Clio Wired Wrap Up

The question, since it’s not on the syllabus, was: what difference does new media make to doing history? Reflect on your time with us this semester.

I want to address these in two sections. First, the disclaimer that I am a new media fan, have drunk the kool-aid, etc. I think there are number of ways that new media makes a difference to the practice of history, and the class does an excellent job of covering them. What follows is just what I’m particularly excited about these days.

One of the best advantages new media has for history is the ability to easily embed non-textual sources. My favourite class in my MSc programme was the Material Culture of Gender in 18th Century Britain, where our sources were not only the books we read but tea tables, prints, advertising cards, furniture, clothing, and buildings. Representing these objects in traditional print media is problematic: either you spend a great deal of money for a (big, heavy) book full of large, full color glossy photographs or you save money, have a few color photographs, and end up describing the objects which you’re trying to interpret. Continue reading “Clio Wired Wrap Up”

Week 13: Scholarly Communication and Open Access Open Source

When I started my Masters program at the University of Edinburgh, I had an idea – an ideal – of what Grad School would be like. I envisioned intellectual conversations about history, art, theatre, literature, and science happening in the flat at dinner, over a cup of coffee, or a late night beer. I believed that to enter Graduate School was to enter a realm of scholarly discussion and inquiry.

The reality of my MSc was that, outside of class, these conversations happened only with a handful of people: a few fellow students, occasionally one who lived in my block of flats, and frequent conversations about culture and cultural differences with my friends, a computer programmer and a translator.

I wanted to open with the above not to complain but to point out the importance of scholarly communication. Most academics/scholars benefit from and crave conversation with other scholars, about the topics which we study and about intellectual subjects in general. One of my main activities on Twitter is following conversations about digital history and humanities.

Continue reading “Week 13: Scholarly Communication and Open Access Open Source”

Something Profound

A quote from this week’s readings that I particularly liked:

Something profound happens when you work transparently—when you have to summon up your courage to listen to people and shape complex ideas out in public every day. Your work becomes more about humility than about your own authority and expertise. And somehow, magically, the work product gets better and better.

Michael Edson, Director
Web and New Media Strategy
Smithsonian Institution

From the article: Tim Grove, “Grappling With Radical Trust”, History News (July 2010).

Week 12: Citizen History

In September I attended the AASLH annual meeting in Richmond. One of the sessions I wanted to attend, but didn’t get the chance, was led by the editors of a recent work titled Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. If you follow the link to the publisher’s page, you can read the table of contents. Although the book is focused more on the museum community and pubic history, it came to mind when I was reading the articles and essays assigned for this week.

Written history, academic history, often seems to be written with the idea of authority, either in finality or in a closed conversation. One of the apparent consequences of the “professionalization” of history (( Generally used to describe the late 19th century creation of a distinct identity for historians working in the academy )) has been historians writing and “doing” history for other historians. This is not in and of itself problematic, but it has led to an assumption that everyone speaks the same language and knows (and will follow) a similar set of rules.  Citizen history changes the rules and the language.

Of course, the rules and language were never as set in stone as some would think. Historians working in museums or otherwise with the public have been aware of that, whether or not they accepted it. A curator can write clear label text, carefully construct an exhibit and educational program; there will still be visitors who ignore all the presented information, or who read what you have written in a completely unexpected way. The divergence of intended and received information can be seen as a failure, but how we react to that failure can change, in fact seems to be changing.

From my entirely self-informed understanding of 20th century educational and museum history, there was for some time an attempt to change the behavior of the visitor. The exchange of information, whether from a curator or academic historian, was one way: into the audience. The challenge which is now being voiced by some, including (I believe) the editors and contributors of Letting Go, is to start a conversation, to engage the audience in a conversation, and moreover to listen to them.

Giving voice to the non-experts is scary. How can we give up the authority that we have earned through hours of work, reading, and all those graduate classes? What if they don’t listen to us? What if they are wrong about something, or say that we are wrong?

On the other hand, listening to the non-experts is exciting. When they realize how broad and deep our knowledge is, they respect all the hours of work and reading (well, most of the time).  If we listen to them, they may be more inclined to listen to us. At times, they may still get it wrong.

The main concern I have seen in citizen history, both in my own experience and in the readings, is a fear that the public will misbehave – commit vandalism, break the tool or the site. It is expecting the absolute worst behavior of people. Certainly, there will be some vandals. There will be the one person who stands on the left side of the Metro escalator, who talks loudly on their phone in the quite train car, who speeds recklessly on the highway. There will still be all the other people standing on the right, reading quietly, and driving within 10 MPH of the posted limit. We should give those people a chance.

Moreover, we should be excited to give those people a chance. They can be extremely passionate about things that interest us, or even things that do not. As Roy Rosenzweig mentions in his article about Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia  “offers a detailed 3,100-word article titled “Postage Stamps and Postal History of the United States,” a topic with a devoted popular following that attracts little scholarly interest.” Although not generally applicable or usually publishable, this group of wikipedians might prove helpful should a curator at the US Postal Museum run into a thorny problem.

Moreover, once a community of participants has established itself, they will help to keep down the number of vandals and troublemakers. Full disclosure: I have an account to edit Wikipedia. Just this past week I was reading an entry and noticed that someone had added “youll love these awesome deals” to one of the references. So I went in and made a minor edit. Users may have their differences, but in general I think the citizen historians are interested and excited to be included in a meaningful historical project.

