Last weekend I attended my 10th college reunion. In addition to seeing people I haven’t seen since our 5 year, enjoying the annual alumnae parade (headed by a woman from the class of 1934!), and generally indulging in nostalgia, I had a chance to reconnect with two aspects of my undergraduate experience which helped shape my scholarly life: the History Department and the Vassar College Costume Collection (VCCC). Continue reading “Reunion”

Digital Public History Week 1

Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (1998). For me, one of the most important pieces of information to take away from this work is that people, in general, approach the past in relation to themselves and their families, not from a class, gender, or ethic standpoint. Americans can and do relate to major events in national history, but often through the access point of a family member or personal connection. In the afterthoughts, Thelen notes that respondents liked history museums because they could approach the content on their own terms and create their own narratives (195). My question is how one goes from encouraging people to see the connection between their personal history and, say, the WPA to understanding the connection between their history, the WPA, and the history of the stranger standing next to them in the museum. Is it even possible?

Continue reading “Digital Public History Week 1”

All Things are New in the Morning

I did no coding this past weekend. Saturday I read and did work for my other class (cholera and yellow fever!) and Sunday, despite the drizzle, I went out and enjoyed my favourite season of the year by picking apples.

When I sat down again with my editdocs file, which has given me so many headaches over the past few weeks, I immediately saw where certain things were going wrong. I had missing spaces in some of my echoes which were interfering with the code (“select” needed to be ” select “). In the space of a couple hours I was able to get the page to display preselected information, something which I’d been trying to do for over a week.

I’m not done with my CRUD yet. I’m slowly writing in the update code for editdocs, which has to update or create for all four join tables. I want to be sure I’m writing things properly so I’m not rushing through it. Plus, ever since we turned on error display I’m getting some odd error messages that I can’t quite understand (the variable isn’t undefined on line 29! Line 29 is where I tell you what it is! There’s an = and everything!).

Still, taking a break and looking at something other than a screen made it much easier to see where I was writing errors and where I need to go. Next time I hit a wall when coding, I will get up and go for a walk or something.

(The title of this post is a line from the poem “Blake Tells the Tiger the Tale of the Tailor” from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard)

Parlez-vous code?

This semester I am continuing the trend of taking a digital (history) class. Although we’re calling it clio3, the name is properly Programming for Historians. The code and other work I generate will be going up in its own little corner of my webspace.

Hopefully I will finish the semester the proud creator of a working database into which I can input all of the various letters written by the family on whom my dissertation will be based, and with the database I will be able to conduct analysis (particularly location and movement). I’m excited to be building such a tool form scratch. I could have thrown something together in FileMakerPro (I managed several FMP databases at my previous job), but ever since I heard Jean Bauer talk about her Early American Foreign Service Database I’ve wanted to do the work myself, code and all.

I’ve been mucking about on the edges of codes of various kind for years. As a kid on MicroMUSE I learned the necessary commands to build myself an awesome house with an ever more awesome treehouse in the back yard (I was 10, what can I say?). Working in FMP I wrote scripts whose sytax reminded me a little playing around in the mux. I like the elegance and logic of coding languages, with the if and elseif, @desc and $variables. Unlike English, a language which bounces around and changes its mind about spelling and rules, code language seems to stay consistent once you’ve met it. I say seems to, because I’m still only just learning to speak these various languages, and I could be deluding myself. After all, in code-land I can only say “Parlez-vous anglais?” or “Ou est le WC?” and not much else.


One of the comments we sometimes hear about living in the “digital age” is that texts are in a state of constant revision. For better or for worse, website content can change from one day to the next, and unless there is some sort of tracking in place (as on Wikipedia), the user won’t know what changed.

Yet this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Print books change in content, from one revised edition to the next. Sometimes the changes are clear, in the form of an added chapter, or documented in the new foreword by the author. Sometimes they are more elusive, woven into the original text like the near-invisible darn which restores a sweater.

C. Vann Woodward’s The Stange Career of Jim Crow (Commemorative edition) falls into the latter category. The content originated as three consecutive lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1954, edited by the author with some help from colleagues and published in 1955. For the paperback edition of 1957, the content was revised and a foreword added. Ten years later the book was again revised, not only with additional material in chapter form but worked back into the original text. A final revision, with yet another chapter, took place in 1973. The extent to which the main text was again revised is unclear.

