Reflections on the Impact of Digital Material and Tools

I went about deciding how to respond to this week’s prompt by reviewing the blog posts I made over the weeks for Digital History and found several ways in which digital material and technology have and will continue to change the discipline of history and the research process.  In the introduction of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, the authors, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig described several  qualities of “digital media and networks” that could potentially allow historians to do their work differently, for better or worse.  Not every bit of reading from the diverse selection of topics and authors that followed in the semester was conceptually aligned with these ideas but I frequently found myself making connections to notions like capacity, flexibility, manipulability, and interactivity.  Arguably the most profound shifts for both Historical practice and general research were be the change from analog to digital born resources along with the digitization of older, more traditional sources and the correlational change in accessibility. 

First, reviewing various sites and reading a variety of articles and blog posts caused me to reflect on increased accessibility, a concept described in Digital History.  This major change is a direct result of the shift from analog to digital resources.  Now, a researcher who cannot make a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the Library of Congress can utilize the “American Memory” website.  A quick search for “Lincoln, Abraham,” on the site returns 5,000 results.  Within the first five items returned by the keyword search, a researcher would find sources whose repositories are Duke University, the Library of Congress, and the Denver Public Library.  The ability of a researcher to simply browse, from their home or office, these digital collections is remarkable, and their capacity to do so will only grow.  Copyright over digitized collections can raise a variety of ethical questions ranging from whether or not scholarship should be free, to what should be considered fair use of someone’s intellectual property, and more.  No matter where you land on these issues, it seems undeniable that digital secondary sources like the scholarly journals at JSTOR are more easily accessible than their analog counterparts.  The digitization of sources has even served as a means of engaging an audience as online archives crowd source diverse groups to transcribe material. All this accessibility should mean an increase in the production of secondary material and growth in the audience of consumers of History, especially in digital forms.

Additionally, it is important to note that digital material and technology have and will continue to cause major change in terms of what Cohen and Rosenzweig call manipulability and flexibilityUsing digital tools, researchers can search for, and within, materials.  Computers can reduce mountains of sources into usable data sets and researchers can investigate multiple types of media in ways impossible without digital technology.  Several weeks of reading show that digital technology means that history is being presented and consumed in new and exciting ways.  The historical monograph is far from extinct, but it is supplemented by diverse types of media, many of which are far more interactive and will engage a more diverse audience. 

In conclusion, digitization of sources that add to the growing body of digital born material means that researchers have an unprecedented level of accessibility.  For both the field of History and more generally for researchers, this accessibility will have profound results as it should cause proliferation of secondary material and likely help engage increasingly larger audiences.  Manipulability and flexibility are important too, but all these ideas represent the tip of the iceberg.  Digital material and technology have already had a major impact on research and on History.  The future impact is sure to be significant as well.

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Learning and Teaching History with Digital Technology

Toni Weller’s History in the Digital Age includes two Chapters about teaching History in the Digital Age. “Studying the Past in the Digital Age,” by Mark Sandle and “Beyond ctrl-c, ctrl-v” by Charlotte Lydia Riley both include interesting points about the ways students and teachers engage in historical education using digital tools. Between those texts and “Teaching and Learning with Omeka,” the readings made me reflect on the ways that I have used technology as a student and as a teacher, albeit of middle school students, not undergraduates.

For me, one of the highlights from this week’s readings was the material that made me think about how I have used technology as a learner. For example, after having blogged for several weeks, it was intriguing to read one author’s explanation of the rationale behind the practice. Sandle noted that blogging requires students to “read more widely across the course, and not just focus on a particular essay or on topics they were revising for their final exams.” In addition to blogs, the authors of this week’s materials clarified the educational utility of other digital tools, like Omeka, social media, wikis, VLE’s (like Blackboard and Moodle), and more. One important point made by both authors featured in History in the Digital Age was that the digital tools were part of a larger trend in the evolution of historical practice and that the new technology “can only compliment it.”

In addition to reflecting on digital applications as a learner, finding out more about the pedagogy related to using digital technology as an educator was beneficial. The readings shed some light on the way students interact with technology for educational purposes and in non-academic settings. One of the most profound ideas from the readings came from Jeffrey W. McClurken, author of “Teaching and Learning with Omeka.” He described students who are “digital natives,” and pointed out that, “their involvement with digital media tends to be consumptive rather than productive.” With the exception of regular Facebook posts or tweets, students may not have experience generating the type of meaningful content expected by consumers of History on the web. The comments from students in Riley’s chapter of History in the Digital Age also provided some insight about the nature of the relationship between students and Digital History.

