David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Mexican History (page 1 of 2)

Building Two Databases for My Dissertation…?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged outside of a class. As much as I admire the people who blog through their dissertations and have meant to do so, well… Good intentions and all that. I hope to blog my progress in the future, though, both as a way for me to explore and refine ideas, and, perhaps more importantly, to share the process for those who are currently undertaking or might undertake this type of work in the future.

For this first post, I’m delving into an area with which I’m struggling at the moment: Structuring and using data.


Data in my Dissertation

When the History Department at George Mason University accepted my prospectus in December 2016, my topic was the experiences of U.S. and Mexican travelers and migrants between each others’ countries from the start of Mexico’s Wars of Independence until the two nations went to war in 1846. I planned the work to be mostly qualitative, using a series of case studies of individual experiences to illuminate broader trends.

Although I’ve long had an interest in digital methods, I didn’t want to do digital work for the sake of doing so. I saw some uses for digital methods:

But I didn’t have concrete plans.

That said, one of the pieces with which I’ve long struggled in pondering my topic is how to integrate quantitative work with qualitative analysis, to explore what a dataset could yield that individual case studies could not.

As I began to research, I found a data source that could help, thanks to Harold Dana Sims’s The Expulsion of Mexico’s Spaniards, 1821-1836. In 1820, the United States began to require inbound vessels from foreign ports to submit passenger manifests. These manifests are available on microfilm at the U.S. National Archives nearby. Then, even better, I found that these manifests were also available via Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. For someone working full-time Monday through Friday, this was golden, especially following the tragic (but, given the federal budget situation, sadly understandable and unsurprising) decision of the National Archives to end Saturday hours in summer 2017.

A black-and-white ship manifest of the Schooner Sally Ann, which sailed to New Orleans from Rio Grande, Mexico, in October 1826. The manifest contains the names of five passengers.

Passenger manifest of the Sally Ann.

Each manifest contains:

Ship information:

  • Ship Name
  • Port of Departure
  • Port of Arrival
  • Date of Arrival

Passenger information:

  • First and last names
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Country to Which They Belong
  • Country in Which They Intend to Become Inhabitants

Why Ship Manifests?

What could a dataset based on these ship manifests add to this dissertation? For one thing, they could yield numbers of ships and passengers going between the United States and Mexico between 1820 and 1846.

Tracking those raw numbers could help me identify ebbs and flows in travel and trade, which I could then investigate to determine why. I could also see a more detailed picture of how traffic between individual ports ebbed and flowed over time, and, again, investigate why. I also quickly began to recognize some distinctive names in the records, yielding clues as to who might have business interests in which places and could make for a prime case study.

For example, a merchant or hatter (depending on which manifest) named John Baptiste Passement showed up frequently in voyages between New Orleans and various Mexican ports, most frequently Campeche, in the early 1820s. Conducting a further search of his name on Ancestry.com yielded a will listing creditors in Mexican cities.

I could also, on a more advanced level, even find social networks among travelers. Who traveled together multiple times? How were these people connected?

I could also see if demographic profiles changed over time.

What Format?

Since there seemed many possibilities of what I could do with this data, I created an Excel spreadsheet as a first step. Pretty quickly, the spreadsheet began to grow unwieldy. For one thing, I was entering a lot of repetitive information—for example, I put a new person on each line, but a lot of repetitive information about the ship voyage. I suspected I needed something more sophisticated. But after setting up a custom MySQL database in my Clio 3 class in 2012, I wasn’t ready to do that again. If the data is a mid-sized nail, an Excel spreadsheet is too small of a hammer, but a custom MySQL database is a sledgehammer. I needed something in-between.

A screenshot of a spreadsheet of data about ships coming into U.S. ports from Mexico in the early 1820s, showing a large number of repeated cells.

What my spreadsheet began to look like. Note the repeated cells.

Thankfully, as I was wrestling with this question, I attended THAT Camp DC 2017. At the spur of the moment, I suggested a session on dealing with historical data—hoping that my experiences could help others and that I could get some advice on what to do with this.

