Changing Digital Practices

Ideally as technology develops ideas in history will become far more abstract and the room for new critical thought will grow.  Obviously as access to new materials will open doors for original thought, but the area that is most intriguing is building an original idea by inspiration from other historians.  Since viewing the republic of letters material one can easily see the value of their methodology even if the impact of their product may be limited to only one field.  Image if the correspondence between Churchill and members of the house of commons during the days leading up to D-Day were tracked in such a way, or if Stalin’s orders during the red purges could be examined in the same way to see if there is some kind pattern or understanding to be gleaned. 

One of the struggles with this wealth of data would be that a researcher may not know what they have until the computation and data is already collected.  A possible solution could be to create a program that auto compiles files as they are generated.  If in 75 years a researcher wants to know the nature or content of all the emails exchanged between Barack Obama and John Boehner they would be auto tabulated, and exist immediately.

New fields will emerge as a result of ease of access.  Archivist dedicated to the presentation,  interpretation and preservation of digital resources will become a growing field, while it will employ a different class of historians.  Many of today’s historians will fade away as the result of this change in focus as study of the humanities becomes more technology based and perhaps less historically based.  It’s a brave new world for historians, in which a bright new future is born, but in order to take part in that new future we must all adapt. 

Reaction to Teaching and Learning with Omeka: Discomfort, Play, and Creating Public, Online, Digital Collections

One can’t help but feel empathy for Mr. McClurken’s student and her struggle’s with digital media.  McClurken’s goals are completely understandable and appropriate, a teacher should want their students to become capable with the tools they have provided them.  The identification of the main challenge as the idea of a digital native is also quite intriguing.  To believe that someone could inherently understand the structure of a digital resource is faulty, and makes for an ineffective educator. 

One point in which McClurken’s logic allows for disagreement is in the believe that digital literacy should be a central expectation for the successful undergraduate.  Digital literacy is truly important without disagreement, but that literacy is simply a vehicle towards improved critical thinking.  Ultimately the ability to critically think and the creation of new ideas is far more important that familiarity with Omeka, Moodle, Twitter, or any digital media. Literacy in these forms forces students to think in new ways rather which is a benefit, yet mastery of the media should not be the goal. Digital media may provide the most opportunities to exercise critical thinking simply because of the ever-changing volume evolving programs.

What educator’s should be considering is how can students be inspired to thinking critically and what are the most effective methods to accomplish this.  Frequently, new technology is introduced to the classroom that, while amazing, streamlined once difficult tasks.  It is the streamlining process that has created a society that is obsessed with speed and ease over critical quality.  While not all difficult tasks create critical thinking opportunities, we must be selective about what we make easier.  Easier does not always mean better, more often than not it makes it worse.  To enhance critical thinking opportunities educators must focus on deploying a variety of techniques, and challenge students perceptions.

Comparative Review through the Omeka Showcase

When perusing the Omeka showcase it is quiet easy to get overwhelmed as there is a tremendous volume and breadth of humanities covered.  In order to craft a more appropriate comparison I narrowed the field to Lincoln at 200, and The Civil War in Art: Teaching and learning through the Chicago collections.  As both are civil war in theme there is effective room for comparison.  As both are finely crafted but designed for different purposes their strengths are quite focused in opposite directions.

Lincoln at 200

The presentation of this collection is quiet polished, and manageable.  The soothing sepia tone and gorgeous collection make combing through the artifacts enjoyable.  Many of the artifacts allow manipulation and examination and the presentation of each artifact follows a loose progression of ideas.  Considerable thought must have been placed in the organization and consistence of each item in each progression.  This site would seem to be an ideal build for middle to high school web quest.  The only drawback on this site is the lack of accompanying questions or resources for incorporation into the classroom, though it can hardly be held against the creators of the site as adapting their material to the classroom may not have been their aim.

