Dec. 18, 2006

A Very Digital Christmas

For our last Digital History class, we talked about histories of the Future. Last night, my dad suggested that I write a post about what the Christmas story might be like in a digital age. Well, since I don’t often use my dad’s history ideas, and because it’s Christmas, and because it’s amusing to finish the semester on a more up-beat note than my last post, I thought, “Why not?” It might not be history or even good scholarly writing, but perhaps the reader will gain a greater appreciation of the digital ubiquity that we are racing towards, which I referred to in my last post. Here then is how the Christmas story might have played out in a digital context; it’s only a small part of the story, but I think that you will get the idea.

Merry Christmas Dad!

After the angel Gabrielle had left, Joseph pulled out his cell phone and called Mary to let her know that he would indeed still marry her. Now at that time, the Roman emperor sent emails and text messages throughout all the land informing everybody that a census was to be taken. All of the people of Judea were to return to their place of birth immediately. Mary was away at market when the email was sent, but Joseph immediately text-messaged her to inform her that they both must travel to Jerusalem. Mary immediately added items necessary for travel onto the shopping list she had on her cell phone, and the built-in GPS generated a shopping route that would enable her to get these items for the best price in the least amount of time. At home, Joseph searched for a dealer in donkeys. The resulting search generated a map that indicated the closest donkey dealers as well as the prices for a rental. Finding a reputable dealer than was equidistant between himself and Mary, Joseph text-messaged the address to Mary’s cell phone, so that her GPS could again re-adjust to meet him at the dealer.

As he walked out the door, Joseph found a podcast to listen to about successfully bartering with donkey dealers. As Mary whisked through the market, she listened to a podcast on feeding and caring for rented donkeys. At the donkey dealership, Joseph could wave his phone by each donkey’s ear and download information regarding the donkey’s history and medical condition as well as reviews by other people who had rented that particular donkey (stars indicated the overall rating, haystacks indicated how much the donkey ate, shoes indicated speed, and flies indicated how smelly the animal was after a day of travel across a desert). While Mary waited for Joseph to finish bartering, she connected to the dealership’s wireless network to download onto her laptop ebooks, vodcasts, and the latest blog posts regarding birthing. Once the donkey was rented and loaded with everything Mary and Joseph would need for their journey to Jerusalem, Joseph emailed inns in Bethlehem to find out where there were vacancies. Joseph’s email program, noticing that Joseph was writing a message with the words “Bethlehem,” “inns,” “vacancy,” and “next week,” automatically opened another window with relevant news feeds. Mary and Joseph discovered that, for the first time in forty years, Bethlehem had no room at any of the inns. A quick search on eBay uncovered a stable that was available though. Joseph put in a bid, and ten minutes later, Mary and Joseph had a place to lay their heads in Bethlehem. As Joseph grumbled about the empire’s poor logistical planning of holding a census, he and Mary began to make their way towards Bethlehem.

May you all experience great peace this Christmas season!

Ubiquitous Computing

In the last couple weeks of November, our Digital History class discussed the coming of ubiquitous connectivity – the state of continuously being able to access information about anything through your computer or phone while at the same time being constantly accessible by others who are known or unknown to you. The ability to easily access the best, most relevant information seems like an incredible dream; the possibility of always being traceable or at the other end of the line seems, personally, like a terrible nightmare. I am not all that comfortable with the idea of my cell phone being able to tell the people I am connected to on Facebook where I am all the time, but as a historian, it would be incredible to trace the movements of individuals and groups to a very fine level of detail.

I struggle with how to approach a world where even individual items such as razors are traceable since the positive and negative implications both seem almost overwhelming. In this case, I find myself unable to make an argument either for some sort of legislative control or a free-for-all harvesting of individuals’ movements, buying habits, and product use. I cannot even say for myself how I plan to control the amount of information that businesses or other individuals are collecting about me, but it is important that I make an effort to exert some control in this area.

Whew! Big, tricky ideas here!

Hector Helps Don Do History

Helpin’ History Hector: Well, hi there Triple-D Don! How’s that last essay for the semester going?

Doesn’t Do Digital Don: I despise my computer at this moment. Searching through library databases and lists of journal articles is an odious and unrelenting burden. I still have twenty-four more pages to write; but I suppose you are having comparable difficulties H-Cubed?

Hector: Heck no! The time I’ve been spending learning a little more about computer programming and APIs for the last year has paid off!

Don: Computer programming? Gag! And isn’t API a recording label? How did they aid you in researching and composing a historical essay?

Hector: API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” APIs are programs on the web that people can get the code to. You can modify the code for your own specific purposes. It’s awesome! I used Google APIs to get more specific search results and map them on tem out on an eighteenth-century map of France. I not only got more relevant answers for my search terms but was able to look for visual patterns and relationships on the map that was created.

Don: Ugh! That would take forever to learn how to do! Besides, as long as I can check emails, search for an article, and type an essay, I’m satisfied with how my computer does what it does.

Hector: Yeah, but there’s a way to do all that stuff faster!

Don: Humph! Of course there is: pay for a faster computer. I’m living under constrained financial circumstances here Hector.

Hector: No, no! The way I’m talking about is open-source, so it doesn’t cost you a cent!

Don: Whatever “open-source” means… Tell me more.

Hector: All it takes is a little time to lear-

Don: I knew there was a catch! Hector, how am I supposed to write a 25-page paper in 3 days and learn how to become proficient in the art of “Hacking” or whatever it is you are doing?

Hector: Well, you know, if you’re going to be using the computer to do your research, wouldn’t you rather be able to navigate through pages more efficiently? Don’t you think it would better to get all relevant search results instead of two good results for every ten searches you did? If you became a little more comfortable with some of the more technical aspects of your computer, it might save you some research time in the long run. Also, companies like Google are working hard to make create a search experience that is unique for you. If you’re at all concerned about having a say in how much they know about you, it might be a good idea to ask how your computer does the useful things it does!

Don: Hmm… I am still not convinced. There is certainly something to be said for perusing dusty aisles of knowledge after using a library database. I very frequently stumble upon a book that did not appear in the library search! I also always keep up with what those Public History students at Western are doing, and as far as I can tell, they used no AP-whatevers for the website that they made to complement their museum exhibit.

Hector: Really? I thought they were all so technically-savvy! Wait though - I heard that they were thinking about using a Creative Commons design for their website. That’s not making a new program, but it is using somebody else’s HTML design and modifying it for their own purposes!

Dwelling More on Digital Don: Well, it seems that you make some strong points Hector. I don’t know if I’ll be able to use your fancy new digital techniques for this paper, partially because I really don’t have the time to learn more about my computer, but also because there this topic really isn’t that great for research on the computer at all: nineteenth-century Russian postage! What was I thinking?

Hammered His Message Home Again Hector: That you have an unusual interest in the artistic and economic implications of stamps in the Industrial Era? I suppose you’re right though. There are definitely some areas of research that are more conducive to online research than others. Good luck with the rest of your paper Donny Boy! You’ll lick it yet!

The Subtle Museum

As a visitor to a museum, do you expect to be presented with factual information and an up-to-date interpretation of historical evidence? Do you expect that you will be confronted with Truth? When the curator puts together an exhibit regarding the discovery of the New World, she needs to walk a fine line between a European point of view and an indigenous point of view. Two very different truths can be told though the same exhibit. Is it possible to share both truths at the same time?

In our last Public History discussion for the semester, we asked ourselves whether museums were a space where interpretations of truth were presented to the public or a space where visitors learned critical-thinking skills. Anybody who has had the pleasure of reading a historiography essay knows that historical truth has a very precarious position, easily toppled in the light of new evidence or the re-interpretation of old evidence. Although it is possible to keep the museum-goer up-to-date with the latest interpretation on a historical subject, it would be difficult to present Truth to visitors.

On the other hand, the public should be confident that they will learn when they visit a museum; an exhibit should encourage the viewer to think about the material being presented, to weigh the information being presented rather than simply accepting what has been written as truth. In this case, the mission of museums is not to present Truth or even a truth, but instead to challenge visitors to judge for themselves whether the information being presented has an importance transcending its entertainment value.

