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?