Tuesday, December 8, 2009
One of my earliest blogs expressed a wariness and snobbish disregard for hyperlinks (Maybe Hyperlinks Aren’t So Bad). Change has definitely occurred since I began this course. As I was stranded on the bus without the hyperlinks and the bookmarks, I found myself floundering. I couldn’t hop over to articles I’ve read to refresh my memory, check out blogs or peek at Twitter to see what everyone’s buzzing about. My sense of community was gone, and it has become an integral part of my academic experience. My framework for thinking and writing has changed from being hunched over books in the corner of a library to active engagement with new and potentially radical ideas that are readily available at my fingertips.
For me, the most striking aspect of Web 2.0 and the digital revolution is two-fold: the extensive community and potential for fresh, innovative thinking as mentioned above; and the willingness and enthusiasm individuals are pouring into creating open source software. In August, I had no concept of open source software and its malleable, accessible nature. It was both inspiring and surprising for me to learn that individuals willingly work together and produce tools which are in turn used and improved by massive networks. GIMP serves all my photo editing needs, and all it cost me was the time it took to download. I’ve had the chance to glance at chapters on Google Books, experience posting information on wikis, and create my own webpage (both by struggling through HTML and feeling extremely proud and rewarded when it actually worked, and surprising myself with how easily I could make something that looks pretty nice with Google Sites.) Not only have I had the pleasure of following the blogs of my classmates and other interesting individuals, I have also had the opportunity to being this blog, which is an exciting chance to express my thoughts. The really great thing about Web 2.0 is that I can not only check out these new, exciting mediums, but I can also play a role in many of them. It’s empowering and exciting, two adjectives I would not previously have used to describe my academic career.
I have never been asked to formally reflect on coursework before, and this has turned into a valuable opportunity to being seriously considering my direction after I complete this MA (time is already running away with me.) As I begin to consider internships for the summer, and think about what I have enjoyed and where I have excelled in the courses I took this fall, I start to narrow down what kind of public historian I think I am, and how I would like to apply my skills after I finish this degree.
I love to research and I love to write; I envision myself producing work that breaks out of the traditional mouldy confines the public associates with historians. Interestingly enough, I wrote that previous sentence on my aforementioned bus ride last weekend, and in today's Introduction to Public History class we had a guest speaker named Sean Stoyles whose work embodies the ideas I'd been considering. He works for CDCI and has also begun his own company, Cobblestone Heritage Consultants. The work done by a firm like Canadian Development Consultants International really interests me, and the digital skills I have picked up in this class will be a great asset when I hit the job market. History consulting would be a great match to my skill set, and I could also see myself enjoying the work. It would be amazing to begin my own history consulting business one day, although I am somewhat discouraged in that regard after watching all the headaches my boyfriend went through when he started his own landscape construction company. That being said, it doesn't hurt to dream big!
To conclude, Digital History has perhaps been most influential in encouraging me to explore the Internet not only for superficial searches but also for the interesting and exciting opportunities that are arising out of the new age, Web 2.0.
Monday, November 23, 2009
I had the most success tracking down complete digital copies of children or juvenile literature. For example, author Martha Finley wrote a series of books about the adventures of a character named Elsie, and they can be easily found (for example, Mildred and Elsie or Elsie`s Girlhood). A similar series of Henty Books by Henry Fitzroy is available, featuring titles like The Young Midshipman.
As far as adult literature is concerned, I was not able to find all of the titles under the heading High Class Recent Fiction, although I did find Sewell Ford`s Torchy. Setting out on this assignment, I expect to find fiction fairly easily, although it is still striking how many of these very old books are readily available online (whether in full version or with substantial previews).
Non-fiction works are harder to track down online. I found The White House Cook Book by F.L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann (to my horror, a quick glance at the book revealed a recipe for squirrel soup!) I also found Manners and Rules of Good Society, amusing attributed to "a Member of the Aristocracy." As far as the Eaton Catalogue`s large collections go (for example, the Collected Works of Dickens or Scott), those books can easily be found in full versions online, since they remain extremely popular and out of the copyright zone: Great Expectations is right at our fingertips.
