Comparing Apples and Oranges: Analyzing Actual Examples of Omeka Digital History Sites.

There’s actually quite a bit of variety when it comes to oranges. There are common oranges, blood oranges, navel oranges, mandarin oranges. You could even make a case for the clementine. The same is true for apples: you have your granny smith, your macintosh, your golden delicious, your crab apple, etc. Yet, at their core, apples are apples and oranges are oranges (what’s at the core of an orange?). While I’m being a bit facetious, my point is that when you compare something within a category, such as fruit varieties or digital history sites hosted by Omeka, there can be quite a bit of variety. There is a variety of purpose (why you made the site), variety of content (what you put on the site), variety of layout (how you organize the content and how visitors navigate it), and variety of design (to return to fruit-related adjectives, the flavor, color and texture). All of these variations can have quite an effect on the resulting website, even if its hosted on the same platform. To illustrate this point further, I’m comparing two Omeka sites, The Humboldt Redwoods Project and The Lomax Kentucky Recordings site, based on their variations in purpose, content, layout, and design. Along the way, I will analyze what I think each of these sites does well, and any areas where they could do better.

Purpose

Each of these sites has a different purpose. The Redwoods Project site is a partnership between Humboldt State University’s Library Special Collections and the HSU Museum and Gallery Practices Certification Program “to celebrate our community’s relationship with the magnificent redwood forests that surrounds us.” Thus, the site serves to celebrate community, cultural landscapes, and the link between them. A second, less explicit goal is to help prepare students for work in museums and public history. The Lomex Recording Project, on the other hand, is a site “under the auspices the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.” The goal of this site is not merely to archive media content, but also to provide “free and complete access to these historic collections.” Additionally, rather than being a project hosted by a university, (the bulk of contributors to the Redwoods site are interns) the folk song site is primarily run by professional digital historians and archivists already in the field.

Sort of like comparing apples to oranges, it is difficult to compare purpose and say which one is better. You might have a personal preference, or be drawn to a site’s mission, but does that mean that one site is intrinsically better than the other? In my opinion, I find much to be admired about the Redwood Site’s, not only because I think we need to be more aware of the link between communities and their natural environments, but also because it helps to prepare budding professionals for careers in the public humanities. On the other hand, a strong case could be made by someone else in favor of the folk song site. I prefer apples, you might prefer oranges.

Content

These sites also differ in the content one can access when they visit them. The Lomex Recording Project houses sound recordings of Kentucky folk music and folk lore created and recorded by individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. While individuals can contribute images to the project, that is not what it is intended for. The Redwoods Project, on the other hand, is driven by images and artwork. There’s at least one video, but no audio recordings. The reason for these sites’ different content stems from their different purposes. Again, it is hard to say that one type of content is qualitatively better than another.

Nonetheless, it is quite possible to compare the degree to which each of these sites has been successful at compiling content. For instance, the Kentucky Recordings project site has compiled a total of 1349 “items,” which in this case means audio recordings. The Redwood Project site, on the other hand, has a total of 161 “items,” mostly images or paintings. By the numbers, it would seem that the former project has been more successful at compiling content. On the other hand, the Lomax Kentucky Recordings project likely had a bigger analog archive to pull from. Also, it welcomes the public to contribute potential content to the site, while the Redwood project does not explicitly do so. An investigation of each project’s selection process would be useful, as well. Ultimately, at this point, the Kentucky Recordings project seems to have been more successful at collecting content. It’s a bushel versus a peck.

Layout

 Despite having a common platform, these two sites also choose different methods to organize their content. This is important to know if you want to find something on either of these sites. There are two options to find something on the Humboldt Redwoods Project site’s homepage: “browse exhibits” or “browse items map.” When one clicks on “browse exhibits,” he or she can browse through all 4 exhibits, each of which has a theme. Alternatively, a visitor can browse by tag. If someone clicks on “browse items map,” though, she or he can browse all items (sorted by date added, title, or creator), or browse by tag. There is also an option to use a keyword search feature, or to browse items on a map (although the map option yields fewer results).

Your experience locating items on the Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project site will be a bit different. From its homepage, you have the option of clicking on “Listen to the Songs,” “Discover the artists,” “Explore the Counties,” or “Browse by AFC Collection.” Already, one is presented with more options. Within “Listen to the songs,” you can browse all, browse by tag, or keyword search. There’s also a drop-down menu, which allows you the option to browse by title, or by the categories “artist”, “genre,” or “instrument.” The artist category is organized alphabetically, as are the genre and the instrument categories. By clicking on “discover the artists,” you can explore the lives of several specific artists (similar to the “browse exhibits” feature on the Redwood site). By exploring the counties, you can visualize which songs came from which areas of Kentucky. Finally, you have the option to browse by collection, the option which, in my opinion, gives you the least guidance.