Thankfully, someone there—I don’t remember whom, as the person I suspect doesn’t think it was him—suggested Heurist. Heurist, as I learned, is a database platform created specifically for humanities research at the University of Sydney. It seemed that this would do the trick for me.

Indeed, it has.

Setting Up My Heurist Database

Amazingly, within 24 hours of me signing up for Heurist, I received an email from the project’s lead, Dr. Ian Johnson. I told him about what I was trying to do and shared my spreadsheet. He and I then exchanged emails and held a Skype call in which I sat on my balcony in Arlington, Virginia, he was in Paris, and we were pinging a server in Sydney. After some working to figure out how to structure the data, he came up with a scheme based on how the ship manifests are structured and what I might do with the data in the dissertation:

Chart showing structure of David McKenzie's Heurist database. The database includes five tables: Trip, Person, Voyage (of Ship), Ship, and Place.

The structure of my Heurist database.

After I used OpenRefine to clean up my spreadsheet, he imported the data for me as a way to test out the importing features.

I cannot say “thank you” enough to him for all that he did.

And Now the Fun Part…

Since getting the database set up in the late spring, I’ve been going in spurts inputting data. Sadly, although I inquired on Twitter whether Ancestry or FamilySearch have these manifests available for bulk download, it seems I’ll be inputting manually (which, given the state of the OCR of names in particular, might not be a bad thing). I input two types of voyages:

  • For those inbound from Mexican ports, I input data on the voyage itself, as well as on all passengers.
  • For those inbound from other ports but with Mexicans on board, I input data about the voyage and then only input data about the Mexicans on board.

I realize that this method would not allow me to answer the question of what percentage of inbound voyages to a particular port is from Mexico, but I’ve decided that the amount of time doing that additional data entry would not be worth any questions it could answer.

Screenshot of the Heurist database, showing David McKenzie's "Add Trip (of Person)" interface.

The interface of a Trip record.

My workflow starts with selecting “Add Trip (of person).”

The Trip is the basic unit of my database—each Person takes a Trip on a Voyage of a Ship.

If I’m starting on a new manifest, I create a new Voyage record (often involving creating a new Ship record, as well).

I then check the person’s name to see if the name already exists in the database. Often, this is a guessing game as to whether a person is the same or not. Are the birthdates listed similar? Does the person who might be the same have a record of traveling between the same ports? Is the name unique enough to lessen the possibility that the records are referring to different people?

After making that judgment, I then proceed, if it’s a new person, to copy over the information that I can glean from the manifest about that person. Finally, after the Person record is created, I input the rest of the data about that person on the trip.

I found a large number of Voyages—roughly 400—between Mexican ports and New Orleans just from 1820 to 1826. I started to question whether creating a comprehensive dataset would be worth the effort.

When I discussed this database project with faculty members and classmates at George Mason University’s Early Americas Workshop, opinion in the room was divided on that question.

I’m still debating, although I’m leaning toward plowing ahead in creating a comprehensive dataset to really be able to see and show change over time.

I’d love advice on this question!

Right now, with working full-time, I’ve taken the advice of others and given up on doing brain-intensive work on weeknights; instead, I’ll either read secondary literature or input data (often with a basketball game on in the background), while reserving primary source research and, eventually, writing for the weekends. It’s still taking quite a bit of time, though!

To take a break from the intensive data entry of ships coming into New Orleans, I’ve begun inputting ships coming into New York. So far, I’ve found many fewer (which, admittedly, creates the opposite problem—sorting through those manifests can be mind-numbing, although it does get me thinking about the differences in traffic).

What’s Next for the Manifests?

In the time since I started this database, my research focus has narrowed. My advisor, Joan C. Bristol, and I agreed that the original topic was too broad and ambitious. We agreed that I would instead focus on traffic going one way: U.S. migration into the interior of Mexico. This is because I found I was developing an argument about U.S. commercial expansion into the interior of Mexico being related but distinct from the migrations into border regions like Texas that eventually resulted in U.S. territorial expansion. Preliminarily, I suggest that this secondary migration laid the groundwork for the formation of an informal, as opposed to territorial, U.S. empire in Latin America (more on this in another post).