The Civil War in Art

The detail given to each artifact in the Chicago collection is quiet impressive.   While not as visually stunning as Lincoln at 200, it does stand as a stark contrast to the incredible art collections digitized in this collection which may be a purposeful design choice.    Where this site really hits its stride is in the detailed facts listed below each artifacts, along with deeply introspective questions attached to each piece.  While this would be challenging to adapt to a middle school or early high school classroom, it seems very available to a capable high school upperclassmen or as a digital resource for undergraduates.

Lincoln at 200

Civil War in Art

Reaction to From Babel to Knowledge

The pure volume of the internet is amazing, but what is so intriguing is the flexibility and versatility of the digital space.  In Daniel Cohen’s From Babel to Knowledge, he explores his experience in using application Programming interfaces or API.  While the potential of API’s interesting it is still far too technical for many to grasp.  If there were a way to become more familiar with programing from a historical perspective, academics would surely be quite eager to learn.  Developing historians might be surprised when they realize the level of technical expertise so critical to the study of humanities.


While even an accomplished historian might consider themselves technical, creating ones own search program seems daunting.  What is more interesting to is how did Cohen begin his foray into programming, was it the by-product of some other form of research, and how can someone else duplicate this feat.  It stands to reason that considering this article was from nearly 8 years ago there may be a simpler or at least more introductory way of programming.


It proved insightful searching YouTube for tips on API introductions and programming. Thought there is quite a robust listing of videos none could easily express how to begin API development.  Many  explained what an API was and  how its useful, and then there are several that were agonizingly technical, the dilemma remained there seemed to be no middle ground.  While the search will continue API’s will only become truly useful to historians when more than a handful understand their development.

Commentary on Mapping the Republic of Letters Project

The interesting and engaging presentation of the Republic of Letters brings a fresh new perspective to primary source research.  With an innovative approach the researchers are mapping correspondence from luminaries of the renaissance and age of enlightenment, with the purpose of generating maps and data from this aggregation.  When looking at specific case studies all kinds of data emerged, as in the case with Benjamin Franklin the team generated circle graphs representing the country of origin of his letters between 1756 and 1763.  What is most interesting about the objective of graphing these kinds of sources is that conclusions cannot be drawn until the project is finished.  As data is entered some ideas may be forming, but the impact of this kind of data once present is amazing.


After viewing just the case study of Franklin, one can’t help but think how these correspondence networks effected the thought of enlightenment thinkers.  Due to the enormity of the task it would be nearly impossible, but if the team could expand their case studies to include more letters and data the potential for some interesting conclusions emerges.  One can only image the new perspectives that could be gained from making a case study on other historical figures outside of the enlightenment, and renaissance.  Another historical figure to come to mind is Abraham Lincoln  as being someone who could potentially benefit from this treatment. Perhaps the letters of Napoleon might prove insightful if the scope of the Republic of Letters was expanded.  If anything this kind of work raises new questions about the awareness and impact of the wider world on highly regarded luminaries and provides potential new avenues for insight into the minds that made them so great.


Below is a link to Mapping the Republic of Letters:

Thoughts on “The Future of Preserving the Past” an essay by Daniel J. Cohen

When reading Cohen’s thoughts on digital preservation two issues emerge, the exponentially growing volume of digital artifacts, and the ability to sort through this ever-growing catalogue of items.

First, one must consider the times we live in to be amazing.  The fact that inexpensive digital cameras pervade our civilization and allow for the staggering growth of the photographic record is astonishing.  While it may not be possible to preserve every image for eternity, the prospects at saving a tremendous volume should keep historians perpetually giddy.  What we must consider is all of those photographs not taken, and how a tremendous amount of human history has already been lost, and even with  technology the vast sum of human experience will continue to be lost.  Historians must not gnash their teeth on what could be lost, but must strive to effectively preserve what can be saved, and that is through an effective catalogue.

