Using Digital Tools to Explore Collective Memory

Students worked together to build a data set of United States Holocaust memorials and museums; then, they used Google My Maps and charts generated from Google Sheets to visualize and analyze their data in light of scholarship on the transformation of American Holocaust memory in the decades since 1945.

During the spring 2018, I taught an undergraduate Honors seminar, “History and Memory,” which explored why societies remember some events in their past and not others, why there are often multiple narratives of any given event (Burke 1997, 56–57), and how cultural texts like historical narratives, museum exhibitions, and public monuments—what the French historian Pierre Nora terms “sites of memory” (1989, 11)—shape our understanding of history and its meaning. For much of the course, students closely analyzed case studies and composed their own representations of historical events. In our final project, however, I wanted students to explore how quantitative data and digital tools might help us investigate why “sites of memory” are constructed, how they work, and what they can tell us about the societies that create them.

I chose as the focus of this project the topic of American Holocaust memory. In the United States, Holocaust memory grew radically in the second half of the twentieth century, a trajectory Peter Novick characterizes as a movement from “virtual silence, apparent social amnesia, for a full generation, then, between the late 1960s and the late 1970s, a Rostovian ‘takeoff into self-sustained growth’” (1994, 159). To understand how “the Holocaust would move so forcefully to the center of American culture” (Mintz 2001, 3), historians have analyzed changing social and political landscapes, the rise of mass media, and the role of popular culture.

Because studies do not exist that analyze how the construction of Holocaust memorials and museums might shed light on American Holocaust memory, I decided that this would be an excellent topic for my students’ digital inquiry project. This article details a scaffolded sequence of assignments that guided students through the process of gathering data on the creation of Holocaust memorials and museums in the United States, introduced them to using Google My Maps and Google Sheets to create data visualizations, and prompted them to write a final essay analyzing how our findings compared to what scholars have argued about the transformation of American Holocaust memory in the decades since 1945. I also evaluate the project as a whole, reflecting on how effectively it supported the learning objective of using digital tools to promote critical thinking about Holocaust memory in the United States.

Project Implementation

As I began planning this unit, I found that although there is extensive scholarship on individual Holocaust films, books, and memorials as well as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum itself, a comprehensive data set of United States Holocaust memorials and museums did not, to the best of my knowledge and research efforts, exist. This meant that my students and I would need to begin by creating our own data set in addition to using digital tools to visualize and analyze it. As a starting point, I worked with lists of Holocaust memorials located online and compiled basic metadata (latitude, longitude, name, city, and creation date) in an Excel sheet; my colleague Jane Tutein, Instructional Technology Coordinator at Endicott College, then used this initial data set to generate a Google Map with layers visualizing the creation of U.S. Holocaust memorials and museums by decade.


Figure 1. Initial map of United States Holocaust memorial and museum sites. Although not all memorial and museum sites are visible on this map due to its scale, students could zoom in to see sites in local areas and could click on the icons for additional information.

This initial data set and visualization were the starting point for my students’ project. First, they read historical scholarship on the topic of American Holocaust memory and made predictions about how it might relate to the proliferation of Holocaust representations over time. Next, they analyzed the initial Google Map, compared it to the course readings, and considered what additional categories of metadata we might gather about each site to facilitate further analysis. On the latter point, many students were interested in learning more about the demographics and responses of memorial and museum visitors, but, since this was not manageable for us to research within the time frame of our project, we decided to gather data on the more feasible questions of who led the initiative to create each site, the stated purpose of each site, the form the site took, and the population of the community in which the site was based.

To manage this collaborative research process, I created a shared Google Sheet with the initial data set, and students first double-checked my data, locating an additional twenty-nine memorial sites and catching a few errors. We then gathered the basic metadata for the newly identified sites and researched our additional metadata categories for each of the 93 sites on our master list. To ensure the accuracy of our data, I assigned pairs of students a subset of our master list; students were responsible for completing their research independently and then double-checking their findings with their partner in class. From there, we decided what tags to use to code our metadata, with students again tagging their data independently and then double-checking their work with their partner. Throughout this process, students worked in their own copies of the Google Sheet, only adding content to our shared master Google Sheet after each pair was confident in their data.

