Atlanta might be best known around the world because it was burnt down during the Civil War. While many residents imagine that General Sherman’s march to the sea is the reason we have so few historic buildings, the fact is the city has recreated itself repeatedly, knocking down the old and building the new. This trend has led many scholars interested in the city to turn to digital tools to better research and tell the stories of the city.
What started as a series of projects and platforms within the silos of departments and institutions at Georgia State University (GSU) and Emory, has turned into a broadly interdisciplinary network of Digital Humanities scholars and instructors across local institutions. This panel will explore the possibilities that arise when scholars in many disciplines from universities in the same city combine resources and begin to build projects and platforms with a local audience in mind. The panel will begin with an overview of the network, and then, one or two speakers from different institutions and disciplines will discuss each of the following sections. Each topic will be under 10 minutes to allow for discussion during and after each presentation.
The first part of building our network began through dialogue between Emory and GSU scholars about digitizing archival collections, technical opportunities to produce and share spatial data and maps, and a search for ways to collaborate.
At Emory much of this process was centered on the digitization of a 1928 Atlas of Atlanta and Vicinity, which was the most comprehensive topographic mapping of the city. Over several years Emory students and staff produced a geodatabase with several thematic layers including the street networks, streetcar and rail lines, and building footprints to name a few. The digitization of map collections at Emory has opened new avenues to explore the original content and has amplified the opportunities in the area of digital heritage of Atlanta.
GSU’s Planning Atlanta: A New City in the Making, 1930s – 1990s is a digital collection of material related to city planning and urban development in Atlanta. The collection consists of city planning maps and publications, demographic data, photographs depicting planning activities, oral histories, and aerial photographs. This NEH funded project sought to move beyond the traditional digital library model of simply providing digital equivalents of tangible objects. This city planning focused collection provides open access to digitally transformed, dynamic, and engaging content with the goal of enhancing this material for educational and research uses.
During the 1970s, GSU archaeologists, led by Dr. Roy Dickens, conducted excavations associated with the construction of the MARTA rail lines, a major city planning initiative. These materials, over 100,000 artifacts and all the accompanying documentation, represent the single most comprehensive archaeological collection of Atlanta’s history. The new efforts to work with this legacy collection are dubbed the Phoenix Collection because, like Atlanta itself, this collection is being reborn. The collection’s broader significance stems from the insight it can provide into the development of Atlanta. Because these archaeological materials have accompanying contextual data, they can more easily be connected with other datasets, such as development maps and historical texts, to create a more holistic understanding of the various processes that shaped the development of the city.
While digitizing material is crucial for research, making archives more available is only a first step. Instructors and researchers from diverse disciplines found the need to develop platforms for using, sharing, and curating data and archives from different collections.
Discussions about the projects between both institutions and the need to engage the public about Atlanta’s history and contemporary scholarship led to the launch of the Atlanta Studies website, an open access, digital publication that any scholar of Atlanta can contribute to. The site hosts many of the projects that make use of the resources and platforms highlighted in this panel and provides a venue for cross-disciplinary work, collaborative institutional work, and public scholarship.
Drawing from the collections of GSU and Emory, the ATLmaps web application combines archival maps, geospatial data visualization, and user contributed multimedia location “pinpoints” to promote investigation into any number of issues about Atlanta. This innovative online platform allows users to layer an increasing number of interdisciplinary data to address the complex issues that cities pose. The project encourages knowledgeable members of the university and local communities to curate data on the site to demonstrate the possibilities for synthesizing material across projects, institutions, disciplines, and data types.
Emory’s Atlanta 3D Explorer is an interactive virtual city circa 1930 built off the 1928 map. The application incorporates the data from the Emory produced geodatabases and historic geocoders in order to create an application that allows users to engage with the content at 3 levels, a map viewer of all atlas pages combined, a 3D city model, and an immersive 3D exploration environment. The third level provides an immersive experience that seeks to recreate street scenes around Atlanta.
In conjunction, a team of students at GSU began building an interactive and immersive 3D version of downtown Atlanta from the late 1920s. The project focuses on city blocks that GSU currently occupies and allows students to explore the history of the area using the Unity gaming engine. Classes in Archaeology, History, and English will eventually help in the research and construction of this 3D environment. Plans are currently being established as to how to integrate these two projects.
The traditional research and communication skills generally taught in humanities disciplines are crucial to an undergraduate education, but it has become increasingly evident that digital literacy and citizenship need to be integrated into the curriculum. This need runs into the problem that in many humanities departments (where basic academic skills are often taught), digital scholarship is sometimes undervalued, underutilized, and misunderstood. Instructors experienced in or curious about using and teaching digital tools in their classes sometimes lack a community in their own departments or institutions. Atlanta Connected Learning is a collegial network of university faculty, staff, and graduate students from schools in the Atlanta area interested in digital pedagogy, scholarship, and networked collaboration. Since 2012 participants from ATLCL have been instrumental in organizing monthly digital pedagogy meetups, faculty development initiatives, and several smaller academic colloquia.
Students learn more if they feel the work they are doing is meaningful and has a real audience. As we have become more aware of ourselves as a network of scholars and instructors, we have begun to connect the Atlanta-based projects we are working on to classrooms. We are currently building a site to connect classes to local projects, resources, and experts that are relevant to the skills and content taught in various courses and disciplines. One example is GSU students in advanced multimodal composition courses are studying specific artifacts from the Phoenix Collection and are creating 3D digital surrogates of these objects through both laser scanning and Structure from Motion techniques. The Phoenix Project provides a visceral means of connecting with the public and bringing to life the past in a way that historical texts alone cannot.
The network that has organically formed over the past five years from the creation and combining of Atlanta-based platforms is now consciously developing projects based on the network that has formed across institutions and disciplines. Scholars, artists, and community leaders have started to contact and join the group understanding the possibility of developing massive projects that are only possible with a great deal of expertise, equipment, and labor.
The first project to intentionally tap into the resources of the network is Unpacking Manuel’s Tavern. Students of history, political science, urban planning, sociology, film, architecture, computing and other disciplines will work independently or in the classroom to “unpack” the organic archive that has accumulated over 60 years on the walls of Manuel’s Tavern, a bar that has played a significant role in the politics, culture, and history of Atlanta. Faculty and staff from local universities have created a gigapixel map of the tavern walls and a Unity-based 3D scan of the building. Students, directed by instructors from several disciplines, can then choose images they wish to research and compose content for pop-out metadata pages including text, video, interviews and links to other sources from local, national and international archives.