In our Invention to Innovation exhibit, you may notice that our text attempts to capture a sense of motion and energy. As we tied the text of our exhibit together, we succeeded in becoming more aware of the narrative and categorizations we are presenting to our visitors. In hindsight though, in a desire to force visitors to think critically about our exhibit, could we not have included blank text panels, incorrect information or dates, or placed inventions in the wrong section? I imagine that, without any hints, people would mistake these actions as errors made by inexperienced, sloppy students.

Conversely, if we were able to make subtle changes to the information, perhaps we would succeed in making some visitors take a second, more critical look at the information we had put together. The Museum of Jurassic Technology has succeeded in capturing such subtly. Check out the website for yourself, and while you’re at it, why not look at some of the exhibits that have been created by our own national institutions. What’s your impression of the museums’ virtual exhibits? Are you reading fact, the curator’s truthful interpretation, or a clever, intentional joke meant to stimulate analysis or evoke a different set of feelings? You may have to look a second time to be sure!

Nov. 22, 2006

Identify Yourself

I have a confession: I’ve been thinking about class discussions outside of class. Whereas I once used to occasionally contemplate how to transform my essay title into a brilliant eight-word alliteration (historians love alliterations), I now find myself chewing on ideas brought up in class as I walk home.

My reader is probably thinking that I am transforming into an unbearable, over-achieving dork. Well… that might be true, but listen: I’m a Public History student who is still trying to understand what “public history” is. Today I encountered three people who together helped me to understand what a public historian can and can’t do; if I hadn’t been thinking dorky school thoughts, I might not have put the pieces together!

On my walk to school, I unexpectedly ran into a cousin who also attends Western; we rarely see each other outside of family get-togethers, so it was fantastic to be able to catch up while we made our way to campus. After class, I saw a guy who was a part of the same exchange to Trois-Pistoles that I participated in. I never had the opportunity to speak to him in Quebec though, so it didn’t seem meaningful or necessary to talk to him today. On my way home, I walked past a young man who I had gone to high school with. Although we had both been in band, he was a couple years younger than me and I don’t think we ever shared a conversation. Today, I gave him a half-smile and continued on my way.

I felt a little guilty for not taking a minute to say “Hey – I know you!” On the other hand, the only person of the three that I had shared a significant relationship with was my cousin. At best, I am probably a poor networker for not strengthening the other two relationships; at worst I could be called anti-social. I doubt that I am alone in making that choice to not talk to another person. Few people like walking away from a conversation thinking, “Well, that was awkward!” I think I took the time to talk to my cousin because we are connected by stronger links. We have shared the same experiences, are related to the same people, and see each other on a somewhat regular basis. In short, we identify with one another on a number of levels. I had been thinking about national identity as I was walking home (When you’re hungry, you need to keep your mind occupied), and these encounters seem to put some pieces together for me.

It’s important for us to be able to identify with others, isn’t it? Last week in Public History, we tried to understand why people in one country would choose to identify with one another. What makes a person from St. John associate more strongly with a person from Calgary than a person from Bangor, Maine? As Canadians, we supposedly share a set of values and experiences that give us a sense of pride in our identity and distinguish us from the citizens of other nations. Although there are certain current events that we can identify with, the stories from our collective past also form a significant portion of the experiences we would consider “shared.” If this is the case, historians would appear to be essential in developing a Canadian identity.

A Canadian identity? It would appear that historians should also be asking for a raise because it’s a pretty tall order to come up with one, inclusive, grand narrative that tells the story of all Canadians. Recent readings and class discussion have underscored what a Herculean task it would be to create a national story that everybody – scholars, governments, minority groups, and members of the diverse Canadian public – would be happy with. We are also coming to the realization that exhibits will continually change as historians discover new evidence and that, ultimately, public history is strongly influenced by both economic considerations (It’s hard to put up continually put on controversial exhibits if your sources of funding are uninterested in stirring the pot).

The public historian needs to be a touch more pragmatic when facing these problems, so I would be willing to forfeit my raise if I were allowed to develop identities. I chose not renew the relationship I shared with the two men I encountered today. Canadians will place an emphasis on the elements of their identity that they see as most important. My role as a public historian is to present a number of stories and a number of values. In so doing, I hope to encourage people to think critically: “What do I agree with?” What do I think is rubbish?” “Why do I think this way?” Perhaps this sort of public history will entrench more regional identities; however, I said the public historian need to be a touch more pragmatic. The absurdly optimistic public historian inside of me hopes that this sort of history will not only make people feel better about their individual identity but also drive Canadians towards a consensus on what it means to be Canadian.

The Public History students’ exhibit at Museum London seeks to present one identity of London. It is our hope that visitors will come away with the sense that Londoners both embrace inventions and foster innovation. Will everybody who comes to the museum share this sense that London is a city of inventors? Will you identify with this community? Hopefully you’ll be considering these questions while you’re visiting.
And don’t worry – if you keep thinking about what you learned from the exhibit after you leave, I won’t think you’re a dork!

Nov. 15, 2006

A Challenge for Public History

I am concerned.

I am concerned that I have not been using this blog properly or to its full potential. Humility in History is supposed to be a space for publishing my reflections regarding my learning experience as a public historian and a digital historian. I have written a number of posts concerned with the theory of Public History and Digital History, and I like to think that my readers are gaining some insight into what I am learning in the Public History program here at Western. On the other hand, I have written very little about what my class is doing. Yep, it’s true – we Public History students don’t just sit in front of our computers, reading online articles and then blogging about the concepts contained in these articles.

This year, the Public Historians are putting together an exhibit for Museum London, which is located here in London, ON. The exhibit will focus on invention and innovation in London, and we hope to showcase not only many of the items that citizens of London used in the past but also the process of innovation that continues in this city today. We are not alone in this effort either; we’re collaborating with curators and collectors, professors and inventors – not to mention one another. Our responsibilities range from creating a title to typing out the text for each item to be displayed. For the last month we’ve been busy researching exhibit items, conducting interviews with experts, and working together to figure out what idea we want our audience – you – to walk away from our exhibit with. This project is truly a fantastic opportunity to put into practice the theories and ideas that we read and blog about each week!

I am concerned.

I am concerned that we are blowing this opportunity. Twice over.

First of all, we have made lamentably little use of our Number One means of advertising for this exhibit: our blogs! We aren’t publicizing the project that we are creating for the public! Regardless of the fact that many of our readers are probably family, friends, or romantic interests – people who are already likely aware that we are putting together an exhibit for Museum London – we should still be making an effort to share our excitement for this project. It’s fantastic that we have buddies and relatives who are willing to support us; I fully expect friends from camp, friends from Western, friends from McMaster, friends from Ottawa, and extended family from across southern Ontario to make every effort to check this exhibit out in February! Imagine how much cooler it would be if all these people came to see the exhibit not because I was a part of it but because there was actually a hype for the exhibit itself? As the creators of this exhibit, it is our expectation that visitors will react in some way to the information we present; but in order for that reaction to occur, our audience needs to be genuinely interested in the content of this exhibit. The blogs published by this year’s Public History students are a key way to foster a hype that could make people care!

Secondly, and I think more importantly, I believe that we are blowing the opportunity to develop good habits as intentional public historians. Two weeks ago, Public History students read about the importance of process in putting together an exhibit. In our subsequent discussions, we have done a poor job of following the suggested process. I think that this is a result of both a looming deadline (we need to have all of our text submitted by Nov. 29) as well as our efforts to cope with some assumptions made about the direction of the exhibit earlier on in the semester.

I understand and agree that it is important to stick to deadlines, especially when we are collaborating with bodies outside of the university; however, I also place high value on the learning process, the collaborative process within our class, and on turning out high-quality work. At the beginning of the semester, Alan posed the question: When will we cease to be history students and begin being historians? In a similar vein, I would like to ask, “If we did not get ourselves into the habit of putting out quality public history in an intentional, methodical fashion while we are Public History students, when are we going to get into that habit?” This is our time to learn! It is the time when we are allowed to make mistakes! Choose your cliché: You don’t learn to ride a bike without falling a few times; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs! This is an opportunity to (dare I suggest it?) decide that we will not be meeting our deadline and to instead decide that we will take the time to ensure that we not only proud of our finished product but also the process by which we made that product. I am not suggesting that we have been inconsiderate when planning this exhibit; the Public History students have had numerous discussions concerning the message we want visitors to leave with and the narrative that we desire to tell. On the other hand, we have not yet had a focused discussion to decide how our main theme is supported by both our narrative and the grouping of exhibit items. We have no consensus regarding the tone or the mood of our exhibit. We are most definitely at the point where we have at the very least a basic understanding of our items purpose and history; therefore, I assume that we should be able to come to a solid (though not inflexible) plan as to where precisely we are headed with this exhibit. The readings that we have been assigned give us clear instructions on where our planning energies need to be focused.

