Digitized History: Historians in the Twenty-First Century

My how time flies! It seems like it was just a few months ago that I began this blog at the start of the Spring 2018 semester. By now, I have gotten used to writing 2018 on checks and class notes. Additionally, having taken this digital history course, I am more aware of the ways that both academic and public historians can use the tools of the twenty-first century to further their work. Historians can more easily preserve primary sources, reach broader audiences, and connect with colleagues on the internet. At the same time, since the internet has become an almost indispensable and omnipresent aspect of our lives, historians must use digital tools respectfully and responsibly.

One of the resources that I have read in the past few weeks that makes this case extremely well is Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. This online book, which can be accessed here, outlines ways that historians can use the internet, without hysteria. Indeed, Cohen and Rosenzweig that both the “cyber-enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics” of the 1990s overstated their case. Nonetheless, the internet has clearly had an impact on our everyday life, so of course it has also had an impact of the lives of historians. To the authors of this book, seven qualities of digital media allow historians to do things better, yet there are also five dangers on the information super highway. Such a realist view, (as opposed to an overly optimistic or profoundly pessimistic view) allows these authors to give practical advice.

Another source that I have found useful is History in the Digital Age, edited by Toni Weller (New York: Routledge, 2013). Although a printed book in the digital age, the contents of this collection of articles should be taken seriously. For instance, in the article entitled “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive,” Turkel, Kee, and Roberts problematize the ways that many universities are preparing future historians, as well as the manner in which many current historians are conducting historical research. All is not at a loss, however, since there already exist solutions to many of these issues. According to these digital historians, the processes and tools “are not more complicated than those used for email or word processing,” yet the results will be extremely beneficial. Other digital historians in this collection of essays explain new ways of studying and teaching history in the digital age, while some attempt to predict the future of digital history and humanities.

Throughout the semester, I have also read other useful readings on a variety of topics in digital history, including readings on copyright issues, metadata, digital preservation, and methods for making digital history relevant. I found these topics interesting and informative, as I hope my blog posts each week demonstrated. Frequently, they compelled me to think about the topic of the week in a different light, and I appreciate that they came from a variety of different sources and perspectives. For instance, in week seven we read and discussed the topic of historians as collaborators on Wikipedia. Some articles we read that week were rather supportive of the collaborative nature of Wikipedia, while others questioned its utility.

I have quite enjoyed writing these weekly blogposts. While I will not pretend that I will write as often after this digital history course is over, I do plan on continuing to write posts on topics in digital history, public history, and the lost threads of history.

What do you think: If you have read either of the two sources I mentioned above, what were your opinions on them? What are the most important topics in digital history? What issues should historians be prepared to tackle in the digital age? What should I write about in my next blog post? Feel free to comment below.

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Doing Digital History for Democracy: How to be a Citizen Archivist

In his inaugural address, John F Kennedy famously proclaimed: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” When people think about serving their country, they might consider joining the national guard, the peace corps, or running for elected office. Did you know that there’s another way to serve your country, and to do it you don’t even need to leave your house? All you need is a digital device with internet connection. While it certainly is not as glamorous as some of the examples mentioned above (and it does not require as much in the way of sacrifice), I’m talking about the Citizen Archivist program sponsored by the National Archives.

The Citizens Archivist program is one of the results of the recent movement for crowdsourcing in digital and public history. Contributors do not need to have a history degree or have prior experience with digital history. You can contribute by adding tags to primary sources or by transcribing documents. These “Citizen Archivist Missions” are often curated in such a manner that they relate to a general theme which might have some relevance to current events. For example, many of the current missions relate to documents from the 1970s, a decade with the Watergate investigation and the Vietnam War. I’ll let you make your own conclusions about the relevance of these topics to the current decade.

You might be thinking that reading through and transcribing government documents might not sound that exciting, but hang with me. You get to learn about topics in history that you might not be that familiar about, or expand your knowledge of certain historical topics that you find interesting. For instance, I decided to start with a document from the Pentagon Papers. While I was already familiar with the Pentagon Papers, I had never read parts of it myself. I got to read first-hand the back and forth between U.S. and French officials in the 1950s, as the U.S. was beginning to get more involved in Vietnam.  Also, keep in mind that since there is no deadline, you can go at your own pace.

