Katie Odhner was an intern in the International and Area Studies Department in the Duke Libraries. She has a B.A. in Chinese Studies and History from the University of Pennsylvania. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a Master’s of Science in Library Science. The following post is written by her.
Over the course of this summer, I have been working with Luo Zhou, Duke’s Chinese Studies Librarian, and Will Shaw, our Digital Humanities Consultant, to create on a website showcasing the Memory Project digital collection, which went up on the Duke Digital Repository in July. Launched in 2010 by documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang, the ongoing project has collected hundreds of oral history interviews from elderly Chinese villagers. The initiative was originally intended to document individual stories of the Great Famine, which caused the death of 20 to 43 million people between 1958 and 1961. It has since expanded to cover other movements in the early history of the People’s Republic of China, including the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960, the Land Reform and the Collectivization of 1949-1953, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.
We had a number of reasons for wanting to create a website to feature this collection. Firstly, a website can provide additional context. Luo used TimelineJS, an interactive, open-source software to create a visual timeline of the period covered in the interviews. This allows users of the collection to examine the events and policies that underpin the personal experiences found in the oral histories.
Secondly, the website helps promote the collection. With more than 200 interviews, it can be difficult to find an entry point. We asked students and filmmakers who had worked on the collection to recommend one or two of their favorites. I created a tile lay-out on our WordPress page to feature these interviews, along with comments from the recommenders. One of my favorite parts of working on this project was looking through the featured interviews. They contain many tales of devastating tragedy and incredible courage that bring the bleak events in history books to vivid life. The website also provides a platform for advertising events about the project. Stay tuned for the visit of a number of the filmmakers in October!
Finally, the website provides new access points for the collection and a way of quantitatively visualizing the interviews via a map. The map was the most challenging element of the website to design. There is an abundance of mapping tools, both free and proprietary, so part of the difficulty was selecting the one that fit our needs best. Once this was accomplished, it took a great deal of time just to understand the capabilities of our chosen tool (ArcGIS Web Maps). Shout-out to Drew Keener and Mark Thomas, members of the library’s Data and Visualization Services Department who gave great GIS tips along the way. It was a fun design challenge to come up with a method that could allow the user to filter the interviews by topic, as well as link out to interviews for a given village in the Digital Repository.
- Decide on your priorities. I found that the tools I was using could not always achieve what I envisioned. Sometimes finding a solution was just around the corner, and sometimes it could mean getting sucked down the rabbit-hole for hours. Having an understanding of what is important in the long-run helps prevent wasted time.
- Consult with colleagues. The excellent members of the Digital Scholarship and Data Visualization Departments provided lots of good advice and saved me from wandering around in the aforementioned rabbit-hole on several occasions.
- Give yourself time to play around. I discovered some of the cooler mapping features just through experimenting with ArcGIS. Sometimes no amount of guide-reading can replace trying things out for yourself.
Working with digital tools was great, but the best part of the project for me was the opportunity to reflect on the aspects of the collection that are most valuable and how best to highlight them. The tools stand in service to providing alternative means of access to the collection, visualizing its scope, and bringing the human stories contained in it to a broader audience.