I have devoted a great deal of space to some of the challenges that our group is currently facing and which I am as guilty of contributing to as the rest of the class. By no means do I think that I am better than any of my classmates. I am merely putting forward my observations of our group’s progress based on my interpretation of the class readings as well as previous group experiences. In short, it seems that our process of problem-solving, that is to say, our process of answering the question, “What are we trying to say in this exhibit and how are we going to say it?” has been overly-influenced by timelines and a need for success and not influenced enough by intentional goal setting. Conversely, I am confident that we still have time to develop some concrete conceptual guidelines for this exhibit, which will allow us to try out more of the skills that we are learning about in this program. As a plan of action, I suggest:

It is important for us to create a hype for our exhibit by “teasing” the audience in our respective blogs.

It is important for us to examine our plans as they stand on the class wiki and, though discussion and editing, come to a consensus in regards to the focus, narrative, tone, and categorization of items in our exhibit.

It is important for us to re-visit our deadlines to decide whether adjustments need to be made.

It is important for us to keep in mind the journey as well as the goal.

So… reader and future visitor to Museum London’s exhibit on inventions and innovations, you now have a great deal of insight into some of the practical challenges that we Public History students have been facing. What do you think will happen next? Will we be able to produce an exhibit that impresses a central idea on you? What will the reaction be to this post? Will Alan protect me from being lynched by my classmates tomorrow? Will the above words be enough to stir the pot or will we remain complacent and focused on deadlines rather than content? Will you look at our exhibit with a more critical or interested eye now that you have read about some of the challenges that we are struggling with?

Are you concerned?

Nov. 13, 2006

"I never thought that something like this would happen to me!"

It was a red-letter day in my academic career. On Friday, November 3, 2006, I took an enormous leap of faith as a digital historian and downloaded Python onto my computer. Yes, I had decided that I was going to learn a programming language.

As soon as I had the program in which to write Python code up and running, I jumped into an introductory tutorial. Boy, I was ready to get my hands dirty and finally try to do some of the whiz-bang computer magic that we have been talking about in class for the last two months!

Unfortunately, this first “beginner” tutorial proved too advanced for me. I didn’t have a clue what the author was talking about. You can picture me looking blankly at these apparently simple instructions. It was pathetic! I needed a PRE-introductory tutorial on Python. I decided not to let this minor setback phase me though and quickly discovered the package of Non-Programmers Tutorials that were included in the Python software I had downloaded. Hello Success! Or rather, “Hello World.” The first lesson in programming is to make the computer print this statement on the screen. Never fear - I made this statement appear! I should have counted, but I’m pretty sure that by the time I had concluded my first foray in to the world of Python I had typed different versions of “Hello World” at least 18 times. Hey – you need to cling to what you’re familiar with.

It turns out that programming is a lot more interesting to actually do than to read about; sort of in the same way that it’s more interesting to do research for a paper than it is to listen to the school librarian give a 50-minute presentation telling you how to research a paper. Okay, so I’m being a little dramatic - I have to admit that what I’ve learned has reinforced some of the concepts that I learned from the computer science tutorials.

As far as progress goes though, I haven’t gone very far. Oh I’ve written my own program – two in fact – but I don’t think that I’m at the point where I can apply much of what I have learned to researching a historical topic. On the other hand, I am seeing a light forming at the end of this serpentine tunnel. (I know… I apologize for the snake reference. It was too awful to resist.) This past week I learned about using “while”: as long as a certain set of circumstances are not fulfilled, a program will continue to perform a certain number of steps. For example, I might write a program that searches through this post looking snake references; as long as it doesn’t come across a group of letters like “snake,” “serpentine,” or “slither,” it will keep looking at each word. Essentially, I could create a primitive search engine. If I look more broadly at my Python learning experience though, I feel confident saying that I am a lot more comfortable reading lines of code and understanding what they mean; furthermore, I’ve been able to take baby steps beyond what has been required in the practice exercises! Step aside Bill Gates!

Good Riddance!

In an effort to move on to more compelling projects, last week I ploughed through the last of the computer science tutorials and finally completed my rudimentary education on how computers work on the inside. After reading the module on Operating Systems, I came away with the understanding that systems such as Windows XP and Mac OS are the manage what the rest of the computer is doing by saying what program (such as word processors or internet browsers) can run when and how much memory that program can use. I followed up this module by reading about Machine Architecture. Skimming through this information, I realized two things: first, I already had a good general idea about the pieces that make up the guts of a computer; and secondly, to get too deep into these guts is a job best left to hardware engineers and historians interested in the evolution of the computer chip.

As the reader might have guessed, I found it difficult to be really sink my teeth into these online tutorials; however, I do not want to categorize these tutorials as completely useless. As an individual trying to understand what makes a computer do what it does, the take-home message from this body of tutorials was that computers use explicit instructions in order to solve tasks. The more detailed the instructions are, the more complex a process the computer can carry out. As a historian, this message tells me that if I am interested in having a computer fulfil a specific task, I need only give it proper and precise instructions, and it will be able to carry out that task. Of course, that means learning how to speak a computer language…

A second project that I would like to make some concluding remarks about is my use of del.icio.us. I began using deli.cio.us to collect and tag internet sources that I was using for an essay; however, I found that clicking on tags to see what other websites users had tagged infrequently led to more useful information. Although I originally wanted to keep up tagging websites in order to build up a larger database of links relating to aboriginal archives, in the end this process became more of a hurdle in my research. It slowed me down to have to type in the website title, a description, and tags for each. On the other hand, del.icio.us has become a home for those links that I am not willing to commit to in my own Favourites folder. I find that I still do save and tag the odd website that I want to remember for an immediate project; however, these sites are forgotten as soon as the project is finished. I suppose that I am creating a deli.icio.us junkyard – a place of forgotten websites of lost importance.

Oct. 31, 2006

Who's Searching?

When writing an essay, few moments are more brilliant than finally coming up with that sublime thesis or finding the ideal sources to build an argument on. In my case, forming the perfect thesis statement is a skill that has developed from years of practice and hours of staring at piles of research notes and scratch sheets. On the other hand, stumbling upon articles and primary documents that form the foundation of a good essay has been just that: a serendipitous find amidst hours of trolling through marginal information.

A search query on the Internet or in library catalogue comes up with a reasonable number of relevant results, but upon reading the abstract, introduction, or index, it is apparent that the book or article in question simply does not have the right information. Sound familiar? Of course! This is a common situation for researchers because computers do not yet have the ability to effectively search full texts and consistently come up with the best results. The critical analysis skills that people possess are still crucial for interpreting and bringing together bodies of text; therefore, it is pivotal that these skills continue to be nurtured by humanists.

Computers can identify themes but not necessarily a thesis; they can pick out text but cannot read subtext… yet. The shortcomings of current text-analysis tools should prompt researchers to add more descriptive mark-up to texts, whereby computers might be able to identify the more subtle elements in bodies of text. Programs that search for patterns within text already exist, and researchers are developing software that can identify sarcasm or humour in a dialogue. There is still a great deal of growth occurring that to make digital technology a more powerful tool for text analysis and scholarly research.

On the other hand, it is important (and perhaps a little reassuring) to realize that digital technology only aids critical analysis rather than replacing this process. For the past two weeks, we have been discussing technology that facilitates research. Pattern matching and visualization as well as using spiders to search through ever-growing databases offer sophisticated means for individuals to get answers to questions. The fact is though, that the bleary-eyed student, the amateur historian, the established academic, and the casual enthusiast all want quality results quickly. Is each person going through the same critical process, and if not, are the tools that are being created for all of them?

The digital tools that are being developed to facilitate research are for people who want an answer to a question. Experienced researchers want tools that can search through massive databases and aggregate and organize large bodies of information, and it seems that technological advances favour their work. If digital humanists ignore the other individuals needing quality tools to perform digital research though, they might be discouraging these budding researchers from practicing analytic skills. By making research tools available to researchers other than academics and making these tools accessible by explaining how these tools aid in doing research, digital humanists are not only democratizing the resources used for research but also encouraging the process of critical thinking itself.

