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Posted by on Feb 2, 2010

Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CNMTL) and Mapping the African-American past

Yes, this is another post on digital library type resources that I find, for lack of a better term, cool. Further, it is another example of a digital humanities center doing some interesting things with multimedia and technology. There are several examples of these so I won’t bore you with a review of the rest, but the one at Columbia University is among my personal favorites.

The Columbia Center for New Media, Teaching, and Learning (CNMTL) has done some amazing work and you should subscribe to their blog if you want to learn about a constant array of interesting projects. For African-American History Month they have produced some awfully good projects, including (descriptive text taken from CNMTL’s website):

  • The Amistad Digital Resource is a multimedia website that shares hundreds of rare and iconic photographs, audio and video clips, oral history interviews, maps, and descriptive text explaining significant themes and key events in African American history, from slavery to the 21st century.
  • Mapping the African American Past (MAAP) is a public website created to enhance the appreciation and study of significant sites and moments in the history of African Americans in New York from the early 17th-century through the recent past.
  • Southside Chicago is a research archive that provides students with direct experience in social science research. This project is part of the Urban Research Workshop (URW), which is analyzing Chicago‘s Southside black communities, with particular focus on changes in these communities since the early 1990s.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X Multimedia Study Enivronment (MSE)*presents Malcolm X’s memoir with links to critical annotations that provide perspectives beyond the written word. This MSE provides four “lenses,” or perspectives, that illuminate the political, cultural, global, and faith-based aspects of Malcolm X’s life and legacy.

The one that most interests me is Mapping the African American Past (MAAP). It is a really well designed multimedia exploration of contextual materials explaining the history of African Americans in the New York City area; the archival materials are amazing and sit quite well with many of the other narrative constructs, especially the maps.

In my opinion, this is part of the realization that made Google Maps and Google Earth so exciting when it first appeared (and still now). There was this promise that I would be able to make my own maps and tell my story. All good stories sit in a time and a place and these maps (much like these on MAAP) allow stories to be told in context. You can see the streetcar, not just read a description. I can see Lenox Avenue and look at what used to be Seneca Village and understand a little more clearly the life at the time.

Also, like all good multimedia explorations worth their salt, there are quite a few learning activities designed to incorporate these materials into the classroom. If interested, be sure to give them a look. I especially found the section on the role of African Americans in building New York quite interesting and suspect that Howard Zinn would have been proud.

The images above are taken from the Mapping the African American Past website. They include a map of Wall Street (constructed by African Americans), Harriet Tubman and family, and Langston Hughes.

In the spirit of Langston Hughes, I will leave you with my favorite poem of his. It is titled Democracy and although it is not specific to this project from Columbia University nor New York City in particular, it does fit well with the spirit of equality.

“Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.”

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