In a way, not having much prior knowledge about the content of these sites helps me to analyze their layout better. I think a site’s layout is effective if you can find items, whether you are an expert or a novice within a topic. I think the Kentucky Recordings Project is more successful at this. That being said, I think they might have been compelled to give site visitors more options because they have more content to organize.

Design

While there is a bit of subjectivity in the elements of design, it is important for digital historians to remember that visual elements and navigation are important aspects of the site. In the case of these two sites, the Humboldt Redwoods Project seems to keep this in mind more. While the site is black and white, it seems polished and fits with the site’s the content. Towards the bottom of the homepage, this site has a scroll of images from its collection. At the bottom of the site, there are links to social media. The home page introduces the visitor to the site, its purpose, and its content. Each option to click on leads directly to what it says (that sounds a bit obvious, but not all the sites showcased do that).

Don’t get me wrong, The Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project is by no means a design disaster. However, there are more minor issues than with the other site. First of all, when you land on the homepage, there’s a bit of a jumbled appearance, which gives a false impression that the content is not well organized. Once you orient yourself, there’s a method to the madness. Interestingly, though, the appearance of the Humboldt site is more polished than that of the Lomax site.

Conclusion

Both of these sites do many things well. Ultimately, I think The Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project is the better archive, while The Humboldt Redwoods Project is a better digital history site. Perhaps that’s a fine distinction, but then again so is the difference between common and navel oranges.

Visit the sites discussed in this post for yourself:

The Humboldt Redwoods Project: https://hsuredwoodsproject.omeka.net/ 

The Lomax Kentucky Recordings: https://lomaxky.omeka.net/

What do you think? Which of these sites is more effective at compiling, organizing, and displaying content? What do you think makes for a good digital archive or digital history site? Do you prefer apples or oranges? Please leave comments.

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Telling Copyright from Copywrong: Historical Scholarship, Legal Issues, and “Fair Use” in the Digital Age

“This video has been removed due to a complaint by ______________________.” Let’s face it; we’ve all been there. You’re searching for a movie, tv show or song and due to copyright laws and/or a zealous content producer, the link you click on is kaput. Of course, you can usually find that content online, but it comes with a price. In the world of historians there is a similar, less familiar barrier to certain content. Nonetheless, the implications of this barrier are arguably far greater. In short, much of the historical scholarship published online is not accessible unless one pays a subscription to a digital journal or can gain access through an institution of higher learning. In other words, there is a financial barrier to accessing the latest research and historiography that historians are discussing.

As Roy Rosenzweig explains in “Should Historical Scholarship be Free?” there is somewhat of a dilemma amongst academic and digital historians when confronting this issue. If “public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship” shouldn’t the public have free access to it? Some historians (but more often journals and databases) retort that providing free access to their scholarship will put historical associations and journals out of business. These are both legitimate concerns, but if the public does not have access to scholarly historical debates the loss is much greater than merely being frustrated that you can’t jam to that tune you’ve had stuck in your head. In a civic (and sometimes civil) society that depends on an informed electorate and the free exchange of ideas, there should not be a two-tiered system when it comes to access to historical arguments. As Rosenzweig points out, there are methods historians, librarians, and academic journals can adopt (such as author charges, delayed access, and partial access) to make content more readily available, while maintaining financial solvency.

There are other legal issues for historians in the digital age. For example, historians must navigate the complex copyright law codices when they post historical images, songs, motion picture clips or book excerpts online. Several characteristics of the Internet, such as its shear capacity, media flexibility, and widespread accessibility mean that digital historians have to be ever mindful of how they use and reproduce historical content. There is also the concern that posting one’s historical scholarship on the Internet leaves it susceptible to being plagiarized. Although not completely unfounded, this fear is somewhat overblown. The digital age has also given us tools to more easily spot plagiarized work. Ultimately, the Internet should be championed as a resource that allows easier dissemination of historical content and scholarship. Historians should not shy away from it, or think of it as the “Wild West” on the Web. At the same time, academic and public historians in the digital era should remain mindful of their legal obligations as opposed to assuming “fair use.” After all, we’re all aware of what happens when one assumes.

What do you think? How should historical scholarship be made more readily available on the Internet without shutting down the historical journals and societies that support it? Are the current digital copyright laws sufficient, or do they need revamping? Comments are welcome!

 

 

Casting a Wider ‘Net: Historical Research in the Digital Age

It cannot be denied that the Internet effects numerous aspects of my life. I most frequently find out what’s happening in the world by waking up my computer or checking my smart phone. I can communicate with friends and family on the other side of the country or the globe (or if I choose to, on the other side of the room, without even having to say a word). I can purchase books for my graduate courses and expect that they arrive at my house in two days. It stands to reason, then, that the Web should have some effect on how I conduct historical research.

