Note regarding comments

I love comments. I enjoy debate. I welcome both praise and thoughtful criticism. However, I've had to change comments-permissions to require self-identification. No more anonymous messages, please!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The worktable

     We've long wanted to put primary source materials online, so a team of students, researchers, teachers - scholars! - can sit together and ask questions out loud. Even if that "out loud" is virtual.
     But we were a little picky about how we wanted it to be set up.
     First, we needed to be able to organize the documents chronologically. That would mean our team could see the flow of events. I tried to find a way to upload the Microsoft Access database I've been using, but that was a massive fail. It's a memory hog, it's unwieldy, and I could not find a way to limit access to the data.
     Second, we wanted to limit access only to the team working on each "archive" project. Since everyone who participates in a particular project will get authorship credit when that project is published, it didn't seem fair to make these primary source documents available to everyone in the whole wide world.
     But at the same time, we wanted to be able to provide the general public with a taste of the primary documents supporting each project.
     Third, we wanted this database to be searchable. It doesn't do a bit of good to have access to 5,000+ documents if it's next to impossible to find a statement or quote or date or person's name, all the things we need and have difficulty remembering.
     Fourth, I especially wanted the team to be able to comment on every. last. document. If our translation was wrong, comment. If there were questions about the meaning of a phrase, comment. If a team member had special insight about historical context to a document, comment. And attach that comment to the document, where it would make the most sense.
     Fifth, it had to be inexpensive. No additional explanation necessary!
     Sixth, our solution should be universal, as accessible to someone in Alexandria, Berlin, or Cardiff as it would be to a person in Los Angeles.
     Finally, I needed this to be easy to use. Our goal is to have high school students, professors, freelance writers - anyone with interest in our topics and the desire to work on a project - sitting together. That meant we couldn't employ software with a big learning curve that only younger team members could easily master.
     We tried setting up everything in Google Docs, but encountered resistance from non-GMail users to the requirement of setting up a Google account.
     We tried a Yahoo Group / message board, and were frustrated by the difficulty of getting documents uploaded. While this solution would have worked well for the "comments" aspect, it didn't fly on almost every other criteria.
     We sent out numerous inquiries regarding other message board or online database options. Every response came back with a fail to at least one of the conditions listed above. The ability to post documents dated 1933 - 1945 was the most common stumbling block. (It's the reason we could not go with Google's blogger, as 1970 is the earliest date it can accommodate.)
    Eventually (and much to our relief!), we found Wordpress. Therefore the first project - White Rose History Volume III - is set up and can be viewed at:
     Interestingly, we didn't have to compromise even one of the standards that had guided our design of our virtual worktable. Right now, everything is public and free, and those specific documents (along with maybe ten or twelve more) will always be freely accessible.
     As our team comes together for this project, we will start uploading the remaining 2500+ documents that we already have, with another 5000 or so to go. Those will be password protected, accessible only by those who have committed to the project.
     It will be several months before that happens, so if you have any suggestions regarding ways to improve the experience, please let us know!
     In the meantime, I feel like we have stumbled across a new methodology that can and should become standard in the world of collaborative historical projects. We all hope you agree.


  1. I am so glad you found this. It sounds amazing, but could you please explain to me how readers become contributors to this project (especially high school readers:]). Thank you.

    1. Cymbaline,

      Just go to the blog ( Follow it (the instructions are about halfway down on the far righthand side). And then set frequency for email notices about new posts. I think daily or weekly would work best.

      Then simply join the discussion. I believe CWRS has decided not to charge any sort of fee. The official announcement has not been made yet, but consensus among the board was definitely headed that way.

      When I say "join the discussion" - As you read the various dry primary source documents, the sort of comments that will be most helpful are:

      1) Your observations about how the events described in that document are connected to events in another document;
      2) Additional knowledge you can add - for example, you could research the women's prison where three of the women were held and post that as a comment, or you could do some digging about the prison warden or a judge and tell us what you find; and,
      3) Contradictions between two or more documents. For example, if one Gestapo agent stated one thing as "fact" and another Gestapo agent stated something else as "fact", you could point out the discrepancy between their facts.

      These are simply examples of ways to contribute to the knowledge base that the site is trying to build. I think it will become more fun and more informational once more people are involved! :-)

      We are glad you're planning to join the project!