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.

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Everyday History

I’ve met a number of people for whom history is apparently something in the classroom or textbook, a dry (possibly dusty) academic subject. I don’t blame them for thinking these things, any more than I would blame people who likewise relegate chemistry, physics, math or literature to the school building. But just as we encounter chemistry in cooking, physics on the highway, math in our budgets and literature on the shelves of a local library, history is always present.

I’ve had two encounters in the past two days with everyday sorts of history, and I wanted to share them.


Yesterday morning I went to my parent’s church and was engaged in conversation by an older woman who sat herself down next to me. Learning that I am a PhD student in history, she proceeded to tell me how she loves reading history and finding things out. Her personal interest is in the history of regional groups in the US.

She said to me “of course, the more you learn the more confusing it is,” (roughly paraphrased) which I thought was such a wonderful expression of how studying history can sometimes feel like travelling down Alice’s rabbit hole, or wandering into Ariadne’s labyrinth without benefit of a ball of string.

She also mentioned that she grew up in south-east Washington, DC. Recently she’d been coming back from National Harbor with her daughter and they’d driven around the neighborhood looking for a Dairy Queen. They ended up in front of her grandmother’s house. Not only did she tell her daughter about her memories of that house, she went home and dug out a picture of her grandmother on its steps, tracked down the woman how now owns the house, and sent her a copy of the picture. Apparently the current owner is the third generation of her own family to live in that house, and she loved having a picture of its first owner just after it was built.


Today Patrick Murray-John retweeted a link to a blog essay written by a person of color who went to the Occupy Wall Street movement to see what it was about and ended up getting involved. The essay discusses the demographics of the people in the movement and the people organizing the movement. It’s worth a read.  I was particularly caught by this passage, near the end:

And this is the thing: that there in that circle, on that street-corner we did a crash course on racism, white privilege, structural racism, oppression. We did a course on history and the declaration of independence and colonialism and slavery. It was hard. It was real. It hurt. But people listened. We had to fight for it.

When you live rolled up in history all the time, it’s easy to forget that some people don’t see it unless they’re made to.  I don’t want to say that all history is political, or that it should be, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some people are doing the politics without understanding the historical context.  That just giving a student dates and names may not offer them the resources they need to know why riffing on race and the Declaration of Independence might be problematic.

There is chemistry in cooking, there is math in my checkbook, and there is history in the everyday.

Access issue: what window?

I’m currently reading the design and building oriented sections of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, and remembered something I keep forgetting to mention. One of the issues which kept coming up about websites and web-based history interactives when I was with the museum was the fact that some minority populations primarily access the web via mobile phones (and not necessarily smartphones, either). How should/will this impact design of sites which want to do truly “public” history?

The Revolution in Egypt

I have been wanting to write about following the events in Egypt, and how it made me feel connected to those observers who witnessed the French Revolution, as well as those who witnessed the American. I may still write a nice, scholarly post about it.

This isn’t that post. I read the news on Twitter and Facebook, and confirmed it on the BBC, that Mubarak had finally yielded to the revolutionary voice of the people (mostly peaceful voice!) and resigned. Egypt has a long road ahead, I know, but when I read that news I almost cried for joy.

Growing up a citizen of the United States, you’re taught that people are the voice and seat of power, even if sometimes it feels like no one listens. The world in which I grew up was shaped by popular, mostly pacifistic, movements: I can vote because of the Suffragettes, my schools were integrated because of the Civil Rights Movement, and I played on sports teams with boys thanks to the Feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s (Title IX!).  I am aware that I am very lucky to live in a country where my right to be heard is acknowledged and codified.

To watch the people of Egypt, whose government considered free speech a gift to be given and not an inalienable right, make their voices heard throughout the world, and then begin to achieve their goals? It is a truly awesome moment, in the traditional sense of the word.

Congratulations, Egypt. You have work ahead of you, but so many people are behind you, supporting you, as you move forward.

The Wilderness and the WalMart

Just a quick note to say that today a judge in Orange County VA is hearing arguments about whether or not to take the issue of the proposed battlefield-sited WalMart to court.

Please note that although WalMart and supporters say it’s “not on the battlefield,” they mean the battlefield as currently preserved by the Park Service, etc. The site where the WalMart would be built was part of the active battle landscape in 1864.

More info: http://blog.preservationnation.org/category/issues/civil-war/


When I was a kid, I had a paper cutout set that came out at Thanksgiving. It has a backdrop of Plimoth Village, and little paper Pilgrims – children and adults – as well as a handful of Native American men. I took great care every year in setting out the display, arranging it just so.

However, I don’t remember thinking that it was an accurate depiction of the First Thanksgiving. Somehow, early on, I was taught that the first Thanksgiving was more complicated, less neat, than the pretty story and paper people on the dining room chest. It may have been that I have an older sibling, and she read about Deerfield in school in maybe third grade.

As Thanksgiving approached this year, I thought about the paper set and my early Thanksgivings. How and when did I learn to doubt the nicely packaged story of a historic event? Is there an age at which you start to teach children to question the mainstream historical narrative, or do you begin there? How do you teach adults to dig deeper? Do you resist little things like toys which buy in to the mainstream story, just in case? I can at least answer the last one – not necessarily.

