My Digital History Adventure

Over the course of this semester, I have been introduced to the many wonders of using the digital world to tell the stories of our distant (and not so distant) past. Thanks to people like Roy Rosenzweig, the digital humanities have become a field all their own. From blogs, to digital exhibits, to social media networking, historians have found ways to make digital platforms work for them. They can now do research more easily than ever before thanks to digitized archives, and can also share that research with a greater audience thanks to online publishing. While there is still something to be said for doing history the analog way, the digital realm should not be discredited simply because it is new. As I stated during a presentation at CCSU’s University Creative Achievement Day, “Contemporary students need contemporary resources.”

Each reading this semester has covered at least one of the above-mentioned topics in great detail. The ones I felt were most useful were the ones about topics I didn’t know much about. Going into this Digital History class I already knew that many historians used GIS maps to organize and share information on a topic, such a Doug Seefeldt’s map of the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, using podcasting as a new way of discussing history was one avenue I was excited to read about and see how different institutions used it.

The other major world I was turned on to was the world of digital exhibits. Those are the readings that I will take with me into the rest of my college education, as they will help me in creating my Capstone project. Doing a digital exhibit for a class is one thing, but creating one for a profession institution like CT Landmarks, I need to have all the background knowledge I possibly can on this type of project.

While most things for this class I enjoyed doing, such as the blogs and the digital exhibit, one thing this digital native has not gotten used to is digital note taking. Though many of my classmates use their computers to take notes all the time, I prefer the old school pen and paper method. However, to keep my notes clean and organized for use in following semesters (you never know when you’ll need your notes from U.S. 1), I will type them out and print them. Using the online platform EverNote for note taking became a challenge for me. I tried doing a couple of outlines for my World War 1 Omeka exhibit on the site, but since it wouldn’t let me write my notes the way I normally do in my notebook (the way Microsoft Word does), I eventually gave up with the site. I also didn’t like the fact that like most websites, it didn’t work on my work computer (it isn’t a flaw with the website, there are just weird blocks on my work computer), making it difficult to access materials I needed to be able to work on projects while I’m at work.

Overall there are a multitude of new skills I will be taking from this class to enhance my career in the future. Seeing the starting point of many of these ventures gives me hope that one day every historical resource will be digitized and accessible around the world, allowing those contemporary students to choose whatever topic for a paper or project they’d like, not simply get stuck with something just because they are the only materials they have access to.

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Can We All Be Archivists?

While many historians in their ivory towers would say no to this question, some public historians are saying yes! They understand the benefit of having more than a few sets of eyes on a document. With the different background knowledge that each individual comes in with, they might have a different (and sometimes better) understanding of the documents than the archivist themselves.

Having those extra sets of eyes is great, but as most museum working public historians know, they don’t want a huge number of random people rummaging through their archives. Without proper document handling training, this could lead to missing or damaged objects, many of which are irreplaceable.

So how do you solve the problem of wanting those extra eyes but not wanting the extra hands all over your stuff? The National Archives Records Administration (NARA) had figured it out! By properly creating a digital format for all these easily damageable objects, one can now look at all the documents for as long as your heart desires without fear of losing or damaging them. This digital format is also helpful when trying to share these objects with the world. Rather than having the few people who know about the archive come and make an appointment to look at the actual objects (which for many people is physically impossible), now the NARA can upload everything to their website and have everyone who has Internet access be able to look at it.

Once it hits the web, that it when the magic happens. The NARA has a Citizen Archivist program that allows everyday people to go in and not only look at the documents on file, but to interact with them and make contributions. A person can add tags, add comments, or transcribe a document. These additions will make searching for these documents easier for future readers, who will also add their own tags and comments. For example, on a document that lists the voters at the Constitutional Convention, I transcribed a few of the names and their vote that were hard for other people to read (Being a history major, you get used to reading older handwritten documents in a way that most readers would not).  

The goal of the project is to have every document in the collection easily searchable and readable. Since achieving this goal with every document would be a challenge for the staff at the NARA (even though they have a staff much larger than most museums and historical societies), they use the American citizens as their new archivists.    

How Podcasting Helps Historians

The goal of every historian, especially public historians, is to have their work and the history they love be shared with the masses. With today’s technology, this goal becomes much easier to attain. Not only can historians post their written work to online academic journals, they can also reach a whole new audience with technological advancements such as online exhibits and of course podcasts.

Podcasts have become increasingly popular with college-aged young adults, who don’t necessarily have the time or the want to sit down and read a full historic monograph, many of which are over two-hundred pages. Rather than reading a text that could take hours, most podcasts last less than one hour. This allows young adults to fit them into their schedule better. They can listen to a podcast while they are at the gym or while they are driving, allowing for greater multitasking which has become a staple in the young adult life.