While I’ve listed many of the reasons why I think this is a useful program, I have to admit that I do still have some concerns. The National Archives admit that they do not actively review work, and your work is not closed for further editing. This can be both a positive and negative quality. For instance, as I was reading through a transcription of a Watergate document, I noticed that a previous contributor had missed a “not” in one of the sentences he or she transcribed. “Not” may be a small word, but its presence or absence can have major implications to the meaning of a sentence, or even an entire document. Since the work was not closed for further editing, I was able to address the error. (In case you were that contributor, I mean no offense. We all make mistakes.) On the other hand, most contributors probably don’t spend time reading through already completed transcriptions. Also, while I’d like to assume that the majority of contributors have pure motivations, if someone has an agenda, they could intentionally change the meaning of certain documents. That being said, you can report violations of the Citizens Contribution Policy.

Learn more about becoming a Citizen Archivist: https://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/faqs 

What do you think: Does the Citizen Archivist program have a useful mission? Should digital historians do more in the way of crowdsourcing? Will you try your hand at tagging or transcribing documents for the National Archives. Comments welcome.

Pod People: The Rise of the Historical Podcast

If you’re anything like me, when you’re driving you like to have something to listen to. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s the news, increasingly it’s podcasts. Since the rise of iPods and MP3-players, the popularity of podcasts has grown at an almost exponential rate. In part, I believe this can be attributed to the wide array of interests to which podcasts cater. In 2018, there is a whole slew of different types of podcasts, from Movies by Minutes, to dramas, to historical podcasts. Within each genre, different podcasts speak to different interests. It’s a bit like books for those who don’t feel like, or don’t have time, to read.

Within the genre of historical podcasts, different podcasts serve different purposes. Some, like BackStory and Stuff You Missed in History, discuss topics that may not otherwise receive a lot of attention. Often, the perspectives of historically underrepresented or marginalized peoples find a voice on these podcasts. In the case of BackStory, the episodes often have a connection to something that is happening in current events. For example, BackStory’s most recent episode, “The Habit,” is about historical instances of opioid addiction in America. Such podcasts might appeal to a scholarly audience who may be interested in the historiography of a topic, as well as a general audience who may not be that aware of said topic.

Other podcasts, such as Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, seek to tell the dramatic side of history. In my opinion, they are produced for genuine history enthusiasts who may not have much academic training in historical methods and thinking. To be clear, Carlin clearly does historical research in preparation for his podcasts, asks deep historical questions, and produces high-quality (often lengthy) episodes. At the same time, the titles of his podcasts, such as “Painfotainment” and “The Destroyer of Worlds,” coupled with movie poster-like hyperlinks. Additionally, as the podcast series’s name suggests, the topics tend to be of a mature nature, discussing topics such as violence, war, and apocalyptic imagery.

A third type of podcast probably appeals more towards the history professional. These podcasts examine themes or topics in a similar way that you might see done in a journal article. One such podcast, Footnoting Historyemphasizes that each of its “rotating ensemble” of podcasters “possess graduate degrees in history.” These podcasters tend to talk about the historical process and primary sources in greater detail than the other podcasts mentioned above. There is also less of an attempt to make the episodes relevant to the present (although that is not to say that they avoid doing so). Public historians and museum professionals also have podcasts directed towards them, such as Colonial Williamsburg’s Past and Present Podcast (although it appears to be on a hiatus).

All of this is to say that, as in other formats, podcast historians have a range of audiences that they can appeal to: general public, history enthusiasts, and academic and public historians. It is a relatively inexpensive way to get the word out about a variety of historical topics, or examine a specific topic in great detail, if you want like-minded people listening along. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some podcast listening to do.

 

What do you think: Do you like listening to podcasts? Do historical podcasts serve an important purpose? Is there an awesome podcast you could recommend? If so, please share.

 

Digital Personas: All the World (Wide Web) is a Stage.

The Latin word persona basically means someone who is representing oneself as a certain character or social role. Since human beings are social beings whose identities are largely shaped by our social roles, one could argue, as have many authors, artists, and philosophers, that we are all, to a certain degree, actors. I don’t mean to imply that we’re all “phonies” a la Catcher in the Rye, or that society’s destined to become Lord of the Flies. Rather, in certain cases, our social roles dictate that we behave a certain way. Even the most genuine guy or gal probably presents a slightly different version of herself or himself in professional and personal life. In other words, you probably have a professional or public persona that is somewhat different than your private persona. If all the world’s a stage, then the character you play shows up in different scenes.