There were a variety of titles that were not easy to track down, or only offered partial previews online as opposed to the entire text. The engineering books (for example, Locomotive Engineer`s Guide) are not available online. Books with such a scientific nature become out-dated so quickly that I assume individuals see little point in having them digitized, since anyone wanting to learn about how locomotives function would look for a recent book, not a work from the early twentieth-century. However, these books still have value for the historian who wants to learn about the history of manufacturing, and perhaps eventually they will be incorporated into the Internet library.
Some of the books that were untrackable are fairly obvious, such as children`s painting books or old Presbyterian hymnals. The painting books would be scribbled and used, while the old hymnals are merely different representations of the same hymns (which I am certain are available online, even if a particular hymnal is not).
I suppose the aspect of this project that surprised me the most was the sheer volume of books that are becoming part of the vast Internet archive. Fiction was much easier to locate than non-fiction. Another surprising aspect of my search was the fact that many books not available in full still provide previews or snippets of the text, and links to where they can be purchased or found in libraries.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Now, having spent the last month researching a variety of projects in the archives at Western, I have had two reactions to my assertions about the future of research.
My first reaction was: working in archives is not fun. The limited hours (10:00 to 4:30 Monday to Friday) are difficult to deal with, especially because many of my classes fall within that time frame. If everything I needed to examine was on the Internet, I would be able to access it at any time, without having to stay on campus and pack myself sandwiches for long research days. Additionally, I longed for the searchability that computers offer. Being able to make a computer find my key words would have greatly facilitated my work, instead of scanning through rolls of microfilm hoping that a certain last name jumps out at me. Essentially, I was convinced that my idealistic dribble about the journey being useful in archival research was completely ridiculous.
This week, I had two wonderful experiences that have caused me to retain my previous position. I am currently researching two separate projects that fall in generally the same time frame in London (a heritage house from the nineteenth century and farm manufacturing companies during the nineteenth century). While looking through assessment rolls for the name the occupant of my heritage house, I saw Elijah Leonard, living on Talbot Street. Elijah Leonard is the owner of a major farm implement manufacturing company I had been researching for my other project! I was not looking for Mr. Leonard at all, but low and behold, there he was. The next day, I was going through old city directories for advertisements about manufacturing companies, and there was David Bruce, owner of a manufacturing company. David Bruce happens to be the first owner of my heritage house!
So, researching two separate projects and stumbling across these relationships between the two (both of which proved useful) was pretty amazing. You get that excited feeling in your stomach! Perhaps I wouldn't have found those relationships if I had been using keyword searches in a computer.
Perhaps the journey isn't always fun, but when it is fun, the rewards are amazing.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
The potential power of collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities is at the forefront of many reflections these days, including Henry Jenkins in his thoughtful blog, Collective Intelligence vs The Wisdom of Crowds. Boiled down, the collective intelligence theory means that nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request. French media scholar Pierre Levy claims collective intelligence is the perfect context for individuals to come together and solve complex problems with their combined abilities.
The potential of collective intelligence has been demonstrated by the website I Love Bees. It was both an experiment and a massive promotional campaign for 2004’s Halo 2. Jane McGonigal’s “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study In Collective Intelligence Gaming” provides a great overview of the nature of the website and how participants worked together to solve problems that individuals couldn’t tackle on their own. I Love Bees captivated the attention of over 600,000 players.
Why were these individuals willing to work together to solve these puzzles? I have to look no further than my boyfriend and his friends to get an idea about the profile of some Halo players. The majority of them are Computer Programmer Analyst grads. They spend much of their free time playing computer games (as I write this blog on a Saturday afternoon, I have five guys with laptops playing DotA – Defence of the Ancients - in my living room).
Halo’s audience encompasses more than just players who fit the profile described above, but it has enough of these kinds of people to make an experiment like I Love Bees a runaway success. Gamers are already primed and connected to the online world. They are precisely the types of individuals who are willing to spend the time and go to the effort of solving the puzzles because they value their online community and feel connected.
