Making the History of 1989

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A review by Sean Morton, written for HIST 5V71 in Fall 2011


[edit] Making the History of 1989

Making the History of 1989 was developed by The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) ( for two years and completed in 2009. As a historical resource it was created to provide an accessible digital environment which chronicles the events of 1989 and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe by collecting and presenting primary documents, scholarly considerations, and historical critiques online. (“Making the History of 1989” Wikipedia) The developers of Making the History of 1989 note that it was “designed to be a resource for educators and students” which “functions as a…multimedia companion text to a [particular] historical topic.” (Introduction to Digital Humanities) They argue that it is “the multimedia aspect of this site, along with its scholarly nature, [which] is what sets this resource apart from something like a Wikipedia article on the same topic.” (Intro. to Digital Humanities) As a teaching resource this site was conceived, according to the Centre for History and New Media, “because teachers and their students have little access to vivid historical documents in English that convey the…events of 1989.” ( To this end, Making the History of 1989 was designed and envisioned as a “supplement to a more textbook, timeline oriented approach to the history of communism in Europe.” (Intro. to Digital Humanities)

[edit] Audience

Ostensibly the intended audience for this resource includes academics, teachers, students, and the interested public in general. Certainly, in terms of its language, structure, and complexity, the material on the site appears geared towards introducing or supplementing secondary students’ interests in the subject. However, while the website indicates that it is intended to provide information for teachers and students alike, the primary focus of the site leans more towards providing educators’ resources in the form of lesson plans, case studies, and multimedia interviews, rather than casual exploration. In general, the site aims to assist teachers in getting their students to engage with the materials, understand the complexity of social transformation and political change, as well as to think critically about the trends and tensions which they raise. (“Introductory Essay”, Making the History of 1989) To this end, the site is divided according to the type of resource and in accord with the major events or themes of the fall of communism in 1989.

[edit] Resources

The types of materials available from Making the History of 1989 include a database of primary resources, scholarly interviews with teachers, a number of teaching modules, activities, and lesson plans. In particular, the site provides access to hundreds of primary documents and resources in English which include documents, scholarly essays, video interviews, pictures, and case studies that focus on various aspects of 1989 and cover a range of historical themes from communist protests and resistance posters to the lives of women in Eastern Europe. (Intro. to Digital Humanities) The site itself divides the available materials into four main sections including: Primary sources, Scholarly Interviews, Teaching Modules and Lesson Plans, and Case Studies.

[edit] Development

Making the History of 1989 was developed at The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) ( at George Mason University ( and was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Historical Institute. (“Making the History of 1989” Wikipedia) The CHNM was established by Roy Rosenzweig in 1994 “to research and use digital media and information technology in historical research, education, digital tools and resources, digital preservation, and outreach” and it works in conjunction with the American Social History Project (ASHP) to design online historical resources as well as with the Smithsonian Institute in develop projects on historical thinking. (“Making the History of 1989”, Wikipedia) In recent years, projects from the CHNM have lead to the development of the open source software programs Zotero ( and Omeka (, the latter of which is used “to build digital archives and publish digital exhibits.” (“The Center for History and New Media” Wikipedia) In addition, this center also develops and “distributes…free digital tools for historians and teachers including WebScrapbook, Survey Builder, Scribe, Poll Builder, H-Bot, and Syllabus Finder.” (“The Center for History and New Media” Wikipedia) In this sense, the focus of the CHNM is predominantly directed towards improving historical scholarship through the development of teachers, educational methodology, and the approach to historical materials with the use of digital resources. As an organization, The Center for History and New Media purports to be a documentary digital history center which seeks to make “history making” visible and vivid ( and believes that historical learning includes “complex interaction with sources, recursive reading, and skills used by historians.” (Center for History and New Media website)

[edit] Omeka

The site itself is run on the Omeka ( platform and software, which was designed by the CHNM for the digitization and online presentation of complex multimedia collections. Its use of the “Dublin core metadata standard” indicates that the intention of the developers of the collection is upon provide metadata management and standardized classification of materials…which enables tagging of materials and resources. (“Dublin Core” Wikipedia) Critiques of this software, such as Kucsma, Reise, and Sidman’s “Using Omeka to Build Digital Collections: The METRO Case Study”, highlight its ability to incorporate a number of different resources and easily enable the future development of sites in accord with user need; however they also note the difficulty in getting accustomed to using Omeka’s ( cataloguing system.

[edit] Design and Collaboration

In terms of its design and claim to scholarly authority, the site’s project team is an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional combination of digital humanists, tenured historians, political science professors, media scholars, art historians, visual artists, web developers, graduate researchers and undergraduate assistants. The key figures involved in the development of this resource are T. Mills Kelly who is the Principle Investigator, alongside Rom Rushford and Katherine Gustine as the Project Editors and Managers. (“About”, Making the History of 1989) The inclusion of this range of academic perspectives indicates that CHNM has gone to a great effort to combine digital accessibility, usefulness, academic research, scholarly standards, and visual appeal in the design and presentation of the site and its collected materials. The consultation of tenured, well published, and recognized scholars also serves to reiterate the scholarly nature and authority of the resource itself. It is also worth noting that this site was developed in conjunction with a number of reputable organizations such as the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the German Historical Institute, the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, the National Security Archives, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Special Collections, and the Wende Museum. (“About”, Making the History of 1989)

[edit] Critiques

The few reviews of Making the History of 1989 have for the most part come from the perspective of educators interested in the use of digital resources and their impact upon teaching and the classroom, rather than upon the design, content, and improvement of the site. While an interesting resource, Making the History of 1989, has a number of shortcomings which should be acknowledged.