To be quite honest, though, in order understand how it does, I have to step back. This is because, it is hard for me to imagine doing historical research without the use of the Internet. For the entirety of my graduate, undergraduate, and high school “careers” I have had relatively unfettered access to the World Wide Web. When I begin researching a topic for a paper or project, when I am looking for primary or secondary sources to support an argument, or when I want to compile multimedia resources for a presentation, I start by heading to a database such as Worldcat, Proquest, or the Library of Congress’ Digital Archives (sometimes I even head to Google first *shudder*).

In the end, to get access to the resources I am looking for, I often end up having to go to an actual library or archive. At the same time, it is possible to write an original, quality research paper without spending more than a few minutes in the library checking out books. Indeed, as William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts point out in “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive,” a greater challenge in the Age of the Internet, can sometimes be the volume of resources at our disposal. Thus, I believe that the Web is a net positive for historians (couldn’t resist), even as it has created some issues that need to be addressed.

To a certain degree, I have tended to question sources throughout my life. Who wrote this? When did the author write it? What is the author’s perspective? I give some credit to my parents and teachers who instilled this type of thinking in me. Over the years, I have become more skeptical over the years and have added more questions to the mental list I go through when I encounter a new source. Why did the author write this? Does the author have a bias? Is the author trying to persuade me of something? Are there gaps in the evidence? Does the author refer me to other sources? Admittedly, in part, my questions have become more skeptical because I have grown up and because I have practiced those skills as a historian. Yet I cannot deny that the Internet has affected the way I think about sources.

Some of the most positive aspects of the Internet, such as accessibility, diversity, and manipulability, can also provide challenges when attempting to ascertain the reliability of a source. On the other hand, these challenges of navigating the virtual world can be used for good. Students of history, or indeed any students, can be taught how to critically think about, assess and evaluate sources, whether they are textual, visual, or auditory in nature. The fact that students of history will increasingly do so in front of a screen, rather than in a library or archive, does not radically change the process of history. The most important tools of the historian are not paper and pens, leather-bound volumes, or even the wooden lectern. Rather, the essential tools for historians are the abilities to locate, compile, and critically evaluate sources; make compelling arguments based on available evidence; and communicate their arguments to fellow historians and the public. By retaining such tools, even as they cast a wider net, historians can strengthen their profession.

What do you think? Has the Internet impacted the way you conduct historical research? How does it affect the way you approach sources? Have the essential tools of historians changed in the digital age? Feel free to comment below.

Conducting History in the Digital Age.

With the introduction of the World Wide Web, individuals around the globe have experienced rapid changes in how they can access or distribute information. Historians – some grudgingly, others gleefully – have been a part of this transformation. Such changes have had major implications for all of those living in the twenty-first century (even individuals who do not have direct access to the Internet). Of course, since historians are human beings, they too are affected by the digital age. For one thing, as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig delineate in “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” the internet and other digital media contain a set of intrinsic qualities that both potentially allow historians to do things better and may pose as dangers or hazards on the “information superhighway.” According to these authors, among the seven qualities that may benefit historians are accessibility, diversity, and interactivity. On the other hand, the five dangers include quality, passivity and inaccessibility.

While I agree with Cohen and Rosenzweig that the digital age is a net positive, it changes the practice of doing history in several ways. For instance, historians have access to databases and online archives that are keyword searchable. Generations of young scholars are coming of age in a time when it is possible to conduct quality historical research without going to a physical archive. Additionally, with the proliferation of digital archives, historians are arguably better able to preserve, compile, and share sources. Non-written and non-traditional sources benefit from historians’ widespread use of digital media. Furthermore, due the growth of the Internet, databases, and other multimedia, historians have found new platforms to reach new audiences. Specifically, in the realm of public history and museums, online exhibitions and websites provide new venues to engage the public in matters of the past.

At the same time, while there are undeniable changes to the ways in which historians conduct research and share historical information with colleagues and the public, the historical process remains relatively unchanged. Historians must still use a combination of primary and secondary sources to bolster their arguments about the past. Admittedly, hypertextuality (the use of links) might affect how historians read an article, yet those articles still need to cite their sources to be credible. Additionally, it may be easier to use and interpret multimedia sources in the digital age, but this does not mean that all historians ignored such sources in the past, or that all historians consider such sources equally valid to the written word today. For public historians, creating exhibits or educational programs that engage people in tough questions about the past should be a priority, whether those exhibits or resources are physical or virtual. As far as the challenges historians and other history-minded individuals face in the digital age, such as the impermanence of sources or certain databases being relatively inaccessible, many of them existed before the Internet came into being. Ultimately, while historians might conduct historical research a bit differently, or share that information in new ways, digital history and history in the digital age are qualitatively the same as history before the Internet.