Suggestions about using collective intelligence to solve problems in the humanities will not achieve a fraction of that success. Humanities courses at the university level are not concerned with the power of the group or technological innovation. When comparing computer programming (to teach you how to interact with machines) and humanities (to teach us about humans and human nature), computer programming does the best job of teaching you how to work with other people.
The use of collective intelligence to solve questions in the humanities has a long, hard road to plod before people will take it seriously and actively engage with the concept. Until the nature of how humanities are taught is re-examined, students will continue to cloister themselves in libraries and refuse to engage each other’s ideas.
It needs to be changed! Activities like writing papers are obviously a key component of a humanities education, but the degree should go beyond those basics. Massive potential for group projects that is largely untapped. If we changed the nature of a humanities education, then we could see the development of collective intelligence in our field. Until then, historians will continue to read books and generate ideas largely in isolation of each other, and Halo players will show us up with their willingness to collaborate and harness the power of collective intelligence.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Few historical characters have attracted as much attention as Rasputin. Said attention results in a myriad of websites of varying quality and worth devoted to Rasputin. This introductory guide to Rasputin on the web will examine the most reliable websites that have been produced examining the Mad Monk's life.
To get started with a concise, no-nonsense account of Rasputin's life, visit The Encyclopaedia of Saint Petersburg's page for Rasputin. It provides the bare bones to help the Rasputin reader start to understand the man's life without being over-whelmed by conspiracy theories and sensational stories.
The Alexander Palace Time Machine is a website devoted to Russian history, established by Bob Atchison, a historian who has worked closely with the Alexander Palace. This website is one of the best places to start for a biographical description of Rasputin's life. Atchison provides a detailed description of Rasputin's activities without the sensationalization that accompanies some websites devoted to this controversial figure. One of the most intriguing sections of The Alexander Palace Time Machine is a Okhrana Surveillance Report on Rasputin (Okhrana being the Russian secret police), a copy of Russian State Papers providing detailed information on Rasputin's activities from January 1915 to February 1916. The Alexander Palace Time Machine is also a useful web resource because it includes information peripheral to Rasputin's life, with biographies of royal family members and extensive examinations of other aspects of Russian history. That information helps the Rasputin researcher understand the Mad Monk in the wider context of his time.
For a good summary of Rasputin's early life, check out a page from Dr. R. Kreuzer's Russian Web Page, Rasputin: Poet, Magician, Healer, Prophet, Holy Monk. Dr. Kreuzer teaches at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and provides a great summary of Rasputin's childhood and development, although the webpage is not as useful when discussing Rasputin's activities with the Russian royal family and infamous death.
firstworldwar.com: a multimedia history of world war one provides a description of Rapsutin's life from the perspective of its importance in relation to WWI. This website focuses on Rasputin's influence with the Russian royal family without exaggerating and dramatizing his involvement.
The Home of Rasputin is a rather juvenile website that resembles a fanpage thrown together by a rabid Jonas Brothers tween. However, it does contain a useful page, a copy of the last letter written by Rasputin to Tzarina Alexandra less than a month before his death.
I was surprised by the volume of products and stores or restaurants that have been named after Russia's infamous monk. The Rasputin Vodka Bar in Toronto and Old Rasputin Imperial Stout Ale are two good examples. They may not help the Rasputin researcher understand the man's life, but it certainly speaks to his importance as an intriguing historical figure and the lasting impression that some famous figures etch onto society. Indeed, 1996's Rasputin (starring Alan Rickman) was released to wide acclaim and garnered several awards. And who can forget the 1978 hit by Boney M, their disco delve into Rasputin's activities.
For images of Rasputin, the best source is Google images. I thought an image search on Flickr might yield a wider assortment of Rasputin images, but they are not particularly useful to the Rasputin researcher. The bulk of Flickr's Rasputin images depict Old Rasputin Ale or photos of elderly bikers who resemble Rasputin; amusing but not particularly useful.