This has led me to question the value of ship manifest data for that topic. I still think being able to quantify shipping and movement will be valuable, as will being able to pinpoint comings and goings of U.S. and Mexican nationals. I could still see connections between U.S. and Mexican ports, and find more people who were U.S. nationals but resident in Mexico.

What are your thoughts on how this data could be valuable?

And Possibly Another Database…

Meanwhile, examining how U.S. migrants to the interior of Mexico laid the groundwork for a future informal, commercial empire brought me back to the database that I already began constructing over five years ago: Tracking U.S.-Americans who filed claims against the Mexican government.

When I set up the database, I mainly looked at what the extensive files of 1839 (15 boxes) and 1849 (30 boxes) claims commissions could tell us about the claims themselves: Who the claimants were, summaries of the cases, and amounts of claims. But I’ve since realized, thanks to rethinking the topic, that I might have been asking the wrong questions, and thus extracting the wrong data.

While many of these files have to do with incidents involving merchants who simply traveled to Mexico but did not stay, there are also many about U.S.-Americans who settled in Mexico’s interior. Many of these files contain information such as when they settled in Mexico, where, their occupations, and demographics.

As part of the narrowed focus, I’m realizing that this data could prove valuable in painting a portrait of the U.S.-American diaspora in Mexico’s interior during this era, and how that group of people changed over time. What patterns exist? Where did the U.S.-Americans who settled in Mexico come from? Where did they settle? When? With whom did they interact? This could allow for a good number of visualizations that can paint a broader picture, beyond qualitative exploration of individual experiences.

Looking for Advice

I would love advice on how to build and use this dataset.

Should I use the records of claimants as my main source, keeping an intentionally limited but self-selected data set?

Or should I cast a wider net, knowing that it would be nearly impossible to create a comprehensive set?

And furthermore, should I scrap the claims database that I already started to create, or simply change some of the categories?

Should I create a new Heurist database and import the previous custom database, or, knowing that some of the same people are likely to be passengers on vessels (indeed, I’ve found my central case study, John Baldwin, on at least two ship manifests), add them to the ship manifest database?

Lots of questions for going forward…

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.

And now, it is done…

At least for now. At least for the sake of Dr. Petrik’s gradebook. You can see my final assignment, “Santa Anna Goes to Washington.”

There is still more that I would like to do. In spite of Geoff and Sheri’s helpful advice, I never got around to learning how to make an image map. So, my map is not clickable, as was my original plan. I simply ran out of time with the content. Nonetheless, it is here for all to see.

Overall, I’m happy that I worked with Omeka, as it will help me to build upon this site in the future. Part of me wished that I had worked with regular HTML and CSS for the sake of the class assignment, as I would have needed to do less tinkering, but in the end, I was happy with the flexibility to add more pages and objects. As I continue on my overall project, I will continue to add objects and information. I’m also excited to learn more about using PHP in Clio 3 this fall.

But for now, I am going to sleep.

To all of my classmates and Dr. Petrik, thank you for a great semester. I have learned a lot, and have particularly enjoyed getting to know a dynamic, intelligent, and nice bunch of fellow historians and art historians. Thanks to everyone for your help this semester. I will look forward to continuing to learn from, and with, all of you.

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

What a difference a detail can make…

Right now I’m sitting by a microfilm machine at George Mason University’s Arlington campus library, looking at a microfilm–retrieved via interlibrary loan–of the journal of Calista Cralle Long. Long’s grandson published it in 1940, but it is hard to find–indeed, no Washington-area libraries, not even the Library of Congress, have it.

Long travelled with her husband and family from near Lynchburg, Virginia, to Union County, Kentucky, in late 1836 and early 1837. My reason for looking at her diary: On December 29, 1836, the party passed through Lexington, Kentucky. They stayed in the same place as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Juan Almonte, and three Texas Republic officials, who were traveling from toward Washington. Long described what happened:

We are now in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the handsomest places I was ever in. The surrounding country is highly cultivated and very neatly managed, the woodland enclosed and all the undergrowth cut down. This enclosure serves for stock. The grass, I am told, is nearly eighteen inches high on average.

Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town. We reached here about dark. The candles were burning on either side of the street and the reflection gave everything an added beauty.

There is a little confusion in town tonight on account of the heartless cruel Santa Anna’s arrival here. There is some little talk of a mob tonight. He has two gentlemen with him, his aide-de-camp and Major Somebody, I have forgotten his name. We are all lodged under the same roof. We took tea with the latter gentlemen at the same table.

The Mexican is a very genteel looking man, of low stature, dark hair and eyes, and rather sallow complexion. They are on their way to Washington, as they say, to see the President of the United States, (Jackson). I did not learn their business, neither did I see the General as he was ill and did not leave his room.

Santa Anna kept his room closely and very much wrapped and muffled up to prevent the effect of the keen air. His aide says he longs very much for his lost Paradise, Mexico.

Image of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Likely Long took tea with Juan Almonte, a Mexican army colonel who served as Santa Anna's translator during the journey to Washington.

I found this diary through serendipity when searching on ArchiveGrid for references to Santa Anna a while back. In the libraries that hold the published version of this diary, most catalog entries for this diary (at least not the ones I have seen) do not mention Santa Anna.

However, the catalog, uploaded to ArchiveGrid, from Madisonville Community College in Kentucky does. I haven’t seen this diary cited anywhere in accounts of Santa Anna’s voyage to Washington, and might not have known of its relevance otherwise. This diary entry will be a great source for my upcoming class project site about Santa Anna’s trip to Washington, and will eventually roll into my dissertation.

So to whoever that cataloger was, I say, thank you for adding that little detail! You never know what may help a future researcher.

Playing with Photoshop

For this week, we are moving from setting up pages on the Web to the nitty-gritty of Photoshop. As I read through the book, the articles and watched the video, I started playing with my own images. All of the books for class thus far have been helpful, but Non-Designers Photoshop Book has been the most so thus far. Its short lessons allowed me to really get immersed.

There used to be a power cord, rather visible, in the lower right corner. Now there's not. Happy, dear?

For this lesson I particularly liked using my own images (especially since I have not yet upgraded my Lynda.com membership to get the exercise files, although I’m considering following Claire’s and Geoff’s advice to do so). Some of the exercises produced rather funny results. I removed wrinkles from a sketch of Antonio López de Santa Anna drawn around the time of the U.S.-Mexican War, when he was in his 50s. I made my more recent self look like I did when I lost 30 pounds (long since regained, plus more) during my Peace Corps stint in El Salvador. Since my wife justifiably dislikes visible power cords, I removed one from a photo of our Christmas tree.

While all of these were fun, Photoshop of course has serious uses, even for us as historians. To practice colorizing, I used a sketch of Washington created in 1839. Indeed, I plan to use it for the colorization component of our image assignment in a few weeks. For my final project, this image will help the user visualize Washington when Santa Anna and Juan Almonte visited in 1837. The now sepia-toned sketch would do the trick just fine. But the color will add, well, a layer of color to that. Perhaps I could even juxtapose that image with contemporary images of, for example, Mexico City and Vera Cruz (Santa Anna’s base of operations, near his hacienda), and also cities and landscapes they passed in the United States. This would show the different visual worlds these men experienced. The ability to do this is, indeed, one of the powers of digital history–to help people connect with the past by seeing it. Colorizing the image will help with that visualization, that connection.

Beginning to add color to Washington. Emphasis on the term "beginning." Still a long way to go!

Sheri raises important ethical questions about manipulating images in our work–ones that behoove historians to consider. To what degree is it ethical to manipulate an image? How far can or should we go to being like Stalin, who purged his enemies from historical photos as he purged them from the earth?

I suppose my answer for that question would be, it depends (the ultimate historian’s cop-out). In large measure, my answers are colored by working on museum exhibitions, where we manipulate images in different ways all the time, and face similar issues. In an exhibition, an image can serve two purposes. It can be part of the design, or an artifact.

