Digital History — Spring 2010

January 20, 2010

Review: “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:59 am

One of the most interesting things about the first chapter of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s online Digital History textbook is the realization that the Internet has now been around long enough for it to have a legitimate history. As someone who has been wired since about 1995, the observations of change over time related in these initial chapters felt familiar, as did some of the early notable history sites mentioned. Although Kevin Roe’s “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” (c. 2000) is not one of the history sites that I remember from earlier days, it was a pleasure to explore it roughly a decade after its conception. There is much to admire about Roe’s work, including clear narration, compelling images from the past and present, and an obvious passion for the place, shared by many visitors to the guestbook. Indeed, after visiting “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” sometime early in the new millennium, digital history pioneer Edward Ayers left a comment full of praise for what he termed “an elegant site that uses the web in the way it should be used: to widen and deepen our sense of the world.”

Ten years later, the Brainerd website still “widens and deepens” the visitor’s awareness of the world, in addition to provoking thoughts about the relationship between memory, place, and built space. This is particularly true for amateur historians, antiquarians, and non-specialists curious about the history of the Great Plains and small-town life in the early twentieth century. More serious scholars will likely find this community study charming, but lacking in theoretical rigor and slight in argumentative stake. The oral histories that Roe collected do support his conclusion that “the memories of the Brainerdites I encountered patch the fragmented townscape together, keeping it alive in the face of both the elements and the forces of economic and demographic change,” but he declines to contextualize this idea within a larger historical framework or analysis of spatial memory.

Additionally, nearly all of the major secondary sources on which Roe relies were published in the late 1970s or early 1980s – the heyday of community studies. Engagement with more recent historical literature might have given the project greater analytical purchase; then again, it might have undermined the larger goal of accessibility. To some degree, extensive criticism of the website for its lack of theoretical sophistication becomes criticism of the author’s choice of project. Roe states clearly that the website is not designed to be a complete history of Brainerd and its surroundings, but rather an exploration of collective memory and individual attachment to places and spaces. As such, the guestbook represents a surprisingly solid contribution to the site’s social and intellectual project. As Cohen and Rosenzweig comment in Digital History, the Brainerd website “has become a virtual historical society for former residents and their relatives who have deposited a rich collection of memoirs in the site’s guestbook.” For this non-specialist audience, then, Roe offers historical background, anecdotes, and artifacts that stimulate and facilitate reminiscence and further inquiry by the user.

However, although the Brainerd site may use the web in the way it should be used, the site design definitely does not plumb the depths of the way that the Internet could be used. Part of this is simply how the interface of the Internet has evolved in the interim period: tools like Adobe Dreamweaver and other WYSIWYG web design applications are now far more available to the average user than they were a decade ago, making even amateur sites more polished and visually appealing than turn-of-the-millennium standards. A lack of technical skill may explain Roe’s decision to link his supplementary images to phrases in the text, creating a gallery that the user can browse in conjunction with the text or in one fell swoop. While this is a serviceable strategy and does not severely interfere with the user experience, this is not, in my opinion, one of the more productive uses of what Digital History deems “hypertextuality.” Not only would it have been just as effective to embed the images in the text so that the reader could easily observe the details to which Roe refers, it would have given variety to the somewhat-daunting ‘walls of text’ which greet the viewer in different sections. In conjunction with the rather-linear navigation format (featuring an introduction and a conclusion), the heavily text-based format of the website suggests a project that is less essentially “digital” in concept than some of the other websites we’ve explored.

Still, as mentioned previously, this is a project that benefits largely from its interactive elements. Despite being pre-“Web 2.0,” the ability for visitors to collaborate in the project of remembering Brainerd and other small Great Plains towns is the most inherently digital aspect of this project. I would be excited to see how Kevin Roe might adapt  the website if he revisited the project (or the town) ten or fifteen years later. There are some new technological options available that might further enhance the viewing experience – particularly the ability to embed streaming video and sound, which would be useful not only for the oral history aspect of Roe’s project, but for the landscape and built space aspects as well.  (In the absence of further updates, I invite you all to at least check out Brainerd on Google Maps’ street view!)

Ultimately, while its intellectual aspirations are modest and its technical specs are showing their age, “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” is an important project for digital historians. Not only does it speak to the history and challenges of the digital medium, but at one time it was a notable convergence point of both professional scholars and amateur enthusiasts. While Ayers did not mention bridging the gap between the academics and hobbyists as one of the things that the Web “should” do, accessibility remains one of the distinctive features of the digital medium, and one that this project showcases admirably.

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