Week 14: Final Thoughts on Digital History

Well, it has been quite a semester! I don’t think I’ll do research the same way again. It has been incredibly helpful to learn about all the different types of search engines and how data is stored and shared with historians.

Primarily there are three facets that I think will change how we look at history and conduct our research. First is Zotero, it is fantastic. I know I have always said if Google Books was a real person I’d marry it, but I would happily have a torrid affair with Zotero. It organizes all of my research in such a simple and easy to export way. This last aspect cannot be overlooked. So often with Easybib or Evernote (what happened with this by the way?) that you can input your data, but never get it back. Sadly I have problems with the fact that Zotero does not grab the location of publication from Amazon or Google Books sources. I guess in this weird analogy Zotero less like a sexy person, but more for a bad adorable puppy. It keeps making a mess that takes time for me to clean up, but darn it’s cute.

The second aspect of digital history that will greatly help us with illustrating and learning about history is digital mapping. It is something I tinkered with during an undergraduate research paper on the Nantucket Life-Saving Service. I fired up Google Earth and plotted where all the shipwrecks from 1870-1900 occurred that the USLSS responded to and how they responded. The surfmen had two options: one – use a breeches buoy zip-line system that had a range of 700 yards or two – everyone piles into a surfboat (big rowboat) and out you go to the shipwreck. I was trying to see how far the ships were from the shore and how that effected which option they chose. Google Earth was amazing for this and I am so happy to see that other historians are applying this to their research too. It not only lets historians see things in a new light, but also allows them to show other people more easily. My new favorite example of this is the Mystic Seaport for Educator’s First Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan. Yes, it is a shameless plug and my friends worked on it. That doesn’t make it any less amazing.


Lastly is crowd sourcing. I have met so many great “unofficial” historians who have passionate interests in a topic, love their genealogy, or carry extensive personal experience. I am so happy to see that through digital history these resources are being pulled into the professional historian field. Yes, there needs to be some caution when accepting anyone’s research or conclusions (professional or not!), but by adding more resources and keeping better documentation the field can become so much richer. Also, even if you are not a buff in a particular area, there are people who love working on digitizing documents. I was so thrilled to see the Library of Congress crowd sourcing their materials to the public for transcription. It is a fantastic way to get a lot of work done and engage the public in history.


Thank you for a fantastic semester!


Week 13: The Dreaded Omeka

Alright, much much earlier in this course we started playing with Omeka, then looked a lot at other sites using Omeka, and now it’s time to start actually getting it to do things. This last part has been the hardest for me and I think that Jeffrey McClurken’s article was a godsend. Now, it doesn’t say very much on exactly how to fix your problems, but it does let you know that you’re not alone in being confused and points you in several good directions.

Sadly, Omeka’s Codex is not much help, even though McClurken thinks it’s wonderful. I know we clarified in class that you can either install Omeka or use the web-based editor. The help section of the sight doesn’t seem to differentiate between the two and I’m hesitant to start installing things on my computer I cannot get to work online. Now, I understand there are endless plug-ins and the “tour” plug-in CT Communities uses to make its tours is one that you have to purchase. I haven’t seen any “Purchaseable” aspects to Omeka yet, maybe I’m just a bit lost.

That being said, I’m sure I could make “collections” for each Stop on my Mystic tour and then imput all the images into “items.” I’m good with with entering in data, so I happily and kept doing. No images or links popped up after I entered in all my sources and data. I tried a few different ways and still it was just a pile of text. I finally found a video that walked me through the steps and you have to upload your own images as files. No sourcing things from the internet to the Omeka site. My concern here is that the CT History Online site has wonderful zoom capabilities that allow you to zoom around and get close to the image. The largest you can save an image from the site is 500×500. Not too good.

How far have I gotten? Depressingly not far. I have most of the content in Zotero and word documents. I don’t really know the best way to upload everything onto Omeka. Especially since it’s looking a bit bare bones because I’m lost of the design aspects of it. I do wish it was a bit more like WordPress, in that it had more templates and that they were easier to tinker with. I’ve installed an exhibit plug-in, but it seems to be just another way to enter data, just like a collection. I’m going to have to spend some quality time over this holiday getting things in order!

As McClurken notes, “On the last point, remember that struggle can be a productive part of the learning process.”

Sidebar: a few YouTube videos I watched about Omeka call it “o-mi-ka” others say “o-mec-ca”  someone needs to get at least that part sorted. Hearing it pronounced “o-mi-ka” just felt wrong.