Exhibition developers and designers do a lot to images that are design elements. In fact, my first introduction to Photoshop came in an exhibition design class, where we cut Gene Autry out of a larger image, made him blue, and put him into an exhibition panel. This image, however, was a part of the design–just as one would be for the masthead of a website. So on the revised masthead of my type assignment (still a work in progress after last week’s discussion–you will notice, though, fewer ornaments!), for example, I include a cut-out image of Santa Anna and the aforementioned 1839 sketch of Washington. These images are decorations, so I had few qualms about manipulating them. Indeed, they need more manipulation, which they will receive as my Photoshop skills increase.

Santa Anna, with botox. Of course, I would not use this image as an "artifact" on my final site.

However, as artifacts, exhibition developers and designers and have to tread a much more careful line, along the lines of what Sheri insightfully raises. When we have an image, say, with a caption, we should present it as close to the original as possible. That’s not to say that things aren’t touched up; for example, one may remove the broken glass line from the famous last photo of Lincoln (although Sheri raises great points as to why this possibly should not be done), but would not, say, make him into a vampire or even a vampire-hunter (leave that for novelists and now filmmakers).

The same applies to the web. On my type page, I won’t replace the image of Santa Anna in the main text with the botox-ed version (as much as the image-conscious general would probably thank me). I may, however, enhance the image; that would reveal even more of its fine detail. This, to me, is akin to a museum placing different lighting on an artifact, or putting a zoomable 3-D image of it on a screen next to the artifact, allowing the user to experience it in a way he or she couldn’t otherwise (as the Library of Congress did in its Americas exhibition).

Just the same, when I present my colorized image of Washington, I will include a caption saying that I’ve colorized it, letting my user know that it’s a modified version of the original historical artifact (itself with a vein of fantasy about it, as many early images of Washington are).

Thus, I am quite excited to be learning all that Photoshop can do. It has the power not only to make images look better, but work better for researching and conveying history.

Addendum: This week I commented on Sheri’s and Claire’s blogs.

Addendum 2: If you haven’t watched through to the end of the lynda.com video, I strongly recommend you do so. The part about smart objects may save you hours in the end. So glad to know that part now… The other day, when I was updating my type page, I kept going back and forth between Photoshop and Dreamweaver whenever I wanted to make a change to the still-in-progress header image…


Fun with fonts and styles

As I’ve read the book and watched the video for this week’s assignment (scroll to February 13), I’ve been dividing my attention: I’ve succumbed to the temptation of continually modifying my portfolio site, based on the inspiration and new skills that the video and book have afforded me.

This shows one of the many ways that doing history on the web is different, and raises a question for students in digital history classes. For last week’s assignment I sent Dr. Petrik a link to my portfolio homepage. If this were a paper, I may have done as I have in other classes: when I came up with another idea, thinking, “I should have done that! Too bad it’s too late,” during the following week. But unlike with a paper, I’m actually doing something: modifying the CSS for the overall site–at this point, I’m using the same CSS for the start page and for each of the assignment pages. But I’m not sure if I should be doing that, or if I should just leave it as-was. For example, last semester, after our proof-of-concept assignment was due, I had ideas for things to add to it. But I held off until I was sure that Dr. Leon had graded it (granted, I wound up simply holding off, period. Eventually I’ll get back to it!).

So I suppose I’ll be asking Dr. Petrik a question on Monday (unless she is reading this before class and wants to comment :)): Should I leave the portfolio homepage as-was (i.e., separate the CSS for that page from that of the rest of the site), or is it okay to keep modifying the style as I modify the rest of my portfolio site?

Through this exercise, I’m learning just how great CSS is. I can modify the one file, and it’s reflected on all of the different pages of my site. Nice.