As computers learn to how to do a better job of searching for and collecting data, individuals outside of academia will want to take advantage of improved access to information. Although (Or perhaps because) not everybody will go beyond the single-box search, digital humanists should be intentional in their efforts to promote critical analysis among members of the computer-using public. The availability of sophisticated digital research aids encourages critical thinking by making people aware that the single-box search is not the be-all-and-end-all of digital research. By using more specific search techniques, discovering that ideal source might feel less like rummaging and more like the result of practice and skill. Brilliant!

Oct. 29, 2006

Supertags

When thinking one day about how I have yet to add tags to my posts, I began to consider a limit of tagging anything on the Internet. In most cases, tags only link a post or photo to other posts or pictures in the same context. For example, when looking at pictures in Flickr, clicking on the tag “Quebec” takes the user to Flickr pictures tagged with “Quebec.”

As long as the user is interested in finding similar results, this sort of tagging is effective and appropriate. My thought, on the other hand, is that it should be possible for tags to lead to a number of contexts, as defined by either the user or the author. Let’s define a tag that can link to multiple search engines (ie. Google, the Library and Archives of Canada, Flickr, and del.icio.us) as a supertag.

An author using supertags should be able to choose what search engines the tag is run through. Perhaps the top three results from each search engine would appear in a separate window. In using supertags, the author would be able to direct users towards other relevant resources. Likewise, a user-controlled application might run a tag the user clicks on through previously specified search engines simultaneously, again bringing up the most relevant results in a separate window. A user-controlled application would enable individuals to always run tags through the engines that they most trusted.

Tagging is a subjective way of classifying and connecting information on the Internet, but supertagging might be one means to improving relevancy for users.

Let's Keep Libraries and Research Simple

I’ve always been told, “Don’t knock it before you try it.” I don’t have the time right now to perform a thorough investigation of Second Life, but I can’t help but make one criticism regarding access to the libraries that are being established on Second Life.

Since I began taking the Digital History class in the fall, I have been learning on a weekly basis about how much I don’t know about the Internet. One thing that I have learned though is that it is important to me that information be shared on the Internet rather being locked away under a password.

Although anybody can create a character on Second Life, this virtual world is still password protected. A couple weeks ago, our class read that libraries and teaching institutions were setting up virtual equivalents in Second Life. My criticism is this: are we not making things more complicated for ourselves by creating a virtual world within the World Wide Web? Entering Second Life to access library materials seems like an unnecessary hurdle considering that a number of these resources are likely available online elsewhere. Hopefully institutions putting resources and services on Second Life are already established on the parts of the web that are searchable!

Maybe when I get a chance, I’ll search around on Second Life a bit to see if my mind can be changed, but for now, Second Life does not seem to be a very effective research tool!

Layers of History

When considering how to make a digital resource with a democratic quality, it seems that many web designers have chosen to layer their information. In doing so, they have attempted to give the history being presented a broad appeal while at the same time making the information valuable for more advanced researchers. Nevertheless, there still appears to be disparity between the site for visitors and the site for researchers.

Museums are concerned with attracting people to their website and institution, so the information that is presented should be easy to access and have a visual appeal. HistoryWired is an example of a compelling website that shows the user what items in the online exhibit are the most popular (indicated by the size of the box for that item) while also providing access to layers of more detailed information. The site is equipped with buttons that can highlight certain themes or time periods, which allow the user to search for patterns within the items being presented. HistoryWired thus democratizes history by making information easily-accessible while also providing some value to researchers as well.

On the other hand, the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History online exhibit renders the historical process more transparent by putting all the primary documents at the disposal of the blooming researcher. By contextualizing the documents for mysteries that haven’t been solved, the site allows anybody to be a researcher and come to their own conclusions based on the evidence that they choose to use.

Is it possible to focus these resources more towards sophisticated research though? The Text Encoding Initiative is an effort to standardize mark-up that would allow computers to more effectively “read” a text. Mark-up involves bolding text or creating headers and footnotes, but it can also be adding definitions to words, indicating St. John as a person rather than a city in one case or that Animal refers to a Muppet rather than a creature found in nature.

We can imagine the results if research institutions using TEI collaborated with museums creating publicly-accessed and publicized digital exhibits. Institutions would be able to connect their research to a popular institution and reinforce the idea that research should have a public value. At the same time, museums could demonstrate the research value that they have in their institutions.

By creating layered websites, we are succeeding as public historians in creating history that is accessible to people outside of the profession, without cheapening the selling short this information.

Oct. 28, 2006

Museum Remix

In this week's readings for Public History, Tony Bennett argues that museums developed in the 19th century from a middle-class and elite desire to give the working class an education in proper social behaviour; from a tradition of public spectacles, fairs, executions, and exhibitions; and from a need on the part of the nation to demonstrate its power. The individual reading this post may not see any traces of such roots in modern museums but have you ever asked yourself why you speak in a lower voice in a museum or don’t touch the items being exhibited? These expectations are some of the vestiges of those founding intentions.

Alan MacEachern posed the question in class that if the museum is not a natural institution (having been created for a specific purpose and out of a particular tradition), would it be possible to conceptualize the museum in a way more in line with the goals of today’s historians and curators? Should conscientious, intentional public historians continue this history of museums or take museums in a radically new direction?

Class discussion has frequently turned upon the idea that museums should be places where visitors can enter into some sort of dialogue with the items being presented, regardless of any formal or informal training that these individuals might have in history. Since such a dialogue is voluntary, it is important to be able to draw people into such a discussion. What follows is a list of ways in which “museum” could be re-conceptualized that try to keep in mind the desire for this dialogue to occur.

The History Dealer / The History Agent
A knowledgeable agent guides a small group of visitors to the items in the museum that the group is interested in seeing, contextualizing each item and drawing relationships between the different items. The group determines the speed at which it moves and is able to direct the conversation. The experience is similar to looking for and buying a house or car.

The Lecture / The Documentary
Visitors watch a presentation that guides them through a set group of items in an exhibit, clearly presenting the items within different historical narratives and guiding the visitors towards a straightforward take-home message.

The Museum Party
Lots of activity is going on across the large hall in which items of the exhibit are placed. Visitors can move from exhibit to exhibit and from group to group, sharing ideas and opinions with the people they meet. There is period music playing and activities going on in different corners of the room that help to reinforce some of the ideas being conveyed in the exhibits. Museum employees are the life of the party, engaging individuals and stirring up excitement about history. The mood and atmosphere should be similar to a house party.

Museum Camp
Visitors come to the museum for an extended period of time. History counsellors take visitors through a program of discussions and activities meant to develop trust between individuals, whereby visitors feel more comfortable to share their opinions of the items and historical events being discussed. Visitors leave the museum with an understanding of a variety of historical perspectives on the exhibit in question.

Museum Ikea
Visitors move through the showroom, which consists of a number of exhibits created by the museum curator. By looking at the items contained in these exhibits, visitors can learn about different events or movements in history. Simultaneously, visitors pick up tickets representing the items they are most interested in (similar to getting a ticket at Ikea that tells you where to find a particular item in the warehouse). These can then be taken to the History Cashier at the end of the showroom, who compares and contrasts the items the visitor has shown interest in. Visitors thus are able to identify their interests and have somebody else help them to tie these interests together.

The Laboratory
Historical research becomes a more transparent process as visitors are allowed behind the scenes to watch researchers in action. Visitors wander among museum researchers’ benches and cabinets of curiosity; while the researchers themselves work away on whatever item they are currently assigned to. These historians are more than willing to explain their current project or discuss any of the items in their cabinet, and they sketch out broader historical narratives or themes by drawing visitors’ attention to related items. This concept is based on the idea of telling a person, “Hey – this is really cool! You can try it too, and I’ll help you along the way!” and is a mix of Bill Nye the Science Guy and comments that Bill Turkel made regarding teaching people how to do new things using computers.

