graduate Students Help Build Digital Bridges?,” I advocated for digital humanities work in the undergraduate classroom as a way to acclimating students to ‘failing’ as part of the learning process. It’s extraordinarily rare to succeed on the first try of anything, but digital projects tend to highlight this facet in a sometimes obnoxiously prominent way. This week’s experience was a good reminder for me to be patient, take a deep breath, and try again when things just don’t work the way they “should.” I’m learning! It’s a process! What else can I do!

The other thing I’ve been working toward this week is the bibliographic essay that will be due for the in-class portion of this summer practicum. I’m really rather at a loss as to what topic I want to focus the assignment on. If this will eventually serve as a lit review or be incorporated into my thesis, I think I’ll need to focus on some aspect of digital humanities methodology. My supervisor at APS, Scott Ziegler, has been a lot of help in finding articles and talking this through, and I keep thinking back to the hack vs. yack debate after our discussions. I’m not completely sold on using it as a topic, because I’m not 100% on board with the ideas implicit in the debate to begin with. Do I really want it to figure into my thesis?


In other news, I was inordinately excited when a friend mentioned that she saw I’m listed on the APS website as one of the Digital Humanities Fellows. Huzzah!

I’m heading to Chicago for the Victorian Society in American Summer School, so I won’t be logging any new fellowship updates for a couple of weeks until I get back. I will likely have some reflections on the Summer School here.

I leave you with a lovely view of the Thomas Jefferson Garden at the APS Library, with the APS Museum in the background. I feel so lucky to spend the summer here.
This time from the other side of the fence!

The start of June marked my first work week as the first annual Martin L. Levitt Fellow at the American Philosophical Society Library. The fellowship is a joint venture between the American Philosophical Society Library and the Temple University History Department to honor Dr. Martin Levitt, an alumnus and faculty member of Temple’s graduate history program and longtime APS librarian. I’m honored and excited for the opportunity to work at this esteemed institution for the summer of 2017.

My project will focus primarily around creating open data from one of Ben Franklin’s sensibly named “Post Office Account Books.” Here’s the finding aid entry:
Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 9.50.52 PM

The first step has been to digitize the book, a surprisingly lovely and tidy volume written in manuscript. I will likely finish this task in the next week. It entails scanning the book in high resolution using an overhead book scanner, then performing light image editing on the resulting scans to make them as legible as possible. The leaves and binding of the ledger are in quite good condition, and Franklin used a non-acidic ink, so the scanning has gone smoothly without the need for conservation work or convoluted repositioning measures to hold the book open. I have done work like this before at the Maryland State Archives, but I hadn’t worked with materials so closely linked to American colonial history before now. It has led to some mildly interesting discoveries, like the doodles shown below.

There are best practices for scanning and editing procedures (image resolution, file formatting, file naming conventions, etc.), but as for now, I haven’t encountered much clash between public history theory and practice, so I don’t know if I can write about that as of yet. This phase of a digitization process almost always happens “in private”- and especially so because the volume in question is a monetarily and historically valuable one. I expect that as the project moves forward I will encounter some situations in which theory and practice interact more directly- perhaps in the transcription and data organizational phase, which is intended to suit the needs of the public that will eventually consume and use this data.

Hours for this week: 13
Total hours: 13

You may remember my digital project proposal! The semester is winding up and said project has reached its fruition, for better or worse. The glass-half-full takeaway from my digital project is that I learned a lot and gained experience working with an interesting and versatile digital tool, Gephi. On the other hand, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, I don’t think that the final product is a productive tool for investigating and revealing historical information.

I pulled my data set- the various connections (professional, personal, familial) between various social reformers from the early 20th century- from sources that I have been using to write a lead-up to my thesis on Progressive Era Philadelphia. Keeping track of all the people and organizations found in my research was somewhat confusing to me, and in order to visualize it, I wanted to use a digital tool: in this case, a network visualization.

Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 12.09.49 AM
 I went from this…
Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.53.27 PM.png
…to this.


The import of the data into Gephi worked beautifully, but I ran into some issues within the parameters of the program. The original goal was to incorporate into the visualization information about each link between entities, which would have made the project useful as a historical research tool. I could have also provided citations for my data there. However, when I tried to do this, I found that the formatting of that text is restricted in Gephi so that it appears like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.06.10 PM
Close up on some connections between entities; See “corresponds with, 1901” and “founds 1912”

Because the text can only be displayed on a horizontal axis, instead of appearing along the connection line, it is rendered useless. It’s generally not possible to tell which line the text applies to. I was not able to find a workaround for this problem.

