Lit 80, Fall 2013

The digital humanities project, “The Future of the Past” is a unique use of digital humanities methods. When scrutinized under the figurative lens of Shannon Mattern’s Criteria for Evaluating Multimodel Work, one can understand why it awarded “Best use of digital humanities project for fun” by the expert consortium administering the annual DH Awards: It is fun but it is perhaps not entirely effective. To simplify her criteria we made our own rubric to analyze it.

Screenshot of the Rubric we created to simplify the Mattern Criteria

Screenshot of the Rubric we created to simplify the Mattern Criteria

For readers unfamiliar with the project, a brief overview can be found on the website by clicking “the story…” on the right side of the homepage. This provides an overview of how the author, Tim Sherrat, turned 10,000 newspaper articles into a digital humanities project. His aim was to archive every Australian news article from the 19th and 20th centuries that contained the phrase “the future” and create a site to explore how the future was perceived in the past. Sherrat’s website includes evidence of research, links to his sources, and links to/from his site to reinforce his underlying thesis in a cohesive manner. That is, that throughout time the future has been discussed throughout the past in different contexts. On the website , a link can be found to the newspaper he used which demonstrates use of  citations and academic integrity – imperative components of Mattern’s ideal digital humanities model.

He extracted every word from his archive of collected articles containing the word ‘future’ and made a database. He then made an interactive word-based interface so that whenever  a reader accesses the site they find a compilation of words from the articles that act as hyperlinks.

Screenshot of the Homepage of the DHP

Screenshot of the Homepage of the DHP

It is through this organization that he was able to take the newspaper articles and recontextualize them into a format useful for his digital humanities project.  One particularly impressive aspect of Sherrat’s project was how much feedback he
received – and his constructive dialogue with users – throughout the developmental stages of his site . Clicking “The Story” allows the site’s viewers to follow Sherrat’s creative process. Additionally, he live tweeted his progress in real time, and people tweeted at him with questions about his project, which he appeared to happily reply to. These tweets act as a form of pseudo-peer review. A series of lectures explaining his project allowed additional public understanding. This would not necessarily be considered a form of collaboration, as he was and continues to develop this project on his own, but the public input serves a form of joint effort.

Exploration of the website, and use of the tools he provides make it easy to deduce that Sherrat has a very clear vision, and a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms behind his project. However, the format of the website is the project’s biggest downfall – the tool is simple enough to use (user friendly) because one  just  points and clicks, but there is no balance with something new other than the format of site. Despite the simplicity of the point and click if someone were to come to the page on their own it would be difficult for them to grasp what the site was attempting to achieve. Although it does not initially appear accessible, reading “the story…” provides some clarity. Additionally, if one came to the site to learn about how others viewed the past, it would only be a random acquisition of knowledge rather than a particular route. A direct search for a particular year, event, or phrase is not possible which makes it less useful then one would hope for. Perhaps we are not entirely grasping what he is trying to achieve which would make our critique a little unfair. If he is trying to achieve a database to allow for random knowledge acquisition (which is maybe suggested by winning the Fun category) then he effectively created such a database. From our perspective, however, it appears as if this is not the most conducive format for this project, because you cannot purposefully acquire knowledge.

Despite our inability to determine the exact purpose of the site we will proceed the rest of the way under the impression that it is made for random knowledge acquisition. Under these conditions it is appropriately formatted and effectively organized. The fact that each time you open the page a random subset a words appears, which will lead you on a different path each time, is an innovative way to create a site and to organize this information. But how well this page is linked together, its cohesiveness, is arguably the most difficult criteria to judge. If it is judged based on the understanding that it is supposed to be random then yes, the fact that it is a jumble of words that allows you to arbitrarily click on an appealing word and learn more is fantastic. Conversely, if a reader wants to acquire specific data then we would dispute how cohesive the page is.

Since Sherrat appears to demonstrate a mastery of the tool it is therefore adaptable. Mastery correlates with adaptability because a complete understanding of how the tool (the tool being the way he tied together all the words) suggest that changes could be made if the site needed to adapt. It is this adaptability that is one of the most exciting aspects of the project. If he were to come across more data he could expand upon the comprehensiveness of the database. Currently, the data is limited to a certain time and geographic range (Australia). However, if he were to collaborate with partners in various nations he could expand upon the database so that readers could learn “The Future of the Past” of more nations across a longer expanse of time. With such an extensive database, readers could compare not only “the future” across time, but across space. Another improvement we would suggest is a more comprehensive explanation of how to use the site because a better understanding allows for a more user friendly experience. Wouldn’t it be nice too to have different navigation interfaces if the world-link interface is not useful to you? If the back-end database is robust and adaptable, we should be able to feed that data into multiple interfaces allowing for very different web ‘faces’.

Based on Shannon Mattern’s Criteria, Sherrat created an approvable digital humanities project. It fulfills most of the requirements she presents, and its adaptability allows for it to potentially fulfill the rest. Overall, it is an impressive project that understandably won the award for “Best use of digital humanities project for fun.”


Co-Authors: Shane and Joy


Thank you to Amanda Gould for her assistance in reviewing our work

Author: Zhan Wu

Partner: Xin Zhang

Civil War Washington DH Project URL:

The following is a critique that will evaluate a DH project about various aspects of the Civil War in Washington. The critique will be using Shannon Christine Mattern’s “Evaluating Multimodal Work” [1] as a reference in establishing various evaluation standards.