Other than the allowance of multitasking, podcasts also create new ways of looking at the history of the world. In academic settings, most classes focus on either wars or presidents or major events in a countries history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attacks on 9/11. These types of history may appeal to other academic historians, the masses in America might not agree. Being the only history major in my family, I can see this first hand. My family could care less about the statistics around America’s involvement in World War II, or to go even earlier, who the first settlers were. Unless they can relate it to their own lives, people are less likely to want to learn history. These podcasts come in handy because they can be created around any number of historical subjects.

One museum institution does this very well. The Smithsonian’s SideDoor podcast has episodes on a vast number of topics, from the traditional historic topics such as the Cold War and colonial enslavement to more fun topics such as food history and culture, as well as the history of beer. By giving audiences these more interesting and fun topics in this new technology based format, public historians are creating a new group of history students; these students are more eager to learn than ever before because they have found a way to make history work for them.

Social Media: A Social Life

This semester, I was given the task of creating a blog for my Digital History class where I would follow other academic history bloggers. I also took to Twitter, which I had been using for years before this class, to follow a number of different historical associations and what the Twitter world calls “Twitterstorians.”

On my blog, I feel as though I am on par with other graduate students and smaller historical associations. I try to keep my blog very academic, while still incorporating a few personal anecdotes here and there. From what I have seen on other blogs this is very much the norm.

On Twitter, however, this is where I differ from my “Twitterstorian” counterparts. I use my Twitter for more personal use than academic, which can be seen by the types of pages I follow. Some of them are history related, but the majority are the pages of my favorite actors and bands. Occasionally one of my favorite actors will post something relevant to current events that I will either Like or Retweet. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda has tweeted about relief efforts in Puerto Rico or his issues with our current president. When the Olympics came around, I also retweeted posts from NBC regarding different athletes and different concerns surrounding the games such as Russia’s doping scandal and the United North/South Korea Team.

Most of the “Twitterstorians” I follow however use their pages very differently. These users post different historically based commentary, like a “What happened on this day” post or an argument to an article or book. Also, if they are a part of a museum, they will retweet things from the museum’s page about different events coming up.

In order to become a better public historian, my social media pages should become more professionalized. If a potential employer is looking at my social media pages, I want them to see a person that will fit into their institution, not someone who is more interested in connecting with random people on the internet. In order to do this, I have been removing a lot of the random “click-bait” type pages I have followed in the past. I have also been removing pictures that make me look less than professional. When your parents nag you saying “You need to be careful about what you post online!,” most kids don’t listen. However once you see for yourself how those posts can change the way someone in the real world views you, you begin to change. Think of social media not as a way of telling the world all of your dirty laundry, but instead as a fun new resume, where everything you post can help you get the job of your dreams.

GIS MAPPING HISTORY

While taking a History of the American West course a few semesters ago I was introduced to GIS through the work of Douglas Seefeldt. He has been the director of many GIS projects, including “Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark.” That particular project uniquely maps the route Lew and Clark took on their expedition using the letters written between themselves and their advisor, President Thomas Jefferson. The interactive maps allow users to click on a specific letter, and even before the letter document opens on the screen, it will have a blue dot representing where Lewis and Clark were on an early 1800s map of the Louisiana Purchase territory.

In this Digital History course, one project we looked at was “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” While it is not as interactive as some of Douglas Seefeldt’s work, it still has value in the scholarly and public history community. What was learning and the transmission of scholarship like before email and online academic journals? It is hard to picture in today’s world, but modern technology, letter writing was how the world heard about things going on around them. Letters were how ideas were spread and how new scholarship was heard. “Mapping the Republican Letters” looks particularly at the letters and publications of a select group of individuals who they thought best represented the era of the early Republic. These case studies include Votlaire, Galileo, Jogn Locke, and Benjamin Franklin.

When specifically looking at each case study, users can see different types of graphs and tables depicting the countries that the majority of someone’s letters came from or the gender of the person who sent the letter.

There are also bubble-type interactive graphs that depict how many times a certain person has written to another. For example, when mapping Benjamin Franklin’s letters, the chart has a large bubble in the middle with Benjamin Franklin’s name that hyperlinks to digitized versions of almost everything he ever wrote. Surrounding the bubble with Franklin’s name are smaller bubbles with other names written/hyperlinked in them. These bubbles range in size depending on how many letters that person sent to Franklin. The next largest next to Franklin is James Parker who, according to the map, sent one hundred letters to Franklin.

These projects add to the current historical scholarship because it makes historians look at sources in a new way. In previous work, not many people would have cared as much about where the letters came from geographically or what gender the person who sent them was. Today, those key details give just as much, if not more, historic context than the actual words written on the page. By creating these projects, historians are opening up a whole new world of scholarship just waiting to be uncovered. From handwritten letters to emails to GIS maps, history is always changing and so are the ways we document it.