Meanwhile, as I moved through the font video, I also began to switch around the fonts in my CSS and think about the type assignment for next week. In searching for an appropriate font, I came upon one called “Texas Hero.” Curious, I checked out the backstory: the font designer’s mother was a volunteer at the University of Texas Center for American History (where I once conducted some research for what will likely be my final class project and eventually part of my dissertation). He designed fonts based on letters in CAH’s collections. As it turns out, he based the Texas Hero font on the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson Rusk–recipient of a letter I included in my final project last semester.

So, I had to have this font (yes, such things are the objects of this history nerd’s coveting). I downloaded it. Then I got to the part in the video about how not all fonts are licensed for web use. So I read the end-user license agreement. Just to be sure, I emailed the creator. He kindly emailed me right back (on a late Saturday afternoon, at that!) and clarified the agreement, which indeed does not allow me to use the font in the text of the site. This makes sense; if I uploaded the font to my server to use with the @font-face command, someone could easily download the font and not pay him for his hard work.

Therefore, although I may pay the extra fee for web use in the future, for now I will just use the font in my header graphic (which the creator said was fine, as the font is not actually uploaded to the server). Indeed, in the end the header will probably look much better than it does with the convoluted way I centered my name on top of the map. Don’t ask me how I did that, as I’m not sure I could tell you!

I should add, the site where I bought Texas Hero has some other great fonts for historians. Check it out.

Presentation: “Familiar Strangers”

Here is my presentation for class on October 11.

Draft: Project #1

See the attachment. Fellow students and Sharon: I’ve left the criteria in for now–hence why the narrative extends beyond six pages. I plan to remove for the final. Will look forward to your comments!

NEH-ODH grant draft

Remembering the Alamo… Education Department

During an unexpected trip to San Antonio this past week, I made a couple of pilgrimages to visit my former colleagues at the Alamo. I began my public history career there–indeed, discovered public history–when I was hired as a history interpreter during the summer of 2000. I repeated that role after I graduated from Pitt in 2002, and again after I left Peace Corps in late 2003.

When I worked there, those of us wearing red vests (pictured) were stationed at different points in the shrine and Long Barrack, answering questions. We also gave twice-daily history talks.

I went for the Alamo’s monthly First Saturday event, a new addition since I left in 2004. First Saturday is only one of many new things the Alamo Education Department has introduced. While being stationed at the various locations and giving history talks is still the bread and butter–as it should be for a site that often gets above 10,000 visitors per day–the Alamo has begun other programs, including an audio tour (originally outsourced, now produced by the Education Department), a new exhibition in the Long Barrack Museum, a summer camp, and a battlefield tour.

All of these programs have involved a great deal of personal interaction at the actual site, helping visitors understand the seminal, and often misunderstood, battle. Indeed, that is one of the site’s strengths–that visitors can have in-depth conversations with knowledgeable interpreters, not only read text panels.

Another of the site’s strengths–what drives the other strengths–is the fact that the Curator/Historian, Richard Bruce Winders, heads the Education Department. Wait, a curator, leading an education department in a museum? Indeed. The education department is merged with the curatorial staff. Dr. Winders himself is often out in full gear at living history programs, leading teacher workshops, and interacting with the public. In fact, until I came to Washington to begin my Museum Studies M.A., I didn’t realize that education departments and curatorial departments were often separate–and sometimes not collaborative.

This versatility does not make Dr. Winders any less of a scholar. He has published four books–his dissertation book on the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War, books for general audiences about the leadup to the U.S.-Mexican War and about the Battle of the Alamo, and a kids’ book on David Crockett.

From my time working with Dr. Winders and the other education staff, I learned that being a top-notch interpreter does not preclude being a top-notch scholar, and vice-versa.

Long and short, the Alamo Education Department is doing a lot of phenomenal programs. Having spent a bit more time in the museum field, I keep on returning to lessons I learned during my time at the Alamo. I learned that you can, and should, communicate the latest scholarly understanding–the key is not “dumbing down,” but rather communicating well.

As the Texas General Land Office prepares to assume control of the Alamo, it would be well-advised to remember how much the Education Department does for public understanding of a major event in North American history–and how that department touches visitors at the state’s most-visited site.

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