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Remembering Lincoln: Personal Stories about the Lincoln Assassination

April 16, 2015 ET

By David McKenzie
Digital Projects Manager
Ford’s Theatre

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the renowned actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln as the president watched the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The assassination, the resulting manhunt, and the journey of Lincoln’s funeral train are well-known stories. Less well known are the stories of the assassination’s impact on individuals around the country and the world.

To engage present-day Americans with the stories of people who lived through the event, Ford’s Theatre launched Remembering Lincoln on March 18, with support from an IMLS Museums for America grant.  The digital collection includes primary source materials from historical societies, museums, archives, and libraries. It also includes interpretive content and teaching modules to inspire use of these resources in the classroom.

Phoenix Steam Fire Engine No. 3 as it appeared in Detroit’s procession to honor Lincoln, April 25, 1865. Detroit Historical Society.

The digital project took 18 months to complete. We worked with a digital strategist, project advisors, and institutional partners to help define our audience. The audience evaluation process helped us define the parameters and functions for Remembering Lincoln.

Working through steps of the audience evaluation process was time consuming, but it enabled us to make data-driven decisions. Here are the steps and some of what we learned along the way:

  1. Our original plan was to have an evaluator, Conny Graft, on board immediately, and only later work with a digital strategist. But when we kicked off the project, we decided to bring a digital strategist, Gwydion Suilebhan, in from the get-go. This helped to get everyone thinking about the end product from the beginning, and we’d strongly recommend it.
  2. During a two-day planning meeting with project advisors and the institutional partners, the group defined four target audiences: students, teachers, enthusiasts, and scholars. This is not to say that the site would be “off-limits” for other audiences, but even these broad categories helped focus thinking.
  3. At the planning meeting, our digital strategist ran an exercise in which the group created personality profiles for each audience type and defined outcomes for each audience.
    The “persona” for a teacher during the planning meeting. Keeping a hypothetical person, rather than group abstraction, in mind helped with conceiving user needs
  4. The evaluator worked with us to create logic models for each audience group. A logic model [PDF link] is a means of working backward from a set of carefully determined outcomes to plan the steps needed to accomplish them.
  5. We tested those outcomes by holding focus groups of teachers and enthusiasts and sending out surveys to scholars, teachers, and enthusiasts.
  6. In a four-hour session, the digital strategist worked with all of us to translate the data from the focus groups and surveys into a Product Definition Document. This document also included our own knowledge of institutional, interpretive, and pedagogical goals. The document consists of user stories that define functions for a piece of software or a website. For example, “As a teacher/scholar, I want to browse the collection by subject so that I can discover new resources to engage my students.”
  7. These user stories proved essential to the web development process. We included the Product Definition Document in our Request for Proposals as, essentially, a prioritized checklist of functions that prospective web developers could use in formulating their bids.
  8. The Product Definition Document made it easier to decide what Content Management System (CMS) the site should use. Working with our web developer, Interactive Mechanics, we agreed that Drupal would prove the most robust for fulfilling the objectives of the project because it can be more easily customized than other systems.
  9. The Product Definition Document also helped us prioritize the functions we would build and what tradeoffs would be involved to keep the project within the limited budget.

Overall, the customized system has seemed to work well so far. We’ll find out soon just how well when we do another round of evaluation. But we were able to proceed confidently toward launch because of what we learned through this process.

You can read more about our process of planning the project in a series of blog posts written during the last 18 months.

Diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam, age 13 or 14, in which she drew her reaction upon hearing news of the Lincoln assassination. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Does your institution have an item showing how someone in your community responded to the Lincoln assassination? Let us know, and we’ll contact you about including it in the Remembering Lincoln collection!

To assist other institutions interested in launching similar initiatives, we’ve made the code from the project available in a GitHub repository. 

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.

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