What do you think? How has the Internet changed the way historians do their “thing”? Is digital history something completely different? Please comment below.

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My History. Your History. Our History.

Hello and welcome to my History Homepage! My name is Gabriel Benjamin and I am a graduate student at CCSU in New Britain, Connecticut, pursuing a master’s in public history. As part of that program, I am enrolled in a digital history course. That course has inspired me to start a history blog. Actually, truth be told, it’s a requirement for the course. Nonetheless, I sincerely hope to maintain this blog after I have completed the course, and there are several reasons why. Before I get to those reasons, here’s a little history about myself (see what I did there?).

My History

From a young age, I have been interested in history, science, and the world around us. I have always been a person who likes to ask questions and have come to realize that some of the best questions do not have easy answers. That being said, I have not always been interested in the same historical questions, nor have I always asked the same questions that I do now. When I was younger, I was more interested in biographical, and Presidential history, as well as the history of the American Civil War. I mean no disrespect to academics or fellow history buffs who are drawn to those topics. I still find them interesting myself. Nonetheless, at the time, my questions tended to be along the lines of “who?,” “what?,” and “when?,” rather than “why?” and “how?.” Also, I came to find out that there were many topics in history that I had been missing out on.

This began to change as the result of an internship I completed as an undergrad. Yale Indian Papers Project (also known as YIPP), transcribes, digitizes, and annotates documents related to Native American history in New England. It is a wonderful resource for both academic historians and the general public, including people of indigenous descent who may  wish to trace their genealogy or their tribe’s history. As I was reading through and making sense of 300 to 400 year old documents, I had two Eureka moments (no, I was not in a bath tub!). First of all, being a historian can at times be a bit like being a detective (or at least what I imagine detective work to be like). Second, and arguably more important, history is so much richer than I had imagined. History is comprised of complex individuals who were themselves trying to make sense of and survive in complex societies, wether they were relatively powerful or relatively powerless.

New Questions, New Topics

As a result of this experience, I began to ask harder questions of history. For example:

  • “Who has the ability to change the course of history?”
  • “What makes something an historical event?”
  • “When have individuals and societies experienced major changes?”
  • “Why are certain aspects of history remembered or forgotten?”
  • “How can marginalized histories be better preserved?”

I also became interested in other historical topics, particularly those revolving around individuals whose history may have been forgotten or marginalized. Of particular interest to me in recent years has been Native American history, a term itself which I use with some reservation, since the indigenous inhabitants of the American continents have had and continue to have experiences as diverse as any other group. Indeed, in the United States alone, there are more than 500 recognized Native American tribes, each with a unique history. Nonetheless, I have had to actively seek out information about these groups, since I learned very little in elementary school, high school, or even in general history courses in college.

I have begun to satisfy this appetite by being a museum educator at the Institute for American Indian Studies (or IAIS) in Washington, Connecticut. I love my job as a museum educator because I get to work with people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds, while using creativity to explore new ways of bringing complex concepts to the public. Even better, I get to learn new things every week, often from visitors, volunteers, and colleagues (and I get paid to do it!).

My Digital History Experience

It is my firm belief that now more than ever it is important to make history accessible to everyone, and to make everyones’ history accessible. The technology of the 21st century can help to make that possible. At the same time, if we are not careful, these very same tools can be used for misinformation and to further erase or marginalize the experiences of others. Thus, I have been reluctant until now to use social media and digital platforms for the purpose of spreading historical information. I have had a Facebook page for years and I will share, post or like things that I think my friends should see. Yet that has pretty much been it. From the course I am currently enrolled in, I am hoping to learn new ways of compiling and sharing historical information, particularly about topics, individuals, events, and groups that are not necessarily part of the mainstream historical narrative.

As for this blog, in addition to posts related to the course I am currently enrolled in, I will use it to discuss a whole host of historical topics. I will write posts about marginalized groups, events, or individuals in history. From time to time, I will also review resources, from books to websites to museum exhibits, that focus on a range of historical topics. A digital platform will also allow me to include more pictures and multimedia related to historical events or individuals. In so doing, I will be careful to cite where my information and any content that is not my own is coming from. Finally, while this blog might touch upon some serious or mundane topics, I will also include humorous topics and insights.

To conclude, I welcome your feedback on posts and suggestions for topics that you think should be covered. In future posts I plan to be more concise, but I hope this helps you learn a little bit about me. Onward to the past!