One Year ago today

Today marks the one year anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic (i.e the first time a pope has resigned in about 600 years) resignation from the Petrine Ministry. The resignation took effect at 20:00 (i.e. 8 p.m.) Rome-time, equivalent to 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on February 28, 2013. In the morning Benedict met with the cardinals to bid them farewell and vowed his loyalty and reverence to whomever among them would be elected to succeed him. After this Benedict was driven to the Vatican helipad (tv reporters noted that the driver was visibly crying at this point) and flown in a white papal helicopter (followed by another helicopter with a camera to film him) to Castel Gandolfo where he would temporarily reside in the Apostolic Palace until a new pope was elected and until the Mater Ecclesia Monastery in Rome was renovated. At Castel Gandolfo he briefly greeted the people gathered to bid him farewell. Then at 8:00 p.m., the bells tolled, the gate to the Apostolic Palace was closed and the Swiss Guard handed over control of the building to the Vatican Gendarmerie Corps, since the Swiss Guard no longer had a pope to defend.

How Will Digital Methods Effect History Research?

In this blog I will be discussing how the advent of digital tools and methods will change how history is done and how historical research is carried out. In a sense this discussion is the opposite of what historians traditionally discuss: normally we focus on what happened in the past (and how/why/when/where it happened), but in this post I am somewhat speculating on the future. Perhaps this question is easier to answer for those historians who did their upper-level (i.e. college and professional) research before these digital tools were around.

The most apparent way in which digital methods will change (and indeed already have changed) historical research and practice is by making sources more accessible to people. Digitizing sources allows people to be able to access them from the internet instead of actually having to visit an archive that can be halfway around the world. Digital technology also allows these sources to not only be accessible, but they can also be keyword searchable, so that a researcher can simply type a word into the file and see all the times that word is present, instead of actually having to look for the word. This saves the researcher time, but could make it less likely for that researcher to “stumble” upon other information. One downside of internet technology as compared to an archive is that with an archive a researcher knows when to stop. Once the researcher gets home from the archive, if the archive is far enough, that visit will suffice and it will be time to do the writing. But with the internet it is so easy to search for sources, that the researcher may wind up always having “one more” source to find and read (or skim), and the project may stagnate.

One specific technology that is changing historical research is optical character recognition (OCR) technology. This technology allows archivists and other people to scan documents in such a way that the computer recognizes the written or typed letters and other characters (like numbers), instead of just taking an image of the scanned document. OCR is important because it allows those who look at the source electronically to search for specific words and phrases within the document. This is a big help to researchers. It also eliminates (or at least reduces) the need to actually transcribe a document in order to make it more legible. This is important considering that some documents, like books or diaries, could be quite long.

The use of digital tools will change how history is practiced. Some changes may be predictable, others may be more surprising. And of course, there will be those things that will not change. Historians will still be tasked with having to sort truth from untruth, having to find sources, and having to present their information – to tell their story- in a way that is interesting.

History in the Digital Age

First off the title for this week’s blog comes from the title of the book with the same title, edited by Toni Weller. This blog will be focusing on last week’s readings for the digital history course I am taking. Those readings are chapters 7 (studying the past in the digital age: from tourist to explorer by Mark Sandle) and 8 (Beyond ctrl-c, ctrl-v: teaching and learning history in the digital age by Charlotte Lydia Riley) and Jeff McClurken’s article “teaching and learning with omeka”. Each of these readings discusses the topic of using digital technology in history education, but they all do so in a different manner.

