What to save and how?

Lisa Spiro’s article really demonstrates how digital history has a lot of promise, but it’s still in the early experimental stages.  Everybody seems to think digital is good, and will be helpful, but there’s no consensus on how so.  What is the full potential of digitalization for history?  Will we ever know?  Can we?

The report of the American Council for Learned Societies brings up some good information on what it calls “cyberinfrastructure.”  If done right, digital can be much superior to the old ways of finding things- but nobody is sure what “done right” means.  At the Digital History Conference at Yale (see below), many complained about what was lost with digitalization.  For example, some even thought the list of due dates for a library book was important to know (it’s a part of the book’s history); yet that is lost with digitalization.  Maybe in the future, even stuff like that can somehow be saved in the cyberinfrastructure.

After reading Anderson, I see how the internet can host so many new types of sources; and after reading Cohen, I see how difficult it will be to save all that stuff, and then somehow be able to find it.  But then there is the larger question of what is worth saving from all those new, “democratically” made sources.

The Rosenzweig article was particularly good, though ironically none of the images were working in the link.  The author brings up the point of how easy it is to delete digital sources, such as the Bert is Evil photos.  Yet he ignores the equally large point of how easy it is to insert things.  In the same manner that Soviets could delete enemies and traitors from photos, the image of Bert can be easily added to a photo of Bin Laden.  Now, it might be funny to us, but remember that the foreigner mentioned in the article had no idea who Bert was, and so innocently used the picture.  What will happen in the far future, when historians lacking our cultural context look at joke pictures that might somehow be saved?  A future historian, with as much knowledge of Sesame Street as that foreigner, may stress for hours over a picture of Bin Laden next to a puppet.  And think of the countless amount of similar material found across the internet- not all of that will disappear.  I guess this ultimately brings us back to the question of what is worth saving, and in what context to be made useful.


American Council for Learned Societies: http://www.acls.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Programs/Our_Cultural_Commonwealth.pdf

Lisa Spiro: http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/doing-digital-scholarship-presentation-at-digital-humanities-2008/

Dan Cohen: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march06/cohen/03cohen.html

Roy Rosenzweig: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.3/rosenzweig.html

Chris Anderson: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

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Taming the Wiki

I admit to using Wikipedia quite frequently as an introduction to certain topics, and overall I think it’s pretty reliable as a background source.  I haven’t touched a traditional, paper encyclopedia in years.  And why should I?  Wikipedia provides far more articles on a wider range of specific topics than a print encyclopedia can ever dream of- and according to some studies, the accuracy of information in both mediums is almost the same.  Of course, I only use Wikipedia in the same fashion I had previously used printed encyclopedias- as a starting point.  Yet many students, as students do, like things easy and often depend too heavily on Wikipedia.

Patrick Leary briefly mentioned the fact that Wikipedia, and all internet sources allow for easy skimming of materials, and have changed how we read; although it also forms connections and allows for easy sharing of ideas.

Wikipedia may be making things easier, but as Stacy Shiff said, it’s still a work in progress, even if it might be mighty and high-minded, it still needs work.  Larry Sanger would like to paint a picture of a perfect Wikipedia allowing for a democracy of knowledge, yet sometimes it can appear as an anarchy of knowledge.  He may not like “elites” controlling what we know, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge of scholars and intellectuals should be diluted by the masses.

Roy Rosenzweig defined Wikipedia as the antithesis of professional history: “A historical work without owners and with multiple, anonymous authors…”   Yet, as public historians, we must accept the role of Wikipedia in society, and understand how to properly deal with it.  As I said, Wikipedia is a good background source, but too many people depend on it too much.  To counter this, we must either educate people on the problems of Wikipedia, so they become less dependent on it, or instead make better alternatives.

Educator Jeremy Boggs has come up with a novel idea of actually incorporating Wikipedia in the classroom.  He has his students write articles for the site, and follow changes to them; the hope is that students will learn how easy Wikipedia can be manipulated.  In addition, the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia is an example of a Wikipedia alternative, researched, written, and edited solely by Jefferson scholars.

The Jefferson idea, though, still has a long way to catch up.  A quick search shows that Monticello.org (the encyclopedia’s host site) ranks over 200,000th in visitors, while Wikipedia ranks 6th.  Jefferson’s Wikipedia page is also the first result yielding by Google when searching “Thomas Jefferson.”

