When I set out to start this digital project, I had a lot of goals and ideas on where I expected to find my progress by the semester’s end. One of the biggest things I learned is how much goes into creating a project and a website; even more when it is a digital project. I had the concept thought out, but had no idea how to accomplish it. Without web design knowledge or experience, my actual concept was not possible. The building of this site taught me how vital a good project team is. Everyone has their own specialized skill when you work as a team. I know, with the right team, my concept as explained in the grant proposal would not have been such a far reach. However, this prototype is a good start.
The Blueboys at War project was first conceptualized and designed during the fall semester of 2015 at George Mason University. The basis for this project is to build a website that holds a growing history of some of the soldiers and the culture during World War I. This is done using a collection of letters sent by soldiers housed at the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. The letters serve as the main content of the website. The secondary content is all research that will be submitted to the website, using either the letters provided or outside sources, as well as the individual profiles for each soldier who has a letter presented from the collection. The ability for researchers or World War I enthusiasts to contribute to the website is what allows the project to be a growing history. Over the last three months, a prototype for Blueboys at War has been created. With this paper I will discuss the process to get the project where it is today and what steps can be taken for the future.
Going in, the main goals of this project were to give researchers and World War I enthusiast quick access to the letters as a primary source and create a space where a history about the war through the perspective of the soldiers presented on the website could be presented and updated by the community; I am calling this a growing history. In order to reach these larger goals, I had two secondary goals of providing quality digital copies and accurate transcriptions. It cannot be said at the present time if the main goal of the website being a growing history has been achieved as that requires time and active visitor participation. However, the other three goals have been completed to meet the needs of the project where it stands today.
The letters found on Blueboys at War were digitized by myself in the fall of 2012 as an undergraduate at Illinois College. The digitization of the World War I Collection was my first assignment as an archival assistant for the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives, then known only as Illinois College Archives. Per instructions by my supervisor, all documents were carefully scanned into the computer and compiled into PDFs. My meticulous nature during this process benefitted me three years later when this project was first conceptualized and started. All of the documents were large files and easily readable. At the beginning of the project, I converted all of the PDFs into JPG form using the website pdf2jpg. This website allowed me to choose the quality of the output and for each document, an image at 300 dpi was chosen; this ensured that the documents did not lose any quality with the conversion. Preserving the quality was essential to the project. A high quality document allows for visitors to better examine the material, even without a provided transcription.
All of the documents are easy to read, but the availability of transcriptions for each document should not be overlooked. The letters are typescript copies, assumingly because the owners of the originals were not willing to part with them. The typescript makes the letters easy to read, even in documents when a letter is smudged or has something on it. However, I wanted visitors to be able easily read computer text if they preferred, especially for those individuals who use voice assistance tools for reading webpages. At the start of the project, I planned to use an OCR tool to quickly create transcriptions for every letter. I planned to use the Tesseract OCR tool since there are 117 letters contained in the collection ranging from 1-4 pages each. However, upon closer examination of the letters, I found that using an OCR tool was not in my or researchers’ best interests. In many letters, there are words censored from the letter represented as dashes. This censoring is information for researchers. In order to not risk the tool interpreting the dashes wrong, all presented letters were personally transcribed in individual text documents; making text mining possible for any interested parties.
The website for this project was designed using Omeka in the Berlin Theme. This theme was chosen because the color scheme was easy on the eyes and the navigation was at the top. It was important to me to have the navigation at the top of the page because I find that side navigation can sometimes look cluttered or get lost with the text on the page. The theme also appealed to me for this project because it has a blue on white color scheme. Not only is this easy to read, it is the colors of Illinois College.
While designing within Omeka, I decided to not use the built-in exhibit feature. For this project, I did not like the way it presented the documents. I wanted each letter to have an individual custom page that could link to other letters and soldier profiles. Additionally, I wanted to provide the transcription as a link instead of text already viewable on the page. I chose to create simple pages for every letter and manually attach them to profiles through links. Approaching the pages this way also allows me to include an overview of each letter, to be added at a later date beneath “topics.”
Manually linking throughout the site, instead of providing every page in the navigation, took away a lot of clutter and allowed me to get more creative. For the soldier profiles and links to sort letters by year, I created matching hyperlinked images. I decided to approach it this way because I perceived an image to catch the visitor’s attention more than hyperlinked text. For the time being, the individual letters are kept as hyperlinked text in order to clearly separate them from the option to sort by year. In the long-run, the content in the “topics” section of each letter will be displayed as hyperlinked text as well, allowing visitors to quickly find all letters that discuss a particular topic, such as Germany. Needing to do this manually is a large down-side to not using the exhibit feature of Omeka, but the project is visually better off this way.
There are three main content areas for Blueboys at War: letters, history, and profiles. The letters are the main content of the website. They are what I expect most, if not all, visitors to be accessing the site for; with the exception being those who are interested in contributing or viewing soldier profiles. All letters have been given their own page and basic information is provided: title, soldier, who the letter was written to, date on letter, link(s) to the pages, pdf copy of letter, transcript link, topics discussed or mentioned in letter. The title of each letter is the soldier of the letter along with a number, depending on how many letters that soldier has presented. The soldier’s name is hyperlinked to that soldier’s profile to make attaining more information easier on the visitor. The letter is provided in a JPG format. The transcript opens up as plain text in a separate page (fig 1). This requires someone to create their own documents if they wish to do any text mining; I would like to look into an option to download the text document in the future.
The topics section of each letter’s page currently lists places, people, and events mentioned in each letter. At a later date these will all be hyperlinked to have any letters with common topics connected and listed together once a key word is selected.
The history section of Blueboys at War offers information on training camps and the various forts mentioned in the letters either directly or indirectly (letter is addressed from a fort). I have chosen to include a history of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) as many of the letters come from soldiers still in training. The SATC was a government run program that used educational institutions in WWI to train soldiers while still allowing them to attend college. Not many people know about this program as it was very short lived. Since it is mentioned directly by some of the soldiers, it is an important topic to address as information about it is not easy to come by. The second section of history will provide brief information on all the forts mentioned in the letters. This will include forts that soldiers directly talk about as well as those that are only mentioned in the address line. This section will help visitors attain a better understanding of where the soldiers were writing from. This section is not yet completed, but once it is there will be a link to the forts page for each letter that has one mentioned. A history of the war has been excluded, assuming those visiting the website already have at least a basic knowledge of World War I.
The last content area for the website are the profile pages. This is the section of Blueboys at War that will be the growing history. For now, the information it will hold is the soldier’s name, any images of him, places he sent letters from (to indicate where he fought), links to all letters written by him contained on the website, a biography of his life and service, and lastly a list of contributors to that specific page. At the bottom of each profile page is information about contributing. Any persons who wish to contribute can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, an account created specifically for this project. Unfortunately, all of the profiles are currently empty except for a link to that soldier’s letter(s). This is due to my inability to access the Archives during this project. These pages rely heavily on community involvement from members of the Jacksonville area and any family members of the soldier(s) in order to get the profiles started.
This project was created with permission of the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives of Illinois College. As such, the Archives have been updated on the project and once it is complete and up to the visual standards of the College, it can be integrated as a digital edition of the Archives. Having this project incorporated and accepted by the Archives will allow for student workers to be assigned to add to the project’s growing history aspect and have it disseminated to their followers on Twitter or Facebook. This project was created with the intent to incorporate it into the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives making this process of dissemination best.