Q&A with Environment & Society Portal Director Kimberly Coulter

What is the Environment & Society Portal?

The Environment & Society Portal is the Rachel Carson Center’s platform for digital outreach and open-access publication. Like a digital museum or archive, we aim to inspire curiosity about the human-environment relationship, with emphasis on the Center’s themes.

How was the Portal established?

The RCC was founded in 2009 as one of the Käte Hamburger Centers funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The directors envisioned a “digital documentation” that would make environmental humanities documents and images accessible to both academics and the public internationally.  I came to Munich in November 2009 and, together with my great team, spent the next two years working on the Portal’s design and development and creating a critical mass of starter content. The Portal launched publicly in January 2012.

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The Environment & Society Portal team. From left to right: Kimberly Coulter, Andreas Grieger, Felix Mauch, Susanne Darabas, Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, J. Jesse Ramirez, and Paul Erker.

What kinds of content can I find on the Portal, and where does it come from?

The Portal offers four main content types, each addressing a different target audience. The Multimedia Library presents previously published content, while the other three, Places & Events, Arcadia, and Exhibitions, are born-digital, created especially for the Portal.

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The Environment & Society Portal interface.

The Portal’s Multimedia Library is a dynamic digital archive including documents, images, podcasts, and environmental documentary films. We aim to blend curiosity-inspiring multimedia with a growing collection of scholarly publications. As not everyone can access institutional subscriptions, we are forging partnerships with publishers to make selected books and journals openly accessible. In some cases the most recent issues are added after a short moving wall. Visitors can already view, for example, past issues of the journals Environment and History, Earth First! and Global Environment. A  number of researchers, students, and instructors have told us that they visit the Multimedia Library to find inspiration for new projects or lectures.

Visitors looking for bite-sized content about environmentally significant sites and historical events can view the Portal’s “Places & Events” on a map or timeline. Each short summary may also include a thumbnail illustration, related links, and suggestions for further reading. While they currently appear automatically on the map and timeline, we will soon be enhancing the profile and utility of Places & Events as a unique feature of the Portal. We created each item in-house, but in the future we would like to involve our users in generating new content.

The short, illustrated articles in “Arcadia: Explorations in Global Environmental History” introduce research on specific historical topics, like how Danube floods created telegraph networks, or how the European Green Belt transformed a zone of death into one of conservation.  Each very short, peer-reviewed article includes a profile of the researcher, links, and suggested readings. We’ve found Arcadia to be particularly attractive to early career scholars as a quick way to enhance one’s visibility and give new research an attractive digital presence.  We are currently inviting new contributions; together with the European Society for Environmental History, we aspire to build Arcadia into a dynamic tool for the large-scale dissemination of environmental history scholarship and, with new tools, to connect researchers in this growing field.

The Portal’s most in-depth features—and its most popular—are the virtual exhibitions. So far we have four, each of which puts a selection of digital material into an interpretive context. Our first exhibition, Promotion and transformation of landscapes along the CB&Q railroad, shows how railroads reshaped landscapes of the American West between 1847 and 1965. In time for the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that changed the world, discusses this book’s international reception and impact. In the exhibition Wilderness Babel: What does wilderness mean in your language? users can hear words for “wilderness” and learn about their political and historical meanings in different regional contexts.  Our most recent exhibition, The Wegener diaries: Scientific expeditions into the eternal ice, offers insights into Greenland’s extreme environments as experienced by polar researcher Alfred Wegener on three expeditions between 1906 and 1931. As part of the exhibition we publish a digital edition of Wegener’s Greenland diaries, including a transcription and English translation of large selections of the document, and historic photographs and video footage.

In general, the Portal’s exhibitions are collaborations with external researchers and partnering libraries or archives. We are currently developing five new exhibitions drawn from a 2012 call for proposals.

How do visitors navigate the site?

Visitors who know what they’re looking for can simply use the search field or click on the content type of interest. For those who want to browse, the Portal’s three navigation tools offer a unique opportunity to explore. The Map Viewer, Timeline, and Keyword Explorer let visitors filter and display Portal content tagged by place, time, and thematic metadata.

What plans does the Portal have for the future?

In response to early feedback and testing, we’re working to improve the user experience and add more diverse content. For the future, we want to enhance ways users can create collections, assemble mash-ups with partner sites, automate references, and embed our content in their social media interactions. The field of environmental humanities is broad and dynamic, and digital media offer fantastic opportunities to connect and share. Bringing these together is an exploratory adventure for us, as well.

How can visitors get involved?

We really appreciate hearing from visitors about how they use the Portal and would like to see it develop. Contact us at portal (at) carsoncenter.lmu.de to propose a contribution, or make a suggestion using the “feedback” tab on the left side of each page. And finally, you can learn about our newest content via Facebook (Environment & Society Portal) and by following us on Twitter @env_and_society.

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