In the last two decades, the rise of the internet has led to the creation another stage – that of the digital arena. Whether you’ve thought about it or not, anyone who uses social media has a digital persona. Trust me, even if you haven’t, businesses, employers, and politicians have. Because of the ubiquity of social media, the gap between our public and private lives is smaller than it once was. This is not inherently good or bad, but those who use the internet (and there’s a good chance if you’re reading this, that means you), would be wise to keep this in mind. The digital personae that we create can have implications in our professional and private lives.

Until recently, my digital presence was quite small – just Facebook (well, maybe not as small as I thought!). By adopting Twitter and this WordPress as well, I have increased my digital presence, even if I don’t have a huge audience. Nonetheless, on all three platforms, I tend to present myself similarly. I share, retweet, or blog about topics that interest me, such as history, science, music/arts, and sometimes politics (although I try to avoid clickbait – there’s already plenty of it out there – and left vs right debates – I’d rather save those for face-to-face discussions.).

On twitter, one of my favorite handles to follow is History in Pictures, which posts obscure photos from the past – sometimes of famous people, other times of everyday people. I also follow the Smithsonian as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Certainly, the name Smithsonian draws some people in, but I think they also do a good job of posting engaging media that touches upon relevant topics. On a more local level, Connecticut History does a great job with their On This Day tweets. Of course, twitter is good for short posts, while blogs are better for longer topics. Still, I have found that relevant topics and use of engaging media are helpful to draw people in. Admittedly, this is something that I intend to improve upon with my blog. I wouldn’t want to be a digital persona non grata.

What do you think: What are some ways that historians who use social media or post content can attract followers? What are some blogs or twitter handles that you have found useful or exciting to follow? How have you managed your digital persona? As always, feel free to comment.

The Space-Time Continuum: How Spatial History Projects Strengthen Historical Scholarship

According to Merriam Webster, history is the study of past events. Seems simple enough, right? Nonetheless, this definition might have vastly different implications for different historians, as there are myriad ways to to study and interpret the past. Ultimately, though, such a definition of history implies a preoccupation with time rather than space. If we are to accept this as a complete definition, then history is about the “past” and “events,” not about locations, connections, or representations of them. To a spatial historian, such a definition is quite lacking. Despite what their name mind sound like, spatial historians are not scholars who study NASA; rather, to paraphrase Richard White, spatial historians promote collaborative projects that rely on visualizations to analyze human relations to, documentation of, and creation of spaces over time. Because such scholarship relies so heavily on visual representations, many spatial historians work closely with, or are, digital historians.

There are various spatial history projects that demonstrate the strengths of this ever-developing field. One such site is Mapping the Republic of Letters. The goal of this project is to show how scholars and policy makers created networks – spatial relationships – in a time before the internet (sometimes it’s easy to forget just how recently that was). The home page of this project features an infographic timeline and illustration of the networks that connect individuals. The site also focuses on several case studies, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and the Salons Project headed by Melanie Conroy. This project should not be viewed as merely a synopsis of each of these groups’ or individuals’ contributions to academia. The contributors to the project firmly believe that those they are studying had created a space (a Republic) and are looking to represent the connections between participants in this space. Through graphs and maps, they are also demonstrating in a visual manner how these participants contributed to the Republic.

Let’s examine the case study of Benjamin Franklin. This example clearly demonstrates how visualizations can help historians to see individuals’ connections to spaces and to other people. Graphs can be used to show where Benjamin Franklin was receiving letters from and sending letters to. They can even demonstrate to whom, or from whom, Franklin was sending and receiving correspondence. I found it quite interesting (although not entirely surprising) to see the ratio of men to women in the graph of Franklin’s correspondents grouped by gender. As this project shows, spatial historians can help historians in their task of “studying past events” by visually representing how seemingly random events are connected, how people in the past have made and used spaces, and spaces affected people, places, or events in the past.

