Reflection

Over this last semester I have come to understand that there is much more to Digital History than I had previously thought.  As someone who grew up around computer I had always thought I knew everything I needed to know about computers and the internet.  Through practice and reading I now have a better understanding of how to use digital tools as a Public Historian and the problems facing the field.  One of the most influential reading has been Toni Weller’s History in the Digital Age.  Throughout the book I was confronted with ideas that challenged my preconceived notations of how to use digital tools and the problems with digital media.  For example, I had not thought of how we store digital media.  What will happen to websites that are taken down over time?  What will happen to the information on those sites?  Storage of digital data has become a huge issue and organizations like the Library of Congress are attempting to store huge amounts of information, such as twitter.  The Library of Congress is attempting to archive all tweets on twitter and it is becoming an increasingly difficult task as the use of twitter has grown.

It is not all bad, there are countless advantages to using digital tools even for traditional historians.  In Weller’s book they discussed how digital tools have made research quicker, easier, and more thorough.  Referencing one historian, the book talked about how writing a monograph without digital tools took around 7 years.  Once this historian had embraced digital tools such as evernote, they could write a monograph in 10 months.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone that is interested in Digital History.

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Tag! You’re a Historical Document

In the digital age it has become increasingly easy to engage and interact with your audience.  As a number of my posts have discussed in the past, the internet has made outreach and feedback quicker, cheaper, and easier.  If you read my post on Wikipedia I also talked about how your audience can contribute to your content by crowd sourcing.  The Nation Archives and Records Administration has a similar program called “Citizen Archivist.”  This is an attempt to reach out to the public and help digitize, transcribe, and tag as many historical photos and documents as possible.  The program also allows the public to contribute their own historical documents by uploading them to the website.  Much like Wikipedia to contribute you must create an account so that they can track the changes and contributions you make.  This is an easy way to filter the contributions and weed out unwanted “trolls.”  The Nation Archive also explained why the program was important and how any contribution would greatly help them digitize.  This is a great way to encourage the public to become involved in the organization.

My own experiences with the “Citizen Archivist” program were very rewarding.  Once you select what kind of contribution you want to make, for me it was tagging, there are a number of missions within that program.  I chose to tag Civil War photographs such as the 44th Indiana Infantry.  Unfortunately there was no guide on how to tag, but through my own experiences it was not difficult to figure it out.  Some images were easy to tag, such as a photograph of the 21 Michigan Infantry.  I wanted to keep the tags general so more people would be able to find it so I tagged it with, Civil War, US Army, soldiers, etc.  This was an easy and fun way to contribute to the program and it saves the Nation Archive time and money by crowd sourcing.

If a Twitterstorian Tweets with no Followers

As a public historian reaching your audience is incredibly important and one of the best ways to do that is through a digital profile.  Comparing my digital profile to that of more established historians I notice some similarities.  Historians are a tight bunch and we retweet and share each others works and events.  For example, I follow Connecticut History.org which will often times share or retweet museum events or new exhibits such as the World War I exhibit at the New Britain Industrial Museum.  Considering that I only have one academic publication I have not marketed many digital products, but hopefully in time I can copy what other historians do on twitter, facebook. and academia.edu.  Many historians on twitter and facebook share when books or articles are released and those get shared by other historians and historical institutions.

To market myself as a public historian in the digital age it is increasingly important to have and maintain as many digital profiles as possible.  I have had a facebook and twitter for a number of years but in an attempt to make myself more appealing to potential employers I have created a linkedin, a academia.edu, and an instagram as well.  Both linkedin and facebook allow me to network with fellow historians, professors, students, and institutions.  On academia.edu I have the potential to share essays, publications, or digital exhibits that I have created.  On the other hand, facebook, twitter, and instagram also allow me to network and market my digital work, but they also create an opportunity to engage my audience.  With facebook and instagram my audience can comment on any posts I create or simply “like” or share.  They also allow me to create a multitude of different mediums for history such as photos, texts, video, or audio.  This would allow me to easily maintain and share an active youtube, blog, or podcast that would be accessibly to any of my followers on facebook, twitter, instagram, or academia.edu.  With public history, marketing through social media has become essential.

Interactive Maps in History

Too often the historical scholarship is full of essays and books, and while this blog has talked about digitization efforts in history the written word has still remained dominant.  That is not to say that the written word is not useful, but historians need to use as many different forms of media that they can.  Previously we have talked about podcasts, videos, and websites, and this week I will be looking at “Virtual Jamestown” and their interactive maps.  The website itself has much to improve upon, for example finding certain maps was time consuming due to the lack of organization.  One such map was was “Patterns of Settlement,” this map showed the Indian settlements, corporate settlements, and the first counties listed by year.  This map was simple, but allowed for different categories to be shown on the map based on what what you clicked.  The map also allowed for zooming in and out, but no extra detail seemed to show when zooming.

A better map on the website was “John Smith’s Voyages” which had much more information that could be shown on the map.  If you click on the “First Voyage” tab arrows will plot the path of the voyage with a moving timeline shown at the top.  It also allowed for major and minor Indian settlements to be shown, overlapped by modern day settlements.  These GIS maps have a huge potential in the historical scholarship.  I believe the best option would be for corresponding websites to be launched with major publications.  For example, the book The Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder has a large number of very useful maps.  The book examines a specific area in Eastern Europe that countless battles were fought. The potential for interactive maps for this book would have been huge.  While it might be time consuming and would only be cost effective for major publications, it could had significant understanding to the historical scholarship.

More Media More People

When it comes to engaging a wide audience the more ways the public can see, hear, or read history the better.  In previous blogposts I have talked about using websites, blogposts, videos, and more to reach a large group of people.  One more way to expand the Public Hisotorian’s Audience is through podcasts.  The example I will be using is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, specifically his podcasts on World War I titled Blueprint for Armageddon.  Carlin’s podcasts are lengthy and often times multivolume, yet Carlin does a good job of making his narratives thrilling.  Listening to a podcast seems more like a story that keeps you at the edge of your seat than a documentary.  This podcast is not groundbreaking in the academia, but much of what academia sees as unworthy of publication can be unknown to the Public.

Podcasts have the ability to reach a wider audience than books for a number of reasons.  Even with the digitization of many books, not all books are easily accessible or cheap, while in many cases podcasts are cheap or inexpensive.  All of Hardcore History’s episodes are free at the moment, although as I have been a fan for a number of years I know that this is not always the case but this means almost anyone can listen.  Another reason is that it takes less effort to listen to a podcast than to read a book.  With the internet a touch away it is harder for historians to keep their audiences attention.  Podcasts have the availability to add emotion and thrill into the listeners mind with a good speaker and sound effects.  It is also easy to draw in multiple experts, that would not be normally heard by the public, that can give a multiple disciplinary view of a topic.  This is not to say that there are no drawbacks to podcasts.  Having to listen to your information makes it impossible to “skim” through the information.  This can solved with either a transcript or summary of the podcast.

Everything is Worth Debating

Looking through three similar Wikipedia articles, the Eastern Front, the Balkan Campaign, and the Middle Eastern Front, it is interesting to see such stark differences in theme, style, and tone.  Some articles such as the Eastern front come off as disorganized and unprofessional.  That was the topic of debate for much of Wikipedia’s editors, some stating that the article came off as an “undergraduate’s essay.”  I had to agree with many of the complaints, so I took it upon myself to edit the first section on the Red Army, as I attempted to make the section sound more “encyclopedic.”  The lack of citation was also a common debate as many of the editors failed to cite their information.  The final debate on this article was missing information on the effect of climate and weather on the front, as many editors correctly pointed out that climate and weather had a major emphasis on the Eastern Front in World War II, yet it was not discussed in World War I.

The second World War I article I examined was on the Balkan Campaign and had similar debates among editors that the first article did.  There were lengthy debates on the tone of the article and how there should be a sense of neutrality, but instead it seemed very biased using vocabulary such as “humiliating defeat” and “fought very well.”  Another common debate was the lack of information on a specific topic, in this case it was on the role of Bulgaria in the fight.

The third article, the Middle Eastern Theatre, had a very different debate.  Certain editors wanted the name of the article to more closely demonstrate the area of conflict, which expanded beyond the Middle East.  At one point the article’s name was changed to the Ottoman Fronts, but reverted back the the Middle Eastern Theatre.

Organization Makes the Web Go ‘Round

The key to making any website, not just a history website, is organization.  The last thing anyone wants to do is spend all their time looking through a website for the one thing they cannot find.  Organization is key in all aspects of the historian’s profession, whether it is research, books, archives, etc, we want to be able to find what we are looking for quickly and easily.  The standard method is tabs, take for example the Smithsonian website, there are tabs for visiting, exploring, getting involved, and an about us.  Within each tab is a drop down of more finite subject tabs, making general browsing easy.  Another key function is the search bar, like on the Connecticut History.org site.  This allows the web visitor to find the specific item they are looking for.  Yet it is important to remember that English is not the primary language for most people, therefore accessibility to those speaking Spanish, Chinese, French, and the many other languages of the world should be considered.

