Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards

I am happy to announce that my book is finally available! Greetings from Alabama: A Pictorial History in Vintage Postcards, was released by NewSouth Books at the end of October. Nancy DuPree, my co-author and curator of the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection, and I worked for roughly a year and a half on the book. The postcards come from the Wade Hall Postcard Collection, which includes slightly under 2,000 prints from the first half of the twentieth century.

1588383202Nancy and I first selected 900 postcards from this collection based on their significance to the social, cultural, and economic history of Alabama. We then worked with NewSouth Books to choose approximately 400 postcards that would represent the entire state. Nancy and I proceeded to research each of these postcards and wrote captions that reflect how and why Alabamians represented themselves through these locations. The postcards capture the state as it embraced tourism, industrialization, and leisure.

Although he did not live to see its publication, we honored Wade Hall by listing him as an author. Dr. Hall was a fervent supporter of Special Collections at The University of Alabama and always wanted the postcards to be published. He understood that postcards capture sites at a specific moment in time and reveal what people found important within their community.

I am proud of my work on this project and I hope that people will have a chance to check it out. If you’d like to know more, Alabama Living interviewed Nancy and I about the project here: http://alabamaliving.coop/article/new-book-chronicles-alabamas-past-through-vintage-postcards/

Teaching Special Collections with TeachArchives.org

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of welcoming one of Dr. Hilary Green’s class into the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection. While I have worked with Dr. Green in the past for a class on African American History, this one is titled “Civil War Still Lives!: Race, Memory, and Politics of Reunion.” The course focuses on Civil War memory and specifically asks students to examine the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction at The University of Alabama.

I was particularly excited to work with Dr. Green’s class for two reasons. The first is that the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection is rich in sources regarding the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. We have an extensive collection of regimental histories, biographies and memoirs, published speeches, and photographs from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the turn of the twentieth century. These sources provide valuable insight into which aspects of the Civil War would be remembered and promoted and which would be silenced in the pursuit of national reunification. Given our collection’s concentration on the Civil War, I was happy to expose Dr. Green’s class to this material and explain its historical importance.

Secondly, the instruction session allowed me to implement some of the advice I had learned from attending the American Historical Association conference in January. I attended a panel where Julie Golia, the Director of Public History at the Brooklyn Historical Society, explained the project that gave rise to TeachArchives.org. The Brooklyn Historical Society received a three-year grant in 2011 that allowed them to bring in 1,110 students from Long Island University Brooklyn, New York City College of Technology, and Saint Francis College and teach them to analyze original documents. The BHS sought to improve understanding of special collections research and effectively demystify the process of conducting primary source research. TeachArchives.org is the culmination of this project and provides invaluable guidance for teaching methods and instruction.

After attending the session, I decided that I would bring some of the strategies discussed on TeachArchives.org into my own instruction and outreach. For Dr. Green’s class, I expanded my explanation of the rules and regulations of a special collections library, explained the challenges that different materials like newspapers and photographs present, and provided a thorough list of examples of what can be used within the Williams Collection and UA’s Division of Special Collections as a whole. Instead of simply lecturing, I sat with the students and let the conversation flow to questions and concerns that they had. Overall, the session was much more relaxed than in previous classes and it seemed as though the students felt more prepared for their research. In the future I’ll continue to pull from TeachArchives.org as we expand our outreach and encourage students to visit and conduct research within our collections.

New Play the Past Article: Valiant Hearts, The Great War, and The Shaping of Historical Memory

I have a new piece up on Play the Past concerning Valiant Hearts, a narrative-driven puzzle game about World War I. I’ve been exploring the use of historical settings and events in video games over the last few years and this piece continues that trend. I look at how Valiant Hearts focuses on the human cost of war and the individual experience. You can find it here.

Likenesses Within the Reach of All

I’m happy to announce that the project I’ve been working on for the last three months has finally launched! Likenesses Within the Reach of All is a digital project that maps the expansion of southern photography through the cartes-de-visite of The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at The University of Alabama. Building on the work Christa Vogelius completed during her time as the CLIR Fellow at UA, I’ve worked to map the data and provide access to the photographs for researchers and archivists. Many others provided assistance and feedback on the project and you can find them on our About page.

Likenesses Within the Reach of All

On Stereogranimator

In the last two weeks, I’ve been working with two digital projects that I think are incredibly useful for both teachers and historians. The first, from NYPL Labs, is the Stereogranimator. Developed in response to the large body of stereoscopic photographs at the New York Public Library, the Stereogranimator allows you to create either anaglyphs or animated gifs of the 3D images originally captured by stereographs. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, stereography soared in international popularity and allowed viewers to feel as though they stood in front of landmarks, battlefields, local and national celebrations, and the wreckage of natural disasters.

Ruins of Great Fire in Boston, 1872

While many of these stereographs have been preserved at archives and libraries around the world, the images require a stereoscope to be viewed properly. These devices function in a similar manner to the View-Masters many of us grew up with, but most individuals, archives, or libraries do not have access to turn of the century stereoscopes.