When historians find a model of basic preservation, that can be broadly applied, their work will become not only more meaningful but infinitely easier.  To start have a uniform system for digital submissions established by a credible government body, like the National Archive or the Library of Congress.  Then track through metadata images accessed and have a short questionnaire accompanying the viewing of each artifact, even something as simple as “was this image helpful or useful on a scale on 1-10”.  The images accessed more regularly will be assessed first, prioritizing highly rated items over less visited items.  Then as more images are viewed and rated, have a quality rating assigned to each image much like the MPAA or the ESRB rate their medium.  Now the MPAA and ESRB rate their mediums based on age appropriateness, but in this case rate the most viewed images on historical quality. The key to this system is to make a rating issued by the Library of Congress or the National Archives highly desirable, where a website can boast about a collection of 1,000 triple A rated images.  If the tag is desirable enough then websites dedicated to specific historic moments will spur their community to review and submit images that can certified by this new government rating.  With this system in place images can be vetted and organized into an effective catalogue. A method as simple as crowd sourcing can be used to assess images that can then be kicked-up for more scholarly evaluation, anything to sort the images and make users part of the process will be valuable.

Below is a link to Daniel J. Cohen’s Essay:

Web Persona, and Attracting a Digital Audience

Hopefully for the one or two readers out there, this blog has had some merit.  If anything my goal was to be thoughtful and sincere, though I worry my entries may come off as dense and heavy-handed.

Starting this blog has been difficult, but worthwhile.  It has revealed a lot about what I have to say as a historian, and what I have yet to consider.  Mostly it has underscored the question of what do I really have to say about history?  With an open platform it should be easy to fill the space, but surprisingly this blog has revealed that I need to reestablish my voice as a historian and refine my purpose.

My purpose is not to become the next great digital historian, I’m afraid that is beyond my ability, but I do hope to use this blog to refocus my efforts.  While I am not the best person to describe how to harness this blog to grab a wider audience, I do know that message is central.  Without a coherent philosophy, motivation, or perspective this blog will never grow to be anything but an experiment.  If I want my message to have resonance I need to work on my voice.  Blogging has revealed this weakness.  Somewhere between calling parents, scoring quizzes and the minutiae of the classroom, my voice as a historian has turned meek. This experience has been valuable in revealing that truth.

In the future I plan on continuing to blog, and document my progress as a historian.  If I can find a message that has some merit then my digital product will sell itself. Perhaps I’m idealistic in this belief, but idealism can be powerful motivation.

Digitization, Copyright, Intellectual Property

The idea of Open Access is alluring, but this model is simply not sustainable. The tragic case of Aaron Swartz comes to mind and highlights the fundamental ethics of scholarship.  What rights does the creator of content have, and what are the rights of the consumer?  Open Access advocates might say once scholarship is created it is the birthright of us all, but is a man not entitled to the fruits of his own labor? 

Aaron Swartz did steal from JSTOR and there were victims, albeit victims with large purses.  So while it may be difficult to sympathize with the victims in this case, that does not absolve Swartz of his crime.  What makes Swartz case so difficult to stomach is the glaring inequity of justice.  That the government would so doggedly pursue a young man far beyond the proportion of his crime reeks of class warfare.  It’s hard to imagine the SEC pursuing brokers with the same vigor.

The ultimate issue that makes Swartz case unique is who should be entitled to knowledge, and at what price?  Supporters of Swartz would say free access to all, but who will defray the cost of all this freedom? This fundamental problem of funding, is what has created this whole issue.  Truly the only solution is through transparency. If a fee is charged the distribution of that fee has to be justified, in a detailed and concise way.  Whenever customers complain of fee and rate hikes, it always boils down to “why am I paying more this month than last for the exact same service?”  The only way to alleviate this is through forthright transparency and clarity.  While copyright holders are entitled to make a profit off of their collections, the difficulty I have with it is that they are not the creators of the content just the gate keepers.  How can the gatekeeper set an arbitrary price for content?  The creators of content need to be the beneficiaries of this system rather than middle men reaping the rewards. 

Changing Scholarship

This week I took a look at the American Memories Collection, by the library of Congress in an effort to incorporate a new digital source into my research.