Sandle’s work uses the analogy that digital technology is allowing history students to go from being tourists to being explorers. In other words, in traditional history, due among other things to the difficulty of obtaining sources, students were often “guided” through historical topics by their teachers, like a tourist being guided around a site. Now with the internet these students, in addition to being taught by their instructors, can go online and explore historical sources and topics on their own or as part of an assignment. But Sandle is keen to point out that these students should not be expected to be “pioneers”, to be going off into uncharted territories (“without any maps”), in other words to be breaking new scholarly ground. After all pushing a person to learn too fast, or sending them on a task that they are not prepared for can be educationally harmful. An interesting section in Sandle’s chapter is that on the idea of “total research” (p.137), wherein Sandle warns against the idea that the internet allows a scholar to master all the sources in their field and where a scholar may be tempted to always search for more sources in order to make their work more “complete”, even thought there are far too many sources available for a single person to use. In this sense we must bear in mind the old saying that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and realize that we have to finish our work eventually, instead of feeling compelled to incorporate “one more” source. There simply comes a time when one must be content to finish a particular piece of work, and leave room for future scholars to make their contributions. That part of the chapter reminded me something I had read a few years ago, wherein Vincent Twomey, a former professor at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, tells a story about how when he was working on his thesis for his doctorate in theology, he was asked by his doktorvater, Joseph Ratzinger, if he had completed his thesis yet and Twomey said he still had some work to do, to which Ratzinger replied “have the courage to leave some gaps” (after doing a little internet search I was able to find what Twomey had written: Twomey had been working on his thesis for seven years at the point in which this exchange had occurred!). Granted Twomey’s anecdote is from pre-internet times, but the point is still pertinent to academic research in any age: we have to, as Twomey puts it “be courageous enough to be imperfect”.

Riley’s chapter offers a lot of information about the “digital generation”  and compares and contrasts a lot between how undergraduate students (at least in the United Kingdom) use digital technologies and how teaching assistants (TAs) use it. Much of this chapter is devoted to discussing to which degree digital sources (and analog ones as well) should be treated with some skepticism and how researchers must beware of bias. Riley also encourages professors to contribute to Wikipedia to help make the site’s entries more accurate. One thing I found interesting about the chapter was Riley’s description of the “new undergraduate students” that “grew up with digital technology” (p.149), where she says that an 18 year old students entering college in the 2011-12 school year, born in 1992 or 1993: “have never lived in a world without online technology. Both Google and Wikipedia were founded before these students turned ten years old. The iPod was invented and retailed, alongside the iTunes store, before they started secondary school. Members of this digital generation find it difficult to conceive of a society in which digital and online resources are not a fundamental part of everyday life” (p. 149).  I was born only 2 or 3 years before these people. I had not heard of Google until probably seventh or eigth grade (some of my classmates in computer class where discussing whether Yahoo or Google was better, I had previously only heard of Yahoo from commercials, which I think featured some people in a lake, maybe vacationing). I was a sophomore in high school when I first heard of an iPod (and MySpace as well, which I had quite a negative opinion of back then). In short, I feel that Riley’s description of the digital generation, who “find it difficult to conceive of a society in which digital and online resources are not a fundamental part of everyday life” does not really fit me, as for most of my life I did not use the internet, and I really did not use online technology on an almost-daily basis until about my senior year of high school (when we got AT&T instead of AOL, allowing the internet to be used while someone else was on the phone!).

Finally, McClurken’s article is about the use of Omeka in teaching history. McClurken offers some tips for using Omeka in teaching. The part about his article that most stood out to me was when one of his students told him that she was “uncomfortable” with digital projects, which he had assigned to the class, and he responded “good”. McClurken says he wants his students to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”. Indeed isn’t that how we really learn? Learning new things at times requires us to go outside of our comfort zone, but after a while we will grow more comfortable. Granted, when an instructor assigns something that does put the students out of their comfort zone, the grading should be lenient. After all, why give people extra stress?

Omeka sites

In this week’s blog we will be talking about Omeka. And by Omeka I mean the webplatform . Omeka is a website used to host online exhibits and other digital archives. Basically Omeka is a tool used by site programmers to help develop these types of historical sites.

Two such sites that use Omeka are George Washington University’s “Begun in War, Built in Peace” site on U.S.-Kuwaiti relationships and Trinity College’s (in Dublin, not the Trinity University in Connecticut) site on Gothic Architecture, called Gothic Past.  The two sites are quite different, obviously they have very different subjects. Their layouts are also rather different. Out of the two sites, Gothic Past has a much more dynamic and flashy layout to it. On top of the site is a big picture of various Gothic architecture and sculpture (mainly Irish churches) which changes every few seconds into another picture. The right side of the webpage has a “tag cloud” with different “tags” showing up in different sizes to depict how frequent each “tag” is. The main page contains a small about section, with a link that can be clicked on to go to an about page with more information, as well as a prominent display of images and text about the site’s featured exhibit and featured collection. The homepage also has a list of some recent items with a small image and a text blurb and a link to each item’s own little section of the site. Overall this website gives the impression of being update and modified fairly often and of being run by more than one person.

