Monday, November 23, 2009

Books in the Digital Realm: Blog Assignment

Our latest Digital History blog assignment involves searching the Eaton's Fall and Winter catalogue from 1913-1914, picking a selection of book titles, and searching the Internet for complete, digitized versions of these old books. Kinda fun! I definitely got a hoot out of some of these old titles, notably the Encyclopedia of Etiquette and What A Young Wife Ought To Know.

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

Follow Up Thoughts to Previous Blog on "Journey Isn't Half The Fun Anymore"

On October 21st, I posted a blog entitled, "Journey Isn't Half The Fun Anymore," bemoaning the increasingly accessibly and searchable Internet archive as a device that will change the way historians conduct research in a negative faction. I asked, "Does this Internet juggernaut pound researchers with so much narrowly defined information that the jewels hidden in unrelated documents fall by the wayside?"

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 Humanities and Collective Intelligence: Why We Avoid It

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

New website!

I have launched my professional website, Dana Johnson's History Website (not exactly an original name but at least it's to the point...) I will be updating it as I am inspired or as we learn more in our Digital History class, so check back for updates!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Russia's Mad Monk: Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin



For our Digital History class, we have been asked to assemble a summary of online sources pertaining to any given historical subject or character. One of history's most intriguing and controversial figures is Russia's infamous Mad Monk, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. His life encompasses some of the most vile aspects of human existence, including rampant alcohol consumption, sexual promiscuity, dabbles with the occult and political intrigue.

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.

A historical figure as controversial and out-landish as Rasputin stirs public interest unlike his more dull historical contemporaries. This interest in Rasputin's life has led to a plethora of websites, some of which focus on Rasputin's wild exploits and others that offer a more objective perspective on his life. The Rasputin researcher needs to keep that in mind while looking for websites on the Mad Monk's life.