The Digital Age

     More than anything, what seems to be the most inevitable change to history in this digital age in which we live is the contribution of those who many not be trained historians to the field. We are already seeing this in websites such as Wikipedia and other various places around the internet. Though this is not to say that trained historians do not contribute on the internet, but rather there are more and more individuals who are interested in history that are now contributing on a topic they wouldn’t have been able to do in the past without being published in a journal or writing a book. Furthermore, many websites run by groups that are focused on preserving history are taking contributions from the public. These days, people can scan items and send them to organizations, and if they are deemed important or relevant to the purpose of the organization, they may be included in their database or collection.

     Though this does have a positive side, in that people are able to contribute to what is preserved and things that may have been in personal collections or out of reach for historians are now available, not everything that is contributed on the internet is valid. With massive numbers of people, anonymity, personal agendas, and lack of training the possibility of there being wrong information is very real. In addition to this easy access to the internet makes the possibility of spreading misinformation very real. Ultimately we as historians need to do is contribute. The more historians that contribute to legitimate causes, organizations, and sites that want to inform the public and put forth true information, the better the state of our field will be. And though there will always be those who are trying to spread misinformation or promote a cause, through our contributions and expertise hopefully we will be able to direct people to information that is grounded in reality, trust, and valid research.

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Education Through Digital Projects

     One of the most interesting things I found in the readings this week is the point Mr. McClurken made regarding the assumption that exists that those who grew up with computers are “digital natives”. While there are those who take to new technology and other aspects of the current age very quickly and without trouble, this is clearly not the case for everyone. I believe that her notion that we need to introduce students to technology they don’t know, technology where not knowing how to do it makes them uncomfortable, is both a very powerful and sound notion. As some may know, people learn the most when pushed slightly outside of their boundaries, essentially making us uncomfortable while not causing us to give up. Though students may be comfortable with computer use in general, basic projects that are repeating the same principals are not doing much to teach something new. Even if new content is learned, the technological side is still lacking.

     Through sites such as Omeka where students are able to create something for the public, while doing something new in the terms of technology, educators are able to help students do something not only practical, but also marketable. While the rest of this article talks about getting students working with Omeka, through how-to videos and actually decided if Omeka will be useful for the project, I found the most compelling information at the beginning of the article. Engaging students in projects such as this helps to support and promote not only general digital literacy, but also various forms of literacy as more and more programs and softwares are being made available for use. The one thing I found lacking is the fact that the author did not discuss how helpful this could be professionally for students, as they are making a public finished project which they could use to show their skills to potential employers.

Not All History Projects Are Made Equal

 

Though a bit late, the two exhibits that I took a look at this week, in order to compare them to one another, were Bone Commons and Our Move. Starting with Bone Commons, this project was created as a means of collecting archaeological material to use as teaching resources, engage the public, and to share discoveries with the public, among other things. Bone Commons offers a slew of collections and items that can be browsed on their website. This includes photos, publications, and access to conference run by the International Conference for Archaezoology. In addition to what ICAZ offers on this website, they are also looking for contributions from those willing to put up their own material, which can be submitted on the “Contribute” section of the site. One of the most interesting thing this site allows access to is in the “Datasets” section where the data on all of the materials that have been gathered is both accessible and searchable.

Whereas Bone Commons offers greater accessibility and interaction with the content that they are hosting, Our Move seems to take a more traditional role on their website. Though the goal of Our Move is to act as a digital repository for materials related to American-Soviet citizen diplomacy, it does not allow as easy access as the material that is on the Bone Commons site. In addition to this contribution seems more difficult as anyone who wants to contribute must first go to another website and then contact them in order to begin discussing what one could contribute to the project. It is for this reason that, I believe, Our Move is seriously lacking in material compared to Bone Commons. Granted Bone Commons has been in existence longer than Our Move, I believe that were it easier to contribute to Our Move they would be able to host significantly more material that is relevant to their focus, though I do not know what they currently are working on and have gathered but not hosted yet. In the end, though some may criticize open calls for material from historical websites and repositories, if those who would be going through these materials are careful with what they accept and host, then there could a wealth of material that normally would not be accessible by the public.

 

“Big Data” and How to Handle It

     Though there are clear issues with “Big Data”, mainly the “Big” part that leads to “Big Data” being difficult to handle, there are numerous advantages to this form of data. One of the first advantages is the fact that we are able to store this material and not lose them. Usually as historians, and in particular public historians, we must make hard decisions regarding what we can and cannot keep in collection. However, through “Big Data” we are saved from having to make these decisions. With “Big Data”, though it may be difficult to access in some cases, the fact that we are still able to maintain these materials in some form is important. Although there will always be those who question the importance of things that they deem to be “frivolous”, it is my belief that if we can keep it, why shouldn’t we? The more we have now, the better insight those in the future will have to their past.