The Ultimate Interactive History Experience
In this museum, visitors travel along a moving sidewalk that moves through different historical events acted out by automated characters (similar to being on the ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” at Walt Disney World). Visitors interested in learning more about a particular exhibit can hop off the sidewalk and walk past the automated figures to a backroom set. The set is a larger version of the automated scene, and museum employees take the interested visitors through a series of interactive activities. The employees, highlighting the different perspectives that particular groups held regarding the event in question, first sketch the movement or event out. Next, visitors get to be a part of a re-enactment of the event. Each visitor chooses a character to be, is dressed up as necessary, and is given a few key lines. Museum employees play the critical figures and include the visitors in acting out the event, which is recorded by other employees. Visitors leave with a DVD containing the recorded historical event (including any flubbed takes) as well as supplementary material regarding the exhibit. In a sense, the visitor takes the exhibit with him or her. This experience is a mix between the Indiana Jones interactive presentation at MGM Studios and the idea of having your picture taken while riding a roller coaster.

Responding to Oral History

When I was younger, I once had the opportunity to be toured around a southwestern-Ontario courthouse by a judge who frequently held court there. Upon entering the empty library, which held the volumes documenting court proceedings in Ontario and Canada stretching deep in to the past, the judge had motioned for us to be silent.

“If you listen carefully,” he said in a low, mysterious voice, “you can almost hear the voices of past lawyers and judges speaking…”

Imagine being able to hear and to communicate with voices from the past! To interrogate and cross-examine historical voices speaking from within the context of the event or movement being studied would enable a vastly more complete and nuanced historical record! Since this is not the case though, historians are left with the option of examining different source documents or perhaps listening to recordings or interviews from the period being studied in order to discern what the voices from the past were saying; however, oral tradition offers the researcher a means of interacting, to a certain degree, with the past.

Oral history gives more information than a document because the researcher can hear emphasis, hesitation, and intonation in the speaker’s voice. Speakers tell their stories with a bias that comes out of their life experience. (Portelli, The Peculiarities of Oral History) The researcher or listener can agree or disagree with what is said, but in either case, a reaction makes that history more tangible.

What is it that makes history less dusty? A feeling of nostalgia might give greater significance to a part of history; intrigue, tangibility, or relevance can bring history to life though. As a visitor to museums, I learn the most from and get the most excited about exhibits that I can interact with and probe. These are the elements that make me ask questions to better understand the historical narrative. Oral history is one of these hooks that draw me in.

But does oral history always tell the correct or accepted narrative? Of course not, but it then becomes the responsibility of the historian or curator to put these stories into their context. The person hearing or reading an oral history should understand both the historical context of the events being described as well as the point of view and bias that the speaker is coming from. By contextualizing an oral history in both the past and present, the historian is creating an opportunity for the reader or listener to draw connections between the present and the past.

Public historians should also be aware of conclusions they want a reader or visitor walk away with. The tangible, such as an oral history, might be the highlight that allows somebody to recall the message that the historian was trying to create. In researching for a paper I was working on recently, I read an article (which I cannot reference – I didn’t write down the quote because it didn’t relate to my immediate research) in which the author stated: “what is kept in the mind is kept in mind.” The lessons that public historians convey lose their relevance if an exhibit has no tangible or remarkable element that will help the reader or visitor remember those lessons.

Oct. 21, 2006

Creating New Connections

One of the most diverting assignments that I have continually returned to over the past couple weeks has been looking at different network interfaces. A network interface is basically a visual way to organize and connect a lot of information, and there are definitely applications for these interfaces in the context of historical research.

The McCord Museum’s virtual exhibit offers a network interface that allows users to see the connections between different artifacts held by the museum. Clicking on different topics or items brings up more information on specific artifacts, creating a really neat way to explore the museum’s holdings. Unfortunately, the actual interface is constantly moving around, it doesn’t show the entire web of connections very well, and it isn’t very aesthetically-pleasing, especially when compared to other network interfaces.

Visual Complexity is an online database for network interfaces. Although many of the applications in this database are oriented towards the sciences, there are a couple interesting examples that could imitate what the McCord is doing.

Tracking the Threat is an interface that connects suspected terrorists to countries, terrorist activities, and organizations. The icons that represent these different entities can be moved around, and more information can be brought up by double-clicking on an icon. The maps that are created can also be focused by removing entities that the user is uninterested in. If this site was applied in a historical context and had its name changed to “Finding the Figure,” the interface could be used to connect historical figures to events, places, movements, organizations, or other individuals. Alternatively, one might call the site “Search for Scholarship” and create a network of information regarding historians. Scholars could be connected to institutions, topics of study, and publications. Such a tool might be useful for discovering potential research partners, employers or scholarly works on a desired subject.

LivePlasma is a site that uses information regarding music purchases from Amazon.com to create a network indicating what artists are the most popular and what other artist consumers bought albums from at the same time. The site also allows the networks that are generated to be saved or emailed. Such an interface might be used to track what pages were most popular in a website or what resources students were most interested in when doing library research for a history paper.

As a general application for historians, network interfaces have the potential to allow historians to organize and see information in novel ways. Names of people or places might be layered with historical information that can be accessed with a click of the mouse. References to journal articles or books might also be included in this layer of information. Alternatively, it might be possible to periodize history in different ways by starting from a generated network.

A general problem with many network interfaces seems to be that there can be so much information that it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees, but this problem could easily be rectified by creating a zooming tool that eliminated broader connections or by creating a number of smaller networks that focused on more specific topics.

Network interfaces offer a very tangible way to manipulate data, which makes these interfaces useful for looking at historical information in a creative way.

Aggregating History

One of the assignments for Digital History from two weeks ago was to learn about and make use of an RSS aggregator. An aggregator is essentially a program that informs the user when a specific website has been updated. Who cares when websites are updated? Well, when you’re a Public History student with the blogs of sixteen peers and instructors to keep up with, you do! As soon as I got Feedreader up and running, I immediately realized the benefit of an aggregator. Every time a blog is updated, I am immediately notified with a Messenger-type box. When I open Feedreader to see who has posted, I need only click on the title of the new post to have the text pop up in another section of the program, without having to connect to the blog itself. As a result, keeping track of who has been blogging has transformed into a much more efficient task.

It seems that historians could use aggregators in a number of different ways. It might be easier to stay up-to-date with colleagues’ research if an aggregator was collecting the RSS feed (the data that a website generates when it is updated) from those individuals’ blogs or websites. For example, I might add the RSS feeds of digital historians’ blogs in order to keep abreast of new developments in this field.

Aggregating information from e-journals or newspapers’ websites might be important for some historians, but this might lead to an information overload. (Carling experienced such a problem when she began using an aggregator) It would be useful to hack an aggregator so that it could search larger sources for key terms or authors to reduce such an overload from occurring.

In terms of tracking traffic on a website, it seems that aggregators might give a false impression that sites are not very popular. If a blog was scanned solely by aggregating programs, then traffic-observing software would note only a brief visit to the site, even though the human reader might thoroughly read each post. Nevertheless, RSS aggregators aresimple yet useful tools for gathering information from a variety of sources.

Oct. 5, 2006

The Public Historian in the Intellectual Commons

The Intellectual Commons: a place where knowledge can be shared by all. Individuals who come to the intellectual commons are free to deposit new information or make use of what is already available. Some will be great contributors; others will make use of the commons without ever contributing. Where are these commons? All around us: in classrooms and conferences, in books and blogs, in museums and movies, in editorials and educational television (perhaps even in some un-educational television).

The unifying quality of the intellectual commons that remains constant regardless of the medium is that the intellectual commons is always sought by people who wish to engage in an exchange of knowledge. How can the budding public historian employ this knowledge as he or she engages in a pursuit to share good history with others?

In this week’s readings for Public History, one author argued that Canadians were in need of a dominant historical narrative in order to develop a unified Canadian identity, while two other authors outlined research indicating that Americans put a different personal emphasis on the dominant American historical narrative, thus making their own. Aren’t these two authors commenting on the same phenomena? People are taking an interest in the elements of history that they are able to identify with. As people identify more strongly with particular elements of history, they take on a greater sense of ownership for those elements. Historians are the perfect example of this idea: they have taken such an interest in the subject of history that they have built a profession around the study of history and carved out niches of expertise, jealously protecting or arguing for what they accept as the proper narrative or theory. Conversely, the genealogist researching her roots at the time of First Contact will have little regard for how many soldiers and artillery pieces the North and the South brought to the Battle of Gettysburg.

“So what?” The communication of factual information, current research, and ideas supplementing what is already known should be a responsibility of those who choose to study history. Interestingly, the ownership that that non-historians have shown towards elements of the past has created intellectual commons outside of academia. Wikipedia is an example of such a common, and its design and content do not keep to accepted scholarly forms.

The public historian needs to be aware of these competing (or at least, co-existing) commons and create a space (be it exhibit, virtual exhibit, blog, database) that encompasses the needs of everybody who has ownership of and wishes to exchange knowledge regarding the past. Exhibits, for example, should be accessible, compelling to a variety of audiences, and open to interpretation at the same time that they are factual and indicative of the best-argued-for narratives. Content does not need to be cheapened (nor should it) for a public audience, but it may need to be presented in a different way.

Creating an exhibit that meets all of these specifications is challenging in and of itself, but it seems that it would be particularly difficult to hint at historical narratives without pigeon-holing that exhibit. Here are two suggestions: Could the text next to exhibit pieces and pictures ask questions instead of merely giving facts? Could a space be created at the end of the exhibit where the guest could become the creator and add a comment or an idea or a theme for subsequent guests to read and evaluate? It is vital to recognize that individuals coming to the intellectual commons can and do have a significant part to play in telling history; therefore, it is the public historian’s job to encourage dialogue from all parties within the commons.

Oct. 2, 2006

From the Digital History Trenches

At the beginning of September, I never would have imagined that in a month’s time I would be explaining the basic uses of data structures. Is “data structure” even a term that should be part of a historian’s vocabulary?

In my effort to empathize with and understand where computer scientists are coming from, I went through the tutorial explaining the use of data structures. Data structures are basically the different ways that packages of information can be stored inside a computer. Let me give outline the quick-and-dirty explanation of data structures: When a computer is searching for a particular piece of information, it is performing the same process that a person running their finger down a book index looking for a particular heading would do. Using different data structures in a computer though, information can be ordered and accessed in a number of different ways, and shortcuts between information packets can also be created to accelerate this process. As far as how this information affects historians, I think that it is important to understand that data structures can take different forms, so it is possible to make information access more efficient.

The development and troubleshooting of data structures seemed a technical Everest to me though, and so I was glad to complete my basic training in data structures and move on to experimenting with different tagging websites.

An on-going project is my effort to tag links that have been useful in my research regarding the archives of Canadian aboriginals. Using del.icio.us to collect and tag these websites feels like a repetitive and unnecessary step, especially considering that searching the sites tagged by other del.icio.us users has not yielded any particularly useful results. Nevertheless, the absence of useful links is one of the reasons that I want to continue this effort. Now that I am aware of this deficiency in del.icio.us, I feel like I have a certain responsibility as a discriminating researcher to bring useful links to the table. There is no system to how I tag websites though, which might decrease the usefulness of my efforts. My method for tagging sites is simply to put down whatever relevant words pop into my head. I will continue to tag resources for this essay as I come across them but will likely not make use of del.icio.us much after this assignment is over. It is not an effective research tool because tags are not assigned systematically (as I myself have demonstrated!).

My other experiment with tagging was a comparison of the results that del.icio.us, Flickr, and Technorati came up with using the same search terms. I will outline my observations and conclusions briefly. del.icio.us consistently came up with the least relevant results. The websites that were tagged were frequently trivial or completely off the desired topic. Flickr showed the most varied results; however, the tags were frequently appropriate for the pictures displayed. Technorati’s results were often the most informative, although tailoring the search results to show only the most authoritative blogs is what really improved these search results dramatically.

For the time being, none of these websites are particularly effective as researching tools. More relevant and authoritative results can more frequently be found by performing a Google search. On the other hand, I should note that there might be other applications for these sites. T. Mills Kelly and Joseph Ugoretz have both proposed ways in which students’ learning experience might be enhanced using sites such as Flickr. Dare we learn through what communities on the Internet share?

Emphasis on the History

Last week, the name of this blog changed from “Exercises in Humility” to “Humility in History.” The change was a result of reading Cohen and Rosenzweig’s chapter on building a virtual audience for a history website. The inclusion of the word history in the title will move me (marginally) higher in Google’s search results, which in turn could attract more readers to this blog. “Humility in History” also gives readers a better idea of the topics that this blog reflects upon. As public historians, it is important to be intentional even in how we advertise ourselves and the information that we are presenting to the public.

Compelling History

One of the pivotal skills that a public historian should possess is the ability to present history in a compelling and interesting way to an audience. Although blogging is a means by which to reflect on learning how to be a public historian, it seems that the blog also provides an excellent opportunity to practice be compelling and interesting.

Re-read the above paragraph. Does it fulfil the objective that it sets out? Is it an interesting or compelling passage to read? Maybe for instructors, classmates, family, or close friends, but that is only because all of those people have to read this blog. What would make this entry fascinating to the casual blog reader? Blogging brilliance is elusive, but as I got caught up on what my peers had been blogging about, I caught a few notable instances of inspiration.

Bryan has been struggling with two ideas that I have interpreted into these two questions: “Does Public History have a place in the Canadian context?” and “How do I create a significant place for myself within the sphere of Public History while remaining outside of the academy?” Bryan’s blogging caught my attention because the questions were very relevant to me. Relevance – this is a teachable moment.

Kris started off a post that considered what it meant to be involved in public history by relating how she answered the oft-heard question, “So what are you going to do with that degree?”

"Although I started the summer by telling people that I wanted to do "Museum work" (specific enough to stop the questions, vague enough to leave the possibilities open), I later adopted a comedic routine for my questioners. I told them I was going to open a history store, sell history and be wildly rich."
Inspired. I had a mental image of a store selling History-in-a-Box and Scoops of Historiography, with Kris throwing hundred-dollar bills into the air in the middle of the store. A wildly-rich historian? Does such a creature exist? Humour – another teachable moment.

On Alan MacEachern’s blog, my eyes were drawn to a link entitled “Old is the New New.” Rob McDougall, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, has manages a far-reaching blog that not only touches on research interests but also highlights some of the quirkier sites related to history that can be found on the web. The entire site has been put together in a thoughtful, professional-looking manner while at the same time crying out, “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here folks.” An inviting, professional, and fun feel – a third teachable moment.

As a public historian and a blogger, I have a lot of areas for improvement as I work towards presenting compelling and interesting history. By being relevant to my audience, employing humour, conveying professionalism, and creating an inviting forum in which to share history, I should be able to be a successful public historian.

Of course, these goals do not follow SMART guidelines (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Time-wise), which means these are ideas that need more thought. For the sake of my reader though, I leave goal-setting to another post and simply ask that you hold me to these vague and lofty goals for now.

Sep. 29, 2006

What's In A Name?

Flickr, del.icio.us, and Technorati are three examples of websites that allow “tagging” – the practice of user-defined subject classification. What words come to mind when you look at the picture of a baby? Cute, baby, eyes, youth, diapers, responsibility, hope? All of those would be suitable tags that a Flickr user could assign to the picture.

Tags not only allow a creator to assign his or her own subject headings to Internet content but also connect this content to other text, music, and pictures that have similar tags. A search on Flickr for pictures with the tag “relief” brings up albums related to Hurricane Katrina, to art from across the globe, to relief services in Lebanon and Pakistan, to baseball pitchers, and even to men relieving themselves on the side of the road. The way in which such different ideas, subjects, and contexts are tied together is one of the fascinating qualities of tagging.

As a research tool however, tagging’s usefulness diminishes. While using tags works well for finding general and popular information, there is a noticeable scarcity when specific information is sought out. Furthermore, resources that are tagged are not necessarily the most reliable. Searches performed using del.icio.us (where websites are tagged) for “American Indian,” “polymers,” and “John A. Macdonald” almost never showed authoritative websites in the search results, which might indicate that the people who are tagging the most popular sites are not necessarily being as discriminating a researcher as a student or scholar might be.

Does tagging have a utility for historians if, in its current manifestations, it is more of a hindrance than a help in researching? Certainly there are proponents of tagging. The creators of Steve.museum hope to build a larger community of individuals attending art museums by allowing patrons to tag pieces of art that are posted in Steve.museum’s online gallery. By allowing patrons to tag museum holdings, curators are hoping to make art more accessible to a greater number of people.

