Remembering Lincoln Update: Building the Website

Since we last posted an update in July about the progress of the Remembering Lincoln digital project, we’ve been busy—thus we haven’t posted another in a while! So, for the sake of other institutions interested in undertaking a similar digital public history project, and for those who like to be in the loop, here’s an update.

Grant Funding and the RFP Process

Our last post was about the process of creating a Product Definition Document, which formed essentially a checklist of functions for the upcoming Remembering Lincoln website. (If you want to know more, Max Van Balgooy of Engaging Places LLC elaborated further on the process and its applicability to other types of museum projects.) The Product Definition Document formed the basis of a Request for Proposals (RFP) that we sent out to a selection of web firms in July.

The RFP process had a quirk: We asked for proposals at two different budget levels. This was because we were waiting to find out if we had received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to support building the website; the grant we received in 2013 was just for the year-long project planning phase.

Sadly, in September we found out that we hadn’t received the second grant. This wasn’t completely a surprise, since we wrote the grant application in November 2013, two months into the planning phase. But due to the funding cycles, we felt we needed to apply then in order to have the website ready for the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination in April 2015.

This was a lesson we learned: If an institution is undertaking a project with a specific deadline, such as an anniversary, it’s important, if possible, to seek the entirety of the funding needed immediately. It’s tough to find funding for implementing a project when you’re still early in the planning phase.

Luckily we had a backup plan: Knowing that not receiving the grant was a distinct possibility, we found cost savings in the planning phase grant and set that money aside for web development. So when we found out the news about the second grant, IMLS granted us a one-year extension for the planning phase. We received several outstanding proposals, and in the end we chose to work with Interactive Mechanics, a web development firm in Philadelphia that has worked with several libraries and archives.

Currently we are in the design phase of the web development process and planning to launch the full website in March! If you want to be among the first to know when it launches, please sign up for our email list.

Choosing a Content Management System

The choice of a content management system is one of the most important decisions when building a website like Remembering Lincoln. The functions included in that system will greatly shape what both the end-user and the site’s creator can do. After much discussion with Interactive Mechanics, our team decided to use Drupal as the content management system for the website. Ford’s already uses Drupal for our main website (thus our staff is familiar with it), but we went with the system, especially, because of its customizability. This was essential because of the requirements of the Product Definition Document. Many libraries, archives and museums use other great digital asset management systems to display their collections online. These systems work very well for preservation and access.

As we went through the logic modeling, audience research and Product Definition Document development process, though, we realized our goals for this project go beyond preservation and access. We are looking to engage people in these primary sources. This was especially important because, in the long term, teachers and students will likely be the primary audience for Remembering Lincoln. As this presentation from the Minnesota Historical Society explains extremely well, teachers have specific needs for primary source collections.

This is not to say that specialized digital asset management systems don’t have features that lead to engagement with primary sources. But our Product Definition Document contained a good number of specifications that would require extensive customization of an existing system. Drupal, because of its extensive developer community, already has a number of modules that meet those specifications. This was especially important with building the website at the lower cost level.

Drupal also allows use of Dublin Core metadata for all of the items in the collection. Thus, it still functions as a digital asset management system but has the needed ability to customize for extensive engagement. In the end, Drupal was the best solution for adding audience engagement functions to an archival database.

When the web development process is complete, we’ll have documentation on the website of what modules we used, and are also more than happy to answer questions from others undertaking a similar project.

Casting a Wide Net

Meanwhile, we’ve been working on expanding the digital collection. In planning a digital public history project like this, one of the most important decisions is whether the project is meant to feature items from specific collections or to draw broadly from as many sources as possible. Our audience research confirmed that it’s important for Remembering Lincoln to contain a vast range of responses from different places and kinds of institutions. In our initial grant application, we referred to Remembering Lincoln as a project begun through working with specific partner institutions, but evolving to include “crowdsourcing.” “Crowdsourcing” is a sometimes provocative term with a lot of different definitions in the cultural heritage sector. For this project, we mean that the material would come not just from select collections, but from a broad range of contributors, including some individuals but mostly institutional repositories. To ensure that contributions are reliable, we are following the procedure of fellow historical organizations when they receive offers of collections material (whether physical or digital):  Seeking as much provenance (previous ownership) information as possible, examining the item against other examples from that period and conducting outside research as need be.

Thus, we have contacted private collectors, set up a web page for submissions from individuals and institutions, and conducted research in other online repositories and aggregators, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, ArchiveGrid and the Digital Public Library of America.

Presentations

Over the last months, we’ve shared our work on Remembering Lincoln at the American Association for State and Local History conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as the Digital Cultural Heritage DC Meetup group and the National Council for the Social Studies annual meeting in Boston, where we connected with teachers. You can listen to the AASLH session, presented with Jason Crabill of the Ohio History Connection, Catherine Keene Fields of the Litchfield Historical Society and Lorraine McConaghy of the Washington State Historical Society—I introduced the session and spoke about Remembering Lincoln at the end. And if you’d like to see our slides from either presentation, just email me at dmckenzie@fords.org.

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.