Tag Archives: Collecting History

“Katrina ruined it all; Katrina ruined me”

How should history be written? And when we do write it, whose voices should we hear?

Two of my colleagues and friends, Roy Rosenzweig and Michael Mizell-Nelson, both now sadly deceased,  believed that we can only really understand the past if we listen to the voices of the too often faceless and nameless majority. It is, as Roy and Michael argued throughout their careers, the lived experiences of average people that often teach us the most important lessons of history.

And so, on this the 10th anniversary of the day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, I want to say something about a group, tossed by the storm, whose voices are almost never heard in the many accounts of Katrina and her aftermath: Katrina’s children.

In the fall of 2005, Roy, Michael, and a team of collaborators at the Center for History and New Media and the at the University of New Orleans, began a digital archiving project–the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank–with the simple goal of capturing as much of the digital record of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, all three of which battered the Gulf Coast that summer. Stories, pictures, recordings, and just about anything else they could get their hands on found their way into the memory bank. [A nice overview here]

Among the 25,000 digital objects in the archive, you can find more than 8,500 individual stories. Over the past month I’ve been reading back through those stories–stories that are still being written and deposited into our collection. Along the way I found myself gravitating to accounts written by those who whose childhood ended abruptly on August 28.

I can’t claim to have read them all–there are 8,500 stories after all. But I have spent a fair amount of time searching the story collections, slowly narrowing my results to stories about childhood, high school, teenage life, and other keywords identifying those who were children that summer. My colleague and one of the people who really made this project work,  Sheila Brennan, has done something similar in the ways that an advanced digital historian might, using topic modeling techniques to find patterns emerging across all the stories in the collection. [Read about Sheila’s results here.]

What did I learn about Katrina’s children by reading their accounts of the storm and its aftermath?

As you might expect, there were those who were not devastated by the storm. They had to evacuate. They lost some possessions. They missed some school. They came home. They rebuilt. They persevered. They went on with their lives. As one put it, “we were some of the lucky ones.”

But for so many of Katrina’s children, the stories of their lives after August 28 are of disaster, indignity, fear, loss, confusion, broken families, and the rootlessness that comes with the loss of home, possessions, and friends.

“I felt helpless. I felt numb the whole time.” [Full story]

“Katrina didn’t just take my house. She took my home, my childhood, and my mental state. The person I used to be was lost along with everything else.” [Full story]

My father “saw an elderly woman being beaten to death for a 6-pack of kiddie water.” [Full story]

“Not only did I lose my home but I lost my family. Katrina not only caused an uproar in the home but a divorce that should’ve never happened…Katrina caused pain and nights of constant cry. Katrina ruined it all; Katrina ruined me.” [Full story]

These are the voices of Katrina’s children–the ones whose lives were irrevocably changed by the storm. Were it not for the efforts of pioneering digital historians like Roy and Michael, and their many colleagues and collaborators who helped build the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, these voices would be lost to us. Of course, these stories represent a tiny, unrepresentative sample of Katrina’s children.

But for now, it’s what we have.

New Orleans 33 Years Ago

Today is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on the city of New Orleans. Of late there have been a lot of news stories about the city’s recovery, or lack of recovery, since those devastating weeks. Over the past several years here at the Center for History and New Media and through the efforts of many partners (especially at the University of New Orleans) we have been collecting the stories, images, audio files, and other digital records of what happened along the Gulf Coast five years ago tomorrow in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to New Orleans over the years — to visit family, for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, St. Patrick’s Day, and various conferences. But I think the best images I took were in June 1977 when I was there hanging out with my cousin Pat just after I graduated from high school.

In those days I was working hard at becoming a better photographer and I took many rolls of Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X film. I lost track of the negatives long ago, but after my parents died last year I found them in the boxes filled with all the negatives from their long careers as pretty serious amateur photographers.

I’ve finally gotten around to scanning selections from those images and posting them in Flickr (and in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank). As you think about what happened in New Orleans this week, take a moment to look back at the city 33 years ago when Category 5 hurricanes were just one of those things people across the city did their best to not think about.