See for yourself: Republic of Letters

What do you think: Should historians be concerned with “spaces”? How should they define “spaces”? What is the value of visual representations of spaces? What is your opinion of the project discussed in this blog post? Comments welcome.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder: Form and Function on the World Wide Web

Let’s face it: we all have a slightly different opinion on what is beautiful and what is ugly. To some, freshly fallen snow is a reminder of the delicate elegance of the natural world. To others, the same event merely brings to mind the prospect of having to get out the snow shovel, start up the snowblower, or call the snow plow contractor. We all know what art we find attractive, what music makes us dance, and what stories we find compelling. What examples come to mind for you? I’d be willing to bet your top examples are different than mine, or at least in a different order. To a certain degree, the same is true for functionality. While most of us would agree that it is easier to travel thirty miles using a car than a bike, some would prefer a compact car while others would prefer an SUV. Some people might even get into debates over whether is better to drive a Ford, a Subaru, or a Volkswagen. Ultimately, human opinions are subjective. If that’s the case, then how should digital historians make decisions when designing a website, a digital collection, or digital exhibit?

Actually, by striking a balance between form and function, and following certain practices, digital historians can make websites that are visually appealing and navigable for the majority of visitors. Will there be those who disagree? Hey, there are those who would choose a bike to travel thirty miles (no offense to those who would – especially since you could probably outrun me!). The point is, there are areas of general agreement, even if you can’t satisfy all tastes. I think most of us would agree that a car needs a steering wheel, an engine, tires, and some brakes. As such, the following includes some aspects of web design that digital historians should keep in mind, adopted from Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History, as well as my own online experience.

Legibility

If you can’t read the content on a website, you’re probably going to look for another site. Choosing a font is just the first step. You’re going to want to choose a font that doesn’t strain the eyes. Keep in mind that even if you choose a wacky font, certain browsers and operating systems aren’t going to support that font. Additionally, it’s important to choose a font color that compliments the site’s background. You don’t want it to contrast too sharply, nor do you want the font to get lost in the background. Behind the body of the text, you don’t want images or distracting patterns either. For instance, the Roy  Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media chooses a dark gray, sans serif font. This font is set against a white background. While there is an image behind the title on the home page, the image is faded so that you can clearly read the title (and the image conveys what the site is all about). The same applies for each of the tabs on the website. A title appears at the top with a faded image behind it. The font is dark gray, sans serif, and set against a white background for the body of the text. There is not an overwhelming amount of text on each page. If you want more information, you can click on a hyperlink. Personally, I’d say the site conforms more to the functional than the aesthetically pleasing, but it is not unpleasant to look at, either.

See for yourself: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

Color, Imagery, and Multimedia

What visitors read on your site is not the only thing that they will notice. Honestly, it’s probably not even the first thing they will notice, even if they are looking for something specific. Visitors are going to see the colors you choose, the images you place on a page, and any media that you have included. One website that seems to recognize this fact is the website for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. On the home page there are selectively chosen images and multimedia. The choice of a black and dark grey background provides contrast with the color choices of many other sites, while at the same time not being difficult to read. Indeed, the body of the text is is set against a white background. When one navigates to the various sections of the website, a similar pattern unfolds. Images are chosen selectively, multimedia enhances the content, and the website uses unique colors. It can at times be difficult to navigate your way through the site, so its design is more form than function.

See for yourself: NMAI, Washington, D.C.

Navigability

This brings us to another point. While it is important to be able to read and access site content, and that it is aesthetically pleasing, there needs to be a balance. Visitors to your site want to be able to find their way around. Some of the sites that understand this the best are news sites. For one thing, as a visitor, you might happen on a news site because you are skimming through headlines, or you might go to a news site because you want to see if they add further insight or analysis to a specific news story. When you arrive at a news site it might be your first time there, or it could be a site that you have bookmarked. It is a fiercely competitive field since there are many news sites, and the site will need to undergo constant updating as the news changes constantly. Because of this, visitors want to be able to find their way around the website. One site that gets this is the Washington Post’s website. Of course there are images, and sometimes multimedia, on the homepage, but the specific examples change depending on the news. Although backgrounds are plain, each article has plenty of images. More significantly for the point I am making, it is easy to find one’s way back from an article to the homepage, as well as to the various sections of the website. Like online news media, digital historians should keep navigability in mind when designing websites, digital collections, and digital exhibits.

See for yourself: Washington Post

What do you think: When it comes to website is form or function more important, or are they co-equal? What makes for an effective or ineffective websites? Do you have any tips for digital historians or web designers? Please comment.

