Progress report

This week’s blog is essentially a progress report on the project I will be working on for my Digital History class (History 511). So far I have made some progress, but I had to divert a lot of time and energy away from this project to work on other things (the main one being a book review I had to write for my History 501 class). My project is creating a virtual tour of Civil War monuments in Connecticut. I was able to find online a list of Civil War monuments in Connecticut which includes five Civil War Monuments in Middletown. I am also considering whether or not I should include the General Mansfield House (which is also the headquarters of the Middlesex County Historical Society) in the tour. The main source I have found so far is David Ransom’s study, available online at the website of the Connecticut Historical Society. I have also found some information about the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel (one of the sites mentioned in Ransom’s list), which was built in honor of Wesleyan alumni who had died in the Civil War, from Wesleyan’s website. I have also e-mailed Wesleyan’s office of Events and Scheduling to ask them about the possibility of me visiting the chapel and maybe taking some pictures (Wesleyan’s website mentions that there are weekly services at the chapel as well as university events. I’m hoping that there may be times where it is open to the public but nothing is really going on). I was also able to find out that Wesleyan’s Olin Library does have some documents related to the Memorial Chapel, so I will have to contact them about that in a bit to see if I can possibly access some of those documents.

A Response to the Class Readings

This week’s blog is a response to the class readings for last week. They consist of an article by Daniel J. Cohen, two chapters (“Collecting History Online” and “Preserving Digital History”) from a book by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen (the same guy that wrote the aforementioned article) and a short article by Robert Townsend about Google Books. Cohen’s article deal’s with the use of digital technologies to preserve the past, particularly how the internet was used to preserve information about  the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Among the more interesting things that he discusses are ways for historians who have a historically themed website to be able to get visitors to these sites to contribute and share their experiences of a certain historic event (e.g. 9/11). Among the ways that Cohen mentions that historians could use to solicit submissions to their sites are e-mail and instant messaging (IM). He also mentions that there are many challenges to saving digital sources, such as changes in software and hardware that may make some sources unreadable on newer technology (he gives the example of http code having changed so much that some websites from the 1990s are no longer readable).

The chapter “Collecting History Online” is pretty much an expanded version of the article. It mostly covers the same topics and even uses some of the same paragraphs, with a few minor word changes.  The chapter does contain some information about attracting visitors to one’s website which could come in handy for those with a website.  The chapter “Preserving Digital History” focuses on, well, how to preserve digital files (in other words how to digitally preserve sources). This chapter starts by noting how quickly digital files can degrade and become unreadable, stating that a good number “audio CDs” (I’m guessing mostly music, but maybe also speeches and stuff) from the 1980s are already degrading, with the Library of Congress estimating that between 1 and 10 percent (that is quite a gap in my opinion though) of 1980s CDs in their collection already has “serious data errors”. The chapter goes on to give various tips for preserving digital sources, including reminding people to back up their files frequently and telling web programmers to use shorter relative urls when possible rather than fuller urls (i.e. http://www.website.com/filename instead of http://www.website.com/superfolder/folder/subfolder/section/filename) so that changes to the website don’t make it harder to access files. The chapter also mentions how older forms of storage media have fallen or were/are in the process of falling into disuse, mentioning that Dell no longer includes floppy disk drives as a standard feature to their computers (though while the floppy disk may not be commonly used anymore, the disk’s legacy lives on as many programs, like WordPerfect and Adobe Reader, use a floppy disk shaped icon as the button you click on to save a file) and recommend that historians save their files on newer “optical” media like CDs or DVDs. Given how quick technology changes, I personally would recommend having some hard copies as well (e.g. printing out a webpage or a picture).

Finally there is Townsend’s article “Google Books: What’s not to like” where the author gives some examples of flaws with Google Books. The first two flaws he mentions are “poor scan quality” and “faulty metadata”. In my opinion those two things could be improved over time, particularly the scan quality, if Google wishes to invest the money, man-hours and technology to do so. The other flaw Townsend criticizes Google books for is a “truncated public domain” in which post-1923 government documents are treated as if they were copyrighted even though they are really public domain sources. I am not sure why Google does that or if they have since rectified that since Townsend’s 2007 article. Hopefully Google has, or will, rectify that issue. Despite its flaws (and any site will have flaws), Google Books is a site that is useful to many people. Indeed I would say the site’s use vastly outweighs its flaws.

Twitterstorians and online persona

In this blog we will be looking at online persona and the group of twitter historians (historians using twitter, not historians of twitter, that is) called “twitterstorians”.  As far as my online persona on this site and on twitter goes, I tend to usually be more of a reader than a writer (though maybe not so much for the blog since a blog requires writing). On twitter mostly I read or skim other people’s posts rather than post my own, though I rarely use twitter anyway, I first created an account because one of my college biology professors mentioned that sometimes he posts class announcements and cancellations on his twitter. A recent “tweet” that I did post that could be historically related was when I replied to Pope Francis’s tweet that said “War never again! Never again war” and asked if he was quoting a previous pope, namely Paul VI (upon doing a google search I was able to find out that the phrase “War never again! Never again war” was used by Paul VI in an Address to the United Nations General Assembly, and I just found out today by google searching again that the text of Pope Francis’s meditation during his prayer vigil for peace this September includes that quote from Paul VI and parenthetically cites that speech to the United Nations). On this blog I mostly use a style that is not too formal but still somewhat formal, with an occasional joke. For my blog entries I try to use a catchy title or an allusion, for example the title of my blog entry “A Tale of Two Sites” is an allusion to the book “A Tale of Two Cities”. As far as using the web to attract attention to my “digital products” or engage with an audience,  I really don’t have much “digital products” (besides my blog posts) or an audience. Theoretically in the future when I have more “digital products” I can draw attention to them by using tags in my blog to increase the chances of the blog post being found by someone using a search engine. To interact with an audience I can use twitter or I can read and respond to comments on my blog as well as comment on other people’s blogs. As other people have said on their blogs, It might be a good idea for a person to have a separate account for personal use and one for professional use.

As far as twitterstorians go, some twitterstorians are Matt Houlbrook and Sam Robinson. Houlbrook mostly posts about his cycling hobby, but he does have some history related posts, such as a link to an advertisement from the 1920s of the “office of the future”.  Robinson seems to be an historian of science (more specifically ocean related science) or perhaps mostly a scientists. Many of his posts appear not to be about history, though he does have one post that mentions “Cold War Science”. Another Twitterstorian is, Robert Taber who describes himself on his profile page as (among other things) a “historian of Haiti & Atlantic Revolutions” and the director of “Mormons for Obama” (in 2012). Among his history-related posts are tweets about a forbes article on slavery’s connection to “modern business management practices” and some “retweets” about Columbus Day. However, it seems that Taber tweets more about politics than he does about history. Actually a lot of the twitterstorians I found post mostly about non-history stuff, which I find a bit surprising given that they using the “hashtag” (#, I always thought it was called a “pound key” but on twitter they call it a “hashtag”) twitterstorians. I guess it makes sense that historians will post about things other then history, since there is more to a historians life than just history just as other scholars have other things in their lives besides their field. Although perhaps scholars would be better off having a separate account dedicated to their scholarly field where they would predominantly post “tweets” pertaining to their field and use a personal account for their other posts. This way it would be easier for people to separate the history-related posts from the non-history related ones.

Issues in Digital History: Copyrights, Intellectual Property and “Open Access”

In this weeks  blog, we shall be discussing some issues that are quite important for digital (as well as non-digital) history. These issues are about copyright laws, intellectual property and the issue of the “open access”. To use the words of Roy Rosenzweig, “should historical scholarship be free”? My answer to that, is that it is up to the scholar doing the scholarship. If a person wants to make their scholarship freely available that is their prerogative. If they want some money out of it, well then “the laborer deserves his wages”. 