Week 12: Elvis at 21 and the Life of Martha Washington

Omeka seems to be a pretty cool way to build exhibitions, archives, or tours. Thus far I haven’t had much luck, but I need to sit myself down and tinker. Thankfully there’s hope. The Omeka Showcase exhibits a wide assortment of websites using the Omeka engine to create public history and cultural materials. Now, I don’t know how often the site is checked, since there are a number of sites that no longer exist (Medieval Life – a Norwegian Site- being one of them).

I looked at tons of these sites, a lot are not in English and I did get horribly lost. The two I’m going to compare are simply the two that fascinated me the most. I would like to give “awesome name” awards to A Thin Ghost (a site discussing the works of Montague Rhodes James) and A Parcel of Ribbons (about 18th century Jamaican slavery). The former I feel needs to have a short biography section about the author. I have no idea who Montague Rhodes James is and what exactly I should get out of this site.

Now, on to the good stuff. The first site I’d like to delve into is Elvis at 21, an online companion to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition at the Smithsonian. The exhibit closed in 2011 and it’s great that this site is still available for viewing. I would hope that after the closure they would expand this site to include all the photographic images that were on display, but sadly it appears that the site is as static as it was when the exhibition was open. It’s a very quick site to browse, there are only about a dozen photos. It seems as though there are such few photos because they want the exhibition to hold a better draw, but also it is only one photographer’s work in a specific year 1956-7. The images are dramatic, crisp, and thought-provoking. I didn’t think there were any images of Elvis that would make me say that. It’s interesting to see him as a young man and dealing with the beginning of his career. Yet, the most evocative image for me is the photograph of Elvis at the Segregated Lunch Counter.


It had nothing to do with him being Elvis, it put him into the historical context of 1950s Tennessee. It allows modern viewers to see him within the culture he existed in, for better or for worse. My only suggestion past adding more photographs now that that exhibit has closed, would be to include a biography for Alfred Wertheimer, the photographer for the project. Who was this guy and why was he hanging around Elvis? Are there any other photographs taken by others at the same time at the same venues that offer a different perspective?

The second site I explored was Martha Washington. Now, not as sexy as Elvis at 21, but the narrative style of the site had me hooked. That being said, the history presented wasn’t done in the most professional way. I read most of her life story and learned a lot about what “probably” happened and there a lot of conjecture about her thoughts and feelings. I saw all of two foot notes, both of which were for snippets of letters talking about or written by Martha herself. My only explanation for the lack of neutral tone or supporting materials would be that perhaps this is for middle school or younger age children? Several paragraphs are repeated between sections. This gives the impression that the authors assumed that visitors will not be reading the whole thing through and instead be picking and choosing sections.

Both sites were engaging and gave viewers a peek into the lives of American historic figures centuries a part. Most images or objects features on the sites gave citations, promoting better scholarship. All in all, I have hope that my Omeka site can be both visually pleasing and historically informative.

Week 11: Mining Big Data

One of the aspects of Digital History that excites every historian is the bulky piles of data that institutions have scanned and users have uploaded. Maybe, just maybe, that random piece of  ephemera or key piece of research is lurking out there on the internet.

Now, the fact of the matter is how do we use it, now that it’s out there, and where the heck is it? Several articles this week covered the attempts to mine this data and how overwhelming the sheer piles of apparently unrelated data afloat in cyberspace. Daniel Cohen’s article From Babel to Knowledge discusses H-Bot and his development of the application programming interface (API) to create a syllabus finder. For the later he used Google engine to craft a way to search for syllabuses. Later he describes how APIs are prohibitively expensive for non-profits to supply, mentioning that they tax servers and require technical support and staff time.

This is the part of the equation I don’t understand. How was Cohen able to create the Syllabus Finder? Did he have a grant and thus, what happened after the grant ran out? He wasn’t hosting any of the syllabuses, instead he created a tailored Google search to do his bidding and pull syllabuses from any university website that posts them. This would increase the traffic to these sites and therefore raise costs slightly for the institutions. The question is, would they even notice? Who is pulling mass amounts of syllabuses to the point of bogging down servers? If more APIs are created to specifically search for historical material it can create easier access. Institutions that might not have anything in common, but Victorian cat photos can be searched at the same time, much to the benefit of the ironic feline photography aficionado.

I also had fund tinkering around with some of the word tools. Voyant Tools and Wordle do approximately the same thing: input a url or paste text and they generate visual art based on how common words are in the text. I tried to do my blog, Wired Love and a series of other novels and blogs. Sadly the most common word is “the” (surprise!) Even with my tinkering I couldn’t get it to take out those common phrases to see anything useful. It has the potential to be cool, but I am simply missing something.