Rasputin's murder is a source of interest for nearly anyone who hears the tales about the series of poisoning, gun shots, and drowning that were necessary to slay the Mad Monk. The sensationalized story of Rasputin's murder can be read in an article by Jennifer Rosenberg, The Murder of Rasputin. Rosenberg's article is a summary of Edvard Radzinsky's The Rasputin Files, and provides gritty details about Rasputin's murder to satiate the salivating public eager for controversy and mystique. The information is not accurate but it helps the Rasputin researcher understand how these myths have evolved around Russia's Mad Monk.
Feel like having a bit of a laugh? Rotten.com's Rasputin entry is an irrelevant, light-hearted account of the man's supposed debaucheries and unsavory characteristics. Essentially a compilation of everything this blog has warned the Rasputin researcher to avoid! But it's fun, and history should be fun sometimes.
For those who want to find additional sites about Rasputin beyond Google, Delicious lists 443 Rasputin bookmarks, some of which have been mentioned here, but others may also contain good information.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
One of the most important skills in research is the ability to sift out important information from useless dribble. If everything we presume we need to know is sent directly to our computer screen, one of our major ability as researchers is no longer important.
More importantly, what is going to happen to the old adage that the journey is half the fun? I am fairly certain that everyone who has ever done major research of any kind can attest to the fact that they have stumbled across a wonderful nugget of information in a book or document they never would have expected to find useful. Does this Internet juggernaut pound researchers with so much narrowly defined information that the jewels hidden in unrelated documents fall by the wayside?
I think it would be interesting to compare two papers written on the same topic, one relying only on archives and the other only on documents accessed online. I wonder what the authors or those two documents would say about what they learned through their research project, and how the two pieces would differ.
I'm probably being too harsh, and need to acknowledge that research on the Internet teaches us an entirely new set of skills that are neither better nor worse than our old research skills.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I thought this fit in with our discussions about open sources, the new Internet community, and the need for changes at Universities. I believe that employers giving their employees an opportunity for independence, creativity and pride in their work leads to better productivity. So people are happier with their jobs and work harder. Everybody wins.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Only now I know that Banff's "pristine nature" isn't quite as pristine as I thought. Trying to reorient my thinking about national parks and landscapes has been rather disconcerting. I don't want to think about Banff as a constructed landscape; I want to think of it was wild and beautiful. In Rebecca Conrad's "Spading Common Ground," she argues, "Purging the landscape of the tangible evidence of human activity not only deprives us of important information as we seek to learn more; such destruction also hinders our abilities to communicate complex, ambiguous, important stories to wider audiences." On an intellectual level, I agree with her; but my heart is kicking and screaming at the idea!
I'm surprised that these four articles did not discuss the possibility of a general public's rejection of these new ideas about landscape. While the articles provided suggestions for how to incorporate these new ideas about landscapes into museum exhibits, they didn't stop to consider whether or not people want to think about landscapes in this way. Although I understand the arguments behind these ideas, it still makes me uncomfortable to have to think of my beloved national parks as made up nature. I wonder if museum exhibits incorporating these ideas encouter any opposition from individuals who share my preconceptions on this issue.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
My break-through came when I stepped back from my fretting to consider why I was having that visceral reaction. Blogging has forced me to reconsider the strict format universities and professors have programmed me to follow. By expansion, not only blogging but the entire Internet and its abundance of sources has put me in a position where I have to challenge the confinements of my stereotypes about what a historian should be and how he/she should conduct historical research. With that in mind, I reread the questions Dr. Turkel suggested for our consideration and discovered that my mini-crisis dealt directly with many of them. This blog will investigate how the Internet is changing the nature of sources and the wider implications this phenomenon will have on historical research and writing.
The nature of primary sources is being drastically changed by the digitization of books and documents. Scarcity has taken on new meaning in the historical world. Previously, primary sources were scarce in the sense that there were few copies of them. I am conducting research for Fanshawe Pioneer Village this term, and my subject is eighteenth century farm tools and manufacturing in Middlesex County. Inevitably and in spite of the vast amount of information on the Internet, I will be heading to the library, looking through township books and sifting through microfilm, because said records are not readily available; the traditional definition of scarce resources.
