How will those in the future explore the past?

Digital technology is constantly expanding and evolving all around the world. Although it is difficult to predict the future of such a rapidly changing field it is impossible to deny that the practice of history will grow more intertwined with internet technology as time passes. One of the most prominent possibilities for the future is that evolving technologically based formats will further diminish the importance of the traditional historical monograph. The wealth of historical exhibit websites produced using the Omeka toolset is representative of an overall change taking place in how professional history work is displayed. Given their ability to reach a much broader audience at a much faster pace, websites and other digital formats present numerous advantages over traditional methods of historical publication. I have been able to see the effects of the changes already taking place in the courses I have taken during my graduate school career. Having already engaged in graduate level history courses I have yet to be asked to write a traditional historical research paper. Instead all of my classes have focused on internet based projects with non-traditional formats such as websites and web 3.0 mobile tours. It is more than likely that such non-traditional online formats will play an expanding role in historical publication in the coming decades.

In terms of historical research, it is impossible to deny the growing benefits of digitization. Despite some prominent drawbacks digitization efforts have provided students with easy access to countless documents through online databases. It stands to reason that in the coming decade’s digitized content will play an even greater role in historical research. In the near future it is most likely that the majority of archived historical content will be accessible through the internet. Google books’ largely successful current efforts to digitize all modern publications show the real possibilities in digitizing the majority of archived information around the world. Although the goal of digitizing such a massive amount of data does present significant challenges, it is unlikely that they are insurmountable. Given that most historical primary documents will eventually be digitized, it is important to ascertain the consequences that such actions will have on physical documents and traditional research. In the future will historical archives bar most researchers from accessing crumbling physical documents that have been digitized? Will the importance of preserving actual documents wane once the majority of them have been preserved digitally? These questions cannot be ignored as their answers will most assuredly affect the practice and quality of historical research. It is apparent that the evolving digital age presents both opportunities and challenges to the practice of historical research.

Digital Tools in the Classroom

As we continue further and further into the digital age we must not fail to recognize the ever growing interconnection between digital and traditional techniques of learning. The digital revolution’s effects upon the field of history are permanent and must fully be integrated into institutional learning practices. With each new generation students, and even teachers, embrace technology more easily and fully. Clearly, the use of digital content creation tools such as Omeka will soon become fundamental to the classroom. Some may disagree with this analysis but we must remember that until the beginning of the last decade digital tools such as email and online databases were rarely used within the classroom. Today, anyone involved in a classroom setting must have, at the very least, some experience in dealing with online research and communication. It is likely that in the future students will be required to engage in some level of programming or online content creation.

            As I reflect on my own experiences I am able to see the effect of digitization on the format of the different courses I am taking this semester. All three of the courses I am taking engage in digital interaction and creation at some level. In this course I am, as all of you should know, creating online content in the form of a mobile historical tour app as well as updating my blog weekly. In the course “The Professional Historian” our class is working together in order to create the content which will make up a website focused on the civil war monuments and statues located at the state capitol. Finally, in my architectural preservation course our class is engaged in the creation of a national historical district nomination which requires extensive communication and coordination over the internet. All of my courses this semester contain goals that require significant use of internet technology. For the first time in my student career I am able to see a significant movement away from the traditional pre-internet format of the classroom towards a more digitally integrated stance.

Digital Design and Layout on two Omeka based Websites

            For my comparison of two sites from the Omeka showcase I chose to look at “The Civil War in Art: Teaching and Learning through Chicago Collections” as well as “Frontier to Heartland: Four Centuries in Central North America”. Both sites focused heavily on the use of photo databases as a platform to provide narratives of their subjects. These sites were also quite effective in implementing aesthetically pleasing designs and intuitive layouts. While “The Civil War in Art” provided a smaller database for of images, the information it presented seemed better organized than the massive collection of images presented on “Frontier to Heartland”.