To start off, one of the most evident things in this DH website project is the overall structure, which is visually very clear. The project utilizes “tiles” in its front page. Each tile is comprised of  a title and a short overall description about what the reader can expect when opening the tile URL. Every tile also contains a picture within it so that navigation around the website becomes visually easier. There are more choices that the reader can select when opening specific tiles on the front page. Opening the “Data” tile, for example, will guide the reader to different, more specific subsections, such as People, Places, Events, Organizations etc. Clicking in turn on one of the subsection links will lead the reader to even more concrete contents in the web page.

Washington Civil War DC Project

Tiles on the Front Page


Civil War Washington DC Project

Subsections of the “Data” Tile

The entire structure can be thought as a tree chart whereas one option engenders more options, which in turn give even more options and so on. This kind of structure is advantageous to scholars who intend to research on very specific facts about the Civil War in Washington without having to cram through unnecessary chunks of information. This also implies that the delivery system of the subject matter is very robust, meaning that the people making this project presented their information on the best possible platform-a website. A website enables random access to information, which is an advantage over media that use linear presentation of information, such as a paper.

Illustration of a Tree Chart.

Illustration of a Tree Chart.

The project uses tables, maps and pictures as its main media formats. Tables are generally utilized in the Data section and are there to list specific people, places and events related to the time. The use of tables in the DH project makes browsing through the information significantly easier. For instance, if the reader wanted to do research on the 3rd Division Hospital in DC during the Civil War, he/she would just need to go Data-Places, where there is a comprehensive list of important locations, and simply look up “3rd Division Hospital”. Search options are available and are a great add-on to the website if under any circumstances the desired content cannot be found by browsing visually through the lists and tables.

Maps are yet another media format and are a great feature on the website. There is a thorough description on how to use the map right under the Map section of the website. It sufficiently documents the specific functions of the menu bar and the search feature, and shows the reader how to navigate throughout the map (zooming in/out, changing layers, inserting more maps etc). There are symbols on the map that show various hospitals, churches, petition events and houses/apartments of renowned people at that time. One can also change map layers, which essentially gives the reader the option to either use a Washington map made during the Civil War or a contemporary DC map for the purpose of their research.

Part of the Visual Tutorial of the Map of in the Project.

Part of the Visual Tutorial of the Map of in the Project.

A downside of the project might be that the website only includes traditional media expression tools like tables and pictures, but fails to incorporate more contemporary media formats, such as videos, plots, or mathematical charts. Granted, the project encompasses an online map that can be manipulated to a vast extent (described above), but those “traditional scholarly gestures” (Mattern n.d.) still far outweigh modern media formats. Therefore, adding more of said media would greatly increase the value, gravity and reliability of the information presented.

The data in this DH project is very much contextualized. Every piece of data, when opened, is automatically related to another most relevant data piece. This is most evident in the Data section. If the reader searches for a specific person, he will immediately be informed about the places, organization and events related to that person. The most relevant information is often provided in URL links to give the reader the opportunity to do further research on that aspect. Clicking on the “Abbott Thomas” link in the People section, for instance, the reader will be furnished with the most relevant information such as gender (male), race (European American), occupation (clerk), status (independent free) as well as places (1st Division Hospital) and organizations (101st New York Infantry) related to Thomas. These interconnections of data reflect to a certain extent that the participants of the project made controlled and deliberate decisions of the technology (in this case the website and URLs) they were using and also tells us that the information presented is not fabricated but strongly related to the context of the Civil War.

Interconnection of People, Organizations and Places in the Project.

Interconnection of People, Organizations and Places in the Project.

Furthermore, the project itself has an “About” page and a FAQ section which document how the participants in this project created the website, how research into the subject matter was funded and what educational institutions were mainly contributing to the research and documentation of the data in the project. The web page creators have also paid meticulous attention to separating these kinds of information (About, FAQ, Participants etc.) from the actual research documentation (People Events, Organizations of DC during the Civil War) by putting the links of the former at the lowest part of the web page with a different background color, clearly separating the two parts.

Almost all of the participants that contributed to the formation of this project are consultants, research associates and research assistants, with only minor numbers of graduate students and no undergraduate students. It is regrettable that this project did not employ more student participation, however this doesn’t mean that the historical information provided by the project is only targeted for a strictly professional audience. In fact, kudos should be given to the creators for attempting to address one of the most important events in US history with documentations that are not only accessible to professional scholars, but also easily readable by a wide audience, including students and even amateurs. Additionally, the whole project is a good model for future project directors to refer to when developing their own project.

Last but not least, the project gives credit where credit is due. Every citation is appropriate and contains several URLs to the source where the information was gleaned. Credits and full descriptions of all the collaborators are also presented in the “Participants” section of the website. The website link itself is an extremely straightforward link and provides other authors easier ways of citing the materials presented in the project.

In conclusion, I believe that the project is well established, sufficiently researched and annotated and shows numerous signs of the authors exercising control over their web page technologies. The project will surely stand out if those minor drawbacks mentioned above can be amended and remodeled.


[1] Mattern Shannon C..Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited.