Creating a Public History Website on a Shoestring Budget with Limited Tech Literacy: The Starkville Civil Rights Project
A Shaky Truce’: Starkville Civil Rights Struggles, 1960-1980 is a digital public history website that tells the story of American civil rights activism in Starkville and at Mississippi State University (MSU), the state’s land-grant institution, by using oral history interviews with community residents who remember how court imposed desegregation forced the town and university to confront its racial inequities. Built with accessibility for a diverse public audience in mind, the site uses photos, newspapers, correspondence, and materials from the MSU Libraries and narrators’ personal collections to contextualize the interviews, while an interactive timeline and maps set the site’s temporal and spatial contexts. In addition, the site includes lesson plans and a bibliography. Together, these materials narrate the history of a heretofore unknown local civil rights movement which, although characterized by little physical destruction, was replete with symbolic, psychological, and institutional violence.
Why you needed it
From its inception in a graduate public history course, this project had multiple goals and targeted multiple audiences. Historiographically, Mississippi’s civil rights history has focused heavily on the physically violent confrontations that took place in the Delta and at the University of Mississippi. Our project aimed to refocus that narrative by telling Starkville’s and MSU’s less confrontational but equally compelling story of activism and change through oral histories that our project team would conduct with local residents. Showcasing these video and audio interviews and making them accessible was thus a central need of our project. To supplement the interviews, we also wished to build a digital archive of supporting documents and visuals, particularly from MSU Libraries’ Special Collections. Civil rights history is a strength of MSU’s History Department and Libraries, yet when we began this project, there was no widely accessible collection of local civil rights materials beyond the shelves of Special Collections. Recognizing that few people outside Mississippi know much about Starkville or its history, we knew that we would also need to include demographic data, maps, and a timeline to help users locate the town and situate its history within the state and nation. Finally, because social justice concerns and the desire to create a “usable past” for our local community motivated everyone involved in the project, we wanted to include lesson plans for teachers and an extensive bibliography for researchers and students; these resources would propagate this story in our local community and beyond.
What you used
The Starkville Civil Rights Project lives in a WordPress environment on our institutional Linux-based server. To build our website, we investigated tools and resources that would suit our varied skillsets. Because all members of the project team would build pages and add content, we enhanced customization and ease of use for non-web developers by installing Elegant Themes’ Divi Builder, which is a flexible drag-and-drop theme with customizable layouts and reusable building blocks. To integrate the video and audio of the oral history interviews, we use YouTube and YouTube Editor in conjunction with the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) Application and Viewer. With the OHMS Application, we imported our interviews via their YouTube URLs, added Dublin Core metadata, and created time-coded indexes, which generated an XML file that we ingested into our server to build a URL for the OHMS Viewer. The OHMS Viewer serves as the end-user interface for individual interviews and allows users to watch or listen to specific segments of interviews while reading a partial transcript and summary. To juxtapose local stories against national and regional events, we made an interactive timeline with Knight Lab’s TimelineJS, which utilizes a Google Sheet template to generate JSON slides that can be embedded into a website as an iframe. To provide spatial context and additional access points to the interviews, we incorporated Google MyMaps. Finally, in terms of storage and facilitating collaboration, we utilized a combination of Google Drive and DropBox.
Why you chose it
We are a team of historians and librarians who have a spectrum of disciplinary perspectives, different styles of researching, varying levels of tech-literacy, and a slate of time commitments. Although these factors ultimately benefitted the project, they were a challenge to manage. We also had little institutional infrastructure or funding to support this project. When initially building the site, MSU had no DH center and no full-time DH specialist to help coordinate such projects, and the university’s central IT unit, whose servers we used, was not built to support non-Drupal environments, collaborative projects, or the large amount of storage space that our project required (at one point, they offered to sell us 1 TB of server space for $2,000 per year). Nor was the library’s institutional repository operational when we began. In addition, we had to rely heavily on our own time, expertise, and resources because, due to the sensitive nature of the topic and scope of our project in conjunction with the complicated history of Mississippi, it took time to build administrative buy-in. With these constraints in mind, we chose easy-to-use tools that were adaptable to our skill sets and cost little-to-nothing.
Once underway, a crucial part of the project was pulling together disparate collections and wide-ranging interviews into a narrative that made sense, so we also wanted tools that were optimal for telling a dynamic story that had a novice-friendly backend. The only member of our team who had extensive programming and DH experience was our webmaster; the rest of our team was less familiar with web development and presentation. We consulted other digital history websites for ideas on content and structure, some of which included Goin’ North (Omeka), Created Equal (Drupal), and One Person, One Vote (WordPress). Working under a tight deadline, accounting for learning curves, and considering the system’s flexibility, we opted for WordPress and Divi. Though Divi is not free, it was an affordable and worthwhile investment. We also selected a familiar FTP client, WinSCP, in tandem with our university’s server as a branding strategy, thereby keeping “.msstate.edu” as a part of our project’s URL.
