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Inspecting Influenza: Review of American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia

Inspecting Influenza: Review of American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia

Inspecting Influenza: Review of American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/index.html. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library; edited by J. Alex Navarro, Alexandra Stern, and Howard Markel. Last site update: September 19, 2016. Accessed and Reviewed January 19, 2019-April 10, 2019.

 

     American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia is a digital history project produced and supported by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library. The editors are J. Alex Navarro, Alexandra Stern, and Howard Markel. The site’s visual format is laid out similar to a newspaper page and uses an off-white background and red accents that are carried throughout the site. As the subtitle denotes, this website can be considered a “digital encyclopedia” in the way that it contains a section “City Essays” that explains how the Influenza Epidemic affected 50 U.S. cities. But in addition, the site is an important digital collection which “constitutes the largest digital collection of materials relating to the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic” (“About,” American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/about.html. Accessed 04/10/2019). Through the combination of these two forms of material and by highlighting cities’ and peoples’ different experiences of the epidemic, the creators of this site show how varied individual, organizational, and geographical responses to the epidemic were.

    The city essays feature prominently on the site. Each city essay page contains the essay, an event timeline, images, and an option to browse the archive for sources related to a particular city. Each essay includes footnotes that cite sources as one would expect in an academic publication within the discipline of history. In this regard, there is not a new or pathbreaking way that these essays seek to advance digital scholarship because they serve as a traditional form of academic writing rather than a new or inventive use of digital form to display historical interpretation. However, the essays are generally less than 5,000 words, which makes them approachable for the interested public and students. The event timeline tab provides a visual and interactive timeline—users must click on a particular date in order to see information for it—of daily events connected from the epidemic from 1918 to 1919. It also provides a graph showing the total excess death rate for that city during the epidemic.

This is an image of the city essay on Washington, D.C.This image depicts what the "Event Timeline" looks like for Washington, D.C. The selected event is in red, while the other event choices by date are indicated in dark grey.

    

The collection portion of the site is impressive with over 16,000 documents and photographs (“Search the Archive” American Influenza Epidemic of 1918 - 1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org. Accessed 04/10/2019), and is accessible three ways. The first uses a “Quick Search” bar accessible at the navigation panel. The second is through a “Basic Search”or “Search Archive” page that allows users to search using their own parameters. The third is a curated page that allows users to browse the source collections by title, cities, organizations, people, places, publications, and subjects. While the digitized primary sources are collectively referred to as an “archive” at various points on the site, the term “collection” is better suited for this digital platform because of the ways that the sources have been selected and brought together from separate archives (Here, I rely on archivist Kate Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context.” Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol 1 No 2, Spring 2012. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/). Nevertheless, the form of the digital collection is well-suited to this large collection of easily accessible documents. The site therefore fulfills a dual purpose of disseminating historical interpretation of the epidemic but also as a digital repository of primary sources for further research.

This is a screenshot that depicts the "Browse Archive"--or thematic search--function. There are themes including "Title," "Cities," "Organizations," "People," "Places," "Publications," and "Subjects."

    Because of these purposes, the site functions well as a teaching tool for history instructors as well as a potential source of material for future digital history projects. First, the site is useful for teaching undergraduate students how to read historical scholarship, cite sources, and construct their own historical argument out of available primary sources. The curated categories of the site allow students to easily focus on thematic, geographical, or other lenses of analysis. Course assignments could be scaffolded to focus first on the interpretation of a single primary source, to then reading the city essay as secondary literature connected with the source, to finally analyzing five or more primary source documents related to a city and the accompanying city essay to construct the beginnings of a student’s own historical argument within a small research paper.

    In addition, the site could serve as source material for digital history projects, especially ones focused on data visualization. For example, a project that mapped both spatially (on a map using GIS data) and temporally when reports about the epidemic appeared in newspapers from the collection could help researchers to further understand how the media impacted public understandings of the epidemic. However, further projects would be limited in that the digitized materials are not yet transcribed and are not OCR text-searchable; this creates a lot of labor for those interested in text-mining or topic-modeling the sources.

    One functional improvement that can be made to the encyclopedia is for the sources that are referenced in each of the city essays to be linked to the appropriate document in the collection. This would allow students and researchers to more easily access the primary source documents in the original. This would be especially valuable for pedagogical purposes by promoting more integrated learning opportunities for students to visualize how primary sources are interpreted and integrated into academic writing. Additionally, the site’s primary source collection is not accessible to those that are visually impaired because the sources are digitized but not transcribed, so that text-to-speech software is not usable. Making the site accessible to those with a visual impairment would allow this resource to reach a broader audience.

    In all, American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia is an impressive digital resource and collection for the public, students, and scholars that are interested in learning more about one of the United States’s most impactful public health problems and tragedies. As the site’s creators discuss, understanding the 1918-1919 epidemic helps us understand public health and the impact of potential influenza epidemics today (“About” American Influenza Epidemic of 1918 - 1919: A Digital Encyclopedia. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/about.html. Accessed 04/10/2019). The combination of digitized primary source material alongside interpretive essays of the epidemic’s impact on 50 U.S. cities make for a valuable informational and teaching resource.

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