For their final essays, students were required to create and analyze four data visualizations using Google My Maps and/or Google Sheets in order to present an argument about how our data set affirmed, extended, complicated, or challenged the existing scholarship on United States Holocaust memory. To further encourage critical thinking, I also asked students to consider the limitations of our data and to draw conclusions about how their findings connected to the theory we had read about collective memory earlier in the course. Because the majority of my students did not have prior experience creating Google My Maps or charts in Google Sheets, Jane Tutein led a class session introducing students to these digital tools. For Google My Maps, she walked students through the process of importing our data set, creating new maps, filtering and styling the maps, and, finally, sharing them; she also guided students through the process of creating, editing, and styling charts in Google Sheets.


This project effectively engaged students in inquiry-based learning and critical thinking. In terms of their final essays, almost all students began by creating a chart to ask whether the creation of U.S. Holocaust memorials and museums correlated with historians’ claims about how Holocaust awareness expanded over time; some students, seeking to understand whether there appeared to be a general trend between increased awareness and other modes of cultural production, took their analysis a step further by creating visualizations that compared our findings to data on the creation of Holocaust films in the United States.


Figure 2. Student chart visualizing the number of United States Holocaust memorial and museum sites built in each decade. Growth was slow in the immediate postwar decades, with two in the 1950s, 6 in the 1960s, and 8 in the 1970s, before a significant jump to 21 in the 1980s and 27 in the 1990s; after this peak, the number of sites created each year began to decline, with 17 in the 2000s and 8 thus far in the 2010s.


Figure 3. Student bar graph showing a general correlation between the number of Holocaust memorial sites and the number of Holocaust-related films created in the United States in each decade.

Students also used visualizations created with Google My Maps to test historians’ claims, but the geospatial analysis more commonly sparked connections to our theoretical readings. For example, one student was surprised to see that most memorials were constructed in communities of between 20,000 to 300,000 people, prompting her to reflect on Burke’s discussion of how “it is social groups who determine what is ‘memorable’ and also how it will be remembered” (1997, 44) as well as on what additional research would be needed to understand why in some areas no memorials exist while in others “multiple memorials have been built throughout the years.” For another student, a similar map focused his attention on the fact that only nine of our memorial sites were located in towns with a population of under 20,000 people, meaning that large swaths of rural America lack a Holocaust memorial or museum.


Figure 4. Student Google My Map highlighting memorial and museum sites located in communities with fewer than 20,000 residents, all of which are located in the northeast and southeast regions of the United States.

He connected this data to a recent study reporting limited knowledge of the Holocaust among the American population, noting that “a survey released in April 2018 found that 31% of Americans and 41% of millenials [sic] think the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was two million or less (Astor). Similarly concerning is the finding that 45% of American adults cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto, or that 66% of millenials [sic] do not know what Auschwitz is (Claims Conference).” As a result, he concluded that “even though many memorials have been built with the purpose of remembrance, collective memory has not kept up,” and he wondered whether the best way to “combat social amnesia is to build more memorials with a purpose of education.” In contrast, observing the same distribution of memorial sites by geography and population density, a third student asked whether we can assume memorial sites necessarily lead to remembrance, or whether memorial sites in urban areas necessarily create more awareness than those in more secluded areas.

Unanticipated Challenges

While this project allowed students to engage the existing scholarship on American Holocaust memory and identify new lines of inquiry, minor challenges did crop up along the way. In terms of our collaborative research process, students’ data gathering proceeded smoothly, but some students required instruction on accessing shared files, copying files, and creating their own folders in Google Drive. In addition, even with our efforts to double-check our data entries, a handful of errors emerged as we began to work with the data set, which meant that students did not have the final “clean” master Google Sheet until a week before their essays were due. This limited the time students could devote to data visualization and analysis, but it also added to the learning experience; for example, students saw how a typo in the longitude field led to a memorial showing up in China rather than Texas, and when pivot tables filtered data incorrectly, they learned how and why to scrub their data.

