History on the go

April 5, 2013

What do Rhode Island’s official state bird, a Revolutionary War Battle, and kitschy 1970s comedian and game show stalwart Charles Nelson Reilly have in common? Their stories will be included on a new mobile smartphone application called Sakonnet Historical, developed through collaboration between the Tiverton Public Library, the Little Compton Historical Society, and students from the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities.

Sakonnet Historical, scheduled to be launched on July 1, allows users to explore significant places in Tiverton and Little Compton, Rhode Island, through pictures, videos, oral histories and other media. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities awarded a $5,000 grant to fund the project.

For Public Humanities students, this is an opportunity to experiment with alternative means to bring history to a broad public and to acquire skills in digital humanities and narrative writing. In fact, one of the most difficult challenges for students working on this project is to push beyond the learned boundaries of academic writing and to use narrative writing styles and flourishes to engage readers. Consider the opening sentence in an entry about rum-running in Little Compton.

“’Young man, if you don’t get out you’re going to end up with a little round hole in the middle of your forehead.’ The words were polite and calm, but ominous, spoken to a youthful group of summer people during a late night visit to Briggs Beach during Prohibition, according to local resident Howard Huntoon.”

In this sentence, Public Humanities student Abby Ettelman avoids, purposely, the traditional academic topic sentence, choosing instead to write an historian’s version of, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The sentence sucks the reader in, and sets up what follows, a discussion of the cultural and economic meaning of rum running in Little Compton. The sentence reveals some of the methods of public humanities: a local, community-based approach; sound research; and the use of oral history. It also exhibits techniques of narrative story-writing: tension and suspense.

While the app will appeal to visitors to these communities, the stories it contains and the methodology used to gather them are hyper-local and contemporary in flavor. Public Humanities student Marjory O’Toole, whose day job is director of the Little Compton Historical Society, organized volunteers to collect oral histories from more than fifty members of the community. In Tiverton, a community workshop gathered photographs and memories from long-time residents.

The result is a history of these communities that is simultaneously owned by individuals and shared with a larger public.

By the way, Rhode Island’s state bird is the Rhode Island Red, a prolific chicken developed in Little Compton. The Battle of Rhode Island was launched from Tiverton Heights, and the American forces included Paul Revere and John Hancock.  But how the heck—you might be wondering—does Charles Nelson Reilly fit in. Watch this video to find out.

For updates, visit the project’s Facebook page by searching for “Sakonnet Historical.” For questions or to contribute your own histories of Tiverton and Little Compton, send an email to sakonnethistorical@gmail.com. Whitridge HallWhitridge HallRhode Island Red MonumentRhode Island Red Monument

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