[edit] Access and Design

In terms of accessing the document database it is interesting that as a historical project this site primarily divides resources by country and does not include the ability to search materials in accord with their date. In addition, a number of primary texts, videos, and images which have abstracts and purport to be available have broken links. An example of which includes:

Moreover, while the site includes all sorts of multimedia resources such as images, pictures, and movies, the main aspects of it focus on text, almost entirely ignoring the possibilities of including more maps and timelines. The results of this mean that the majority of its WebPages are quite text heavy and set against a white background which limits the immersive value of it, and negates the visual possibilities of the medium. These facts are especially unfortunate considering not only the intent of the site, but also that the purpose of the Omeka ( software is to enable visual displays of resources and materials to be placed successfully and easily into the digital environment. Other museums and centers which have utilized Omeka ( software as their core framework such as digitalMetro (, Lincoln at 200 (, Inventing Europe (, and the September 11 Digital Archive ( provide examples of how the visual and multimedia aspects could have been better integrated into the design of the site.

[edit] Sections and Resources

It is interesting to see that a site focusing on revolutions in Eastern Europe and Russia only provides resources which were originally published in English. While this collection undoubtedly fills a specific niche in historical scholarship, the failure to incorporate primary documents in their native language alongside English interpretations demonstrates a failure to utilize the digital environment more fully. This content choice also represents a loss of opportunity in terms of engaging and teaching the complexities of translation and interpretation in historical research to students.

Furthermore, since the focus of this site is upon English language resources concerning a topic in which few such materials from Eastern European nations are available, it necessarily raises the question of scholarly bias. Yet, this site includes few indicators noting the limitations of these resources or the issue of potential biases in their presentation or the formulation of the collection itself. This omission is unfortunate as this too would have provided a means through which teachers or students could not only become aware of the issue of bias but also the inherent problems in undertaking scholarly research and assessing historical materials.

[edit] User Input, Updates, and Revisions

While the site does provide users with the ability to login and organize information and “self-organize” particular primary resources for future usage as well as the option to interact with, and suggest additional tags to resources, it does not provide a forum where individuals can discuss materials, topics, or the site itself. (edwired) To this end there is no online discussion regarding whether or how these resources are being used or how they could be improved upon, nor is there a direct means to submit suggestions and provide feedback for consideration. In a similar manner, there are no notations citing whether the lesson plans or materials have been used by teachers, what their experiences have been, or how they have influenced the pedagogy of history education. These sorts of omissions are striking considering that the use of user and teacher input would help the development of this sort of resource, keeping it applicable to the needs and experiences of educators as well as keeping schools in touch with these sorts of digital materials.

In terms of content development it is also noteworthy that there is no listing of user statistics, and no notation or news section regarding what resources are currently being developed, or which projects are being added in the coming period. This in conjunction with the fact that many of the links are no longer working serves to raise questions regarding how effective the resources are, how often the site is reviewed and maintained, as well as how or whether it is being further developed.

[edit] Significance

In terms of the significance of the Making the History 1989 digital project, as a history resource it clearly tries to fill a particular scholarly gap in providing and examining English resources for study and enables new connections to be made between varying texts and materials. As a teaching aid this site is important in terms of its focus on teacher development and the improvement of historical learning and skills through the use and potential of digital resources to bring disparate texts and opinions together. To this end, Making the History of 1989 is also important as an educational resource which seeks to engage students and has been made free and publically available.

Finally, it is arguable that the real virtue and significance of Making the History of 1989 is in the model this resource has provided for those which have since been developed, such as the aforementioned digitalMetro (, Lincoln at 200 (, Inventing Europe (, and the September 11 Digital Archive ( online collections. In this sense, Making the History of 1989 appears to have served as a means of figuring out the mode through which materials could be effectively and digitally published, and while it appears to not have been improved or updated since its initial inception, subsequent projects have nonetheless benefitted.

[edit] Bibliography

“About,” Making the History of 1989, accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

“Center for History and New Media,” accessed Nov. 5th, 2011,

“Dublin Core,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 5th, 2011,

“Introduction to Digital Humanities,” iSchool University of Texas, Austin, accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

“Introductory Essay,” Making the History of 1989, Accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

Kucsma, K., Reise, K., and Sidman, A., “Using Omeka to Build Digital Collections: The METRO Case Study,” D-Lib Magazine, March/April 2010, 16:3/4, accessed Nov. 5th, 2011,

“Making the History of 1989,” edwired blog, accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

“Making the History of 1989,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 5th, 2011,

“Making the History of 1989: The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe,” OER Commons: Open Educational Resources, accessed Nov. 5th, 2011,

The Center for History and New Media, accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

“The Center for History and New Media,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 4th, 2011,

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