If every bit of information written about farm tools in Middlesex County was digitized and put on the Internet, a few key word searches would provide me with a wealth of information at my mouse’s beck and call. If the digital world offers such potential for almost limitless access to primary sources, what could possibly be scarce about this future?
Roy Rosenzweig points to the frailty of online sources. Computers can breakdown and data can be lost. Not only that, but computer software changes radically and quickly. When my father threw out his floppy disks and I was distressed by the loss of games such as The Incredible Machine from 1992. I searched online to see if this game could be downloaded and could not find any original versions. Classic Gaming Presents did have a revised version for Windows XP and Vista which could be purchased for $4.99; however, the graphics have been completely redone and the game has been revised from its original conception. Playing this new version of The Incredible Machine would be like reading a farmer’s diary from 1820 that has been edited and changed; the very nature of the source is altered and it becomes much less useful, especially to historians whose research projects sometimes depend on nuances and turns of phrase specific to my 1820 farmer. If in one hundred years a historian wants to research the nature and significance of computer games in 1992, will they even be able to play the games anymore? Or will their only access be sanitized and revised shells of the 1992 originals? The pace of technological change and new software developments threatens the integrity of computer primary sources, many of which will become scarce in the future.
The computer revolution offers historians the chance to access more detailed records than could possibly have been imagined. The future historian may look back on Facebook pages if he/she is interested in studying trends in pre-teen behaviour in 2007. The sheer amount of information available on the Internet and the potential historic record that is being constructed is daunting. That being said, everything that passes through the Internet is not necessarily preserved in a manner that will be helpful for future historians. Emails are deleted every day. Facebook profiles are revised and edited depending on an individual’s mood. While movements such as the Internet Archive record much of what transpires, the online world will never be fully saved and documented to be totally accessible to scholars in the future. Even the Infinite Archive has limitations and the potential for gaps in the historic record.
What does this massive and yet oddly incomplete collection of documents mean for the future of historical research? There is already a crisis of authority that has shaken academia. The Internet is a massive forum where any inclined individual can not only make their own webpage about any given topic but also serve as contributors and editors on sites such as Wikipedia. Margaret Conrad, board member for the Canadian Historical Association, noted in her article, “Public History and its Discontents or History in the Age of Wikipedia” that Wikipedia is remarkable because of “the sheer volume of reasonably good material that is available in multiple languages.” Wikipedia gives any individual a chance to chronicle historical events, as opposed to traditional publishing processes.
The hyperlink phenomenon has created an extensive community whereby individuals can connect their work and refer endlessly to each other. This branching community is an exciting step forward for academia, which has traditionally seen individual scholars working on primary sources largely in isolation of each other instead of together as a team.
The Internet opens a floodgate of opportunity for publication and new ideas from anyone outside the university elite. Historians used to control the fabrication and interpretation of the past; now, the general public can also assert their ideas, and that work can be readily accessed. The role of the professionally trained historian is being challenged, and the profession needs to adopt new methodologies and goals to keep pace with these changes.
In order to be influential and have their work taken seriously in the digital world, I think that historians need to write in a way that is captivating and relevant to a wider audience. If historians turn their academic noses away from the Internet and refuse to engage with the digital community, the past recreated online will be devoid of their voices. However, if historians can fascinate the digital audience and transmit their ideas in an accessible manner, enthusiasts conducting Google searches for biographies of famous politicians will be rewarded with a much deeper and more significant account of the past than the fact-based Wikipedia offerings. The professional historian’s voice needs to echo not only through the library but also through the Internet, where his/her ideas have the potential to influence and enlighten a much larger audience. Good historical scholarship needs to be on the Internet, and it needs to tap into the growing public interest in history by writing in an accessible manner. Name dropping and jargon need to be replaced by human interest in order for the general public to get excited about the professional historian’s interpretations of the past.