Ngram Viewer, oh the fun I had! Not only did I test if “Amanda” showed up more than “Barry” but I got to see how popular my favorite Victorian saying. First, “some pumpkins” is how you compliment a fine looking lady in a slightly vulgar way – “She is some pumpkins.” Second, “virago queens” are loud overly dramatic women.  Please see the Ngram here. Now, the draw back to this is exactly what the execute button says, “search lots of books.” It’s not all books or all data ever, it’s all books that are searchable in Google Books.  Pretty cool, still.

Week 10: Time, Space, History, and Making Connections

This has been one of my favorite sections thus far. I absolutely love history (obviously), organizing things, and creating different ways to visualize things. Maps have always been a favorite  to pour over and look between Google Maps and older maps. My favorite day during my 1876 roleplaying training was walking through downtown Mystic with the lead roleplayer and two fellow trainees, trying to figure out what exactly was there in 1876. We not only had to learn where we lived, but how we would have gotten from our homes to work, church, school, the store, and of course, up to Mystic Seaport. It really created a better understanding of the space. But I digress.

There were three different historical GIS programs to look at: HyperCities, Digital Harlem, and Mapping the Republic of Letters). Because I had already read a lot about Digital Harlem for last weeks class I wanted to look at the other two. Now, sadly neither wanted to load correctly on my KindleFire. So, boo to them. After loading them on a laptop they were pretty cool to play around with. The later, Mapping the Republic of Letters, was a bit confusing and really needs a better introductory video. I assume it’s a visualization of the content, written location, addressees, etc. for great post-Enlightenment thinkers from the United States and Europe from the mid to late 18th century. I think. The problem I had with the visualization drop down bar was that it was blank. I’d click on a ghosted selection and charts would appear. The charts would explain themselves a bit, but I didn’t couldn’t figure out how to manipulate it to learn more.

The other GIS site was HyperCities, which blends GoogleEarth and historical maps. There are a few dozen cities to choose from, although you can scroll around and type in various towns to see if they have maps. The fantastic parts of HyperCities is that you can adjust the transparency of the over laid maps and limit/expand your potential time span. The particular city I spent the most time looking at was Tokyo (Yedo, Tokio, or Edo) and thank goodness a lot over the overlaying maps ended up in Asakusa! It’s one of the areas of Tokyo I know pretty well. I stayed for a few days  at a youth hostel across the river from Asakusa and went there a number of times. I was inspired to visit Asakusa after reading The Scarlet Gang of the Asakusawhich details the bohemian 1920s in vibrant Tokyo. This area, like so many others in Tokyo, was heavily firebombed during WWII and almost completely destroyed. It was still an interesting place to see, but it was quite hard to visualize what was and was not there before the 1940s. HyperCities allows you to overlay the various maps and visitors can see which buildings and areas were rebuilt and which were altered post-WWII. In this particular example it’s tough for anyone who doesn’t read Japanese to figure out exactly what’s missing, but the outlines of the street are still helpful. In my particular case I can read most of it and can see that the shrine, although mostly destroyed, was rebuilt in the same location.

What would make HyperCities even better would be to open it other users. I’m currently using two maps of Mystic, Connecticut that would be an interesting addition and I’m sure many other smaller communities would be happy to add their maps too. Also, HyperCities could add additional resources, such as the book I previously mentioned about Asakusa, or photographs.


Week 8: Digital Collections

There is an interesting mix of Digital Historians lamenting the fact that not enough modern digital history is being preserved, while others are concerned that there’s too much poorly digitized history.  The former recalls the fragility of not only digital memory, but personal memories as well.

Being a in high school and living on an island in 2001, the internet played a huge role in how frequently I was using the internet to communicate with the outside world. Now, AIM was still the primary mode of teenage chatter, no texting, no Facebook. Yet I can remember posting on my favorite message boards, chatting with friends across the country and in other countries about the events of 9/11. None of this correspondence survives. As much as I remember printing out certain important emails and IM conversations I am sure that they did not survive desk clean outs, packing for college, moving around and even more garage purges. Even if I did find them, I don’t think that they were important enough to continue to save. Although that being said I’m absolutely sure there’s a historian 200 years from now that is going to be desperate to have this documentation. If I could find a cache of 1870s teenage girl correspondence, no matter how mundane or flippant, I would be ecstatic to read it.

The problem with this overall thinking is the angst about what we could have saved had we known it could’ve been important. Sadly, I think this same thinking has plagued other generations. There is so much more we could have in our archives, letters, telegraphs, school time doodles and personal essays. Things people didn’t think were important to save or that weather, fire, or poor preservation destroyed. We aren’t that unique that parts of our collective memory will be lost. Hopefully the efforts of Cohen will prevent more of this happening and can preserve the misinformation that fuels the confusion around dramatic national events.

