History Corps History: from WordPress to Omeka

by Professor Jacki Rand

The history of History Corps is a short one as the group has been in existence for less than a decade.  My affiliation with the project goes back three years when graduate students asked me to serve as the faculty advisor despite the fact that my public humanities credentials were quite early in their formation.  Nevertheless, I was happy to comply as it seemed like a great opportunity to push myself further into public history and digital history.

On a whim I agreed to teach the first ever graduate course in public history offered in the department, Graduate Readings in Public History, for the spring 2013 semester. While terrifying on some levels, the course was going well because of the students’ enthusiasm for a new project.

And indeed that course pushed me and the students. The “2008 Flood” project, on which thirteen history graduate students toiled, included an exhibit in an Iowa City business window, the collection of oral histories, and the production of a “photographic essay” for the new History Corps website. The “2008 Flood” Project came together at the same time as History Corps was making our first big transition from sharing space on the department’s site to our own WordPress site. That spring semester was our transitional moment.

The semester was a blur with students throwing themselves into primary research, identifying subjects for oral history collection, familiarizing themselves with the recording studio and field recording equipment, and learning about audio files, editing, and uploading.  We had thrown ourselves into the deep end of the pool in terms of project management, exhibit (online and window) design, technical skills, and collaboration among the students and with community and campus members.

In a semester, the students of History Corps, in no small part because of the grad seminar, had made a name for themselves and for the project at the University of Iowa. Immediately, the graduate student members  began to question the adequacy of WordPress and a too-long conversation about next steps ensued.  Ultimately, the students settled on moving the project to the Omeka platform with which no one in the group was familiar.

These were the early, unabashedly adventurous days of History Corps during which students in the group were happy to trust each other for running down information, consulting with new-found friends at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and collaborators at the University Library, and sharing everything openly without keeping score amongst themselves. A model of collaboration we still share today. Within a year the transition to Omeka happened. During this year, the graduate students mastered metadata standards, negotiated for archival and server space with the Library, migrated the WordPress site to the Omeka platform, worked endlessly on troubleshooting, and continued to produce content through individual projects.

Throughout this period, the students exhibited amazing levels of generosity, dedication to the project, attention to high standards, consideration of ethical questions, and care for each other.  This is the project that now exists as History Corps.

Jacki Rand (citizen, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Associate Professor of History, University of Iowa

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