This is the end…

My final project is complete.  Take a look if you care…http://chemworldwars.omeka.net/

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end 
                                                             (apologies to Jim)

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Do We Need Digital History?

In a word, yes.  But I have reservations about the implementation and use of digital history.  Coming into this class as a skeptic, I was pleasantly surprised that many of my concerns were alleviated by the time December rolled in.  Digital history is obviously still in its infancy and many things need to be worked out to achieve its potential.  This course, readings, and projects have convinced me that new media is an evolving discipline and these issues will be worked out in time.  In my opinion, digital history, and more importantly historical scholarship, will be the better for it. 

I still fear that many digital history projects are heavy on “digital” and light on “history.”  To put it another way some might be more interested in what they can create using new media than doing due diligence to the research, analyzing, and writing of a historical product.  However, what I have come to learn is this can and does already happen in the historical profession.  Historians, whether amateur or professional, can already perform minimal or poor scholarship and slap up a “product” that is grotesque, overly simplistic, or just plain bad history.[1]  If you are going to be a lazy historian, you’ll be one whether writing a book, filming a documentary, or creating a digital exhibit or archive.  The medium isn’t the problem.

Examining the sites and tools throughout the semester was eye opening.  The amount of innovation and creativity in digital history is inspiring and there are some wonderful sites, exhibits, tools, and archives out there.  Of course there is also a lot of crap, but that is what the internet is all about.  Good stuff surrounded by crap…you just have to know where to put your shovel.

Sitting down and creating a piece of digital history (though admittedly very basic) I understand the appeal of using new media in my research.  Being able to show pictures, video, maps, etc. as well as incorporating tools and interactivity enables a different (greater?) understanding not only for those that happen to view a sight/use a tool, but also for the author.  Design my exhibit and thinking about my scholarship from the perspective of a viewer (as opposed to the reader of a paper) is an entirely different mindset and forced me to reconsider how I present my research and arguments.  This can only be helpful in refining my work ensuring its accessibility/clarity for more than just myself and a small cadre of interested historians. 

About a month ago I was dreading CLIO II.  Now, I am actually looking forward to it and (dare I say) excited about the potential of digital history! 

As I said in my very first post…it’s a brave new world.


[1] See 90% of the programming on The History Channel (unless you consider aliens, conspiracy theories, and reality TV good history). 

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My Exhibit Site (work in progress)

Here is the link to my exhibit.  It is still in rudimentary form but the bones are there.  I’ll be working on it for the next 2-3 weeks so watch this space for updates!

http://chemworldwars.omeka.net/exhibits/show/chem

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Scholarly Communication and Open Access/Open Source

Interesting reading this week on open source/access with Lawrence Lessig’s book providing a real wake-up call. Of the readings I enjoyed Lessig’s the most. Obviously a good writer, he distills a lot of the pros and cons of open access as well as how culture can be manipulated by big media, technology, and the law into understandable arguments for the non-specialist. To say that his research paints a bleak picture is an understatement. I particularly like his use of historical examples of other instances of technological repression (FM radio and RCA for one) to illustrate the danger of corporate influence on government and the legal system in terms of stifling innovation. I can see how a greater emphasis on open source/access can help combat this but the cynic in me (what? a cynic, me?) thinks it’s an uphill battle of good intentions versus corporate money. Hmm…do I sound like a member of the 99%?

This topic should make for another interesting discussion.

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Citizen History

Since Scott, Clare and I are leading the discussion tonight I will keep my comments brief so that I save all the goodies for class. I also noted that Scott and Clare beat me to the punch in terms of outlining the articles so I will forgo that. Great articles for this week, except maybe the Smithsonian Flickr one, but 3 out of 4 is pretty good. I think the advantages/disadvantages of crowdsourcing will make for lively debate.

Some questions for tonight:

1. There seems to be an underlying assumption that allowing user interaction/contribution to digital history reaches and engages new audiences. Clearly for a site like Wikipedia that is true but what about an online exhibit? Does the number of visitors to a site go up when you allow viewers to post comments, transcribe primary sources, i.e. contribute and not just passively look at the exhibit? I assume it does but I wonder if anyone has analyzed the numbers and come to any broad conclusions, such as “by increasing interactivity the number of eyeballs increases by X percent.” I know that numbers are primarily dependant on content, but how much does interactivity really help? How do we measure this?

