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.

Sep. 11, 2006

The Big Picture

After working through the first set of readings for my Digital History course and wondering how I'm going to keep them all straight in my head for class tomorrow, I thought it might be useful to write down a few observations... and since this blog is for commenting on my learning experience, I might as well post my thoughts!

The big themes in the readings this week seem to be as follows...
... there is a heck of a lot of digital information out there and it is only going to get bigger in the coming years
... all this information could be of potential use to historians since we could have, for the first time, a complete historical record of human activity; additionally, digitized information means that anybody with a computer and Internet access could tap into humankind's collective knowledge (which would be good)
.... information in a digital format also allows both scholars and amateurs to cross examine information in new and dynamic ways
... unfortunetly, digital information is also incredibly fragile and we're not doing a very good job of making sure it is all preserved; nor are we doing a good job of making sure copyright laws allow for an optimal exchange of scholarly ideas; nor have we figured out a way to rapidly digitize all of the information that is on paper/film/etc. and keep it in a format that people will be able to use in 50 or even 20 years (all of which are problems)

I was definitely caught up in the articles as I read them. It was a powerful thought to learn that Google was not only a powerful search tool for historical research, but was itself a piece of historical evidence. The idea that all of humankind's collective knowledge could potentially be available to anybody is also pretty exciting: it is the ultimate practical example of two heads being better than one! I was likewise frustrated that copyright laws and business interests seem to be detracting from the goal of digitizing the whole of human knowledge. I felt inspired to do my bit to ensure that I and future generations of historians might be able to effectively look at an authentic, significant, and whole historical record.

When considering these issues and readings afterwards though, a number of questions popped up. Who in the foreseeable future would benefit the most from "the greatest archive since the Library of Alexandria"? How much money is going towards preserving digital information and could that money be better spent on people who are in need? How much energy is used to create digital archives? Hopefully at some point we will be saving trees by digitizing information and using electric forms, but are we saving the planet as we make these archives?? A part of me screamed, "In the big picture, this is just a small detail!!"

After thinking and re-writing though, the big picture that I see is this: the fact is that we use computers for communicating, researching, and presenting. Computers, whether we love'em or hate'em, have become an integral part of how we help others, come up for cures, and even include people. The information and the process of developing those ideas need to be kept in order for us to correct mistakes and do better the next time. Furthermore, one of the functions of history is to learn from mistakes and to repeat and commemorate successes.

It doesn't seem like archivists, historians, businesses, or governments are going to be able to secure a complete digital record of human activity anytime soon, but I would have to agree that it is important for historians and for humans to preserve as much knowledge as possible in whatever format we're creating it in in the moment (for now, digital). It's a pretty awesome opportunity to give so much knowledge to whoever is interested in learning more, so if we can all work towards that in our own way (and I think that it is going to be universities and private interests that lead the way), then it is a solid cause to hang a hat on.

Sep. 10, 2006

Welcome Welcome!!

Hi There!

Welcome to the space where, for the next few months, I will be recording and reflecting on my ventures into the exciting world of Public History. This blog is a required part of course and program requirements for my MA in Public History, but I really hope that it will be exciting (or at the very least interesting) to write and to read.

I suppose that I should explain the title of my blog briefly. Instead of simply naming the blog after myself, I decided to choose a title that reflected both my willingness to try new things as well as my expectation that I'm going to screw-up along the way. Hopefully, I can learn from those screw-ups with a smile on my face... well, maybe I'll look back on those screw-ups and smile... ;-p

The links that you will find on the side connect you to both more information about my program as well as to some social justice issues that I'm interested in. If I'm going to put myself out on the Web, I might as well use this opportunity to raise awareness as well!

To friends and family who take the time to read these posts: Hopefully this blog will give you a better idea of what I'm doing at school. And no, I haven't transformed into a computer geek. Yet.

To my profs: So far, so good. I hope this is a decent intro!!

And if you're still reading and intend to read subsequent posts, whoever you are, thanks so much for your interest and support.