Such a tactic seems like more of a gimmick to get individuals onto a website or into a gallery, but his does not mean that tagging is entirely bereft of benefits. Patron-tagging is another way that museum-goers and scholars can have a dialogue. Curators might use popular tags as keywords when describing a new exhibit in advertising. Tagging is also useful in identifying what is popular among patrons or what patrons find controversial. Educators might also make use of student tagging. If students, whether at the secondary or post-secondary level, were able to tag research resources and course readings, instructors might gain a better sense of how students are conducting research and where students’ interests lie. Instructors might tag resources themselves as a different way to give students a start on where to look for research or supplementary material.

On the other hand, when considering the usefulness of tags for researching, it seems best to leave classification up to experts. While it is important to ensure that jargon is minimized to make information accessible to the public, systematic naming facilitates more efficient searching and should ideally lead to answers faster.

Sep. 27, 2006

Objects That Speak

In his article “The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture,” Carroll W. Pursell Jr. asks whether material culture tells its own story or whether material culture is used to tell a different story.(1) My immediate response upon reading this question was that material culture passed down to historians should tell solely its own story. Just as a historian should not force printed evidence into his or her argument in an essay, neither should a museum curator place a particular item into an exhibit simply because the object fits the context of the larger exhibit. For example, in an essay describing Newfoundland’s entrance into Confederation, an author would not discuss Joseph Smallwood’s eating habits unless this information contributed to the argument. Likewise, a curator of an exhibit on the weapons used in the Vietnam War would not place any gun or missile from the period into the exhibit unless it had a specific connection to the events that took place in Vietnam.

Upon further consideration of this question though, I revised my opinion. Material culture should tell its own story; however, such artifacts can contribute to a larger narrative if the context of each artifact’s story is understood. One of the interesting parts of going to a museum is seeing leftover objects from past events, and it is fascinating to discover where such artifacts came from, how they were used, and how they made their way into a museum. Nevertheless, the stories of individual artifacts can be woven together to develop an overarching account of a particular period or theme.

Pursell’s question seems particularly pertinent since our class went to Museum London today to learn more about the “Innovations and Inventions” exhibit that we will be creating this winter. From our conversation with the historical curator, we discovered that we will be responsible for the bulk of the factual content and creative effort that goes into creating an exhibit. Might it be possible to include the provenance and story of the items we are putting on display? Perhaps it would be interesting to discuss particular inventions’ success (or failure), utility, or the company (or individual) that created or produced a particular invention.

If every artifact has its own story, how does one let that story be told, while also presenting a grander narrative, while also presenting this information in a way that challenges patrons to draw their own conclusions about the historical information they are receiving? That will be one of the major questions that I will be trying to answer through this process.


1 – Carroll W. Pursell Jr., “The History of Technology and the Study of Material Culture,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985), p.118.

Sep. 25, 2006

At the Algorithm Crossroads

This week I made an effort to dive into the mysterious world of computer science and programming by doing an online tutorial on algorithms and some reading on artificial intelligence. It was a disaster.

That’s an over-statement. Algorithms turned out to be a lot less complicated than I presumed. Any set of explicit instructions is considered an algorithm, and it is useful to have computers carry out algorithms because of the high processing power that computers possess. Algorithms would clearly be useful in sorting out and ranking quantitative information for a historian to analyze. Complicated algorithms could likely be developed to analyze text or images to find pertinent information for a historian. Algorithms are at the center of the Google search engine. The ability to manipulate algorithms will likely be of great value to historians as more and more historical data and scholarship becomes available on the Internet.

The “disaster” of this learning experience was how incredibly uninteresting I found the entire lesson. In a program where everything I have read has been compelling and new, these exercises were decidedly dull. This surprised me because I thought that the Digital History class would be a good opportunity to learn a little more about the nuts and bolts of computers than your average historian. When I realized how quickly I was glazing over as I read about the basics of artificial intelligence, I was a little disappointed in myself.

I find myself re-assessing my goals at this point; I am no longer sure that I can go through with learning all of the ins-and-outs of computer programming, but I am not willing to give up completely. As a public historian-in-training, it seems important that I be able to take advantage of different types of media in order to reach people in a number of different ways. On the other hand, as somebody who hopes to be an educator, it seems important that I have a good grounding in the resources and tools that are available through digital technology. Furthermore, I do not think that it is my instructor’s intention that I choose exercises that will bore me to tears.

This then is my compromise: I am going to leave artificial intelligence alone but continue on with the online computer science tutorials. I believe that, as a public historian and an individual with a liberal arts education, I should “be at the table” during discussions regarding the digitization of the historical record. If I cannot be on the same page as computer scientists when they are talking about the challenges of programming a new database, at the very least I can appreciate where they are coming from and empathize with the specialized work that they get to do. And who knows… maybe by the end of the semester I will be able to mash a little bit of code together.

Humble historians of the world unite!

It's About Museums and Heritage Moments

The question that people most-frequently ask a student who is working towards an MA in Public History seems to be “So what exactly is ‘Public History?’” After two full weeks of class, a little reading, and some discussion with other students in this program, the picture of what Public History is has begun to come together.

Phyllis Leffer and Joseph Brent have argued in “History and Its Audiences” that historians’ responsibility grew in the late-twentieth century to not just researching and writing about moments in history but also presenting this information to the public in a manner that makes the research significant. Rebecca Conrad and Noel Stowe have both proposed that public historians must be intentional in the way that they present historical information to the public. Public historians must continuously be reflecting about what they are presenting, why they are presenting this particular body of information, and how they are presenting it.

Public History is valuable as a distinct field of historical study because it focuses on the theory and practice of communicating ideas and evidence about the past to an audience and doing so in a compelling manner. Public History conveys the research of historians, which has been financed through tuitions, donations, and public funding, to the general public. Good Public History should create a bridge between the public and academics, whereby both groups can benefit from and enjoy the results of scholarly efforts. As such, Public History teaches revealing the inquiry process to individuals, and it challenges people to think about the information in front of them and to create their own interpretation of past events.

As I discussed in my previous post, there is a value in sharing History with others. The prospect of being trained as a public historian is exciting because conveying information about history to others is what this program is all about. This program teaches historians how to be accountable to their audience. There is an element of continuing to learn how to ask questions and conduct research in order to construct an argument; however, arguments are formed outside of the academic journal. There seems to be a focus on relating to an audience and finding opportunities to present historical material to this group. In presenting historical information, public history students are expected to begin to consider the impact of the information being offered and the reasons they have for creating a certain exhibit or program. This program teaches students to re-consider with each new situation how to best present historical information.

As a Public History student, it seems that I have a pretty big job as well. This is a solid opportunity for me to hone my team-working skills in a professional environment. If I choose to pursue further endeavours in Public History, I will be working with numerous groups; therefore, this program gives me the opportunity to be an intentional group member. It also seems important to expose myself to as many forms of public history as possible while I am a student in order to increase the number of ideas I have to draw on as a professional. Being a conscientious practitioner of Public History by interrogating the process and product of my efforts is probably the final element that I need to intentionally work towards. This means making myself aware of ethical and awareness issues related to the work that I do.

In writing this post, I was hoping to lay down some fundamental ideas regarding Public History that I could refer to throughout the year. I do not believe that I have succeeded in doing so today, but I think that this post does reflect my growing, if imperfect, knowledge of Public History. I will therefore leave the matter at that for now and hope for further illumination.

Sep. 22, 2006

Regarding the Study of the Past and Writing Histories

The post-modernist position regarding history, as I understand it from Keith Jenkins’ introduction to Rethinking History, argues that individuals do not have the ability to write about the past. Post-modernists argue that there is not enough evidence from the past to re-create even a small moment in the historical narrative. Whatever evidence is available to the writer may be interpreted out of context because each writer brings his or her own biases to the table when writing history. Finally, even if an author’s interpretation history does in some way reflect the past, readers will also understand this interpretation in a different context because of the biases, beliefs, and pressures that the readers are experiencing.

Is there a point to studying history if all histories are merely individual historians’ interpretations of the past and not reflections of events that occurred in the past?

I am neither able nor do I wish to respond directly to the post-modernist argument regarding the study of the past and the writing of history. On the other hand, the ideas raised and questions posed by the post-modernist argument create an opportunity to examine my own reasons for studying history.

The study of history is essential in helping me to build an identity and to identify elements in the world around me.
As a historian, I am very curious to understand how we (whether as individuals, as a society, or as a global community) have gotten to here. What events occurred between Then and Now to make us who we are and our world what it is? If we build histories based on our own biases, as the post-modernists would have us believe, are there defining moments that we can logically agree have led to certain circumstances in the present? History then is important because knowing where I come from gives me a better sense of who I am.

There is a sense of fulfillment to be had from studying history.
As a researcher, it is exciting to come across a document or piece of evidence giving insight into the past. It is satisfying to be able to put together a logical narrative from the evidence used. As a student, it is rewarding to finally comprehend another author’s argument and point of view. History then can be an enjoyable pastime.

It is a joy and a privilege to be able to share histories with others.
Whether conveying my own interpretation of the past or helping individuals to come up with their own interpretation, it is a powerful experience to be able to share ideas and thereby share in and contribute to the creation of identity and fulfillment of study.

There is a value in the honing interpretive and argumentative skills that are critical to the study of the past.
Perhaps there is no way to determine an absolute truth about the past, but what are the most logical truths? How can historians creatively interpret evidence to create a historical narrative? How must evidence be presented in order to be relayed to the reader the way that the author intended the evidence to be read? The ability to interrogate sources of information and convey ideas in a clear, reasonable way are not just important scholarly skills, but important life skills for individuals as friends, workers, and citizens. To study history is a way to improve one’s self as a person.

Others will likely have other reasons for studying history, and those reasons will be as valuable as my own. May our collective reasons for studying history continue to be the foundation upon which we work to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Sep. 21, 2006

Single Box Searching

After reading Google’s manuals on The Essentials of Google Search, Advanced Search Made Easy, and Advanced operators and then putting these instructions into practice, it is clear that a multiple-box search is the most practical solution when searching for specific information on the Internet. Why then does Google’s homepage have only a single search box? Presumably the results that Google’s search engine turn up are relevant enough that an appropriate link will appear on the first page. Many people might not want to spend time filling out multiple boxes. There is also a visual appeal to having a single box prompting you for information. Nevertheless, it appears that an advanced search is more effective for sustained, specific research questions needing more reliable sources than Wikipedia.

An advanced search, whether using the advanced operators in a single-box search or simply using the multiple-box search option, has the advantage of clarifying the searcher’s intentions, which is something that no search engine can do unless it gets inside your head. The initial attempt to use Google’s advanced operators successfully improved the quality of the results that were returned, which was expected after using search engines for gated scholarly databases. (A more quantitative indicator of the search’s improved success was the fact that the results numbered in the hundred thousands rather than the ten millions, but who ever goes through more than the first hundred links, or even the first page of results, anyways?) Without consistently using the operators in the single-box search though, these terms could be easily forgotten (which was my own case). Thankfully, the advanced search page offers the exact same options, using multiple boxes to prompt the user for specific information about the subject being searched. In either case though, search results dramatically improved with the addition of more qualifiers for Google to use.

Google services such as Froogle and Google Scholar were effective for further improving search results, with the number of results decreasing to the thousands or even hundreds using a detailed advanced search. Searching for items on Froogle worked better than finding articles on Google Scholar. Perhaps this reflects the gated nature of a great deal of academic research. The use of Find Forward’s search grid made viewing a larger number of search results easier; however, the findings did not appear any more relevant, and the use of operators did not seem to work particularly well despite the fact that Find Forward makes use of Google search results.

From a researcher’s point of view, this exercise indicates that not only is it useful to employ an advanced-search option when looking for information on the Internet, but also that it is critical to know as detailed an idea as possible about the thing or subject being studied in advance of using the Internet. Such information can dramatically improve the relevance of the results that Google comes up with. It is instructive to know that certain gated databases, such as Historical Abstracts, only have a multiple-box search engine. Furthermore, it is necessary to use a number of search engines (to cover both public and gated websites) in order to comprehensively discover and evaluate all of the resources available on the Internet. Single-box searches are simply not the most effective way to uncover information on the Internet.

With the limitations of a single-box search in mind, a public historian should be mindful of the fact that many people will only use the single box to look for historical information. It is therefore important that research, exhibits, and databases made available for public use are presented in a clear, user-friendly manner. Additionally, information on a homepage should clearly convey the website’s purpose in order to be show up as more relevant on other search engines.

The fact is that the single box has a lot of appeal for people looking for information. Why? We’re in a rush.

Sep. 19, 2006

Free Beer vs. Free Speech

This week's set of readings for Digital History (02. Open Source) examined the topic of open-source information and used the example of Wikipedia to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of taking an open-source approach to sharing historical information and research. A number of observers have noted that collaborative projects such as Wikipedia and Flickr are picking up a great deal of momentum; however, despite their popularity, there is still room for individuals (both casual users and historians) to help define the overriding structure of such projects. (1) Historians have the opportunity to use a number of novel and traditional tools to create a large quantity high-grade historical information available for public use. It is advisable that historians make use of these tools in order to address observed deficiencies while at the same time encouraging an environment where ideas can be shared, revised, and expanded upon. Open-source software and information provide the foundation upon which historians can develop such a project. The delayed digital release of journal articles upholds traditional practices of academic scholarship while making information essentially free. Although students will continue to face sources of bad history, instruction in evaluating sources will also continue to serve students in using appropriate Web resources.

An open-source solution to creating a quality database of historical information does not mean that historians need to re-invent the wheel; rather, software and information that are freely available for the public to use have already provided historians with a headstart to creating such a database. Open source means that the material in question can be reused, reproduced, and modified without the creator's permission. (2) Wikipedia and Google are two sites who's managers allow others to make use of the sites' resources. Wikipedia's information is all open source, and although Google does not share all of its software, it does allow other users to make use of its substantial search power. A search of Wikipedia using Google could possibly be an effective way of retrieving history articles that have already been published by Wikipedia users. Historians might then create a separate wiki requiring a password to edit, re-publish the Wikipedia entries, and allow scholars to edit these entries at their leisure. Such a solution would enable experts (without having to compete with other contributors) to raise the quality of historical information provided by Wikipedia while maintaining the creative energy derived from allowing anybody to develop an entry for the online encyclopedia.

Roy Rosenzweig suggests multiple ways that scholarship could be made free for public use; however, there are consequences for scholarly publications were made free and public. The most notable challenge needing to be addressed is that the responsibility to pay for and review such scholarship falls because more onerous if no revenue is being created through journal sales. (3) Companies that provide gated access to scholarly journals likewise would lose enormous amounts of revenue. The best option that Rosenzweig proposes seems to be one that continues to support journals' existence in paper-form while also allowing academic research to be made public in a reasonable amount of time. Delaying the digital release of journals would encourage many libraries to continue to subscribe to the print versions in order to remain up-to-date, but the eventual public release of these articles (which are often written with the support of public funding) would enable the general public to easily benefit from this information as well. Much research that is hidden in the deep web would also be uncovered, again improving the quality of historical information available on the web. It is important, and I believe more realistic, to continue to allow journals and the "middle companies" providing e-journals to libraries to conduct business in such a way that allows them to adjust to an open source model of sharing information; however, I would agree with other writers that users, be they academics, libraries, or enthusiasts, should receive the greatest benefit from the research that scholars publish.

The greatest challenge of an expansion of open-source material will be teaching students how to judge sources. Although with open-source information, it is hoped that there would be a relatively greater amount of scholarly work available to students, it is likely that hobbyists would also make use of this information to augment their own sites. The implication of open source history for students is that search skills will also have to be honed in order to effectively navigate the information available while judgment skills will also be necessary in order to interrogate digital sources for their worthiness. This will require more intentional instruction not at the college or university level, but at the secondary level, where students are learning the fundamentals of researching and argumentative writing. Both teachers and students will have to adjust strategies in order to make use of an open-source database, but in the end, the principle of open source should be achieved in a historical context: to build on previous ideas to make something new, different, and hopefully, historically compelling.


1 - Daniel J. Cohen, “Raw Archives and Hurricane Katrina,” dancohen.org (28 Aug 2006) and Jim Giles, “Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head,” Nature (14 Dec 2005) both comment on the growth of collaborative projects. Sanger, Larry. “The New Politics of Knowledge,” Constructing the Digital Universe (31 Jul 2006) describes how online governance is still being decided upon.

2 - Please refer to Google definitions

3 - Rosenzweig, Roy. “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” AHA Perspectives (Apr 2005). Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. “Owning the Past,” Digital History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005.