 Roy Rosenzweig: http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42

 Patrick Leary: http://victorianresearch.org/googling.pdf

 Stacy Shiff: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact

 Larry Sanger: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/sanger07/sanger07_index.html

 Dan Cohen: http://www.dancohen.org/2005/12/20/the-wikipedia-story-thats-being-missed/

 Jeremy Boggs: http://clioweb.org/2009/04/05/assigning-wikipedia-in-a-us-history-survey/

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“Ain’t digital great”

The Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities, a conference at Yale. 

On Saturday, February 20, 2010, I attended part of a professional conference which, though held at ancient Yale University, dealt with a very modern topic- possibly too modern, actually.  Both speakers and attendees alike seemed eager and excited about the future of digitalization, yet there seemed to be an ironic undercurrent of uncertainty present throughout the sessions regarding this new wave of technology.  At a conference where the benefits of going digital took center stage, there still lingered below the surface a love for the old, boring, paper book.

Stuffed inside a small room which resembled a barn in the Whitney Humanities Center, a discussion on “the material object in digital culture” drew a capacity crowd which was forced to spill into the hallway.  The first speaker, Heather Ball of the City University of New York, fondly spoke of the pleasures of viewing an original Medieval manuscript in person, rather than online.  Evidently preaching to the choir, many others in the audience echoed Ball’s sentiments during the question and answer segment, which actually became more like a discussion as everyone by that point had become quite intimate with each other on account of the tight confines of the overcrowded room.  Behind the light tapping of laptop keys which provided background noise for the room, many of the old scholars present asked how undergraduates could possibly understand a manuscript if they couldn’t smell it.

The second speaker, Jessica Weare, of Stanford, sparked a lively debate on Google books.  She told of a time when an untrained Google Books digitizer removed a glued piece of paper from a book from the early twentieth century, which was “censuring” a passage.  The story nearly brought some in the audience to tears.  Many were critical of Google’s methods and its capitalistic tendency for quantity over quality; others, though, thought the scheme had benefits if properly conducted.  Google, after all doesn’t digitize a book’s smell.

For the second session, I attended a panel in the Whitney Humanities Center’s large auditorium.  In contrast to the previous crowded session, the auditorium was only about half full.  Everyone spread out, with some congregated into small groups, and others sitting alone, sometimes in their own personal row.  About a quarter present had laptops out, while the majority used old-fashioned paper to jot down notes on this new digital technology.  Dull sunlight peaked through big stained-glass windows, and the figurine of a medieval monk peered down below from the high ceiling.

A massive projector screen on stage allowed the presenters to show off their novel databases and computerized charts which were related to the session’s theme, “mapping history.”  A professor and graduate student from Stanford went through the Papers of Benjamin Franklin to map out where his personal, social, and official correspondence originated or arrived in the eighteenth century world.  Scott Nesbit, of the University of Virginia, used maps to create interesting charts, and Simon Wiles discussed the technicalities of database formation, yet both were a little slow to start on account of minor technical difficulties.

When all the presenters were done demonstrating their spectacular uses of digital history, the moderator, John Mack Faragher of Yale, decided to say a few words and ask these proponents of digitalization some very critical questions.  Reminiscent of the end of a comic roast, when the roastee was given a chance to fire back and have the last laugh, Faragher questioned the practical uses of some of these elaborate charts and databases.  He complained that many databases lacked permanence and could often be difficult to use.  It was as if the book wanted to have a chance to read its own eulogy at an event which increasingly looked like the funeral for a dead medium.

Considering this was a conference on digital history, though, Faragher also prepared a short digital presentation on the geography of Los Angeles, which included some photographs.  Having difficulties getting things started, he sarcastically told the audience “ain’t digital great.”  In his final remarks, he wanted to give some advice to a new generation of digital historians, warning of the importance to not sit at a computer all day.  To really understand history, particularly of landscapes and people, you must get outside and explore.  “Get off your ass,” he cried, “turn off your computer.”  With that, my limited time at the conference came to an end.

Conference website: http://digitalhumanities.yale.edu/pdp/

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Googe Buzz

What do we call people who use buzz: buzzers, buzzards, or buzzed?  This site would be great for those who like to be over-connected, but to me, it seems unnecessary.  Overall, buzz doesn’t seem to offer much new stuff to the attention-craved; it just combines everything into one, easy-to-navigate narcissistic web portal- and you can even use it on your phone!  After a quick glance at the promo video, I see that buzz lets you show your friends your location on a map- who cares?