The clear benefit of an internet source, especially one produced by the library of congress, is the vast depth of the material. I launched my first steps into this website by searching the entire collection for photographs of several of the places I have lived throughout the United States in an effort to test the variety of the collection. Considering I was searching small towns my expectations were low as to the amount of material I might find, but I was pleasantly surprised with the collections depth. An area in which I concentrated effort was in the photographic collections, specifically historic buildings in several towns. What I discovered though was an unevenness to the sources. While the quality of information presented was robust, there was a distinct lack of diversity in subject matter in my searched locations. When searching Ansonia, Connecticut a majority of the photographs concerned the Farrell Factory on bridge street, while the historic downtown area had no coverage. Additionally there was very little context to the photographs, are they part of a broader narrative into Ansonia’s history? As a comparison I took a look at Bridgeport Connecticut, and looked specifically for factories, and they were under represented in comparison to other topics. Considering that Bridgeport has such a strong industrial history in the early 20th century one might think that factory life would be well represented, and yet it was not. My main concern is that this digital resource might give the user the illusion of importance to specific sites that simply have more material, rather than more historical merit. Additionally other genuinely historic sites are altogether left out which might downplay those areas importance. While sites like these can help gather data, they fail at providing needed context to data, and risk skewing the historic narrative.

Wikipedia’s Talk Tab

This weekend I examined three separate Wikipedia entries talk sections in an effort to peek behind the curtain of edits that give each article form.  The three entries I examined all deal with 19th century American history, specifically the “Indian Wars” and two of the primary motivators of American western policy at that time, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan.  What I choose to look at was not only the varying degree of “completeness” of the articles but the inherent controversial nature of the American displacement of Native Americans and how that influenced the debate.  Of the three articles Sherman’s was the most highly regarded, and had very little of note in the talk section which surprised me.  What was interesting was the personal tone of two of the entries, Sherman’s Children, and Hirshon, where quite comically decorum breaks down.  The entry reads:

If I ever decide to get around to it, I will post the documented births and marriages which prove that I am a descendent of William Tecumseh Sherman, on my mother’s side. We always suspected it, but only proved it about 8 months ago. In case you can’t tell, I feel cool to be able to be related to someone with a Wikipedia article. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 00:40, 5 July 2012 (UTC)

Even if he was a professional killer? Stevenmitchell (talk) 21:02, 8 July 2013 (UTC)

Later under Hirshon a troll commented on his inability to find one of the referenced authors.

who the hell is Hirshon???

I googled the damn son of a bitch and found nothing

Following this I examined the Philip Sheridan page, and the debate became more formal.  The first commentary discussed the entry being too pro-Sheridan, and outlined the violence of Sheridan’s winter campaign.  While the poster’s argument is valid, it would seem to replace one extreme with the other.  Additionally Sheridan’s quote “the only good Indians I ever saw were dead” is of debatable authenticity.  Even in Sheridan’s day he vehemently denied speaking the phrase, while several journalists quote him as saying it, as such it cannot definitively be proven.  Later in the talk section another poster takes a polar opposite opinion that the article is too negative of Sheridan specifically in his Civil War record.  The contentious nature of Sheridan’s career seems to have created two distinct camps.

Finally I took a look at the American Indian War’s page and was interested in the nature of the debate, which had two important elements.  First the title of the article was chosen as to reflect a desire to avoid an American historical perspective on the wars and leave room for the addition of Canadian, British, and other European conflicts with Native Americans.  In fact some posters took issue with the term Native American as far too American an expression.  It is interesting that in the spirit of political correctness Americans have phased out the word Indian, while obviously international posters have no such reluctance.  Following this discussion I discovered a debate concerning a POV fork, which as I gathered meant the existence of a parallel page from an opposing perspective.  Upon reading the summary of style rules, basically it states that each topic must be presented in a single article with difference of opinion resolved by consensus.  This is a clever way for Wikipedia to address what could potentially be disastrous to the quality of its articles.

Links to each article below: