Dan Talks Digital History II: My D.H. Semester Project

It’s been a fun semester. I’ve read articles about the origins and theories of digital history and visited website after website. Now it’s time to propose my contribution to the website our class is designing for Villanova Library. I must create as well as learn, so I enter the season of malfunctioning websites and late-night database trawling.

Our website will explore American narratives and representations of World War I. Our sources are the scrapbooks of nurse Alma Clark and soldiers Elner Smested and Frank Steed, housed at Villanova and Bryn Mawr College. I decided to study Alma’s English-language scrapbook for three reasons. First, I can’t read French, so I can’t study Alma’s French scrapbook. Second, my friend Heather Lucas made a website about Alma last year. Third, the recent film Testament of Youth made me interested in WWI nurses.

Yet Alma’s scrapbook redirected me from nurses’ experiences to soldiers’ experiences. Alma made thirteen charts recording her patients for posterity. Alma noted their names, ranks, hometowns, site of injury, and type of injury. I was shocked to see such a meticulous spreadsheet (to use an anachronistic term) in a scrapbook. I’d previously thought of scrapbooks only as collections of sentimental objects. Perhaps preserving the men in her care was a sentimental act on Alma’s part. But more than that, Alma showed a desire to record the specifics of her wartime service, not only the emotions she felt. A scrapbook can teach us about society and the military, as well as culture.

My project will visualize the soldiers’ journeys, showing where they came from, and where and when they were injured, before they reached Alma’s hospital.

I will transcribe the charts and acquire GPS coordinates for each hometown and site of injury. I may locate Alma’s hospital(s), but my focus is on the soldiers. Right now, I plan to make two separate maps with the GPS data. First, I’ll make a simple Google Map of the soldiers’ hometowns. Second, I’ll use Timemapper to create a timemap, an animation combining a timeline and a map to show the soldiers’ injuries in space and time. Ideally, I’d put all the information in a single timemap. However, the hometowns don’t have dates of departure, so I don’t know if the hometown markers can remain static while the animation changes the battle/injury markers change. If I have two separate maps, I’ll also have to make very clear which points on each map describe the same soldier.

Once the maps are finished, I will consider several spatial questions. Did these soldiers hail from a particular region, or were they geographically widespread? Were they from a small number of military squads, or from many? Which battles were they injured in? Perhaps I’ll also speculate why Alma preserved these particular names. Did she treat more patients than these recorded ones?

Ultimately, I want to show what an average soldier’s journey during WWI looked like. Instead of having an abstract notion of soldiers and battles, the viewer will trace the arc of the soldier’s journey from home to battlefield, and gain a sense of the distances involved.

Cover Photo: Map of Alma Clarke’s travels in France.
Source: http://bit.ly/1WBsWuF, http://clarke.rdigitalh.org/?author=1.

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