Digitization & Preservation

As the world of history becomes more digitized, issues of lost information and how best to present information become prevalent. As stated in the chapter “Becoming Digital” by Roy Rosenzweig, when digitizing handwritten materials, a lot of the key information within those texts is unintentionally lost. These losses can include the valuable information written the margins of card catalogue cards, or the general layout of an original work, such as spacing, paragraph breaks, etc. This issue of lost information becomes especially important when trying to digitize handwritten manuscripts. If there is an image of the document it is easier to understand what the original author meant (unless you can’t read cursive and old English, then you still may have a problem). However, going just by a typed translation, a researcher loses a lot of meaning. For example, when I was researching some of Alexander Hamilton’s correspondence for a paper, I found myself having to use both FoundersOnline as well as the Library of Congress website (LOC.gov). I used the typed translation on FoundersOnline to get the general gist of the letter or essay, and then went back to the actual scanned/photographed image of the original document on Library of Congress to see Hamilton’s exact handwriting and his word spacing and other typically missing pieces in typed translations (as mentioned above). Having both options and being able to use them together allows researchers to work more quickly and efficiently than in previous decades before the introduction of digitization, but also allows for the lost pieces of information to be regained by keeping a piece of the analog world with it.

Once all of these different historical resources (audio, visual, and text), become digitized the new challenge becomes how to disseminate this information to as many people as possible. This is where the Internet comes in handy. Now, historical institutions can create website to post all the information they have just digitized. However, as the chapter “Designing for the History Web” states, just like when writing a book a website creator must be aware of the balance between giving their audience as much information as possible without overloading them with pages upon pages of black text. Rosenzweig also argues that while you don’t want a page that is all text, you also don’t want a page that is all images and graphs, or as he quote web designer Edward Tufte: “chartjunk.”

The best websites that I have used for historic research are the ones that balance text and images well and cleanly. Some examples of this are the previously mentioned Library of Congress and FoundersOnline (the latter of which is more user friendly than the first), as well as different museum website such as the site for Connecticut Historical Society (CHS.org) or the website for the Smithsonian Institute (SI.edu). I use all four of these websites quite often because none of them bombard me with text, but also give enough easily accessible information that I am not trying to find what I need somewhere else. These diverse examples prove that it doesn’t matter how large your museums or collections are, it’s how you are able to present the information to the public. As a Connecticut History Day judge for the past three years, that is something I try to teach the kids whose websites I am judging. It’s not about making the website flashy and exciting and overly busy. It’s about getting the information you want your audience to know out there in a easy to read and attractive way.

Olympic Wikipedia Comparison

Being an accidental sports historian, I decided to do my Wikipedia comparison on three pages dedicated to the Olympic Games. To show how the world’s view of these games has changed over time, I am comparing three very memorable games: Germany 1936, Los Angeles 1984, and this year’s games in Pyeongchang.

All three talk pages are relatively short; however what surprised me is that the newest Olympic Games, 2018 Pyeongchang, had the longest paged. I assumed that since the other two were older, there would be more debate over different aspects of the games and the page. Because these games are so new, the main debate that occurs about the layout of the page is who is and who isn’t competing. Many comments from November 2017 asked to include a table that gave the number of athletes competing per country. As many commenters replied, the problem with that is until the games begin in February, that number of athletes could constantly change as more qualify and in the worst case get injured and must drop out. What there is very little discussion of is the Russia ban which in the regular media is very much a hot topic. However the other media hot topic, the United Korea Team, has a lot of comments on this Wikipedia page. The main question that kept going back and forth was if the IOC had legitimately said the two countries would compete under the same flag, or if it was just North and South Korea that agreed to this.

On the Wikipedia pages for both the 1936 Germany Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the majority of the conversation had to do with changing external hyperlinks and better citing sources. Specifically, one commenter that posted in 2007 stated that they were adding a reference section to the 1984 Los Angeles Games because in their words “Shouldn’t more of this article be properly sourced?” (User: NYDCSP) After going back through the comments I found the earliest one was from 2004. This shows that it took three years before someone thought it was a good idea to cite anything on the page. Issues like this are why most teachers today don’t let their students use Wikipedia as an actual source. If things are not cited correctly, how do you know that the information you are getting is accurate?

Adding to the issue of citing sources, using hyperlinks within an article can be helpful for readers to see where you are getting your information, or how to learn more about things that you don’t have the article length to discuss. However, just like with proper citations, if your hyperlinks don’t go to anything of value to a researcher then the researcher is less likely to believe or use anything in your article. For the page for the 1936 Germany Games, the majority of the talk page is one or two commenters going through and changing all the hyperlinks to websites that they believe are more accurate. These website are different digital archives and other scholarly sites, rather than just the usual fan pages about the games.