     But once, the “Big Data” has been gathered and stored there comes the problem of how best to recall and handle the data. This is we run into trouble to an extent. Due to the massive amount of material that is stored, the problem of how to access and sort through it arises. Ultimately, what is required is making the material searchable which is generally done through keywords. Rather than being required to sift through all this material to find something very specific, key words allow us to root out what is not relevant as programs work to gather the material that is linked to the keyword. Though this obviously take time to create, once these ends are met access “Big Data” becomes significantly simpler. With programs such as Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, we are able to search terms and see trends over periods of time. In addition to this, Google Books’ allows me to select time periods where keywords are found and view the books in which they occur (that Google has access to that is). In the end it is through program such as this that we are able to make sense out of seemingly infinite “Big Data” and make it useful to our needs.

Everyday Lives of the Past

The title really says it all about the importance of GIS projects such as the Digital Harlem Project. Though people may have a basic understanding of the larger overall events of the time period and locale of Harlem, it is through project such as this one that really helps to bring history to light. This coupling of history and technology is really one of the best things that can be done to help garner interest in an important era and location. In this case the subject matter is Harlem from 1915-1930 and the everyday lives of the individuals who lived there during this 15 year time period. One of the greatest assists that this project has is the overlaying of the primary source document map sections with the modern Google maps like tech of today.  Not only can you see the location as it stood then but you can also see the progress that occurred in the neighborhood as time based by.

 In addition to this there are numerous blogs that have been written that correspond with the maps. It is through these blogs that the website really comes to life. Through research and synthesis individuals have used the maps and their own material in order to paint a picture of the past. One such example is the blog post “Harlem and Baseball in the 1920s” which details the popularity of the sport in this area during this time period. Through the use of the map one can find where there were baseball fields in the area and compare this visual with what is being brought forward in the blog post. Though this is but one example of how this sort of pairing of technology and history can be useful, as long as a map can be employed similar projects be created.

Why So Critical?

     This is mainly in response to a blog that bashed Google books in 2007. I’m not sure if this outlook is clearly outdated as it is currently 2013, or if this individual is just overly cynical regarding the free service provided by Google Books, regardless I take some issue with this overly critical view.  The first statement I have to say is: Something is always better than nothing.  The flippant attitude about how the individual running this blog believes that Google won’t actually fix problems within their own system is clearly the attitude of someone, who also admits to there being others who know much more about technology than him, who doesn’t understand the way that those working in a field such as the individuals who run the Google Books system work. Yes, faulty metadata is a problem and adding more to Google Books could create a very real backlog, but his overall point that this means that not everything will be available because of copyright law leads me to the point that I’d rather be able to access some material than none at all. The very fact that Google is trying to get as much material available as possible means that there will be more material for more people to access, and if these individuals are doing their research correctly, they will be looking at the source as well as the metadata and will realize mistakes as they arise. To me the metadata issue is something that really isn’t that big of a problem if you don’t take everything at face value and you actually take a moment to check the information you are getting.

     Furthermore, I find the overall complaint about scan quality to be a superficial one at best. Again, I don’t know if this is because of how dated the article is, but I am yet to run into anything on Google books that has the issues that he has brought up. Regardless though, if there is a problem with one of the scans: so what? This happens the individuals who are scanning this material are still human and mistakes are made. The correct course of action would be to bring this issue to the proper “authorities”. I honestly believe that this entire blog was an exercise in how to drive people away from listening to, and backing, professional historians as this individual seems to be a part of the lofty ivory tower league of historians who look down their noses at everyone and leave a bad taste in the mouth of the layman. And if I am off base on this assumption, he sure did a great job of convincing me that I wasn’t. 

Being Personable on the Internet

     Compared to many of the blogging historians that I have followed recently, my overall persona and writing seems to be much more laid back. This is not to say that historians on the internet are all writing stuffy manifestos, but they still seem to have a general aversion towards a casual conversation/dialogue and are more focused on how they are an official voice on the topic. This is not to say that these individuals do not know what they are talking about, or are presenting their information poorly, but rather their outlook may be one of the issues with why there is so much misinformation and resistance to academics on the internet. By all means, I personally enjoy academic writing and don’t mind being told about a topic in an official feeling blog post, but there are those who take the academic approach as something that is to be considered rude or arrogant. And though jumping to this conclusion about academics is not the right thing to do, this will not stop anyone from jumping to it.

     I believe a more effective way to reach a greater audience would be for academics to loosen up a bit. I would argue that what I have said thus far on my blog would not be out of place on a blog of any other academic or even professor, but I feel I do this in a more laid-back manner than many other I have encountered online. The real way to reach people is to appeal to a sense of belong, and the best way to do this is to present what you have to say in a way that anyone can dive right into. Furthermore, though we should never feed the trolls and we have the rights to shut down comments if we want, the ideal would be to leave our blogs and article open to discussion and threads so that we can start a dialogue with the individuals we are looking to reach in the first place. Honestly, the number one way to create a following or to draw attention to a blog is to appeal to potential followers as fellow people and individuals who share a common interest, while not alienating people who haven’t found out they are interested yet.

 

     A great example of someone who presents historical content in a fun and interesting way would be Kate Beaton, who has created the website Hark a Vagrant! to host her often history based drawings.