With the Stereogranimator, this is no longer an obstacle. NYPL Labs has created a tool that allows users to establish the overlapping focal point of the two images and produce a single, three dimensional anaglyph or animated gif. Here are two that I made earlier this week:

Where General McPherson was Killed, Atlanta, GA 1864
Confederate Memorial Obelisk, Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, GA

I am excited by the Stereogranimator because it allows for users to experience and understand two very important aspects of the late nineteenth century. First, it allows individuals to gain a better understanding of what the late nineteenth century looks like. For those who don’t study this era, the idea of nineteenth century photography will likely conjure up either Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War, or black and white portraits of awkwardly posed subjects. Stereographs allow for a better sense of the nineteenth century akin to the returning popularity of colorized photographs. By adding depth or color, the nineteenth century suddenly feels more alive and accessible to the modern viewer.

Secondly, the Stereogranimator provides insight into the culture of the late nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War, most Americans had not been more than twenty miles from the place of their birth. Not only did stereographs depict distant places, but the sense of depth and scale allowed for viewers to feel as though they were standing at the site. For consumers in New York City, for instance, traveling to the site where General McPherson died during the Battle of Atlanta was possible but impractical. Stereographs allowed for these scenes to be captured and shown to individuals throughout the country. With the Stereogranimator, users have a straightforward way to view stereographs and in the process, experience a slice of nineteenth century popular culture. In my next post, I’ll talk about a recently released project that creates a historical soundscape of the early twentieth century.

Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light

In order to make better use of my blog, I’m going to write some smaller posts that cover something I’ve noticed in many modern games. Through several fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic settings, slavery is featured as part of the in-game society. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Fallout 3, and the Mass Effect series all direct the player to interact with slaves and slave traders. The Assassin’s Creed series, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, address slavery as part of their respective historical settings. Within these games, the developers have established economies less constrained by morality or law, allowing for individuals to profit from slavery without retribution.

In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player can randomly encounter slavers as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the Federation. When they meet a slaver: they are given three options: (1) Buy one slave and free them to join your crew, (2) Attack the slavery scum, or (3) Ignore the slaver and continue on your way.

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In describing the slave trader as scum and placing “laborers” in quotations, the developers make it clear that your crew believes slavery to be immoral and that you can deal with the slavers accordingly.

If you select the first option, a new crew member appears on your ship after presumably being manumitted. If you choose the third possibility, the encounter ends and you move on to the next waypoint. Attacking the slaver allows you to enter into open combat and eventually triggers more decisions. If you continue to attack and eventually destroy the ship, FTL informs you: “The slave ship is destroyed. They won’t continue their evil trade, but many lives were probably lost on that ship.” By drawing attention to the innocent slaves who lost their lives, FTL suggests that saving the slaves is more important than ending the slave trade itself.

On repeated playthroughs, this pushes the player to attack the slave trader but select the alternative option. The slavers surrender and state, “Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!” If you accept the offer, a slave comes on board your ship and you can travel to your next waypoint.

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While you’ve preserved the lives of innocent slaves, this option raises several moral questions. First, are the slavers simply allowed to continue trading throughout the galaxy? By accepting the offer, you’ve allowed the slave trade to continue in exchange for the life of a single slave. Second, what is the legal status of the slave you’ve taken on board? According to the dialogue presented to the player, the slave given as tribute is never freed. Instead, they simply appear on your ship where you can use them in any role you choose. In addition, the slave cannot leave your ship for the rest of the game. Rather than freeing a slave and dealing a blow to the slave trade, you’ve accepted human (or alien) chattel as a bribe.

Your relationship with the slave traders is further complicated by a fourth and final option. If you have installed a teleporter on your ship (something I don’t often do), you can send a rescue party to free the slaves. In most of these instances, you are able to free one or all of the slaves and bring one of them aboard your ship. In this context, the game implies that you’ve freed all of the slaves and additional crew member joined your party of their own volition.

Eventually, your boarding party, with or without the freed slave, will have to fight the slavers in hand to hand combat. If you kill the entire crew, your party may find the slaves in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the dialogue presented to you, “They look at you questioningly and one asks if they’re to be released. You could use more crew but you don’t want to force them all to work for you instead…” Face to face with a cargo hold of slaves, your crew is incapable of passing up the opportunity to bring a slave on board their ship. While they feel that claiming all of the slaves would be immoral, they justify owning one slave for the good of the mission.

In a decision tree that uncomfortably mirrors historical slave auctions, you then choose between these three species based on innate characteristics that grant them unique abilities in combat and support roles. If the player is familiar with each species, they will likely choose the one whose labor will best improve the ship’s operation. The three slaves also come to terms with their continued enslavement in different ways. One “seems fine with the orders,” the second “remains silent and you worry there might be trouble,” and the third believes their enslavement to be “acceptable” as long as the primary objective is galactic peace. The remaining slaves are freed on a nearby space station, but the one you’ve chosen remains a slave in your service. Presumably, the three agreed to accept a lifetime of slavery if it meant the freedom for their compatriots.

While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant. When you first encounter the slave trader, your crew views the slavers, and by extension the slave trade, as scum. As the exchange progresses, however, your crew grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of using slaves to complete their mission. By either accepting a slave as tribute or keeping a slave as payment for rescue, FTL’s crew abandons their previous ethical objections and uses slave labor on their ship. This is especially tragic in a game where death and defeat is almost always your final outcome. Unable to leave your ship, the slaves that you could have freed are instead doomed to die in bondage.