On the other hand, the attractiveness of a websites is a universal language.  Unlike a book, it is inexpensive to add pictures to a website.  When a visitor looks at both Connecticut History.org and the Smithsonian website, they are greeted by a vast array of images, not mountains of text.  A history website should provide a multitude of mediums for information, because the internet user (myself included) has a short attention span.  When an unimaginable amount of information is a click away, it is difficult to keep a visitor on your website; giving video and audio helps in this aspect.  You do not want to overload the visitor with any one medium however, and an attractive website has a mix.  This might all seem very common sense, but do not overlook the obvious when designing a website.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Digital collections can be incredibly useful for the public and the digital historian.  Much like a “normal” exhibit though, there are a number of things that draw the public to the collection.  The first and most important of these is appearance, does the collection’s look draw people in and make them want to learn about the subject.  By using the database of Omeka, historians can make these collections easily accessible; but this does not necessarily mean that the historian will succeed in doing so.  Comparing the “Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection,” and the “HIV and AIDS 30 years ago” collection on Omeka, it is easy to see the stark contrast between successful collections and “works in progress.”

When someone looks at the “Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection,” they are immediately greeted by an elegant and colorful homepage with images drawing the public in.  It is well organized with different tabs and featured items which makes it easy to navigate.  Collection items are organized by stamps, books, periodicals, etc, so that a visitor can easily find a specific item or browse any number of items.  The homepage rotates the featured items and images so you will see a different homepage each time you visit the collection.  Finally, the text is clearly oriented towards a public audience with a clear vocabulary, condensed information, and short and concise paragraphs instead of long daunting ones that usually scare the public away.

Looking at the “HIV and AIDS 30 Years Ago” collection, it does not have the same elegance or inviting homepage.  There are no images, and much of the homepage has empty space.  While it is well organized, it is difficult to find out information about the creation of the collection.  To this collections benefit, it provides a Spanish version of the site which helps make this collection  accessible to a larger audience.  With a more appealing look, this could become an appealing collection.

-Chris Menapace

The Freedom of Free Scholarship

When I started to read Roy Rosenzweig’s, “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” the idea of free scholarship seemed both appealing and appalling.  On one hand the ability to access and read any historical scholarship would be a huge benefit for not only myself, but all other graduate students and researchers.  On the other hand, denying Historians and the Universities that often write for the “fruits of their labor,” would seem to kill the profession of History.  As I continued to read through his article, it became more apparent that Rosenzweig had some valid points.

The first point that really struck me was that fact that restricting online access to historical scholarship was actually costing more than it would be if it was free for anyone to access.  The second point that I felt was very relevant was that most scholars already have access to these scholarships through their libraries, so the people being restricted from reading the scholarship is the public.  By charging money for scholarly articles, it means that academia is becoming farther and farther detached from the public sphere.  Free access would not necessarily effect institutions and scholars, if done correctly, it would only give access to those who have been completely cut off from the Historical Scholarship.

Rosenzweig gives a few solutions for this problem, one being self-archiving where scholars would make their work available to the public through personal websites and blogs.  Delayed access is another solution, were paid subscribers would get instant access, but free subscribers would need to wait up to a year to read an article.  The solution I found most interesting was cooperation with libraries, were libraries would get together and offer each other a certain rate based on the current subscription fees and each library would be able to have access to all subscriptions, therefore reducing the overall cost for everyone.

-Chris Menapace

Researching on the Web

When it comes to doing research as a historian, the internet is where I always begin.  It is difficult to imagine a time before internet research was available because as long as I have done research papers I have had access to the internet.  The internet is especially useful for finding out basic information about a subject before you starting researching the in-depth details.  If you were to do a research paper on a subject you know little about, it internet is most likely were you are going to go.  This is because there are mountains of information available to anyone one google search away.  Once you have that basic information, the internet makes it incredibly easy to access the sources, both primary and secondary through hyperlinks.

Although the internet is a great resource for your research, there is nothing that can replace having a primary source document in your hands.  One look at a primary source and you can see that this is a important document (in your research at least.)  There is an emotional connection to primary sources for many historians, such as being able to look and feel the age of a document and that cannot be replicated on the internet.  The internet changes the way you look at a document because you cannot see it and feel it in its original form.  While the internet has many advantages, it has not made the library and the archive obsolete, and unless digitization of primary and secondary sources finished (not likely), there will always be room for them.

Despite this, the era where libraries and archives are dominant in a historian’s research is coming to an end.  The internet gives historians access to a huge amount of resources in a quick and convenient medium.  It might seem lazy for a historian to be able to sit on their couch and read through hundreds of documents for their research instead of getting out of their house and going to archives, the fact is that it saves the researcher a significant amount of time and money.  A researcher rarely has to fill up their gas tank to drive two hours to Albany to look at a primary sources document.  Some historians can talk about how much they miss spending days combing through dusty archives three hours from home, but I will be content sitting in my pajamas on my couch at 11pm doing my research.

-Chris Menapace