Feedback from potential users of a proposed digital history project on Western Illinois’ Underground Railroad

I’m thinking of a digital history projects that develops an open-access website that maps various kinds of evidence of the Western Illinois region’s underground railroad history and its possible ties to race relations in the region today. I have in mind something that people who live in the area as well as history explorers elsewhere could use and contribute to.

In preparation for the project, I interviewed a couple of individuals who, at least preliminarily, could be possible users of such a website. I developed interview questions after reading “Interviewing Humans,” chapter 5 of Just Enough Research (http://www.abookapart.com/products/just-enough-research), by Erika Hall. Here were the substantive interview questions:

-What, if any, history-related technology do you use? Websites? Podcasts? Blogs? TV or YouTube shows?
-How about your family members’ usage of history-related technology?
-What websites, history-related or otherwise, do you use that requires you to provide some information or invites feedback?
-What appeals to you about any of them?
-What do you know about the underground railroad in Illinois?
-What would you like to know?
-The underground railroad was controversial. Any idea why?
-If something you enjoy using in history-related technology were to share things about the underground railroad, what would that look or sound like?

Here are my observations about the prospective project, based on (limited) feedback of my two interviews:

There is some genuine interest in the underground railroad of Western Illinois, to which a website could appeal. The interviews show there are some history as well as myths commonly known, such as the railroad’s signaling quilts and songs. People know the names of a few historical figures involved in the underground railroad, including black conductors, white conductors, and the slaves themselves. But people also know that the underground railroad’s illegality and political controversy, even in Illinois, limits how much documentation there could be about its real history. Yet there is still curiosity about “statistics,” and about details of how the underground railroad “actually worked.”

Feedback suggests that a website could appeal to various kinds of users. Some would be individuals or families who may be visiting Western Illinois who are interested in its history. Users could also be people within or outside the region who are simply curious about the underground railroad. Other users, not anticipated in the original project idea, could be parents of children who are studying history, as well as teenagers themselves who are conducting school research.

Such a website could appeal that has visual images of people, places, and routes; “hard” data, i.e., text information showing specific names, dates, places, and some statistics; a “myth vs. fact” feature showing “how it really worked”; and a list of literary (historical and fictional), film, and multimedia sources about the railroad. It was not something that came up in the interviews, but a website should likely also have a space for users to contribute their own family stories and documents, as well as feedback on the site.

In addition to a website, there could also be an opportunity to develop a podcast program, which would enable people traveling (i.e., with more time to on their hands than in their normal day) either to or from Western Illinois to listen to information about the region’s underground railroad.  

The interviews did not ask specific questions about the possible relevance of the history of the underground railroad to our area’s social and especially race relations today, nor did interview questions ask about original project’s idea to tie a digital representation of the underground railroad to issues of human trafficking in our region. Absence of interest in those topics may be due to a shortcoming of the interview questions, the kinds of individuals interviewed (white, middle-class, middle-aged adults), or simply the illogic of trying to tie the historical topic with certain contemporary issues. Those aspects of the project idea may later be pursued, but perhaps not at its outset.

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