I’m pleased to say that the HDMB now includes almost 1,400 personal narratives and almost 14,000 images related to the hurricane season of 2005.

Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5

Last year my colleague Sheila Brennan and I spent some time trying to make sense of the lessons we’d learned from several years of work on the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank–a project that Sheila did the vast majority of the heavy lifting on here at CHNM. The essay we wrote about our experiences is now online on CHNM’s Essays on History and New Media page.

From my perspective, the most valuable part of the essay is in the “lessons learned” section where we discuss some of the reasons why we think the project succeeded while simultaneously failing to live up to our (admittedly high) expectations. We learned a tremendous amount about how the interface influences both the number of contributions and the nature of those contributions, about building relationships with contributors, about driving traffic to the site, about auto-collecting content from various sites (blogs, Flickr.com, etc.), about the importance of partnerships with individuals and organizations with a vested interest in the subject of the project, and about how to more accurately forecast staffing needs for digital collecting projects.

I hope you will take a few minutes, read this relatively brief essay, and let us know what you think.

The New Media Conventions

More than any other national political convention before it (and presumably the upcoming Republican National Convention won’t be much different), the just completed Democratic National Convention was the first full on new media convention.

The speeches from the podium were broadcast live online with what seemed like some very powerful bandwidth, bloggers were everywhere, clips rained down on YouTube and other video sites, and no sooner had someone finished speaking than the news cycle kicked into gear on whatever it was they said. I had to laugh when, after watching former President Clinton speak via the webcast, I clicked over to Yahoo! and there was already a reaction story posted on their news site. The writer was clearly writing as Clinton was speaking and the site’s producers must have had their fingers poised over the “send” key, just waiting for him to say “Thank you” at the end.

I’m sure my colleagues in political science can tell you a lot about how all of this intermediation of politics is changing the political landscape. To be perfectly honest, I’m much more interested in the changes all of this media innovation is having on the collecting and dissemination of information about the process, largely for personal reasons.

Many, many years ago, my original career plan was to be a political journalist. During the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a summer program on political reporting at the Journalism School at Columbia University. The culminating event of that four week program was working as a reporter at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

I was assigned to be the convention correspondent for the LaCrosse Tribune, for which I wrote half a dozen or so front page stories on the convention and on the Wisconsin delegation.

Of course, since 1960 at least, American political conventions had been first and foremost television events, with the two national committees planning each day of the convention to coincide with prime time and making as sure as they could that what the viewers saw on the nightly network news was carefully scripted.

But the conventional newspaper still had a lot to do with shaping the stories coming out of the conventions. Those of us wearing out our shoes in and around Madison Square Garden that summer worked on deadlines that were a bit more forgiving than those faced by the tele-journalists. We could wait until 11:00 pm (in my case anyway) to file our stories, so we had a chance to really get it right. Even if we didn’t manage to, we had a better chance than they did. And we all knew that those working for the networks were all voracious newspaper readers and so the odds were good that something we wrote overnight would reappear as a question in tomorrow’s on-camera interview.

These days, the pressure to be able to hit “send” first is so great that the new deadline is five seconds ago, not before the press has to start running or before the 11:00 newscast. What does this immediacy do to the quality of reporting? What does it mean for the way the public interacts with that information? Does the first take become the take? These are all questions historians of politics will be asking themselves in the coming decades.

Ironically, it was my experiences in this summer program that convinced me that I didn’t want to become a serious political reporter. Why? I’ll admit that I loved everything about the reporting and the writing. Chasing the story and then writing it up was exciting and fulfilling. So why did I turn away from it all? My answer speaks volumes about why students should have internship opportunities regardless of major.

I met many of the most prominent and successful political journalists in the United States during my four weeks at Columbia and at the convention. When it was all over and I had a chance to reflect on my experiences I realized that almost to a man (and they were all men in 1980), they were overweight, unhealthy, divorced (some several times) and/or hardly knew their children. In what was, for me, an unusually mature moment at that age, I realized that I loved the work they did, but didn’t want the life they had. And so I did something else and now here I am.