As it is, the project looks pretty cool. It illustrates the numerous connections that were present between the major players of Progressive reform in Philadelphia. I was able to color code it to reflect entities that have the most connections, which underscores their relative importance or influence. I also figured out how to highlight each item’s connections when selected, like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 9.51.07 PM
In this screenshot, connections to the “College Settlement Association in Philadelphia” are highlighted while others fade into the background

For this reason, I could see this tool would potentially be really useful in exploring a very large dataset from one particular source. But with the mixed dataset that I’m using, and the necessity of annotating connections and providing citations, it does not make the data much more usable, either for the pubic or for researchers.

I anticipate that I might be able to surmount this difficulty if I implemented sigma.js, the javascript library that makes Gephi visualizations interactive within a web environment. Or, had I slightly more time, I think that I might instead employ tools for annotating images to make it more useful from a historical interpretation standpoint.

In some ways I feel like the theme of this semester has been me trying to make sense of my really confusing thesis research. I’ve made a map of settlement locations in Philadelphia, designed a project to map social networks between the million people and institutions involved in the settlement movement in Philadelphia, and for this crowdsourcing assignment, I decided to dive into the sparsely-populated corner of Wikipedia devoted to the American settlement movement. Not so useful from a public history point of view (at least at this juncture), but what are ya gonna do.

“The seeing eye does not invent the landscape.”
Vida Dutton Scudder

I came across this quotation by social reformer Vida Scudder that I think illustrates the complications of historical interpretation. Reality and truth are a matter of perspective, and what looks red to me might look orange to you. This is a problem that all historians face, but one that really comes to the fore in collaborative ventures like crowdsourcing and Wikipedia.

I’ve had some experience in editing Wikipedia before, and I contributed to the pilot departmental wiki project initiated by Gary Scales last semester. In the interest of actually contributing to and expanding the public conversation on this very niche topic in a way that I doubt my actual thesis will achieve, I decided to see what was missing from Wikipedia articles. The key to this was also that I could add the information using source material I already have and which is sitting at arm’s length in my living room.

So, yes, my thesis research has been confusing for several reasons:

  1. My topic is somewhat passe in the history field, so most of the scholarship dates from before the 1980s (and, alas! was only published in a bunch of out-of-print books)
  2. There are a million people involved in the American settlement movement, all of whom seem to have corresponded and worked with each other, making it sometimes confusing who was responsible for what and when it happened
  3. Most of the people I’m writing about were women, who left a whole bunch of primary source material behind but whom haven’t been featured in very much secondary research (see also reason #1)

Not surprisingly, these issues have also been challenging for the folks authoring and editing Wikipedia articles on the American settlement movement. There just isn’t very much there. Philadelphia’s settlement movement in particular has almost no presence on Wikipedia with the exception of a section of later eugenicist Katherine B. Davis’ biography page (yikes).

NPG 1746; Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent
Portrait of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent (1898), The National Portrait Gallery, London (used under CC)

The first decision I needed to make was what exactly I should add or edit, considering the sparsity of information currently available on Wikipedia. Most of the women reformers and the institutions I’m looking at do not have their own pages. Even powerful national organizations like the College Settlements Association exist only in brief references on other pages- so I decided to start there. Ultimately planning to create a College Settlements Association page, I edited information relating to its founders and establishment in the articles for Vida Scudder, Octavia Hill, and Denison House of Boston. I don’t have the time to create and fully source a brand new page right now, but now that I know the state of this topic on Wikipedia, I think that this will be an ongoing project.

The lack of secondary research is a serious problem in adding and editing Wikipedia articles for this topic. Because Wikipedia is a tertiary source, they strongly discourage the usage of original research in the creation of articles. I was able to add details like dates and names from some of the monographs I have. But for the most point what I have at this point on these people is original primary research- so it seems like to make Wikipedia happy, I’ll first need to publish my primary research findings in order to create a secondary source that I can then source in an article- but even then, it’s not ideal to base an article on just one secondary source! This is a real barrier to the dissemination of knowledge about less “popular” topics on Wikipedia, as we had previously discussed in class.

On a positive note, though, I was very excited to see that a user thanked me for some of my edits- An auspicious beginning to my Wikipedia experiment! I hope that adding my (sourced) perspective will contribute to a more colorful and nuanced rendering of the “landscape” of this subject online.