            “The Civil War in Art” website provides a collection of Civil War era paintings and drawings which are accompanied by descriptions and summaries that connect the art to the issues and experiences associated with the war. The site’s main page is well presented and organized, allowing users to dive into clearly titled subjects by clicking on sample photographs. From these main topics further subtopics can be accessed. On each of the pages of the site several pieces of art can be accessed providing content related to the topic of the page. The addition of detailed information on the work of art as well as a contextual description and further questions for consideration do much to add to the depth of the sites educational applications.  Definitions of period era terms are also presented whenever a user places their curser over the highlighted term. Overall the site presents a highly organized collection with additional information that gives the site a clear focus.

            The other site I viewed, “Frontier to Heartland”, uses a similar strategy to “The Civil War in Art” in that the site presents paintings, maps, and photos in order to express a larger narrative about the development of the mid-western United States. This site presents a very large collection of primary sources from the west along with short essays about major topics pertaining to the West’s development. The breadth and amount of information on the website makes it somewhat difficult to access specific images and topics. Searches can be organized by both historic topics and gallery subjects yet the overall size of these resources can make searching through them an arduous process. The site does provide an immense resource in terms of images and information and with enough time available to them a user can literally sift through hundreds of years worth of photos and data. 

The Modern Miracles of Data Mining

The circumstances of historical research have radically shifted as a result of the Digital Age. Whereas a common problem for past historians might have been locating sources and data, today’s historians find more difficulty in organizing the immense collection of raw data immediately available to them. As the internet exponentially increases in size, it becomes more and more important to construct ways of organizing and analyzing online data. By using data mining technologies researchers can easily sift through enormous collections of information, sorting and graphing relevant data and trends out of large collections and texts. It is only through the use of these data mining tools that large databases become useful for categorizing data sets.

            One of the most apparent benefits of data mining for the researcher is its usefulness in producing accurate search results. As Dan Cohen points out in his article, “From Babel to Knowledge” a researcher can input phrases and words topically related to a search term into data mining software in order to narrow search results. The data mining software searches for the use of these related phrases and words sorting sources by repetitive use of them as well as the search term. As seen in Cohen’s example this tool can be particularly useful for historians engaged in research on historical figures who share an identical name with other historical figures.  

            Another example of the power of data mining can be found in tools such as the Google n-gram viewer. The n-gram viewer is used to search the massive database of Google books for particular terms input by a user. It then graphs the use of these terms use in written publications throughout a set period of time. Given the size of the Google Books database, overall trends in the use of certain words and phrases over the last few centuries can be viewed with relative accuracy. Through this process the Google n-gram viewer produces statistics that would have taken traditional researchers lifetimes to produce. In this age it easy to take tools  like this for granted yet we must remind ourselves that previous generations did not have the ability to access the information that is now at our fingertips. As historians we must also learn to transform our standards and expectations to meet such universal changes.

Exploring Digital Harlem

This week I examined the website and historical GIS project Digital Harlem. This project provides an incredibly useful interactive, historical map of Harlem which is overlaid on a standard Google street map of northern Manhattan. Through a selection of advanced search options visitors to the site can locate the locations and details relating to a diverse range of people, places, and events connected with Harlem during the years from 1915-1930. The site effectively provides a collection of data that would otherwise be accessible only through a visit to one or more historical archives. It also manages to condense this information into an easy to use interface which simplifies searches in a way that would be impossible without the power of computing and the internet. It is hard to understate the usefulness of such a resource to historical scholars. By placing this information in such an easy to use format the creators of this website have greatly simplified the process of doing in depth research on Harlem’s significant history.