In conclusion, while reading this week’s materials I had several moments where I was able to reflect and make personal connections to the text. As a learner it was interesting to see the rationale behind the type of work I have found myself engaged in. As an educator it was informative to read about how students who are “digital natives” interact with Digital History and to reflect on practice past and future.

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A Comparative Review of Three Sites from the Omeka Showcase

One of the several pages associated with Omeka.org is a page full of links to sites powered by Omeka.  The list of links is long and the sites included cover several topics and periods of history.   From among the links, I examined several sites that I found interesting and narrowed down to three on which to comment.  “The Civil War in Art: Teaching & Learning Through Chicago Collections,” “The Great Awakening: Spiritual Revival in Colonial America,” and “The War of 1812 in the Collections of the Lilly Library,” each have several similarities that they share and several differences that make them unique.

Each of the three sites has a home page that is well-designed.  For each, the title of the page is prominent, the fonts are interesting while still legible, select images are included, and users will find well-organized menus to navigate the rest of the sites.  The Civil War site includes a section by which users can email, tweet, share, and like the page via Facebook.  Obviously, in terms of building an audience and increasing interactivity, this is an important inclusion for the site.  The War of 1812 site includes an introduction on its home page.  The introduction amounts to about a printed-page’s worth of information about the War of 1812 and the site itself.  At first, the amount of text seemed cumbersome for a home page, but it is out of the frame of my monitor when the page loads and easy to ignore if users are not interested.  The Great Awakening Site includes a link to provide feedback and several links to their DVD being offered for sale.  After a bit of navigating a pop-up requested feedback.  Somewhere between realizing that the site was a dot com (the only one among the three really overtly selling a product) and the pop-up it became pretty clear that this home page was relatively off-putting.

From the home pages, users can navigate the collections associated with each site.  For all three, an option exists to search or browse by tag.  In addition, the Civil War site has exhibits arranged topically as does the Great Awakening Site.  The collections at the Civil War site include high resolution images of historical art and photographs.  The images are labeled with meta-data and narrative text.  Questions about the art and how it relates to the Civil War that can be used by educators are included.  Users will find definitions to vocabulary available by hovering with a mouse over words included in the site’s glossary.  Collections at the Great Awakening site are a little more diverse in terms of the types of sources.  Beside images associated with biographies of characters from the Great Awakening, the site has digitized versions of sermons, and a host of secondary literature.  In some cases, the absence of a high-resolution image of an original document is discouraging, but the digitized versions of primary sources are easier to search and manipulate, so they also have their utility.  The War of 1812 site has a fun, interactive timeline with links to resources as they appear over time.   Sources in the collection are like those at the Great Awakening site in that there are diverse types of documents, mostly manuscripts and maps.  Meta-data here is thorough too with the inclusion of secondary information, but the manuscripts only seem to be available in scanned, digital form, and transcriptions would be nice.  The site seems to have the most primary sources of the three.

All things considered I would suggest that the War of 1812 site is the best.  The quantity of primary sources, the ability to view them in their original form, and the several ways available to browse the collection are important positives.  The site is well designed and most pages include a good amount of eye-catching visuals and writing.  The Great Awakening site is my least favorite.  The commercial nature of the site cheapens it in a way and pop-ups are among the most annoying things a web page can include.  Though I am least impressed by the Great Awakening site, I would not totally dismiss any of the sites as each has its own unique content and utility. 

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Sorting through the Babel for Digital Sources

This week’s materials were related to big sets of digital data and how to mine them, or utilize them in ways that would be impossible with traditional analog resources.  Dan Cohen’s article “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections” introduces this idea by describing a short story in which a narrator searches a seemingly endless collection of materials in a library full of incoherent babel.  It isn’t hard to see the parallel between the infinite stacks of the library in the story and the practically limitless information available in digital form via the internet.  The difference is that digital historians have tools by which to sort the information online and potentially reach the enlightening information before being thrown over the banister.

Commands like control-f can help users search for key words within a single text of numerous words and other digital tools allow users to search through a corpus of hundreds of millions.  Take the Time Magazine Corpus for example.  In seconds, a user of the corpus can find each mention of a keyword, like “Vietnam.”  Depending on the needs of the user, the data can be broken down further.  For example, results can be filtered by date.  If a researcher only wanted results that were originally printed during the course of the war, 1,403 of the 1,519 results could be eliminated.   With the remaining results, users can check context, again using the corpus.  It’s possible to search through one-hundred million words for relevant primary sources in just minutes.  Now that’s mining big data!

Google’s N-Gram Viewer searches an even larger body of digital material.  Though in my experience, the tool sometimes raises more questions than it answers.  Tinkering around with a search, I found that while Paul Revere, the Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party only had minor fluctuations over the course of two hundred years, returns for Revere spiked in 1942.

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I can’t think of a reason why there would be such a large fluctuation for Revere in 1942.  It isn’t a major anniversary of his birthday or death, nor his historical ride or engraving work, nor the writing of the Longfellow poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”  I thought maybe there was a new interest in historical biography but another search including John Adams and John Hancock made me dismiss that theory.

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Another interesting digital tool is Voyrant.  This online interactive allows users to mine data by inputting the URL of a webpage.  Essentially the site creates a corpus from whatever URL is input.  I ran the web address to this blog and found some of the results intriguing.  Apparently the word “the” appears several times on the blog.  Add another thirty-five from this post.  The ability to search and sort through such large quantities of digital material in this way must encourage digital historians who might otherwise have otherwise been dissuaded by all the babel on the web.

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Geographic Information Systems and the Contribution to Historical Scholarship

Geographic Information Systems or GIS allow users to apply layers of data to maps and create visualizations of different topics for a space throughout time.  On one level, GIS is another type of digital source that historians can mine for materials around which they construct their narratives.  To a certain extent though, GIS also creates a situation in which historians are forced to consider questions like whether or not a shift in conceptual focus is appropriate, how to present their work, or to what extent their work should be collaborative.  In short, Geographic Information Systems contribute to historical scholarship in several new and exciting ways.  

An investigation of a historical site that employs GIS technology, like HyperCities, reveals that GIS has an application for historians as a repository of data from primary sources.  HyperCities layers historical maps over Google earth while other sites like Digital Harlem mark places on the map that reveal data from newspapers, police reports, and other primary sources.  While it is presented and organized in novel ways, the type of information that make up the arguments for quantitative studies is easily found with a search through layers on the GIS powered maps. 

The fact that the data historians seek is presented in a new way is important.  Unlike traditional analog primary sources, using GIS and maps to find information must naturally cause historians to begin to think more about space in their studies of the past.  Instead of focusing on a historical event or character, location is paramount with GIS.  At the very least, historians should consider the implication that location or physical space is a conceptual focus that has been underrepresented in narratives of the past.  GIS could change the way some scholars investigate the past, shifting toward themes like human-environment interaction, movement, or change in place over time. 

In the same way that scholars may reflect on a shift in the conceptual focus of their work, GIS could cause a change in the way that work is ultimately presented.  Users of these digital sources will probably consider whether a traditional monograph will continue to be the best way to present their histories.  GIS is relatively easy to manipulate, disseminate to a broader, and different audience, and is potentially more engaging because of its interactive nature and the fact that many people connect with the type of visual organization the systems employ. 

Because of the technical nature of building historical data into Geographic Information Systems, in at least some cases, historians will need to cooperate with specialists to accomplish their goals.  This is another big contribution of GIS, because history up to this point has largely been done by individuals.  It is hard to say whether or not this type of resource will revolutionize the way scholars go about doing their work but it is interesting that GIS provides a catalyst and a potential.

In conclusion, Geographic Information Systems contribute to historical scholarship in many ways, from simply serving as another source of sortable, digital data about the past to immersing historians in an environment which will cause them to reflect on practice.  Scholars may find themselves with a shifting conceptual focus in which space becomes as important as events and characters.  Their standards for collaboration and presentation of their work would change.  Only time will tell what actual impact GIS will have on the profession of history.

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Missing or Bad Metadata and the Challange to Digital Historians

This week’s reading selections started with an article by Daniel Cohen titled “The Future of Preserving the Past.”  Cohen elaborates on a recurring theme in articles related to digital History, the changing nature of recording the past and presenting it in new formats.   The change from traditional or analog sources to digital material is accompanied by a few challenges.  For one, as Cohen mentions, there is an increasingly diverse body of resources available.  After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, what might seem like a limitless quantity of emails related to the event were sent by average Americans and historical characters that would be more prominent in traditional historiography.  The emails are primary sources for today’s historians.  Sorting through the mass of sources related to September 11th is a different challenge than a historian might face when researching the attack on Pearl Harbor and finding resource scarcity, relatively speaking.[1]

Sorting through source material is one of the issues for Robert Townsend too, in his article which rebukes Google Books.  In “Google Books: What’s Not to Like?” he notes that within the materials he accessed through Google, several had scanning errors.  Later in the article he points out that Google puts up barriers to work that are not actually copyrighted, unnecessarily limiting user access.  But he also makes an argument, relevant here, that attached to many sources is faulty metadata.  Having incorrect publication data could mean copyright restrictions are being improperly enforced for material.  When the author or title is improperly listed however, the discoverability of the resource is seriously impaired.[2]  So, taking Cohen and Townsend together, there are increasingly proliferating body of digital sources, primary and secondary, available on the web that lack the accurate metadata to make them sortable and therefore they are less useful.

Enter Omeka and its dedication to Dublin Core standards.  Tom Scheinfeldt’s blog, Found History says that Omeka has no competition.  What he means is that there is no one else who offers the type of services provided by Omeka free of charge.[3]  According to Julie Meloni, author of “A Brief Introduction to Omeka,” those services are the, “creation, storage, and display of blog content… created for library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.”[4]  When users create databases with Omeka, they are prompted to input metadata about the sources they include in their collection.  The metadata conforms with standards “established by an international, cross-disciplinary group of professionals.”[5] 

So, do the standards related to metadata save the day?  Unfortunately, interfacing with Omeka is a challenge.  I know from experience that creating a database is not easy to do.  Beyond the process of building the collection is the challenge of using language that conforms to the complicated standards of the Dublin Core (not an interesting read).  This might be the reason why the quantity of available digital resources without Dublin Core metadata dwarfs the resources that do.  So, while the standards seem like a great way to increase discoverability and general understanding of resources, the possibility of errors, omissions, or lack of use means that the challenges will continue.  Digital historians will just need to adapt.


[1] “Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media » Essays.”

[2] “Google Books: What’s Not to Like? | American Historical Association.”

[3] “Omeka and Its Peers | Found History.”

[4] “A Brief Introduction to Omeka – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.”

[5] “Using Dublin Core.”

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Problems Publicizing Professional Persona

To compare my digital persona to that of the bloggers and twitterstorians that I have followed since the beginning of the semester I must first differentiate between the persona I present for professional use and the persona I present for personal use.  Obviously, there is a time and a place to use social media and digital resources for personal applications.  However, it is also important to maintain a certain degree of professionalism, even when blogging or otherwise networking with colleagues and peers who are not close friends.  So I maintain a twitter account for my personal use, and use another to follow twitterstorians and professors.  I avoid professional networking on Facebook because I value a certain degree of privacy for the aspects of my personal life that I choose to share with friends on the site.  I make regular use of three separate email accounts, one personal, one as a student, and one professional.  So the answer to the question, “How do you present yourself online?” at least, for me, depends on to whom I am presenting myself. 

The biggest difference that I see between the way I present myself professionally on the web from the way that I see other historians is that they are much more active and prolific in their blog postings, tweets, etc.   While I am sure that there are historians who have little to no online presence, many of those whom I have recently taken notice of are regular commentators on Facebook groups, maintain blogs with regularly updated content, and tweet frequently.  One of the things that deters me from becoming more active online in a professional capacity is my perception that I lack an audience.  This seems like a catch twenty-two when I reflect on it though.  To attract attention to digital products a historian would publicize through social media among other channels.  But, without a reputation,  or without the notoriety associated with popular digital content, who cares about your publicity?  In other words, even if I had a digital product, I would not be able to promote it on twitter, for example, because as far as I know, I have no followers.  Web 2.0 is about the interactivity and capacity of the web to engage, and to be able to engage an audience seems the ultimate goal when presenting an online, professional persona.  The goal just seems a really tough nut to crack.

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