All Talk, and Quite a Bit of Action, Too: Analyzing Wikipedia Pages

So, let’s be honest. In this day and age, when you hear a reference to an unfamiliar topic, you are in the earliest stages of a research project, or you’re having a friendly argument about something, chances are you turn to Google or Bing to find your answer. More than likely, one of the first responses is a Wikipedia page. This now ubiquitous online, community-edited encyclopedia has gained quite a reputation. Due to the easy-to-edit nature of this site, some people question its validity. At the same time, others point out that changes are traceable and the fact that Wikipedia encourages the use of sources allows users to check most claims that are made. In this post, I’m going to look at three Wikipedia articles and explain how these articles show the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia.

Article 1: “Native Americans in the United States”

Let’s start with a simple topic: Native Americans. I am, of course, being sarcastic. Although it is not alway recognized in current political discourse.  The indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, composed of a multitude of different groups, each of which has had a complex history, and these groups continue to have diverse experiences across the continent. Indeed, the term “Native American” is even a point of disagreement, as some in this group prefer American Indian, Indigenous, or simply identification by their tribal or group identity (a fact which the Wikipedia article does indeed recognize). On the face of it, this article actually does a fairly good job of explaining this diversity and complex history. It is organized in such a way as to give an introduction, background, and a “brief” history (in a Word document, this section would be several pages long) that is itself part of a larger “history of Native Americans in the United States.” Additionally, there are sections on Native American demographics, legal status, contemporary legal issues, contemporary cultures, and racial identity. There is also an extensive “further reading” section and a plethora of cited sources.

The true complexity of such an article, however, is raised in the “talk” section. Should a “trauma” section be included, and if so should it be part of “contemporary issues,” or its own section? There are also continued debates about terminology, the intentional use of disease, and the term “Redskin.” Most recently, a user points out that some of the wording throughout the article oversimplifies the topic. This article shows that one of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it can allow for complexity of a subject and continual improvement. At the same time, it is also easy for contributors to generalize, or (intentionally or unintentionally) insert their own biases.

See for yourself: Native Americans in the United States

Article 2: “Christopher Columbus”

Ok, perhaps you saw that coming. I chose this article because it’s also a topic where there might just be a bit of debate. Although certainly not as complex as an article on an entire group of people, Columbus has had a range of interpretations throughout the centuries. This article also has an introduction, which lays out some of the topics the article discusses. Other sections about Columbus include his early life, his quest for Asia, each of his voyages, his actions in the Americas, and his death. Not surprisingly, there is also a lengthy section on Columbus’ legacy. While this article does have an extensive list of resources, its further reading section is much shorter than that of the “Native Americans” article.

Debates in this talk section center around translations of quotes and definitions of words. One contributor suggests a certain translation as being more accurate than the original. That contributor asks for his/her translation to be given preference over the original. It was decided to not change the body of the text, but rather to add both versions of the quote to the footnote. Another contributor uses an analogy to explain the what he or she sees as the misuse of the term “discover.” Personally, I think that one could make an argument for including a section on the term “discover” in the Christopher Columbus article. This debate over translations and terminology shows one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia. Human beings that understand the world subjectively are trying to create an objective explanation of a controversial figure.

See for yourself: Christopher Columbus

Article 2: “Monty Python”

… And now for something completely different! Since the one article was on a complex topic, and the other one was on a controversial topic, I wanted something a little bit more humorous for the last one. As with the first two articles, this one starts with a brief introduction. The subsections in this article include: Before Flying CircusMonty Python’s Flying Circus, Life after Flying Circus, Python members, cultural influence, and media. The article has a surprisingly long “further reading” section, but not quite as extensive of a reference list as the other two articles.

It may come as little surprise that there is less in the Talk section than the other two articles. Contributors mainly suggest or modify external links, rather than debate over the intricacies. Still, there is a question whether to include certain comedy groups in the cultural influence category and a suggestion for a discussion of Python Music. Perhaps this is where Wikipedia shines, since it is most likely edited by those who have an interest in Monty Python and are motivated to get it right. At the same time, I’m sure on certain popular culture articles this could lead fans towards extensive debates.

See for yourself: Monty Python

What do you think? Is Wikipedia a reliable source for historical information? How can the platform be improved? Does it need to be improved? Did you expect the Spanish Inquisition?

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.

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.