But don’t take my word for it, go get yourself buzzed: http://www.google.com/buzz

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The Good, the Bad, and the Citizen Historians

           What I’m about to say is probably near heresy in the digital history world, and the irony that I’m talking about it on a blog has not escaped me.  But I have to say that the mass-digitalization of history may be a mixed blessing.  There are some good pints, but also some bad, and the rosy future of digital history which Edward L. Ayers paints in his article is, in my opinion, a far cry from reality.

           Online, word-searchable digital databases are a historian’s dream.  Yet, Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss the future possibility of having every new written record, spoken word, photograph, song, speech, and so on being saved digitally for future generations to search and see.  The thought of having almost everything saved is both exciting and frightening; it will simultaneously make the job of future historians exponentially easier and exponentially difficult.  Can there be such thing as too much information.  And, as the authors point out, the mind-boggling extent of digital storage space can also lead to a large amount of fakes and frauds in terms of sources, many of which already exist on the web.

           Even scarier is the thought of fake and fraudulent historians taking over the web, which Marshall Poe rightly discusses.  Anyone can say anything on the web, and Poe writes how “that may sound wonderfully democratic, but it also may spell trouble.”  Easy accessibility to sources means more people can have access to historic documents and archival holdings.  In the same way that blogging has made everyone a pundit and citizen journalist, the internet can make it easier for anybody to become a citizen historian.  Will there be wiki-history?

           Yet, no doubt, even though there are some bad things, digital history also presents many benefits which should not be ignored.  Despite its flaws, which Robert Townsend identifies, Google books presents a future of easy book searches for historians.  The digitized books really do need publication information, though, which is often frustratingly lacking.

           The Library of Congress’ American Memory website is also an example of beneficial and proper uses of digital history.  Because the site has been created by the LOC, the accuracy and validity of what’s on it should be guaranteed.  Searches yield a wide variety of sources which can help any historian, including Congressional records, Presidential papers, WPA interviews, photographs, and maps.  National, state, and local sources can be found- I even turned up maps of my own hometown with a simple search.

           The future of digital history presents us with many good things, but also many bad things.  In the end, the ratio of good to bad will rely on how the resources are used, and also on the historical literacy of a rising citizen-historian population, which will be born along with digitalization and easy access.  That area, of course, can be influenced and improved by public historians and educators.

Cohen and Rosenzweig: http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/

Ayers: http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html

Townsend: http://blog.historians.org/articles/204/google-books-whats-not-to-like

Poe: http://myweb.uiowa.edu/mapoe/Publications/FightBadHistory.pdf

LOC: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html

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On Bookmarks

Let me say a few quick words about bookmarking web pages.  I made an account on delicious, and it seems useful; however I tend not to bookmark many pages anyway.  I can see how the site can be helpful when doing a large amount of internet research, like for a paper, in order to stay organized.  The sharing capability would also be nice for group projects.  I guess I’ll have to experiment a little more with this site, though, before I can give a full report on it.


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Response to Dan Cohen’s “Professors, Start Your Blogs”

I’ve never blogged before. But then again I’ve never texted or tweeted either. As an historian, I’ve always been taught to avoid the word “I,” and yet a blog depends on that most narcissistic of terms. If a person, though, has something intelligent and worthwhile to contribute to the (mostly) body of trash that makes up the web, then that would seem to be a good thing. Nonetheless, blogs appear to be the wave of the future for our brave new world, and historians should probably try and use them.

Whenever I tell people that I like history, they usually tell me horror stories from some boring history class they had in High School. By not blogging, we are probably just exacerbating the myths of traditional, old historians who study the past because they don’t like the present and future. Historians can’t pledge blind and nescient loyalty to print mediums, especially when they are obviously on the way out. Technology, though, can have great benefits for historians; anyone who has used the word-searchable Hartford Courant, Historical database, and then used eye-killing microfilm knows what I’m talking about.

Especially for those in public history, the duty of historians is to study the past, and then pass those interpretations on to the public. Blogs can be used as yet another option, in addition to exhibits, books, museums, television, and magazines, which can be used to teach people about the past. For academic historians, as Cohen says, blogs also allow for easy sharing of new ideas.

The ultimate goal is the distribution and release of knowledge, and if blogs can assist in this necessary process, then I support the venture fully. We at least have to try.


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