Robert Townsend’s article on Google Books broke my heart a bit. I love Google Books. It has opened up so many great books and allowed me to quickly check 19th century vocabulary. After being in my 1876 character and saying the word “hydrate” I was corrected by another roleplayer. Using Google books and adjusting the time period of sources I could prove that she was right! Hydrate is more of a chemical term and isn’t a commonly used phrase. Yet, I have to accept Townswend’s criticisms and can easily see how forging ahead at a fast pace with no fact-checking or editing in place can make Google Books a faulty source. I can’t deny that when he mentions them publishing 3,000 books a day it makes me giddy. Books, even if they’re not completely 100% digitally perfect, are still good sources to have access to.

Ok, to be a bit self-serving for a moment. This particular idea about preserving digital correspondence hit home for me this weekend.  If you follow my Twitter feed (cough, cough, it’s at the bottom) you will know that my boyfriend proposed to me this past Saturday while we were at Old Sturbridge Village. Immediately after saying yes, calling my father, we took a self portrait (selfie) and posted it to Facebook. It was the fastest and easiest way to reach out to most people in our lives. We thought only a few folks would “Like” or even “Comment” currently we have over 50 comments and 150 likes. As I want to document the occasion I will print out and digitally save the comments and list of people who “liked” it. 🙂 IMG_0306

Week 7: Digital Personas

Looking back on my previous posts… I hate to say that my digital persona is a bit snarky. I didn’t mean for everything to come across that way! I know I am writing this particular blog in an incredibly informal and personal way. I am hoping that this would make for a blog that was easier to read. I just realize now how informal I might seem. Especially when you compare my writing style to digital scholars like Daniel Cohen, Toni Weller, and Roy Rosenzweig.

I think I’m a bit like the scholars at the Nursing Clio, who write about personal experiences mixed with historical context. The last two posts I read, Carrie Pitzulo’s My Miscarriage (Is Not Your Miscarriage) and Carrie Adkins’ article on “Blame” and the history of 19th and 20th century gynecology were both factually informative, but also importantly emotionally moving. I haven’t covered anything nearly as complex as those authors, but I do think the tone and incorporation of images into my posts are similar to many authors on the blog. 

Hopefully in the future (if I can get my hands on a small coal forge), I can get more things blacksmithed and publish my projects and progress similar to the author of Romantic History. In the meantime you’re always welcome to follow me on Pinterest or Ravelry. Sadly, I don’t think I had enough time to convert my fellow digital historians to Pinterest junkies. Everyone who isn’t using it is sincerely missing out.

So far I’ve been pretty satisfied by Feedly. I still can’t get it to mark things are “read” once I scroll past them, but it’s the closest thing to fill the Google Reader shaped hole in my heart. Sadly, I still check Facebook more often then I do Feedly and Twitter. I follow ALFHAM (Association of Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums) on Feedly, but our local New England head does a lot more posting on Facebook. I’ve gotten great information and joined interesting debates simply because she is more active on that particular site.

If I were to try and wrangle the power of Web 2.0 for a digital project I would embrace all available social media: this blog, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. because every person is different and just because there are a lot of followers in one are (i.e. Facebook) it doesn’t mean that person is particularly engaged. I’m sure I’m listed as following lots of things I haven’t taken the time to check up on! It is important to stay current if you want to keep an audience. Hence why my Twitter following is dwindling.

Yet, after Tweeting at a popular group it has seemed to draw me three new followers in a single day! Lord knows if they’re robots. I’ll take what I can get. 🙂

Week 6: Creative Commons and Copyright

Well, after much debate and agonizing over different licenses I’ve chosen the happy-go-lucky Free for Cultural Works creative commons license. This allows all of my avid viewers to remix, reuse, and even make money off of all that I post, just so long as they attribute my work to me. I, therefore, can be a muse to all who read my blog. Thanks to the tiny bar graph that depicts my viewership, I don’t think I’ll be influencing too many folks. That’s really why I chose this setting. I honestly do not think that any of my things here are in danger of being a goldmine. If they were, copyright thieves would face the wrath of a creative commons license with a “$” and an “\” through it.

We spent a lot of time last week exploring the creation of JSTOR and other private databases, as well as the Aaron Swartz case. Personally I think all archives should be free for the public to use. Ancestry.com, JSTOR, Lexus Nexus, everything. It’s crazy to me that you have to pay more for these services than a subscription to a magazine, Netflix, or XBOX Live. Hell, USWeekly is $100 for a year subscription and that’s still less than a full access Ancestry.com world membership. I concede that my classmates are right and that these services are used FAR less than popular streaming sites and that someone has to pay for digitization and servers. I just feel like part of the digital age should be free access to everything that’s out there. There isn’t a place in a public library that’s off limits to patrons unless they pay a fee. I know Google Books is supported by a massive empire, I just wish they’d inspire other services to share the wealth.

