What happens when a project is bigger than it appeared?

Writing this blog entry has been a challenge. I have struggled to figure out what to say and how best to say it, how to express the volume of internal work this summer has kicked up. Many of my colleagues have undertaken very visible and public projects for our outstanding partner institutions, and their work has been outstanding. The one project I have worked on has been less visible and, unfortunately, will be less complete when I conclude my work with the Labor Center.

In the beginning of June, I was expecting to audit transcripts and help with some website work. I thought I would be contributing to the further expansion of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project (ILHOP), an expansive archive of stories from those on the front lines of labor organizing and the fight for worker’s rights in Iowa. Soon this task shifted, and I began collaborating with John McKerley and Shelton Stromquist on building an online education tool to pair with ILHOP and Stromquist’s book Solidarity and Survival. I didn’t realize the scope of this undertaking.

Making a born-digital educational tool is not simple. What platform is best? How liners will the path through the material be? Will this include audio? Video? Images? How many of each? Where will they come from? Will they be the primary delivery mechanism for information, or will there be text? How much text on a page? How many pages per subject? And so on, and so on…

My main question as I’ve worked with John and Shel has been “Why does this need to be digital?” This has driven decisions, helped decide the shape and the trajectory, led us to focus on narrative as the main mechanism. A website has a lot of potential freedom, and that’s important to leverage, but we can’t let the reader get too lost in the sandbox. So how do we contain the information usefully, and still use the potential power of a more open, less linear space? If someone wanted a liner and comprehensive story of the labor movement, Solidarity and Survival is available for sale. This website is to serve as a compliment to the book, a distillate of the information.

A major challenge the Labor Center faces is reaching workers across the state and across a huge variety of job types in order to deliver the education they need. Most of the time, the Labor Center goes where they are invited. A union might reach out to the staff and ask for specific workshops – workers’ compensation rights, training new leaders, internal organizing, or a variety of other topics. They also have regular trainings and long term programs for current union leaders, specific work-forces, and those just entering a trade.

A flier for the Labor Center pre-apprenticeship program, one of many programs and education courses they offer.

But this website would be different. It’s an on-demand resource, waiting for anyone to access it, and it needs to function that way. It can also be a tool for the labor educators at the Labor Center, and needs to serve that purpose as well.

Needless to say, the project became much bigger than anyone initially assumed. So we are two weeks from the conclusion of my internship, and just starting to have an idea of what shape this website will take. We have collaborated and found a way to tell the story of labor in Iowa in potent doses with rich multimedia. Now we have to build it.