2. I noticed in the Tim Grove article that of the 4 individuals interviewed, the two who were very enthusiastic towards user contribution were both techies, and the other two, who were wary of “citizen history” were presumably both historians (actually I couldn’t find the CVs for anyone so I am just going by their job titles so I could be completely wrong). Why the disconnect? Are the techies just enamored with the latest, greatest technology? Are the historians afraid of losing control?

3. With the growth of crowdsourcing and “citizen history” like Wikipedia (which, according to Rosenzweig does a pretty good job of getting historical “fact” correctly) do history courses need to be taught differently? It seems to me that with the increase in publicly written narrative history professional historian are still needed to give professional analysis, context, etc. Should college history courses be less about reading secondary sources on an era/topic and emphasize even more the art of research, analysis and writing? Right now in an undergraduate history course you read various books and perhaps have periodic tests, a mid-term, a final, and maybe one short research paper. Should we now start making every undergrad history course a survey course with a larger paper based on primary sources? For instance, should a course on Reconstruction now only have a couple of narrative, overview books and a short mid-term and final (really only to make sure the students actually read the books) but a research paper worth the majority of the grade?

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Spatial History and Visualization

All of the readings had interesting things to say about visualizations, spatial relations, and spatial history. For me, Richard White’s essay on spatial history was the most useful and understandable. A lot of that had to do with his use of examples that illustrated his points.

I think the increased use of spatial history and visualizations has great potential to enhance historical understanding. Internally visualizing the community or population one studies is great, but to actually see the land, buildings, migration patterns, etc. (change over time), digitally, may give the reader/viewer a greater appreciation for the historical argument.

I’m interested in individual and collective experiences in warfare. How great would it be to track a soldier’s combat experience, say from the First World War, and visually experience the movement of the soldier from his home, to training, across the sea, and then track all the movements he was part of on the Western Front? The digital representation of movement, whether through GIS or whatever, coupled with digitized historical photographs, video, etc. from the era or even present day views will be invaluable part of the military ordeal to the public. Independent of actual combat, movement of men and supplies is pivotal in warfare and has an enormous effect on individual soldiers. The importance and strain of moving over large distances in difficult circumstances on soldiers is rarely examined in museum exhibits but easily addressed (if you know how to use the technology) using spatial and digital history.

Viewshare looks like an interesting tool for the mapping of an individual soldier’s movements and experiences.

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Two Thoughts on 24 October Readings

1. First, in Writing a Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account I wonder if one of the bigger issues for many historians is the perceived loss of control. By that I mean exposing more of the nuts and bolts of your scholarship to the world online. In a paper journal it certainly takes a lot of time and effort for readers to examine the primary sources of your article and thus analyze your reasoning and arguments. In a digital format many of the sources used in your article can be quickly and easily accessed, sometimes from hyperlinks you supply! Of course no honest historian should fear the ability of readers to examine and judge sources, but the fear is that they will take one or just a few pieces of historical data out of context without the background knowledge the historian has gained over years of work. This certainly isn’t a reason to not write a digital history journal article. Individuals were selectively picking data and taking things of context long before digital publishing. Now they can just do it faster!

2. The white paper Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian was particularly interesting to me because I am a public historian. Of course I have not worked in academia so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the perception of academic public historians. It was surprising to me that, according to the paper, many academic historians, hired in part to teach public history courses, don’t have their tenure requirements adjusted to what they are hired to do in the first place. Shouldn’t it be common sense to set the expectations right at the beginning so that all parties know what is going to happen (or should happen)? It seems very bureaucratic to determine tenure for every historian based on the “three distinct spheres of scholarship, teaching, and service” especially when it seems to me the only sphere that is actually important (at least at large research universities) is scholarship. I’m sure we all remember professors that couldn’t teach their way out of a wet paper bag and certainly weren’t out partaking in service activities yet are tenured. If the three spheres were truly equal, and you failed two out of three, should you really get tenure? Would a student pass a class if he/she only got a 33.3% on a final? Hopefully adjustments can be made in academia to break out of this outdated mode of evaluation. I think efforts like the increasing emphasis on digital history will (hopefully) force many to rethink what it means to be a professor.

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