One topic that is very pertinent to digital history is the issue of copyright laws. Of course copyright laws serve an important purpose, protecting a person’s “intellectual property” against would be thieves. For example it would be quite unfair for an author to publish a book and only for someone else to buy the e-book, print it out, change the cover and sell it for five dollars less than the original book. But copyright law can be fairly complex as illustrated by this chapter in the book Digital History by Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen. This complexity of copyright law can hamper many historians as they attempt to figure out which works are copyrighted and which are in the public domain. Indeed historians who may want to use various sources, such as documents, pictures, or video or audio clips, must seek out the copyright owners (not always an easy task) and get permissions (sometimes for a fee) to use those sources. This process of tracking down copyright owners can be quite expensive, even more expensive than the fees to use the copyrighted item. Of course the fact that some companies may falsely claim they own a copyright to a work that is in the public domain does not help. Unfortunately in some cases penalties for violating copyright can be quite expensive, as they could include not only restitution of market value but also punitive damages and attorney fees. Rosenzweig and Cohen mention (in section 4 “Protecting Your Intellectual Property” of Chapter 7 “Owning the Past”), how a clothing producer distributed 2500 t-shirts that used an image copyrighted by Ruth Orkin, and ended up getting fined $20,000 for damages (though they made only $1900 from the shirts) and $3000 in attorney fees. A few sentences after that they mention a website (mp3.com) that was fined $25,000 per CD that they uploaded (for a total that could run as high as $250 million). Clearly such fines are disproportionate to the offense and the law should be modified to reduce these penalties, to a more fair level that would include restitution of damages to the copyright owner, attorney fees (if a copyright holder has their copyright violated, why should they have to pay for the court costs, the violator should bear that burden) and a smaller punitive fine to discourage violation of copyright. Of course copyright law does and should allow “fair use” of copyrighted nurse and should ensure that accidental copyright violators are not punished too harshly.

As for whether or not scholarly databases like JSTOR should be free that is debatable. Not much in life is free (air is, water can be depending on how you obtain it), heck even food, one of the most basic of necessities, costs money. The fact is that JSTOR and similar organizations need to somehow cover their costs (employees, technology, utilities, etc.) and maybe make a profit (JSTOR is a non profit, but they still need to ensure that their expenditures don’t habitually exceed their revenues). The way JSTOR funds itself is to charge users to access their material, with different kinds of users (universities, high schools, individuals and libraries) being able to pay different rates and to choose different options. Naturally the use of these subscription prices does limit access to the site, as some people (and institutions) may find these costs too much to bear (though JSTOR does not charge institutional users in Africa and high schools in the U.S. only have to pay $750 a year which is probably not much compared to the overall budget of a high school), the subscriptions are certainly better than JSTOR having to pay its employees in scrip (though if JSTOR had no subscription fee what would the employees use the scrip for?) There may however be other ways for JSTOR and similar databases to cover their costs or make money, such as advertising (which may annoy some users, but not all ads are annoying, indeed there are some commercials that can be quite funny) or perhaps merchandise sales (but how many people would really buy a JSTOR coffee mug or something like that, probably not enough to fund the site). Which route would be the best way for  a database to fund itself is not something I know. It probably varies from site to site. Ultimately how JSTOR and similar sites pay their bills is up to them to decide.

The Web and Historical research

Today we will be looking how the use of the web effects historical research (by the way, I have noticed that pretty everyone pronounces the “h” in the word “history”, but some people do not pronounce the “h” in the word “historical”, in fact I often see the word “an” used before the word historical, as in “an historical debate. If any reader decides to comment on this blog, feel free to also state whether or not you pronounce the “h” in “historical”). The website I looked for this blog is the internet archive, a site with a feature called the Wayback Machine that allows a user to view a wide range of different websites as they were at different points in time. This site can be quite useful in doing historical research as it can allow the researcher to view a particular site they are interesting in as it appeared on a given date (though not all dates are available). In many ways, depending on the site the researcher views, this can mean access to “primary documents”. For instance one site I looked at on the internet archive was the White House website, the earliest version of which available from the internet archive’s Wayback Machine is from December 1997 back before I had a computer. One old White House page I viewed was from December 26, 2003 (a short while after I had gotten my first computer, which was a Christmas gift that was set up a few weeks early), which had a number of items on the page including the President’s Christmas Message, a picture of President Bush making a Christmas Eve phone call to members of the armed forces, and a list of some of the President’s “major speeches” at that time such as his speech about the capture of Saddam Hussein. One of the other pages of the White House website I looked at using the internet archive was from April 17, 2008. The White House main page at that time focused mostly on President Bush’s welcoming of Pope Benedict XVI to the White House the day before, but it also mentioned the visit of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the White House on the 17th and stories about President and Mrs. Bush commemorating the 265th birthday of Thomas Jefferson and President Bush discussing climate change. Speaking of Benedict XVI, an internet archive view of the Vatican website’s homepage at 07:47 on April 17 shows an image of an umbrella over the Keys of St. Peter, representing that the Holy See was vacant at that time (i.e. there was no Pope), while the next available view of the same website, from about ten hours later (17:08 or 5:08 p.m.) shows the a different picture, the Papal Tiara atop the Keys of St. Peter, which appears above the message “HABEMVS PAPAM BENEDICTVM XVI” (meaning “We have a Pope. Benedict XVI”).

To a degree using this site is a bit different than using more traditional sources such as books. Among other things using this site is easier than going to a library or an archive, and it is quite fun to look at sites as they once were. In a way it does change how I think about sources. Without this site, I would tend to think of sources as being more about paper sources or professional databases, but using the internet archive really any old website can be an historical source, not only more prestigious/professional sites (like the White House or the Vatican websites), but also everyday, “low culture” sites (like online forums), if not for “documents” per se, then at least for a view into how people reacted to various events (for instance how did people post about 9/11 on a certain sports forum during the hours and days following the attacks?). Is using such a site qualitatively different between using a physical archive? Probably. Among other things a physical archive probably has some staff members that can help the researcher out, and the experience (i.e. actually going there and walking through the archives) is different.

Of course this blog would not be complete without a couple links to some old views of CCSU’s website, like this webpage (new @ ccsu) or this (more recent) webpage. Unfortunately the Internet Archive does not (yet) have any old views of my blog, sweepoftime.wordpress.com.

Debating History on the Wikipedia Talk Sections

In this blog we will be looking at historical debates that are raised in the talk section of Wikipedia articles. Looking at these “debates”, we can see how history is debated among a public audience (which may or may not include some scholars) as well as the work and discussion that go into producing and improving a Wikipedia article. In case any of you don’t know, you can find the talk section of a Wikipedia article by clicking the little tab that says “Talk” to the right of another tab that says “article”, these to tabs are at the top of the Wikipedia article, right above the name/title of the article. The three related Wikipedia articles that we will be looking at in this blog are articles relating to the Civil War, namely Wikipedia’s articles on Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Naming the American Civil War.

There are currently 4 issues raised in the talk page of the Lincoln Article. In the first issue, a user named pseudobob asks about the context of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the quote being “I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man”. Pseudobob doesn’t appear to be referring to a problem with article, he is just asking a question about the quote. Another user (alanscottwalker) answers that the quote probably came from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates where Lincoln was accused of being in favor of blacks and white mingling together. Another user (Lonepilgrim007) responds by pointing out that Lincoln’s beliefs evolved over time. The next two issues are not really big debates or controversies, just suggestions for changes to the article (the first issue being that “boxed biography” in the article left out Lincoln’s tenure as an Illinois state legislator, the second issue essentially being a complaint about the wording of part of the article). The final issue (entitled “Lincoln the War Criminal” is a complaint claiming that this article and similar articles are “slanted” in favor of the Union, and objecting to the article’s claim that the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, which he points out was in South Carolina (what he calls “Southern Territory”) and then accuses Lincoln of being a war criminal. Another user responds by saying that most historians do not view Lincoln as a war criminal and that such a viewpoint is a “fringe” view that should not “dominate an encyclopedia article”.

The talk page of the Robert E. Lee article also has a good number of issues raised. Some issues are relatively minor (like the suggestion that Lee’s father, Henry Lee III’s nickname should be written as “Light-Horse Harry” – as it appears in the article on Henry Lee III – instead of “Light Horse Harry” as it appears on Robert Lee’s article). Others are more important disputes over how the article portrays Lee, including a claim that the part of the article is “whitewashed” and a claim that the article is “scathing and quite prejudiced”  and that it should be written by someone who isn’t as “close minded and biased” as the author who apparently doesn’t know “how great, God fearing, intelligent and noble General Robert E Lee was”. There is also a complaint that part of the article gives inaccurate figures on the Union and Confederate troop numbers and casualties in the Battle of Cheat Mountain in a way that is an “insult” to Lee,  making it look like Lee suffered more casualties compared to the Union forces and tripling the size of Lee’s force while under-representing the Union force.

The third talk page I looked at was that of the article on “Naming the American Civil War”. This talk page has a few questions and controversies over names of the Civil War that are or aren’t used in the article. One user wonders whether or not the article should contain the term “War of Southern Treason” , a term which he has seen used in online forums in response to people using the term “War of Northern Aggression”, but another user suggests that term should not appear in the article unless it can be found in a reliable source. Other questions are whether or not it should be called the “U.S. Civil War” instead of the “Civil War” and how to insert a “needs a reference” marker after sentence a in the article regarding the usage of the phrase “War of Secession”. There is also a big argument/debate about the term “War of Northern Aggression” and whether the North or the South was the aggressor in the War.

It is clear from looking at the talk sections of these articles, that there are a lot of different historical interpretations that people have about the past. Some subjects (such as the Civil War) tend to attract a lot of debate, some of it scholarly and some of it rather heated and not so scholarly (indeed rather personal). Reading and listening to these debates about different views on historical events can be interesting and entertaining. I must say of the issues raised in the talk section that I mentioned in this blog, my favorite was the one on the Robert E. Lee article where the user called the author “biased and close minded”. That was quite humorous to read.

 

A Tale of Two Sites

In this blog we will be looking at two history websites, which I will be comparing. These two websites are a Civil War-themed site called “The Valley of the Shadow“, hosted by the library of the University of Virginia and copyrighted by Edward L. Ayers (though the copyright on the website is from 1993-2007), and  “American Memory” by the Library of Congress.

The first website, “The Valley of the Shadow” describes itself as a “digital archive” that contains various documents from “two American Communities, one Northern and one Southern”, these communities being Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The site contains a variety of documents from the time of the Civil War and from the years immediately before and after the war from these two counties. These documents range from diaries to newspaper articles to church records and census records. The site even has an “animated theater battle map” on which you pick a unit and follow its movements and battles throughout the course of the war with a timeline at the bottom of the map showing when each action is taking place, which is a feature that I find quite cool. This website definitely has the look and feel of an older website, which is not really a bad thing. Overall the site is quite easy and straightforward to navigate.

The other site, “American Memory” by the library of Congress has a different, and somewhat newer look to it (among other things it has a search bar) although the site was actually begun in the 1990s, but it also does not have as catchy of a name. Perhaps the name may be just as easy to remember, but “The Valley of The Shadow” has a more interesting ring to it, which could help it attract visitors who happen to see the site appear in a link on another site or in a search engine. This site has a more broad focus than the other site, focusing on the country as a whole and not being solely concerned with the Civil War. The site allows users to look at the resources of the collection by topic with topics including numerous subjects such as sports and Native American history. The site also includes links to such things as an “Ask a librarian” feature and a page for teachers, as well as a “this day in history feature”. To some degree it seems that this site has less of a scholarly feel to it than the “Valley of the Shadow” site, though both sites can be used for scholarly as well as amateur/hobby purposes. The two sites are actually quite different and should appeal to people with different interests. One thing that I prefer about the “Valley of the Shadow” site is that it seems to be more self-contained, whereas the “American Memory” site has some links on the main page that go outside of the “American Memory” portion of the Library of Congress website.