Week 4: Look at the Inner Workings of Wikipedia

This week we were asked to look at the “Talk” section of Wikipedia and take a gander over at Flickr Commons.

Let’s tackle the Wikipedia thing first. Long ago and far away, when I was in high school I worked at the Nantucket Life-Saving Museum and thought I knew quite a bit about the United States Life-Saving Service, which is a bit obscure. I waltzed over to Wikipedia and discovered a confusing pile of information, which I could edit if I went through this massive blog styled format. I’m not scared of HTML, but this didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. It seemed as though there was already TONS of information on the subject and since my references would be to books, not websites, I left thinking the internet had this thing handled. Sidebar: the Life-Saving Museum is now revamped as the Nantucket Shipwreck Museum, because shipwrecks sound sexier than Life-Saving. I feel plenty of varied emotions about this subject, so we’ll just leave that alone for today.

After discussing Wikipedia with my fellow Digital Historians last Wednesday I felt as though I could give editing another go. Heck, I sat near someone who was an editor. He was a real person! Not just some faceless robot! Now, which subject to dive into? Well I just read a lot of primary source documentation on Maria Mitchell, fellow Nantucket native and first American Female Astronomer. I grew up visiting her family home and attending Maria Mitchell Summer Camp. She’s an incredibly interesting person. Come to find out, they (someone on the talk page) thinks she needs a “Personal Life” section created. I’ve added a few things and posted comments in the “Talk” section. Sadly, the internet fairies have not responded to anything yet. I expected to be eaten alive by editors, especially after watching John Udell discuss the changes to the Heavy Metal Umlaut.

I only added a few things to test the waters, but plan to add more. Mitchell was a known knitter, so that will be added next. I posted a help question in the “Talk” section because my footnotes did not format correctly. I copied and pasted them from elsewhere in the document and they didn’t end up working. I will keep you posted as things develop.

As for Flickr Commons, I went around looking for interesting photos and greatly appreciate that different libraries and museums have put their images in this section. Some museums hang on to their images with an iron fist in the hopes of generating money through their use in films or books. I searched for “Cat” and wasn’t disappointed. It may seem crazy, but I really enjoy using photos of cats and dogs to help children connect with history. Yes, photos of people work well, but they’re posed differently, dressed differently and just look foreign to modern kids. Cats and dogs still look exactly the same! Since most students at my job have a cat/dog/fish/lizard/hamster pet of some kind they connect more readily with images of animals. In closing, Flickr Commons found me a gem right away:

Tea on the verandah of a Mount Nutt home, Bowen, Queensland, ca. 1900-1910

Week 3: Examining Approaches to History

This week we’ll be exploring the older interactive websites that enticed many students to explore history, while still making it interesting. Some websites like to use an interactive mapping system, like “Valley of the Shadow“, while others give you the option to play a game like “The Lost Museum” where you explore a museum that burned down in 1865.

Now, first and foremost I would like to say that I did spend more time on the Lost Museum, simply because I was trying to solve the mystery. That does not diminish the scholarly work or interactive aspects of Valley of the Shadow! The Lost Museum knew I was a sucker for a good clue searching Victorian mystery adventure. I had several backseat drivers trying to “help” me through the torrid life of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as we tried to figure out who set the fire in 1865 that led to its ultimate demise. You have five suspects and a 3-D museum to wander through in the hopes of finding 15 clues. Once you get three clues you can “accuse” a suspect. Now, everyone reading this who isn’t me is seeing how this math works out. There are five suspects and they all have three clues… well crap. This made more sense when you watch the final video, but I still felt like a fool.

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Week 2 – Digital History vs. History

The internet has become a critical tool for a wide variety of academic fields. The online medium dramatically changes how we practice history, but it does not change the heart of what we want to learn. In the end, we all want to know what people who came before us were like. Historians want to learn about an ever expanding range: from specifics about prior human life (what people wore, did, thought, and where they lived) to larger conclusions that can be drawn from looking at large groups for long periods of time (how recessions and economic depressions occur).

We can share more and learn more from each other. History is somewhat unique that we have a large amount of “amateur” historians. Genealogists are thick on the ground at any good historical society library. The digital age has opened the floodgates of information, but at the very least, it’s there. You can find someone out there who cares deeply for the same obscure 19th century shipwreck or descended from the same crooked branch of the Hatfield clan (I am guilty on these last two counts).

A lot of information is out there, but not every historical society can publish their archives digitally and curators are constantly swamped in their attempts to catalog everything in their collections. Toni Weller in History in the Digital Age laments that “hands-on” interactions with collections will be lost. Specifically, she mentions a case of a historian sniffing Portuguese letters during a cholera outbreak to see if they had used vinegar as a disinfectant. Yet, when an item is digitized it is not immediately destroyed! If that historian wanted to handle these letters they are still more than welcome to travel and see them in person. Simply digitizing them makes them more available and perhaps protects them from over handling.

Although this may fly in the face of taking this course, I do not think digital history is any different than history. More specifically “digital history” is the application of these digital tools to continue studying history. Historians need to learn how to use these tools and apply them to their work. English professors, authors, scientists, and Japanese language students are all using the internet and digital mediums to further their work too. I cannot begin to tell you the love I feel for Professor Jim Breen and his simplistic, yet accurate Japanese-English dictionary. I would not have made it through four years of Japanese study and a year abroad if it weren’t for this online resource. Yet, when I studied Japanese there wasn’t a distinction between “digital Japanese” and “Japanese”. As I assume there isn’t a distinction between the other fields of study that are using digital resources. History should be no different.

Perhaps the only way I would use “digital history” for a different field of study, would be in a few decades when historians want to delve into online resources to research people living in the 1990s and onwards using their Livejournals, Tweets, Blogs, Facebook status updates, and Yelp check-ins.

Week 1 – Dan Cohen’s Call for Bloggers

Dan Cohen’s inspirational welcome speech to historians rings true after seven years. Cohen, in his August 21, 2006 post, explains the positive sides to professional blogging and puts to rest the typical fears and reservations academics cling to.

Cohen’s post was engaging, funny, and right to the point. Personally having had several short lived blog failures behind me, this was a refreshing invitation back into the fold. In part thanks to RSS subscription technology and Cohen’s explanations it puts to rest the concerns of busy academics whose infrequent posting to blogs might result in guilt, shame, and other unseemly emotions. RSS allows blog followers the convenience of checking one source to see if any blogs have been updated. They no longer have to check each blog individually and feel the crushing sense of neglect when after months of looking there is still not a new post by their academic of choice. Now, when a blogger posts their quarterly expose on medieval Russian folklore (or Victorian Science, as Cohen suggests) it’s like Christmas morning on your RSS feed.

Cohen does not specifically recommend an RSS service and currently there are quite a few options. I am currently flirting with Feedly. It has everything I desire in an internet service: clean layout, simply buttons, cute monster-esque mascots willing to fetch blog updates, etc. So far, so good, but the wounds are still fresh from the untimely demise of Google Reader this past July. I had given up on following blogs, news sites, and the like simply because all of my subscriptions were erased.

One nagging insecurity Cohen does not address is the fear of being unnoticed and unread. Yes, it would be wonderful to have thousands of subscribers, but what if you only have a few? One of which is yourself and the others are co-workers or friends you’ve shamelessly mentioned blogging to. It would be defeating to the professional academic who is used to publishing books, articles, and presenting to packed houses at conferences. Yet, if professional historians take Cohen’s advice there should be plenty of interest generated amongst colleagues to inspire fellowship and subscribers.