Rebuilding Civil War Washington

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Elizabeth M. Lorang

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  2. 2. Karin Dalziel

    University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Work text
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In April 2012, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln launched version 2.0 of Civil War Washington ( This poster presentation will document the evolution of Civil War Washington(CWW) from version 1.0 to version 2.0, including the technologies used, the changing aims of the project, and the intellectual rationale underlying these decisions. Changes made for version 2.0 included a revamping of the overall design and underlying framework of the site and the development of three major sections, Texts, Data, and Maps. This poster will emphasize the structure and design of the site, as well as the Texts section.
Although the site maintained a similar but updated visual look from version 1.0 to version 2.0, nearly everything on the back end was rewritten, including the HTML and CSS. The technology in the intervening three years had changed so much that we were able to streamline the HTML and employ CSS3 elements for features such as drop shadows and embedded fonts. At the same time, we chose to abandon a CSS framework used in the first version of the site because the framework made it too easy to accidentally break the layout. We are now using heavily commented descriptive classes on HTML elements.
The Texts section of CWW changed significantly from the first version of the site to the second. Most visibly, the amount of available material expanded. Originally, CWW included six HTML pages of cases from the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and a number of issues of a single hospital newspaper. With the relaunch of the site, we added 200 petitions filed in response to the DC Emancipation Act of 1862 (more petitions are added on a regular basis), separated the medical cases into their own files (more than 1,400 and counting), and posted nearly complete runs of three newspapers. Each of these different types of texts required specific encoding choices that were rooted in our scholarly commitments and were necessarily influenced by more pragmatic concerns.
Throughout the history of the project, all documents represented in the Texts section have been encoded in TEI. Working toward version 2.0 of the site, we determined that the initial encoding for the medical cases—in which all cases from a particular volume of the Medical and Surgical History were represented in a single TEI file, transformed to HTML — did not adequately model our understanding of the cases or how we thought they most usefully told the story of Civil War DC. We used XSLT to separate all of the cases into individual files, drawing on existing metadata to generate new TEI headers and keywords for the cases. We also modified our approach to encoding personal, place, and organization names and references to dates. For the petitions, we recognized that the key features to be encoded were form and handwritten text; personal, place, and organizational names; and the structure of the documents. In addition, part of our editorial work was rejoining documents separated into two record groups at the U.S. National Archives. Therefore, our encoding practices needed to be able to accurately describe and reconstruct this quality of the documents.
One goal of the revamped Texts section was to make use of this new deep encoding. For version 2.0 of the site, we made use of the CSS element @font-face, which allowed for considerable typographic choices. This change required further discussion and raised potential problems, however, as many free fonts support only limited character sets, and many of the project documents included Unicode characters such as ligatures. In addition, the encoding and new site infrastructure allowed us to link cases to one another by drawing on the encoded keywords and utilizing SOLR as the search engine. Likewise, we utilized the encoding to visually mark the handwritten text of petitions in the browser. Users have the option to toggle on the highlighting of handwritten text, thereby calling attention to the parts of documents unique across petitions. These examples illustrate just a few the many problems confronted and decisions made during the redesign.
The poster will include examples of the old code and content and the new code and content, noting the differences between them and providing screenshots that demonstrate the evolution of the site. In addition, the poster will document the technical and humanistic reasons for the changes, as part of the larger rationale of Civil War Washington.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO