Digital History — Spring 2010

February 5, 2010

All your database are belong to us?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:46 am

[explanation of the blogpost title]

I think both of the seminar papers that I’ve done here at IU could probably have benefited from some database style organization. The first one focused on changes between 1890 and 1940 in mainstream impressions of Appalachians and African-Americans as problematic (or “distinctive”) American populations. I approached the issue by tracing changes in the staging, performance and audience reception of a play/musical/movie called In Old Kentucky.

In retrospect, I think that managing my sources for this project via database might have generated some interesting statistical data, or at the very least might have helped me organize my sources better. I spent a LOT of time combing through digitized theater reviews on Proquest and the Nineteenth Century American Newspapers Database. While I made sure on my first pass through the archives to save a wide selection of the most interesting or suggestive reviews (often as links in a draft email), in my writing process I sometimes found that I had failed to flag the important part of the review for later perusal.  Also, sources I had overlooked initially were now important to my argument. Organizing the theater reviews into a searchable or at least tagged database would have allowed me to master the sources more thoroughly. Also, after reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s piece predicated on numerical data in probate wills, I realize that quick access to statistics like the number of reviews of the show in a given year, the types of publications that covered the show, or even an index of the frequency of certain words within the reviews could have led me to some interesting conclusions about the show’s popularity and resonance over time in different communities. As Bill Turkel points out, surveying “statistically improbable phrases” can be quite illuminating, as could statistically probable phrases.

Databases would also have been helpful with my next seminar paper, an examination of major changes in male romantic advice literature of the late 20th century, with particular attention to the politicization of the interactive Internet-based culture of pick-up artistry. In fact, since much of the material that I was dealing with was born digital (blog posts, websites, forum discussions), Zotero seemed to be a natural fit. However, like Kalani, I discovered that Zotero had limited usefulness — or at least,  my understanding of the software’s potential may have been limited. (Still, I agree with Kalani that it needs to enable better notation, especially of non-standard sources!) My problem with Zotero was that I needed a less folder-based and more web-based interface — one that allowed for multiple connections between pieces of evidence. I tried to use tagging to overcome this issue, but found that I needed to refine my own tagging categories as time went on. Individual pieces of evidence often fit into multiple categories — or none at all.

Essentially, when it came time to write the paper, I realized that I wasn’t as organized as I thought I was. While databases are designed to help you organize your sources and make connections between different pieces of evidence, I could also see the possibility of database maintenance and preliminary organizational behaviors becoming an enormous time-sink! (As an analogy, my mom likes to point to my tendency to make lists about what I need to pack as a way to procrastinate about packing.)

Still, I believe that personal databases have a lot of potential — both for projects with clearly delimited boundaries and goals, and for people who realize that they’re onto something interesting, and who just want to have a pool of raw data to begin to think about. I will need to practice my “spidering” and “scraping” skills (the former enabled more easily these days by tabbed browsing!), gain a better sense of what free or low-cost tools are out there to help me refine and organize my findings (Evernote seems particularly cool), and learn to think creatively about how databases can support either a single project or a series of modular works that draw on the same or associated data sets.


January 29, 2010

Thoughts on Seneca Falls as seen through four lenses of interpretation…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 2:47 am

For this assignment, we were instructed to pick a topic of interest to us and investigate how Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, top Google sites, and a conventional source of our choice treated the topic, giving particular attention to what these artifacts can tell us about the future of historical narrative, as discussed by the authors of this week’s readings. I chose to compare different versions of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, commonly considered a landmark event in the history of the women’s rights movement in America.

What I conclude from this limited survey is that, although digital scholarship enables myriad possibilities for non-linear narrative, a traditional linear narrative and navigation style often still provides the backbone of the garden-variety didactic history project, digital or otherwise. Each of the treatments of Seneca Falls proceeded in an essentially chronological fashion. Like the scholarship on the Dust Bowl referenced by William Cronon, they tended to choose a beginning and end for the story which provided a sort of teleological moral framework for the reader. HistoryNet’s relation of the events includes a full discussion of the suffrage movement and the enmity and eventual cohesion of AWSA and NWSA before the passage of the 19th Amendment, thereby placing Seneca Falls firmly within the narrative of women’s fight for the vote. Wikipedia covers a shorter span of time, but incorporates a more historiographical and critical perspective, giving special attention to contemporaries’  varying interpretations of the Convention’s legacy and importance.  With his skepticism about the unacknowledged bourgeois ideologies inherent in the project of “lower case” history, Keith Jenkins might appreciate the  section on the compilation of The History of Woman Suffrage (1881), in which the authors describe Elizabeth Cady Stanton as consciously positioning the Convention as central to the story of women’s suffrage.

Additionally, Wikipedia’s  inclusion of Lucretia Mott’s perspective complicates the traditional suffrage-focused narrative of Seneca Falls. In Mott’s recollections, the Convention appears as one of a host of related events promoting the overall welfare of American women — not as the figurehead event of the fight for women’s rights. While I do not necessarily argue that the “discovery” of this source should be considered as the final word on a “true” past, it’s safe to say that this interpretation challenges the suffrage-centered narrative of first-wave feminism (itself an invented paradigm). Digital projects can sometimes more easily acknowledge and incorporate elements of uncertainty or tension in historical interpretation, creating a space for contested analysis and debated “factuality.”

Interestingly, despite only devoting two paragraphs to the Convention itself, the conventional source took care to place Seneca Falls within the larger landscape of women’s reform. In addition to suffrage, the participants “demanded specific social and legal changes, including a role in lawmaking, improved property rights, equity in divorce, and access to education and the professions” (429). More broadly, the textbook highlights the many connections between antebellum women’s activism and abolitionism. Each of the sources surveyed noted the ties of many of the Seneca Falls women to the abolition movement. Of the digital sources, Wikipedia provided the most complete account of the connections, but the conventional source yielded the most sophisticated analysis of the two movements.

Of course, the intertextual nature of the digital offerings means that the reader could quite easily perform their own research on the feminist-abolitionist connection by consulting the primary and secondary sources in the hyperlinked footnotes, or by following in-text wiki links to the biographical pages of women and men active in both movements.  As would be expected, the best digital offerings (Wikipedia and Britannica) were extensively hyperlinked, allowing the reader to branch off at any point to learn more about individual people, places, and events pertinent to the Convention. Like Thomas and Ayers’ The Differences Slavery Made, the interactivity of the digital medium allows the reader to (in theory) control the parameters of the educational experience, easily going above and beyond their initial exposure to the ideas presented. Although the book related the interconnected nature of the two movements most skillfully , digital media has  room for expansion that print media simply cannot match, even if publishing companies were thriving in the way that Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence so ably shows they are not.

Of course, as Thomas says in his remarks about the design and writing process for The Differences Slavery Made, infinite disk space does not justify the addition of “bloated notes and extra material.” Wikipedia’s blow-by-blow retelling of practically each motion of the Convention certainly drags for the casual reader. HistoryNet, on the other hand, provides a narrative format that seems to privilege a good read over factual detail — for example, the superfluous assertion that “near panic gripped the five feminists as they gathered around the McClintocks’ parlor table the following Sunday morning”  as they contemplated setting the Convention’s agenda and writing a manifesto in only three days. Additionally, the complete lack of citations for the HistoryNet piece is troubling, especially given the number of (ostensibly) direct quotes used by the author. As Cronon points out, one of the important boundaries for proper historical narrative is that our stories cannot contravene known facts about the historical past (1372). Without citations, we have no way to check the veracity of this interpretation — and indeed, HistoryNet and Wikipedia differ over whether last-living signer Charlotte Woodward ever got to vote in the 1920 elections.

Ultimately, as the readings for this week suggest, digital scholarship has the potential to allow audiences to experience different types of historical narratives, like branching, non-linear projects that require interactive engagement. However, even for more conventional projects, the referential nature of hyperlinked footnotes and references make the process of the historian’s intellectual craft more transparent to the non-specialist reader. However, the four sites surveyed here show that traditional sources also remain useful in the age of digital scholarship. Their information is high-quality and reliable, and although it is embedded in ideological narratives, those stories can provide an embarkation point for new students or those struggling to gain cultural literacy — and for more advanced scholars, they provide important background theories to think with and against, using new media and old.

January 20, 2010

Review: “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:59 am

One of the most interesting things about the first chapter of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s online Digital History textbook is the realization that the Internet has now been around long enough for it to have a legitimate history. As someone who has been wired since about 1995, the observations of change over time related in these initial chapters felt familiar, as did some of the early notable history sites mentioned. Although Kevin Roe’s “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” (c. 2000) is not one of the history sites that I remember from earlier days, it was a pleasure to explore it roughly a decade after its conception. There is much to admire about Roe’s work, including clear narration, compelling images from the past and present, and an obvious passion for the place, shared by many visitors to the guestbook. Indeed, after visiting “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” sometime early in the new millennium, digital history pioneer Edward Ayers left a comment full of praise for what he termed “an elegant site that uses the web in the way it should be used: to widen and deepen our sense of the world.”

Ten years later, the Brainerd website still “widens and deepens” the visitor’s awareness of the world, in addition to provoking thoughts about the relationship between memory, place, and built space. This is particularly true for amateur historians, antiquarians, and non-specialists curious about the history of the Great Plains and small-town life in the early twentieth century. More serious scholars will likely find this community study charming, but lacking in theoretical rigor and slight in argumentative stake. The oral histories that Roe collected do support his conclusion that “the memories of the Brainerdites I encountered patch the fragmented townscape together, keeping it alive in the face of both the elements and the forces of economic and demographic change,” but he declines to contextualize this idea within a larger historical framework or analysis of spatial memory.

Additionally, nearly all of the major secondary sources on which Roe relies were published in the late 1970s or early 1980s – the heyday of community studies. Engagement with more recent historical literature might have given the project greater analytical purchase; then again, it might have undermined the larger goal of accessibility. To some degree, extensive criticism of the website for its lack of theoretical sophistication becomes criticism of the author’s choice of project. Roe states clearly that the website is not designed to be a complete history of Brainerd and its surroundings, but rather an exploration of collective memory and individual attachment to places and spaces. As such, the guestbook represents a surprisingly solid contribution to the site’s social and intellectual project. As Cohen and Rosenzweig comment in Digital History, the Brainerd website “has become a virtual historical society for former residents and their relatives who have deposited a rich collection of memoirs in the site’s guestbook.” For this non-specialist audience, then, Roe offers historical background, anecdotes, and artifacts that stimulate and facilitate reminiscence and further inquiry by the user.

However, although the Brainerd site may use the web in the way it should be used, the site design definitely does not plumb the depths of the way that the Internet could be used. Part of this is simply how the interface of the Internet has evolved in the interim period: tools like Adobe Dreamweaver and other WYSIWYG web design applications are now far more available to the average user than they were a decade ago, making even amateur sites more polished and visually appealing than turn-of-the-millennium standards. A lack of technical skill may explain Roe’s decision to link his supplementary images to phrases in the text, creating a gallery that the user can browse in conjunction with the text or in one fell swoop. While this is a serviceable strategy and does not severely interfere with the user experience, this is not, in my opinion, one of the more productive uses of what Digital History deems “hypertextuality.” Not only would it have been just as effective to embed the images in the text so that the reader could easily observe the details to which Roe refers, it would have given variety to the somewhat-daunting ‘walls of text’ which greet the viewer in different sections. In conjunction with the rather-linear navigation format (featuring an introduction and a conclusion), the heavily text-based format of the website suggests a project that is less essentially “digital” in concept than some of the other websites we’ve explored.

Still, as mentioned previously, this is a project that benefits largely from its interactive elements. Despite being pre-“Web 2.0,” the ability for visitors to collaborate in the project of remembering Brainerd and other small Great Plains towns is the most inherently digital aspect of this project. I would be excited to see how Kevin Roe might adapt  the website if he revisited the project (or the town) ten or fifteen years later. There are some new technological options available that might further enhance the viewing experience – particularly the ability to embed streaming video and sound, which would be useful not only for the oral history aspect of Roe’s project, but for the landscape and built space aspects as well.  (In the absence of further updates, I invite you all to at least check out Brainerd on Google Maps’ street view!)

Ultimately, while its intellectual aspirations are modest and its technical specs are showing their age, “Brainerd, KS: Time, Place, and Memory on the Great Plains” is an important project for digital historians. Not only does it speak to the history and challenges of the digital medium, but at one time it was a notable convergence point of both professional scholars and amateur enthusiasts. While Ayers did not mention bridging the gap between the academics and hobbyists as one of the things that the Web “should” do, accessibility remains one of the distinctive features of the digital medium, and one that this project showcases admirably.

January 16, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 7:37 am

I’m Tara Saunders, an American History Ph.D student at Indiana University. This blog will serve primarily as the repository for my work in Professor Kirsten Sword’s Spring 2010 Digital History Colloquium, but it may grow to include links to pertinent articles and video clips, personal reflection, or space for debate. Welcome all!

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