The Aaron Swartz case makes me sad. Straight up, sad. Sad that an academic institution and the Federal Government would badger an individual to the point where they take their own life. I’m not saying Swartz was completely blameless, but according to most accounts he had not actually done anything nefarious with his cache of pdf files. Sure, he was cocky and was messing with equipment he shouldn’t have. It was just that the government was so avidly pursuing him because he had done something semi-illegal in the past, that he could do something criminal, and/or he signified a growing group of people they felt intimidated by. Most importantly they wanted to set an example. If it wasn’t Swartz it would have been and might still be anyone else they can grab. He was the first person they could get and they went after him as hard as they could, regardless of the particulars of the case.

Why do I think these were the motivations of the government?

Because I’ve seen it before. I grew up in a pretty small town, worked at an antique store and befriended a great person who also did scrimshaw. Apparently, they purchased a piece of ivory on eBay and as a result was targeted by the US government as an example of protected animal smuggling. They tried to send him to Federal Prison for a few decades and fine him almost a quarter of a million dollars. They billed him to the press as an evil internet super genius behind an international smuggling ring. Yesterday this person could not figure out how to send me a photo of his new puppy he took on his phone. Yep. Super genius. Still haven’t seen what this dog looks like.

The case was re-tried, he did have to spend time in jail (on the weekends though and not in a federal pen) and pay a large fine. He did make a mistake, but it wasn’t for what they charged him for and it could’ve happened to anyone. They honestly wanted anyone. The government was ruthless in their pursuit and it has had long lasting effects: it cost him his life-savings, reputation, job, and marriage. I can easily see how merciless prosecutors desperate to create an example, would push someone to take their own life. I don’t like that JSTOR charges for the ability to access their databases, but I don’t think the right way of getting freer access is what Swartz was thought to be doing. In time hopefully we can have better access to journal articles and primary sources in the way we can now watch episodes of Dr. Who and Poldark.

Week 5: Digital Collections – How We Use Sources

For this week we are looking at a selection of digitized resources that are available on the vast number of archives on the internet. I decided to jump right into the Library of Congress’ American Memory Collections. I was very tempted by Connected Histories and the Reading Experience Database, but I’m not up to speed on British history. I’m pretty involved in a lot of American Civil War readings for other classes and I know we’ll be doing a walking tour of a Connecticut town for this class. So I decided, why not stick with the good ol’ US of A for now?

Looking for Mystic, CT, since that is where I’ll be doing my walking tour. I’m lucky enough to find View of Mystic River & Mystic Bridge, Conn. 1879. Drawn & pub. by O. H. Bailey & J. C. Hazen. This isn’t available on the Connecticut History Online site, which I’ve used in the past to find old buildings or locate shops in Mystic. The way the American Memory Collections display and allow you to navigate their collections is a bit archaic. It’s a very basic HTML site and every time you click to move or zoom it is loading a different page. I found this out the hard way when I tried to click “back” to go back to the original search. You can, however, download a HUGE version of the original image, which most Flash based image navigation doesn’t let you do. I tend to have to do screen captures (holding down the PrtSc button).

Combining the information from each site I can get a clearer picture of the layout of Mystic River and Mystic Bridge in the 19th century. I am completely aware that these are hand drawn maps and were not done to be 100% accurate. What people who are more familiar with Google Maps and other satellite images might not understand is how to compare these hand drawn maps to the photographic versions. By having these maps available online it is much easier to look for the specific location you want to investigate. You don’t have to go to a library, dig out a 3 foot map and wander around a table with a magnifying glass to try and see who your 19th century next door neighbor was.  You can also take individual photos of the areas you want to include in your research.

Week 4: UPDATE

I did get a response to my Wikipedia meddling! A Wiki-robot! The computer noticed that I completely butchered the code for the footnotes and asked if I needed help. It tried to point me in a few different directions, but I mostly figured it out by changing brackets “{” and clicking “show preview” to see if I fixed it. Eventually it worked! So far my changes have stayed and I plan on adding a bit more.

In more dramatically depressing news the amazing TV Show on BBC America I mentioned previously, Copper has been canceled after this season (only its second).

The housemates and I are devastated and are refusing to watch the last few episodes we have recorded for fear of actually finishing the show. We’re hoping to pull a Firefly and by purchasing the two seasons on DVD try and bring it back! It probably won’t work, but it was a fantastic show. 😦