Regarding Google My Maps, one drawback of the tool is that it lacks layer functions which could support more advanced analysis. For example, having interactive layers that can be turned on and off would allow students to visualize developments across space and time at the national level, and the ability to add more layers to their maps beyond basic data points would open up new opportunities for comparative analysis. That said, the clear benefit of Google My Maps in comparison to more advanced GIS tools is that it does not have a steep learning curve: it was manageable for students to learn how to import data, create maps, and style maps in just one class session, which allowed them to quickly and effectively generate basic data visualizations that opened up new lines of inquiry.

Our other main limitation was time, and if I were to teach this assignment again I would devote at least four weeks of class time to the project instead of three. This change would allow me to offer more in-depth instruction on data analysis, and it would give students more time to critically analyze our data set, the questions it raises, and how those questions might be investigated through further study; for example, although many students generated a chart that showed a decrease in the construction of Holocaust memorials and museums after the 1990s, only a handful asked why this was, or what the implications of this trend might be. Finally, several students would have benefited from more workshop time to experiment with their classmates on creating data visualizations and considering which kinds of visualizations would be most effective to use given the questions they were trying to answer.


Overall, this project enriched my understanding of how faculty can use digital tools to engage students in historical inquiry. Until recently, scholarly discussions about digital history focused on how digital technology makes possible access to historical documents (Cohen and Rosenzweig 2006). Certainly, digitization of archival and other collections has transformed the possibilities for history teaching at the K–12 and university levels (Lee 2002; Lee and Friedman 2009), yet some historians have also begun to consider how digital tools, and GIS in particular, can promote new avenues of historical analysis and knowledge creation (Gregory and Geddis 2014; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum n.d.). Just as these technologies create new opportunities for professional historians, so they create new learning opportunities for our students, as we can develop learner-centered assignments that use a variety of digital tools to engage them in historical analysis and the production of historical scholarship (Cantu and Warren 2015; Kelly 2013; Robin 2008).


Astor, Maggie. 2018. “Holocaust Is Fading from Memory, Study Finds.” New York Times, April 12, 2018.
Burke, Peter. 1997. “History as Social Memory.” In Varieties of Cultural History, 43–59. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Cantu, D. Antonio, and Wilson Warren. 2015. Teaching History in the Digital Classroom. London: Routledge.
Claims Conference. 2018. “New Survey by Claims Conference Finds Significant Lack of Holocaust Knowledge in the United States.” Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Cohen, Daniel, and Roy Rosenzweig. 2006. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gregory, Ian, and Alistair Geddes, eds. 2014. Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and spatial history. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. EBSCOhost.
Kelly, T. Mills. 2013. Teaching History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lee, John K. 2002. “Digital History in the History/Social Studies Classroom.” History Teacher 35, no. 4 (August): 503–517. EBSCOhost.
Lee, John, and Adam M. Friedman. 2009. Research on Technology in Social Studies Education.
Charlotte: Information Age Publishing. EBSCOhost.
Mintz, Alan. 2001. Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press. EBSCOhost.
Nora, Pierre. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Translated by Marc Rousebush. Representations 26 (Spring): 7–24. JSTOR.
Novick, Peter. 1994. “Holocaust Memory in America.” In The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, edited by James Young, 159–165. New York: Prestel.
Robin, Bernard. 2008. “Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the Twenty-First Century Classroom.” Theory into Practice 47: 220–228.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. “Geographies of the Holocaust.” Holocaust and Related Maps.


The assignment described in this article was made possible by my participation in the 2017–2018 Digital Learning Community at Endicott College, which was funded by a Davis Educational Foundation grant. In this group, faculty members from a variety of disciplines collaborated to explore how digital strategies could help develop students’ critical reading, writing, and inquiry skills in a range of curricular contexts. I am particularly grateful for the advice provided by Jane Tutein, Instructional Technology Coordinator at Endicott College, and Mark LeBlanc, Professor of Computer Science at Wheaton College, as I conceptualized and planned this project, as well as for the ongoing support and collaboration of Jane Tutein when I implemented it.

Author Bio

Kelsey McNiff is Associate Professor of English/Composition at Endicott College, where she primarily teaches critical reading and writing courses. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University.

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