That, for me, is one of the best reasons to be willing to surrender a little authority, to listen as well as talk: the enthusiasm of the volunteer can restore your own energy and dedication to a project. (( I almost wrote a long paragraph comparing this feeling to the benefit of a responsive audience for theatre actors – as compared to an empty room – but I decided to stick it in this footnote instead. Maybe later. ))

Visualizing the Past

Back in high school I had this idea for a field trip in a van. It was going to be what I did after college (where I would, of course, double-major in theatre and history), and it went more or less like this: most public schools these days have trouble getting the resources (time, money, manpower) for field trips, but field trips to historic sites were some of the best times for me as a kid, because you got to be where the past happened. ((In the words of one of the kids Sheri took on a house tour, you get to “touch history”)) In order to bring that experience to schools, I was going to get a van and fill it up with objects, clothing, and build a whole educational workshop that could go for a class period or half day in whatever space was available.

One of the features that I concocted was a map mash-up which would help students see the historic landscape and the modern simultaneously. There would be a map, probably the historic map, printed large so everyone could see; the other map, say the modern street map, would be printed on overhead projector type clear plastic so it could overlay the historic one. I thought the visual collision of past and present would help other kids see how history is related to the world around us, in the roads and fields and buildings.

Needless to say, I never got around to making the field trip in a van, but the map idea stuck with me. Which is why I really enjoyed a number of the sites on the syllabus for this week (11), which are using digital tools to make a much more sophisticated version of a historic/modern map mash-up. Hypercities is only currently configured for select cities, but the interface is good. It allows users to select a time range and to increase or decrease the opacity of the historic map(s) which overlay a modern satellite view.  Some of the cities have only a few maps; London apparently only has one, but it’s John Snow’s cholera map!

Map overlays or mash-ups aren’t, of course, the only sort of visualizations available for historians. The variety adds to the use, and I find visualization tools personally useful. I am the sort of person who makes mind maps, writes and reads simple entity-relationship diagrams for relational databases, and appreciates a good flow chart.

However, when I remember my high school plan and impulse, I look at the visualization tools another way. Visualization tools can help a historian analyze their data, but they can also make that data more comprehensible to an audience, whether scholarly peers, students, or the public. It could be in the form of an argument, where the visualization illuminates an aspect of the data which is otherwise buried. It can also be in support of an argument, for example a relational diagram which highlights what aspects and relationships were considered most important in the data.

For this second form of visualization, the trick is making something which is true to the data and comprehensible to the reader. Even my low-tech overhead sheet map wouldn’t work for a group of students who had no idea how to read a map. Provide a key, define your terms. A visualization may be gorgeous, but if you’re the only one who can understand it, what’s the point?

Week 10: Data Mining and Distant Reading

This week Jeri and I are leading the discussion. She has already posted an excellent overview of the readings, so I thought I would look at the sites and tools.

With Criminal Intent was a response to the Digging into Data challenge in 2009. It combines a specialized API with a personal research environment and visualization tools. The data is all from the records of the Old Bailey.

Let me just say that Dan Cohen is right about the importance of a good API. It makes a huge difference. I mucked around with the Old Bailey website when I was working on my Masters in Edinburgh – we talked about its utility in a class on material culture in 18th century Britain. It was fun to poke around but hard to get anywhere.  The API developed for With Criminal Intent is so much more useful, because you can drill down so quickly.

Compare the two search pages:

Old Bailey Search
Old Bailey search

The old search page ( top left) was oriented more towards punishments, verdicts and specific persons. The API (bottom left), on the other hand, looks more towards general categories and helps you narrow down to subcategories of punishment or offense.  Moreover, once you’ve started the search you can further narrow by the existing categories, based on what the results are.

Old Bailey API

To explain: I ran a search for offence category Theft, subcategory shoplifting, where the victim is female. I was then able to see the rate of punishments for qualifying crimes – the top being transportation with 144 sentences. From here I can further narrow my search, view results, or move the data into Zotero or Voyeur.

What this API allows me to do that the old search did not is to generalize while still narrowing down. Not only did the creators of the API make gender a category for analysis, but they also defined for the users the subcategories of offences, verdicts, and punishments.

With Criminal Intent is, in my opinion, a good model for data mining in history. Note that  from the API you can directly access the raw source, the actual entries.  While a historian using the site can look at larger trends they can also zoom in on each and every instance if they want.

Compare that functionality with Google’s Ngram or Moretti’s graphs of novels. As Moretti points out, on the graphs each work is only “tiny dots in the graph of figre 2, indistinguishable from all the others.” ((Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London, New York: Verson, 2005), 8.)) From Google NGrams you can move to book search for a year or set of years, probably best done by opening a window. You cannot, however, narrow the search beyond the date and the general language corpus.

What do we make of these sites? What do they make of history? Which are tools and which are methodologies? Any advanced search option gives you choices of which parameters to narrow, but those parameters are pre-defined.

Do these tools, or methodologies, change the way we formulate and ask questions of our historical data? If nothing else, it certainly alters what we can discover, in very little time.

Week 9: Digital Scholarship

The readings which most resonated with me were the reports from the 2007 Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship and the 2007 essay by William G. Thomas III, “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account”. They are relevant not only to the course, but to my future as a historian (academic/public/digital), and I suspect I’ll reread these over the next few years.

Even if digital history isn’t implicitly public history, I think that the recommendations of the working group for evaluating public history work create a very helpful template for digital historians. The emphasis to community engagement is in particular is worthy of attention. One, because public history and publicly-accessible digital history works are a way of engaging with the community, and can especially help foster connections between a local group and the college/university, breaking down barriers which might otherwise exist. Secondly, because I think historians sometimes forget about the communities with which they could engage; if we keep that in mind as one of the assets of our work, it is harder to neglect those ties. Continue reading “Week 9: Digital Scholarship”