George Washington University’s “Begun in War, Built in Peace” site gives a more static, “web 1.0” feel (which is not always a bad thing, sometimes I like a small site that can be read relatively quickly and revisited from time to time at a leisurely pace). It seems to me that this site is probably updated less frequently if at all. And in fact, using the Internet Archive’s “Way Back Machine”, you see that the site looked the same on March 3, 2011 (this is the earliest version of the site available of the Way Back Machine) as it does today. The site’s homepage has a brief overview giving a really short history of Kuwait, the Gulf War and the role GWU alumni and faculty such played in this “geostrategic drama”. From this homepage all the sections of the site can be accessed by clicking on the big rectangular link with a picture and a title that each section has on the homepage. Each of these sections are relatively short, comprising only a few paragraphs (and of course including pictures), requiring only a little, if any, scrolling. This site is pretty enjoyable and it is actually quite feasible to read the whole thing in one day (and not have to worry about if you miss any new things if you leave the site alone for a while). A last little feature that the site has is a button with a picture of a Kuwaiti flag and some Arabic writing next to the flag, that when clicked goes to the Arabic version of the site’s homepage, which has the same layout as the English version and the same sections (only now these sections are in Arabic), though the pictures are on the opposite side of the screen on the Arabic version than they are on the English version (I’m guessing the text on both versions is the same when translated, but I don’t know Arabic so I’ll just have to guess that if the pictures are the same so is the text).

The differences between these two sites is important (though it is not why I chose these two sites for the blog, I chose these sites because I found the topics interesting). The fact that both of these sites both utilize Omeka shows the platform’s versatility. Not all Omeka sites have to look the same. There is plenty of room for creativity. This is one of the key strengths of Omeka.



Well, this isn’t good

I came across this article today on the “Top 5 Most Regretted Majors”.

And here they are:

1. Anthropology (average starting salary: $36,500)

According to PayScale’s data, 35 percent of anthropology majors wouldn’t recommend it to current students.

“People typically regret majoring in anthropology because they have a preconceived notion that there is a direct and specific job title perfectly correlating to it,” says training and development consultant Farrah Parker. “Instead of recognizing the broad spectrum of careers that they can pursue, they focus on their inability to find a career with an exact reference to their major.”

Anthropology majors could consider work in community organizations or government, for example, or combine the major with others to make themselves more marketable.

2. History (average starting salary: $39,700)

This major is recommended by only 33 percent of its graduates. Many history majors go on to work in academia, or may find jobs with government agencies, libraries or organizations dedicated to the period they studied.

Parker says it’s important for graduates to keep their options open after graduation. “People with narrow definitions of career paths find themselves regretting majors,” she says. “However, those who recognize that the workforce is full of positions that require expertise outside of what may be formally listed in a course catalog find themselves in a perfect position to brand their college major in whatever manner they see fit.”

3. Visual Communication (average starting salary: $37,300)

4. Social Science (average starting salary: $37,300)

5. Journalism (average starting salary $38,100)

On the bright side, history has the highest starting salary out of the five majors listed (hopefully these salaries are for people with a bachelor’s degree, so when I get my master’s the pay would be higher), $3,200 more than those anthropologists get.

Reading Reflections – “Big Data” and Data Mining

This week’s blog is a reflection on the readings for last week. The readings largely deal with the topics of “Big Data” and various technologies and techniques used in the field of “Data Mining” (in which a person “mines” for certain data among all the data that is out there, sort of like a real miner mining for gold or coal in a mine). Toni Weller’s book, History in the Digital Age, has a chapter by William Turkel, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts followed by a chapter by Jim Musell.  Turkel, Kee and Roberts mention how new technology has made the traditional issue of lack of access to sources for historians something that is no longer a problem. They mention the traditional process used by historians in their research and then go on to list 7 rules for digital research. The first two rules are: “make everything digital” (they talk of scanning sources and digitizing them, mentioning some handheld pen scanner device that can scan text into a computer) and “keep stuff in the cloud”. For the most part I don’t do either of those things in my research, If I have a printed book from a library I would use information from the book without digitizing the book and I generally just have my files on my computer or sometimes on a flashdrive. Jim Mussel writes about the difference between “history 1.0” and “history 2.0” specifically saying that historians should view the web as more than just a tool and that “history 2.0” involves shifting from a focus on documents to a focus on data. To be honest seeing the emerging form of history as “2.0” and its predecessor as “1.0” seems a bit inaccurate, given how long history has been around (which in some form or other is along as the human race has been remembering and retelling the past). I imagine that we are really in a much later stage than “history 2.0” if we are to view history in different “.0” forms (as if history was “AOL”).