It would, of course, be possible to hunt down all four editions and compare the content. With the help of a good scanner and quality OCR, it might not even take that long. Website revisions can be retrieved through caches, if one is lucky. The iterations of historical writing are (sometimes) discoverable.

How do we shuffle our cards?

Over the past few months I’ve had a quote, more of an idea really, rattling around in my head. The artist James C. Christensen wrote about how he thinks about creativity and new ideas using the metaphor of a library’s card catalog.

I never knew card catalogs, so in time the cards in the metaphor have gone from being library catalogs to the index cards I was taught to use to organize quotes and ideas when writing research papers. What follows is the first and last parts of the section where Christensen uses the metaphor (the whole discussion spreads out over two pages).

Card catalog drawer pulled out displaying card stack in profile
“Library of Congress Reading Room Open House 14” by Ted Eytan

“The way I see creativity and imagination is something like a library’s card catalog, except that the cards are made up of concepts, ideas, visions, pictures, all the faces of one’s personal life experiences …. The exercise comes about when one practices combining the cards and putting them together in new ways. All the Edisons, Einsteins, and da Vincis of the world were building upon stored information (cards they already had in their files), but they combined the cards in new ways. Their astonishing inspirations came about because they took what was known and saw it in a new light.” – James C. Christensen. A Journey of the Imagination: the art of James C. Christensen. With Renwick St. James. (Shelton, Connecticut: The Greenwich Workshop, 1994), 40-41.

Christensen means his metaphor to apply across fields, using the names of an inventor, a physicist, and an inventor-artist to describe the sorts of people who combine and rearrange their cards.

When I think about this metaphor in terms of the study and practice of history, the cards are facts or sources. Some of us rearrange the cards in new ways, to look at history from a previously unexplored perspective. Sometimes people try introducing new cards (race, gender, furniture, clothing, editorial cartoons) to change the way history is seen.

And sometimes we use the cards in completely new and different ways. We lay them out in a grid instead of in a stack, or build castles and houses, or make a long snake of cards overlapping. Digital history isn’t necessarily something completely new and different. We still have the old cards, but we’ve added new ones to the stack and we’re shuffling them in ways no one thought possible thirty, forty years ago. With so many people rearranging their cards, who knows what “astounding inspirations” will be brought to light.

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”

Week 5: Public History (on the web)

The title of this week in Clio Wired is Public History and the bulk of the reading list is web sites where the general public can engage with history. The sites are:

Two of the sites – Deerfield and Freedom – use a pre-content site, a sort of splash page. The image and text presentation is decidedly reminiscent of the initial physical encounter with a museum exhibit: a wall with text summarizing the exhibit and a representative image or two. Both of the sites were developed by museum groups, so the transfer of layout theory makes sense. As a web user, I don’t know that I like having to take an additional click to start exploring content, although to be fair you can go from the first page of Freedom to the collections. However, I can see how the layout might create a mental note for the user “This content comes from a museum”; which could increase the users’ trust of the site content, given Rosenzweig and Thelen’s 1998 finding that Americans trust museums for “truth” in history.1

Three of the sites are very clearly about mapping history, geolocating photographs and the like: Cleveland Historical, History Pin, PhillyHistory. Of these, I find myself most frustrated by HistoryPin because it has the least amount of information about each image or object in its collection. Cleveland and Philly’s provide contextual information for each image, Philly going so far as to provide quotes for some of them. These all have mobile app versions of their content, and I would be curious to find out how much of the text data is displayed in the mobile versions. I can see that someone developing a purely mobile app might think photos were the best way to engage people in history, and yet I can’t help but think that the addition of context allows for a richer experience.

In fact, that’s my overall impression of these sites. The ones with more context, more ability to “dig down,” as they say, are more engaging to me. What is the object or image, where did it come from, how did it end up on the web site, what does it mean? As a historian, I’m used to asking these questions and figuring them out for myself, but as a curator one of your jobs is to provide some guidance to your visitors. For me, It’s not enough just to put things on the web. You have to give clues, at the very least, to help visitors understand why it was worth digitizing and putting online in the first place.

1 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelan, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.