Traces of Western Illinois’ Underground Railroad: Project Argument, Justifications, and Evaluation Methodology

This project argues that an underground railroad existed in Western Illinois (WIURR), and that understanding of it is enhanced by its interpretation through a multi-faceted, interactive digital history platform. The project’s different facets, or themed exhibits, allow for the project to show that the railroad had various forms of existence – the WIURR consisted of people and places involved at the time (roughly from the time of Illinois statehood in 1818 until the end of the Civil War in 1865). And the WIURR also consists of stories about it that have circulated in various forms since the Civil War – in tourist literature, folktales, material culture, and information produced by government public history sites and private heritage organizations. Some the stories are verifiable with primary sources, others are not. The project argues that an enhanced public understanding of the WIURR considers both kinds of stories important. In this way it seeks to illustrate a statement of the novelist Thomas King, “history is the stories we tell about the past” (13).

An important justification for the project is its potential as an online resource to reach a broader audience than the fairly small and homogenous community of people who rely on books and magazine or journal essays to learn about the WIURR. To be sure, there is a small literature of valuable, reliable sources on the topic (Turner, Muelder).But to appeal to the historical curiosity of younger, Gen-Z “digital natives,” and to attract users from minority groups particularly interested in community history and possibly less trusting than white groups of historical information in books, digital sources that communicate through social media are vital (Rosenzweig and Thelen, 28).

I decided that Omeka is the best platform for this project because it allows for display and curation of various digitized images of things related to the WIURR, and organization of them into thematic exhibits. I am able to offer accompanying commentary on the exhibits to clarify to users the messages I think the exhibits’ items convey, and the questions I suggest they ponder as a take-away. Omeka has several plug-ins that enhance its interactivity, including a map, and an audio uploading feature, which will enable, the site to contain short oral histories in its database.

After reading about the social media strategy of a great public history project, Histories of the National Mall, I decided to follow their example, and create a dedicated Facebook page and a dedicated Twitter feed related to the project (Brett and Legg). These social media offer ways to alert the virtual community, including armchair historians, teachers, students, scholars, and travelers to Western Illinois, about the project and to invite their feedback and contributions to it. Facebook offers a means for users to indicate they have stories or images possibly relevant to the project’s collections. I will also promote the project’s launch by emailing high school history and social studies teachers in the region, and encourage them to use the project as a resource.

There will be several ways to document the effectiveness of the project, at this point all in terms of quantifiable data. Its existence will be reported to regional public history sites and other online, underground railroad projects around the nation, which maintain websites, with a request that they include a link to it. If at least one website agree to link to this project, it will indicate a measure of success. Similar publicity will be sent to regional media with an invitation to report on its launch, content, and purposes. Two newspaper stories within the project’s first six months will indicate a measure of success. Given the project’s reliance on Facebook and Twitter to promote its launch and updates to its content, it will consider an average of ten “Likes” and ten “Comments” and/or “Shares” to reflect the Facebook community’s engagement with the project, and ten Twitter followers of WIURR tweets within six months of the project’s launch, as a measure of success. Finally, the development and operability of a user feedback function of the project within six months of this post will be considered a measure of success, regardless of any user feedback provided during that time.

Following suggestions for measuring a digital project’s impact on learning of Indiana University’s Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), three months after the project launches, I will circulate an electronic survey of high school teachers previously contacted, and ask for feedback about whether they have used the site for teaching, and ask for feedback on how the project could be enhanced as a teaching tool (IMLS).

Sources

Brett, Megan, and Jannelle Legg, “Social Media Strategy,” Building Histories of the National Mall: A Guide to Creating a Digital Public History Project, visited April 17, 2020 http://mallhistory.org/Guide/index.html.

IMLS, “Shaping Outcomes Course Module D: Evaluate,” [2010], visited April 17, 2020 http://www.shapingoutcomes.org/course/evaluate/d1.htm.

King, Thomas, Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, 2013.

Muelder, Owen, Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, 2012.

Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen, Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, 1998.

Turner, Glennette, Underground Railroad in Illinois, 2001.

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