The paper set didn’t mislead me about history, but it might have encouraged me to think of it as something I could engage with. I asked after it yesterday, since I ate Thanksgiving dinner at my parents. My mom was able to lay hands on it immediately, despite the fact that they’ve moved a few times since I was a child. I took out all the pieces, and smiled. The set is a little piece of Americana and an artifact of my childhood.

Tech knowledge

One of the many hats I wear at work (because, really, who doesn’t wear multiple hats?) is as the Department Technical Support. Setting up computers, frozen screens, defective mice – I am the front line. When I’m at a loss, we call ITTS, which for us is one man with a radio.  It can be fun, sometimes all I have to do is touch the computer for it to start behaving, and everyone in the department knows to reboot first.

Still, I recently started to wonder how I came to be this person. It wasn’t initially part of the job, as far as I remember. It’s not because I’m the only computer-literate person: roughly half of my department is younger than I am and I believe of a similar socio-economic background, and I know they’re comfortable with computers. Moreover, I’m not spectacularly qualified. I did once work at a retail store for the fruit-logo’d computer company, but I’ve never taken a single computer science course, built my own tower from scratch, or even used Linux. My technical knowledge is almost entirely self-taught; why or when or how, I wondered, did I learn these things that my coworkers have not (yet)?

The best explanation I can come up with is that it has to do with my relationship with computers and their ilk, the basic nature of my attitude towards them. Broadly speaking, I learned to approach technology as something exciting and interesting to be explored and understood, not as a tool to be taken for granted nor yet as something to be cautiously regarded as helpful but unstable.

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QuickPost: Citations

I recently finished reading The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner. It’s a very readable look at the early 19th century Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, offering a great deal of context both for the Edinburgh they inhabited and the culture of medical anatomy which motivated them. I may write more on it later.

What intrigued me was the citation style. There were no footnotes or endnotes, but in the back was a section for notes, with text in bold indicating what sentence or paragraph was being supported. At first I was a bit irritated, as it made it impossible to tell while in the main text whether she was working from a source. Then I realized that I, and I imagine others, have a tendency to thing “Oh, a foot/end note. This must be based in a reliable source,” which is decidedly not always the case.

I recently tried to find the source of a quotation only to be sent from one citation to another, backwards through publications until I got to the point where there were no foot or end notes, only a bibliography. I’m learning not to trust a notation so blindly.

Who is a historian?

Within the first year of getting my job, a Job In My Field (history), I learned that some people would not call me a historian. Apparently there has been a divide between historians who work in museums, for the Park Service, etc. and those who are professors in universities and colleges; put more succinctly, public historians and academic historians. Some (but not all!) academic historians do not think that public historians are “real” historians, either because we tend to work on one project or era for a discrete period of time and then move on, or because of some reason I have yet to divine.

At first I was offended, then philosophical. It does, after all, raise the question of who is a historian, of what work or effort earns one that title.

You see, I am a hobbyist reenactor. I’ve never done a juried show, but I love hanging out with my friends who do them on a regular basis. For those who are unaware, many historic reenactment shows which are open to the public, such as Military Through the Ages in James County, Virginia, have judges who come through and rate the various groups (at least, that’s my understanding). These groups are self-policing, with every item that the public can see vetted by members of the group who have done extensive research. My friends belong to these groups, but almost none of them have day jobs which give them the title “historian”. They’re editors, writers, programmers, project managers, and human resources directors. But are they not also historians?

There are also people who act as the voice of history for an area, an organization, a nation. My father has been involved in internet and networking since the 1970s, and he has met some of the most influential people in its history. He can tell the story of the trials and tribulations of academic computing, and he has preserved relics from those early days (albeit only as many as he has space to store). My Grandfather, who I wrote about in my last post, made a point to go and talk to teenagers and young people about his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which for them was decidedly history.

There are archivists, special collections librarians, librarians of all kinds, elementary school teachers, neighborhood council members, all manner of people who engage in the activity of researching and interpreting history for themselves and others. At what point does one transition from a person who does history to a historian? Is there even a difference?

I don’t have an answer to those question – I’m not sure if I want one. I will likely revisit the question, at least to explore the work done by my friends who voluntarily wear layers of wool in the heat of Virginia summers to bring the distant past closer. But I welcome the comments of those who read, as long as you’re civil.

Who knows what history lurks in the audiobook section…

The Shadow Knows!

I’ve been listening to CD recordings of the old radio show The Shadow that I checked out of the library. The shows range from the 1930s to the 1950s and the historical context is wonderfully apparent.

All except the later shows have advertising at the start, middle, and end. I’ve been encouraged to buy Blue Coal, made from Genuine Anthracite, and Goodrich Safety Silvertown Tires . During the war years, the pitch for blue coal changed from “Good heating” to “Economic heating so more coal can be used for the war effort”.

There was also a change in the stories – during the 40s the Shadow stops a number of spies and US criminals who would betray their country! Margo Lane goes from being the Shadow’s confidante to being his “friend and companion”. TV even makes an appearance in the later episodes. And the closing speech by the announcer changes from “the show you have just heard is from a copyrighted story from Shadow Magazine” to “these stories demonstrate to young and old that Crime Does Not Pay.”

I’ve studied history through the written word, prints, paintings, lists, popular music, documentary films and movies. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to include radio, but now I know better.