In dealing with online sources, historians are faced with challenges in selecting theoretical frameworks to analyze the wealth of texts that are instantly available. Rosenzweig suggests “methodical sampling in the manner of, say, sociology.” Sociology employs the scientific method, often working with patterns, numbers and statistics to gain insight into societies. Historical researchers sifting through thousands of online primary sources may very well require sociological methodologies in order to make sense of the massive amount of data that is available. Diverse discplines can influence and assist each other in this new digital world by sharing research methods and communicating; the academic isolation that has traditionally pervaded universities needs to change.
A new sense of historical consciousness is arising, and it will continue to develop as more sources are digitized and more historians begin to realize the Internet’s potential for scholarship. Historians need to be able to present their work in an accessible manner, make that work visible and accessible on the Internet, and look to other disciplines for new methodologies and research tactics. There are limits to the Internet’s wealth of sources, but in spite of those limits and the scarcity that accompanies said abundance, historical research has changed and will continue to evolve.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
One of the biggest historic events that has occurred in my lifetime and I remember watching the news as it unfolded was the terrorist attacks on September 11th. I was wondering how much has already been written about that event and found the September 11 Digital Archive which boasts in excess of 150,000 digital pieces (40,000 emails, 40,000 accounts of the events, 15,000 images). Said archive is only example of the massive amount of websites that have been compiled about the events.
My father used to joke that one of my personality flaws was an inability to exercise delayed gratification. I knew what I wanted and I wanted it immediately. “Instant heritage” seems to pervade not only history-shaking events but also things as mundane as music (I was playing “Superman’s Song” by the Crash Test Dummies the other day, which prompted one of my friends to exclaim, “That’s sooo retro”... the song came out in 1991). That phenomenon seems to be a product of society’s insistence on instant gratification. I feel like this is simultaneously a positive and a negative phenomenon. It’s neat because we can see mass responses to earth-shaking events (what if everyone had written down where they were and what they thought when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? The historic record would be very different). I find it somewhat disturbing because it makes the near past seem so alien from the relentlessly advancing present. It almost reeks of a sentiment that as soon as an event occurs or a song is released it should already be considered ancient history.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Is anything lost with the increasing digitization of primary sources? Convenience and accessibility are fabulous things, especially in our fast-paced society. But isn’t there something to be gained by having to travel somewhere and search its archives? I have a romanticized view of Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring crouched over ancient scrolls, mumbling old languages and smoking his pipe.
So we don’t get to do anything that fun. But if I could go to Ottawa to look at something instead of pulling it up on the Internet I’d jump on the chance. Scholars managed to find funding for these endeavours before the Internet convenience revolution. Hopefully it won’t be lost.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Now I’m starting to rethink my position (which is very exciting, because isn’t that part of what grad school is about?)
I found an interesting blog by a man named Venkatesh Rao who argues that, “… when you browse and skim, you aren’t distracted and unfocused. You are just reading a very dissonant book you just made up.” (check it out, www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/07/01/the-rhetoric-of-the-hyperlink/ ). For Rao, hyperlinks do not force us to read in a particular fashion; they allow us to decide for ourselves how we’re going to read. Additionally, they can incorporate the ideas of multiple sources and authors instead of focusing on a single voice. Community, independence and flexibility… I might have to switch to the pro-hyperlink camp. I even wanted to be cute and ironic by working some clever hyperlinks into this article but I don’t know how to do it yet. Looks like I’ll have to learn! Thanks for reading.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
I completed my Bachelor of Arts in History at the University of Alberta. I spent the third year of my studies abroad at the University of Dundee in Scotland, an experience that was both extremely fun and influential in shaping my historical interests. My roommate (flatmate, as it were!) was a delightful if loud-mouthed Northern Irish girl. After long conversations with her and time spent traveling through Northern Ireland I decided to focus the topic of my fourth year Honours thesis on the activities of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Said thesis examined the evolution of changes in the Provisional I.R.A.'s ideology from the late 1960s to early 1980s by exploring specific terminology from several of the organization's key documents.
After graduating in 2007 I found work bartending at a neighborhood pub, fully intent on quickly leaving the job and returning to school. Two years later I am finally beginning my M.A., excited to be back in a university setting and eager to see how my year in Public History pans out.