What is Digital History (Week 3)

I remember a few years ago, studying with some CS friends, I probably an old language from a paper book, them running experiments on a machine, a conversation arose about the idea of computers as the “new literacy”: just as the ability to control prose and poetry versus to keep simple accounts and records characterised a distinction between literacy and a sort of user-end literacy in the ancient world, I could check e-mail, but not programme, and therefore was not educated in today’s world! What a bunch of funny guys, right? The concerns beneath our little session of banter however provide the real meat of our first week’s readings. What does it mean to be digital and what command do we need over tools to operate in today’s world?

The question of the hour: what is digital history? We might distill from readings that “it” is a category of discussion, motivated by a desire to apprehend and perhaps to direct the changes in practise that emerge out of the shift to new technologies both by historians and by our history-practising culture at large. As a category of discussion, it also has an economic and financial aspect as practitioners negotiate within a living system of funding, work, and authority. The range of answers we get in “The Promise of Digital History” from historians participating in the JAH interview speak to “digital history” as this kind of deliberation.

Specific answers to the JAH interviews discuss concerns about changes in the tools, presentation, and audience that describe the discipline of history. I think of how print and mass print changed things: how research was done, etc. who had access, who practiced, the development of systems of research developed around the emergence of (more) multiple copies now more economically and widely distributed. These factors surely contributed to the slow replacement of history as creative interpretations of annals with the more rigorous and systematised history we think of today, the characteristics of the print-and-paper system infiltrating and shaping the components of the history artefact — from margins and font to formatted bibliographies.

We might reflect on the William Cronnon reading here as he describes the professional practise of history. What features of his model is digital practise renegotiating? Tim Sherratt’s presentation of his work provides our first example this class of a novel or innovative approach to doing history with new media, using the expanded capabilities of computing to analyse a large body of data. It is an effective and powerful alternative to the close reading and the monograph. As Dan Cohen noted in the JAH interview, the close reading is endangered by the ability to quickly find contradictory or complicating evidence with a quick Internet search. He cautions us not to ignore the power of new modes of research. I should add here that for the Art Historian, the problem is parallel to the historian’s insofar as the close reading of image documents. It seems to me that we must embrace “new literacy” if we are to pursue the degree of rigour we in fact developed digital tools to improve.

There’s an interesting point in that statement though: to date, we have been developing tools to improve tasks we were already doing, but in turn are changed by the tools we use as we use them in new ways. But the idea of literacy itself seems problematic to some of the commentators, especially in the JAH interview as they ask to what degree we should expect graduate students to learn programming. I suppose its the difference between the building and operating a printing press and commanding prose though. Perhaps our goals should be, rather than learning to programme, learning to make use of the growing body of applications that allow a user to develop and analyse digital content and to be informed enough to communicate with developers of tools about the needs of historians This is Cohen’s solution and William Turkel’s, the later with the caveat that “architects know about plumbing”… a lot about plumbing.

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Public History/Citizen History Reading Reflection

I was most interested in the reading for today that came from Rose Holley on how libraries, based on well-illustrated examples drawn from other fields, might make use of “crowdsourcing,” perhaps better called “digital volunteerism” in order to perform a variety of tasks. These might include the generation and fleshing out of bibliographic records in a user-networking-type-format where users generate content and have access to content generated by other users.

For my first week’s practicum (post forthcoming) evaluating a pair of sites on the World History Sources site, I looked at two sites on ancient coins that vaguely related to my anticipated course project in mapping numismatic data. Although these sites were general informational sites intended as mere introduction, for school children and the community respectively, to the existence and classification of ancient coins, I was perfectly alarmed by some of the limitations in labeling and description, and most of all by the limits in numbers of coins included. The sites I viewed must be judged as introductory teaching sites, but my alarm certainly reflected anxieties I’ve been having about my own project: if I wish to prepare a mapping tool for analysis of all provenanced Kushan coins, that’s one thing, but where on earth would I get all the data? How could I possibly make what I want within the constraints of the semester? Because the bottom line, folks, is that I want to make this tool because I want to use it myself.

Holley’s article, as well as our articles from Jeff Howe and Roy Rosenzweig and Trevor Owens’ 4 part blog post on user participation on the growth of resources have inspired me to start thinking about my own project in terms of the content and in designing to allow for multi-user participation for growing that content. Holley and Rosenzweig (on wikipedia) both discuss resources grown and enriched by the same individuals who will benefit from the resource — the participant users. Their economy has less to do with ‘giving’ than with sharing and co-developing something useful, and in a more participatory and self-enriching manner than, say, paying your tuition or taxes for library use.

What about when you want your users to be specialists? The Raid on Deerfield site by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association offers one model for limited user participation. They supplied their digital exhibit developers with a standard web space in which they could comment on structure and content throughout development. This is a limited example because its contributors are in a closed committee of developers and consults, but scholarly generated content might be gleaned following a model that lies somewhere between Wikipdedia and Deerfield.

The bottom line is that the user must be supplied with something they can use in order to motivate participation as Holley and Owens addressed. An example of a successful collaboration in paper (had the project started just a little later, it would surely have been digital instead) is the LIMC (Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae), which drew images when possible and written content from scholars everywhere to compile a comprehensive encyclopedia of the representations of all mythological and religious characters in Greco-Roman art. LIMC was successful because it provided an indispensable tool for the content generators by collating their own combined content.

I am beginning to think about my own project in terms of inviting content generation by providing usability, providing a fully functional GIS base to attract the datasets of others and providing a system of simple data conversion to invite others to more easily share data between systems to attract a body of, not givers but, user-participants.

Review of HistoryPin.com, a project mapping user supplied photographic data

I realised when starting this assignment that, although it seemed it should be obvious, I wasn’t entirely certain what constituted a “popular history website” (recall also that I’m not precisely an historian). Does it refer to any non-professional generated web content or other form of presentation? And if so, what does that say about user generated content sites like HistoryPin.com or PhillyHistory.org that sit overtop of a professionally managed framework?
Scrounging our list of sites for this week to help me find something that we could call “popular,” I started with the PhillyHistory.org site, but was disappointed: although the topics represented seemed “popular,” in terms of local interest and so forth, the content appeared to be managed entirely from the top. HistoryPin resembles much more what Trevor Owens called the “scaffolding” on which users could climb themselves to do work, ergo it better fit the definition of “popular” I’ve been cooking up from this week’s readings.
The site is basically a modern Google street map onto which users can “pin” their own photographs. Judging from my whirlwind tour of the site by places I am personally familiar with, users appear to have been loyal to their understanding of what the site is after, that is “history.” The “how to” page for adding photographs does not contain any specific guidelines for choosing content; this phenomenon happens all on its own. That said, a fair amount of content seems to be coming from local historical groups participating on the open site rather than private individuals.
Beyond pinning photographs, multimedia content can be pinned, and the map can be used with all it’s standard Google maps functionality including modern street views. A feature, oft utilised by the historical groups, allows users to curate collections such as the archive of the Hartlepool bombardment (WWI) featured on the main “Tours & Collections” page. Each of the photographs is pinned spatially to the street map and then collected for presentation as slides.
This site is definitely fun. For example, here is a picture of Queen Elizabeth II in 1971 opening a theatre in Wiltshire that I performed at in the mid-90s.

From HistoryPin.com

I quite enjoyed coming across this image. But is the site successful history? Although a map, it is certainly not a tool for any kind of spatial or historical analysis. I see it’s greatest application in classrooms for student exploration and for travel and tourism. Google already offers a places of interest feature on its Google Earth (and its maps?), but if conveniently paired with this tool, multimedia maps could generate interest and real as well as digital tourism. One change that History Pin might implement to help users is to have a link to “Tours & Collections” where available from individual photos. When I visit the Hartlepool area on the map and select one of the WWI era images, being able to immediately join it with the series on the bombardment would enrich my experience as a student or tourist. Ultimately, the more content users add and organise, the more dynamic and useful a resource it will become.