After about two years of being starry-eyed and bushy-tailed over my proposed dissertation topic, it became pretty evident to me that this would be a lot of hard work with a very little to show for it.  Education cuts and a dreary economic forecast underscored this even further.  Publishing a book from my research no longer sounded like a good idea to me, and with my interest in history extending beyond academia and into the field of public history, I wanted to get more out of my dissertation than just a shelf ornament that collected dust.  The digital humanities seemed like a good route to try.

In the fall of 2010, I began talking to some people outside of my department that I knew would be able to assist me further.  I’m fortunate enough to attend Michigan State University where Matrix (Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online) is housed, and the people there were happy to lend advice.  Although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, just bouncing ideas around with people who had much more experience in digital humanities was a huge help.  I was interested in making my dissertation more accessible outside of academia (where I knew it was doomed to rot on a shelf).  After a few meetings, I decided the best route would be to create a digital archive of my research that would be accessible to other researchers as well.  My own research has taken me to archives in Arizona and in various parts of South Africa.  Fortunately, I photographed a good deal of this information.  Being able to digitize this information and share it with others could prove to be beneficial.  I would love to use these primary sources in my own classroom where students could get an almost hands-on experience with the research.  Researchers studying labor, social, and/or cultural history may also benefit from the archive.  Additionally, because I am interested in public history, I also wanted to focus on creating an online exhibit (perhaps with lesson plans) that others could use as well.

My project, which I titled after my dissertation, “Sixteen Tons,” will tell the story of the mineworkers, their families, and their communities that I have studied for the past six years.  Although my research is a comparative study looking at two company towns (one in Arizona and one in South Africa) I hope to create an educational website for people interested in studying a range of topics in history including labor, migration, community, gender, citizenship, colonialism, and comparative history.

I’ve decided to use Omeka, a web publishing program, to create online exhibits where I can organize and store metadata for my archives.  Although you need to have your own server, Omeka is fairly easy to use (I have never created a website before this one) and is geared towards creating online exhibits and archives.  There are some great examples here and here.  And if you don’t have your own server, Omeka will host a limited amount of information (more than I needed) on their own server at

[Image by Flickr user Zach_Beauvais and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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3 Responses to Moving the Dissertation Off the Shelf

  1. I’d be interested in hearing more about how your historical thinking & writing evolves as you migrate from a dissertation to Omeka platform. Please consider submitting an idea/essay to our born-digital edited volume, Writing History in the Digital Age, under contract with U of Michigan Press.

  2. […] and it’s already proving to be a fantastic new resource for students with articles such as making your dissertation more accessible outside of academia and how to write an academic conference proposal. New articles will be published every Monday, […]

  3. […] this post by Terry Brock on “The Dissertation from Afar”, or this one by Micalee Sullivan on getting started writing. Browse our dissertation or productivity tags. Read this book, or this book, or this book. Or this […]

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