The 1930 real estate map which is used on the site show specific details on property and structural outlines providing users with an unparalleled view of specific historical Harlem neighborhoods. The details of the map alone provide as much information to a researcher as would be found in an entire box of historical Sanborn Insurance Maps at an archive. After taking in the information initially available on the map, users can then overlay markers that designate either sets of events, people, or specific places. A researcher can easily categorize and correlate a place where an event happened to where a person involved in the event lived and then add designated markers to different locations where related events prior to and following the original event took place. The data on the site also takes into account events in areas of Manhattan outside of Harlem, giving more context to overall changes within New York. With the ability to organize information in such an efficient manner a researcher can visually identify different trends and patterns that would be unrecognizable with the information organized in a traditional format.

The various benefits of Digital Harlem to professional researchers become apparent within minutes of exploring the sites intuitive interface. In time, I believe most archives will begin to transform their physical records into a format similar to this in order to provide resources in a more informative and accessible manner. 

Are the Luddites right?

This week’s readings caused me to seriously question the commonly accepted notion that digital archiving is an entirely beneficial tool. The articles by Cohen and Townsend both point out flaws of the current conversion of physical archived materials to a digital format. Whereas many people are quick to point out the enormous benefits provided by easily accessible digital formats these writers explain that the digital revolution is not without its own downsides and difficulties.

Cohen points out that Digital Archives are often less focused and fail to offer the advantages that the staff of a physical archive can provide. He also makes the important point that the physical media on which digital information is stored can oftentimes be even more prone to degradation than the original documents from which they were copied. People must remember that we are still in the initial decades of the digital revolution and technology is continuously advancing at a rapid rate. With this quick advancement comes the inevitable obsolescence of numerous formats for data storage. The format wars have created numerous obscure and outdated physical storage technologies such as betamax, laserdisc, and HD-DVD among others. Beyond expired physical media there are countless programs that rely on operating systems no longer in existence. Archivists must recognize the inherent difficulties in long term storage when the very technology used for storage is ever-changing.

Townsend’s article is more specific in focus than Cohen’s as he illustrates his many criticisms of Google books. Townsend basically describes Google Books as a monopolistic attempt to gain ad space, with the goal of bringing in more profit to Google. He also claims that Google has forgone the necessary oversights to ensure accuracy and efficiency instead promoting a quickening pace for uploading materials. I concur with Townsend’s criticisms of Google’s attempts. Although Google provides a bevy of content, it trips over itself in its pursuit of progress, failing to uphold the academic standards which mark a successful database. Google books serves as prominent lesson, showing that in  most cases for profit companies should not be given the responsibility of archival preservation.

My Internet Persona

            While writing entries for this blog I have knowingly taken into account the tone in language and writing that I use. It is important, when writing a professional style blog, to maintain a balance between casual and formal tones of writing. The blog format lends itself to a casual style. A blog writer should be able to use catchy titles and everyday language in order to gain a large public audience. Bloggers however, should also maintain the professional integrity of their writing and avoid straying too far towards the informal.

The blog post, “Crowd Sourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down” by Trevor Owens serves as an interesting example of a historian balancing between casual and professional tones. His blog’s design and profile information display Owens’ personal interests in subjects such as Videogames and Cartoons while the blog post itself offers an in depth description of the advantages of crowd sourcing within history. By introducing elements of his personal interests into his Blog Owens has created a unique visual design and provides a recognizable persona through which he can voice his opinions. All of this is done while simultaneously maintaining in depth blog posts on history subjects. Blog writers like Trevor Owens are able to differentiate themselves from obscure, overly formal academic bloggers.

On my own blog I have attempted to cultivate an interesting and casual appearance while also providing serious analysis of history topics. I used a large architectural picture of an early Chicago skyscraper as a background in order to create a unique visual effect as readers scroll down the page. I also used a vintage computer advertisement as a header image for its comically dated appearance. I believe these images create a unique display for my blog and add a personal touch when reading posts. Admittedly “digitizingthepast” may not be the most original title but it is at the very least clearly displays the context of the blog.  In fact clarity is perhaps the most important factor in writing a professional blog. A good blog writer should always be sure to avoid going off topic or being unclear otherwise the blog will fail to attract the attention of peers and associates.