Daniel Cohen in his article “From Babel to Knowledge” starts by mentioning a short story, “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. Cohen talks about how it can be difficult to find pertinent (and accurate) information while conducting online research. He then discusses some online tools that can help find information, such as the “Syllabus Finder” and the H-bot which searches the web to answer historical questions. Tim Hitchcox  discusses “Academic History and the Headache of Big Data” on the blog Historyonics. In this blog, Hitchcox mentions how “Big Data” is hard to work with while trying to maintain a commitment to “history from below” according to the “British Marxist Historical Tradition”. He discusses his project on the “Old Bailey”, which focuses on lower class people while he says most other historical web projects focus on intellectuals such as philosophers and scientists (for some reason he puts the word “scientist” in quotations, as if to say that some of those scientists are not really scientists, which seems unnecessary).  He says that other forms of history such as economic and demographic history, gender history and “the radical tradition” (an odd term given that the term “radical” is often used to describe people and groups which endeavor to break with or uproot traditions and traditional structures, but it is an accurate term in that such groups do actually come to have, and even endeavor to be faithful to, some sort of tradition) are not well represented.

Perhaps the biggest issue about the existence of “big data” or the internet is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, not everything you find on a Google search is something you would want to include in your college paper and not everything you see someone say on Facebook or Twitter is something you want to use to boast about how knowledgeable you are (well better yet, don’t boast about that in the first place). Tools can help with this task, but experience is also important. Over time using the internet, you learn a bit about how to figure out which information is better and how to access online information and cite it better. Ten years ago I once cited the source of my information for a school paper  as simply “”, and after doing so I learned that Google is just a search-engine and that I had to cite the site that actually had the information on it, not the search engine I used to find it (well that was my first year having a computer at home, so as I said before, you learn over time). Sorting through and mining all this big data can be time consuming and sometimes challenging (though probably less challenging, and certainly less dangerous than other forms of mining, like coal mining) and it is a task that hopefully people become more proficient at with time and practice.


The Republic of Letters and historical scholarship

This week’s blog looks at the “Republic of Letters” project by Stanford University and its relationship to historical scholarship.  The project contains a number of publications and presentations on various historical topics, but that list is pretty much just a list. You cannot access the publications or presentations from that list, which is unfortunate.  The main part of the site appears to be its “Case Studies” Section. This site has a good variety of case studies, including of people that I hadn’t previously heard of before reading that section. Although most of the case studies involve French figures such as Voltaire and D’Alembert , there are also studies covering figures from a lot of places, such as the Francesco Algarotti from Italy and Athanasius Kircher, whom the site describes as a “Jesuit Polymath” writing from Rome (a polymath is someone who is learned in many fields, not, as I had originally thought, someone who is good at multiple fields of math). Although the site does not say what Kircher’s nationality is, it seems to me that Kircher is German. Kircher looks like a German name, and the picture of Kircher that is shown on the site has the caption “P. Athanasivs Kirchervs Fvldensis” which would mean that Kircher is from Fulda, a region of Germany.

The historical importance of this project by Stanford University is that it depicts the so called “Republic of Letters”, in other words how various intellectual figures throughout the world were interconnected by their letters. It includes graphs and maps showing among other things where these people sent letters to and received letters from as well as which years they were most active in corresponding. These graphical presentations make it easier to understand the information depicted in the maps and graphs than would be possible using text alone. Using this site, people can gain an appreciation of how any given person featured in the site interacted with other people through their writing. As an example, users can view a bunch of pie-charts showing which countries Benjamin Franklin received most of his letters from (those countries being America and England, not surprisingly) or during which years he received a lot of letters from Scotland (as well as other countries such as Ireland or Jamaica). Overall this site is quite informative and interesting.