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2016 University News

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Goin’ North: Innovation in Digital History

WCU historians Charles Hardy III and Janneken Smucker are proof that history isn't all dusty books and faded photos. It's pixels, URLs, and bytes.

The American Historical Association (AHA) has recognized their prowess at synthesizing material into digital collections with the "Oscar" for historians: the 2016 Roy Rosenzweig Prize for innovative and freely available new media projects.

Both undergraduate and graduate students in a course Hardy and Smucker co-taught in fall 2014 and spring 2016 played a major role in researching and digitizing the records and ephemera that became the winning website Goin' North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. That continuity drew the praise of the AHA prize committee: "In integrating the work of successive cohorts of students, Goin' Northoffers a compelling model of how iterative project development can be made part of teaching."

The award is especially timely as 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the subject of the professors' website: the Great Migration, an influx of African Americans from the South into Philadelphia and other northern cities.

For the massive project, the students created a digital archive of more than 500 objects; edited the transcriptions of audio oral history interviews; and wrote brief biographies for those interviewed.

"These oral histories sat unused for 30 years," Hardy says of audio interviews he had conducted in the 1980s for an American public radio project. They represent the people who migrated to Philadelphia in the early 1900s as well as those African Americans who welcomed them.

The students created keywords, links and indexes using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) developed by a team led by Goin' North collaborator Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries. OHMS allowed the students to bring each personal story to life with newspaper articles from the Philadelphia Tribune's archive, plus images, websites, and links with GPS coordinates. The digital tools they used are all open access.

In addition, the students worked in teams to create six digital storytelling projects, including "The City of Opportunity," a walking tour of Black Philadelphia in the Roaring '20s with "then and now" images and text as well as vintage audio about 34 sites in Center City and South Philadelphia.

Hardy also teamed with Philadelphia filmmaker Louis Massiah, founder and executive director of Scribe Video Center, to co-direct The Great Migration: A City Transformed, a web-based digital storytelling and video documentary project that teamed African American artists with Black churches and community groups in Philadelphia and Chester.

In 2015, Goin' North netted the non-print oral history award from the Oral History Association and the C. Herbert Finch Online Publication Award from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives.

Four of the students in the first class who built the site also earned WCU Student Creativity and Research Awards recognizing their work.

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