With a content management system in place, we focused on finding a tool that would make the project’s growing collection of interviews digitally accessible, while also enabling user exploration and discovery. Because many of us were familiar with oral history methodologies, but lacked time to create full transcriptions (our original choice was Express Scribe and a transcription pedal), we chose the OHMS Application, as it has quickly become an industry standard with continued updates and community support. The OHMS Viewer offers a user-friendly platform, allowing discoverability through keyword and subject searches. TimelineJS let us place our local story in context with the national narrative so users can compare and contrast the local progression of civil rights equality with the rest of the nation’s. TimelineJS requires minimal knowledge of HTML, which, for us, created a more comfortable back-end environment and scaffolded learning for working with spreadsheets and structured data. To place our story in geographic context, we used Google’s MyMaps to input data into the familiar platform of Google Maps to link archival images and interview clips to local venues.
Our group relied on an open, collaborative environment that suited our learn-as-you-go process. With project management duties shared among three of us, spreadsheets and documentation in Google Drive and consistent team meetings kept everyone on task. While team members had individual strengths, the project came together because we learned from each other through a process of mutual experimentation and discovery. Team members took it upon themselves to learn by doing and then teach others. The core competencies that we gained from this process included writing for the web, creating pages and multimodal content in WordPress, reading and creating structured data, systematically conducting archival research, organizing a multitude of file formats, and managing a project as a group. Ultimately, these competencies align with the American Historical Association’s recommended “Career Diversity Five Skills,” which include communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. Even more than the infrastructure we created and our willingness to learn, the universal and local (and therefore personal) connections of the research for the Starkville Civil Rights Project provided the glue that held the project together. A sense of humor helped as well.
Our project demonstrates how much can be accomplished with lots of commitment, volunteer time, and mostly free and easy-to-use digital tools. Two small grants totalling $3000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded the purchase of digital video and audio equipment for oral history interviews. Another small grant totalling $2000 from the Mississippi Humanities Council funded publicity for the site (i.e. posters and postcards) and its launch at a community forum. Other costs of the project, including award opportunities for student research, department funds for summer research stipends, printing costs, and web hosting costs, were (and are currently) leveraged through existing institutional and departmental allocations for research and professional development.
Technical skills needed: basic HTML and CSS, basic photo and video editing
Competencies needed: archival research skills, basic knowledge of conducting oral history interviews, basic project management skills, ability to read and write structured data
Infrastructure needed: server space, website and content management system, audio/video recording equipment, audio/video and editing tools, storage space, collaborative meeting spaces
Resources: WordPress tutorial via Smashing Magazine, Divi WP Theme documentation, OHMS tutorial, Knight Lab’s TimelineJS documentation, Google MyMaps Help Center, YouTube Editor tutorial, HTML and CSS tutorials via W3Schools, WinSCP guide, American Historical Association, The Career Diversity Five Skills, and similar projects relying on Omeka (Goin’ North), Drupal (Created Equal), and Wordpress (One Person, One Vote).
1. How did your academic background, experience, and/or professional interests prepare you for this project, and projects like it generally?
[Judy] Prior experience in other collaborative research projects, including a community-based oral history project, helped a great deal, as did a growing interest in public history methods and practice. These experiences prepared me [us] to set goals, pay attention to details, keep an open mind, and to be flexible.
[Hillary] Students and faculty on our campus also expressed a need for better access to collections, programs, and materials regarding civil rights-both local and national. Though I had little experience with any DH methods or tools, my experience working with students and archival collections in this subject area prepared me most for this project.
[Nickoal] As a history librarian whose interests intersect with digital scholarship and scholarly communication, I felt prepared for and comfortable with thinking about our project from all points of the research and production lifecycle, such as facilitating conversations around research questions, methods and narratives, as well as scholarly impact. Most of all, the combination of my experience in history, digital humanities, and web development prepared me to serve as a translator between librarians, technologists, and historians.
2. If needed, what new things did you learn during the project (technical skills, managerial skills, team building, project management, etc.)? How did you approach learning them?
Our team as a whole built new technical expertise, while as facilitators, we three learned a mix of project management skills and the ability to scaffold teaching new concepts, from web development to archival research. Cognizant of our growth areas and technical weaknesses, we learned to adapt quickly and leverage help from campus and library technology experts.
We also learned that even with volunteers comprising our group, a lot can be accomplished through regular, in-person meetings, where we learn tools together and workshop ideas. This approach - collaborative experimentation - contributed to significant growth in intellectual self-confidence in researching a subject beyond some of our expertises, while building digital literacy for previously low-tech historians.
3. Thinking on the project as a whole, if you could distill your experience what key lessons would you share?
That you CAN do a project like this with relatively little technological experience. It takes time and requires patience, but with lots of tutorials, videos on YouTube, and help from your resident experts, you can learn many digital tools and apply them to various methods. You can also corral volunteers to participate in a complex, years-long project if the subject matter is local, relevant, and compelling.
4. Any final thoughts?
We all agree that this was one of the most rewarding projects we’ve worked on during our careers. Aside from the satisfaction of learning so many new digital history tools, techniques, and methods-ones that sometimes asked us to think about historical writing in a different way-we enjoyed working with a great project team and talking with the many local residents who shared their memories with us in their oral history interviews. The social justice aspects of our project were particularly motivating too, as we hope that our project will be used in schools to promote change.
“‘A Shaky Truce’: Starkville Civil Rights Struggles, 1960-1980” re-tells the story of American civil rights activism from the perspective of Starkville, Mississippi, using oral history interviews with residents who remember how court imposed desegregation forced the town confront its racial inequities. Photos, newspapers, correspondences, and materials from the Mississippi State University Libraries’ archives and interviewees’ personal collections contextualize the interviews.