HAPA: Joshua Schwartz on his digital exhibit on Columbia University and WWI

Joshua Schwartz weighs in on his experience producing a digital exhibit on campus life during the first world war – check out the site here

I am, in the end, very pleased with what I was able to come up with. I’m also pretty confident that I’m not likely to take on a project like this again – at least not alone. There’re probably upwards of ten or fifteen thousand words of copy on the site, a moderate length article’s worth of content. To produce that and to learn how to make a website – and then to design that website – well… let’s just say I was a little bit overambitious.

Browsing the site, you might notice that the “Over There” side remains under construction. Unfortunately, I was never able to get much out of my research assistant on this. It’s too bad, too. Some of the most intriguing documents were from Columbia alumni overseas, but unfortunately I never got to see them. I hope that some day, I’ll be able to go back and finish this section, but I just ran out of time.

What I think worked:

I think that the content online presents a fairly complete picture of life on Columbia’s campus from the eyes of its students. I would’ve liked to have presented more information about the faculty in their own words, and about conflict and second­ thoughts in the faculty, but I ran both up against some logistical walls and out of time. Still, there is good information about faculty activities, at least, on the Faculty at War page. The student side is compelling: readers can learn about the curriculum changes, including the famous War Issues class, and about Barnard’s Committee on Women’s WarWork, which seems to have mobilized progressive women’s networks for the war.

The section I’m most pleased with, though, is the Student Life page, which I think offers a good ground level view, and does a respectable, if imperfect, job of considering what happened to the gender and sexual dynamics among student (CC and Barnard) during the mobilization. It also has a really fun interactive map, where I was able to stash a small fraction of the numerous pictures that I couldn’t find room for on the rest of the site.

I should also say that I’m quite pleased with most of the design of the site, a few pages notwithstanding. Many academic sites seem either ugly or simplistic, the result of either a lack of experience thinking visually or the use of a bad looking but functional CMS (like Omeka). I deliberately chose something dramatically more complicated and time ­consuming to construct, and I think the result is well worth it.

I did this because I think that good design isn’t just flash on top of substance, for a project like this. Instead, I think it’s almost important as the material presented. It should keep readers intrigued, and make them want to explore: it should make them think that thought went into how information and objects were presented, and it should be aesthetically appealing. I think I succeeded on all of these counts.

Important as well is the old design adage about form and function. The appearance of this sort of site should probably match its theme: a simple black and white scheme seemed best to address a topic with some gravitas. Some photos are color, but most are not.

(It’s also worth mentioning that the site is responsive: it’ll reconfigure itself to look and function differently depending uponthe size of the viewer’s screen. Cellphone browsers, for example, will offer a more streamlined viewing experience).

What didn’t:

I found writing without a definite starting point to be challenging. In a book or article, of course, we start at the beginning and read to the end. But obviously a website doesn’t work like that. The About this Website page is the nearest thing that I have to an introduction, and I suspect that it’s the page that viewers navigate to the least. Why click on About, when you can click on Curriculum, or Pacifism? It’s manifestly less interesting.

As a result, it became difficult to conceive of just how much introduction or re­introduction was necessary per page. For example: The S.A.T.C. (Student Army Training Corps) shows up on multiple pages, but is introduced formally only on one, Student Service, where it is featured in particular. Should it have been reintroduced on other pages? I got conflicting advice about this from my test readers.

In general, as well, I thought that the prose wasn’t entirely successful. I was trying to emulate museum label copy, which admittedly is not the most thrilling to read. I’m not sure I was successful even at that, though. It was pretty clunky.

Another issue: the image quality – though this is not entirely my fault. Part of my budget was intended for photography services for large ­scale documents and images. It turns out that I wasn’t granted easy access to these: as I mentioned in the interim report, the posters I had wanted to include weren’t readily available. There were only a few other larger visual materials, and they didn’t really merit high-­res photography. What remained were smaller photographs from two boxes of the university archives, some of which were of stunning quality.

What I Learned:

A great deal! While I did not get to the poster that brought me to this project initially, it was a valuable experience nonetheless. I can now say pretty honestly that I can develop a drupal website from core. I also think that I’ve learned a good deal about how present information outside of a straight written format, even if I didn’t create all of the interactives that I was hoping to (an example: I have a student’s homework assignment from one of the S.A.T.C. classes. I was planning on turning it into an embedded quiz via google forms, but ran out of time, and didn’t have the correct answers anyway. 1910’s surveying pedagogy is a bit outside of my area of expertise.)

What Now?

We’ll see. I’m currently talking to Thai Jones about having the library publicize this somehow. I’d certainly like to have it get some press. It would be neat to organize an actual exhibit on this subject too!

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