Reflection identifies challenges for digital project

Developing a digital public history project that will tell the story of an immigrant group in a particular locale poses a number of challenges when time and physical distance separate the researcher and contributor from each other, as well as both of them from the subject of their shared inquiry — individuals who in many cases died decades ago.

In thinking about the next steps in developing the Latvian Baptists in America project, I have identified the initial primary audience as the descendants of those pre-Second World War immigrants who lived in West Philadelphia. As the project evolves, the primary audience will, too. However, for now collecting stories and artifacts has to be the focus.

I live in Minnesota and spend a certain amount of time each year in Latvia. West Philadelphia is somewhere in-between, but the descendants of the Latvian Baptist community no longer live there. Instead, they are dispersed — around Philadelphia, around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, around the United States. Corralling them all in one venue to learn their stories and gain access to the artifacts in their possession would be very difficult. What this means for the research is that a strong reliance on digital submissions may be the best solution for the project, at least at first. As the site is driven by the Omeka content management system, I will need to investigate how best to deploy certain plug-ins — such as Contribution or Guest User — without damaging the integrity of the project.

The plug-ins may serve to aid collection of artifacts, but will not help with oral history interviews. Given financial and time limitations, I may have to consider carefully who I interview in person and whose stories I collect in text form. This suggests that establishing some benchmarks would be of benefit, perhaps using a rubric of some sort to guide me and others who might work on the project in determining with which individuals it would be valuable to arrange face-to-face interviews.

Reflecting on this project also has made it clear that the sooner standards are established — for the quality of digital scans, the types of questions to be asked in interviews, the scope of the project, and so forth — the better. While I am eager to forge ahead with the research, it is more important at this stage to establish and document these parameters.