Week 14 blog: How Digital Methods Have Changed the Study and Idea of History

The practice and idea of history is going to be forever changed by the coming of the digital age and digital methods. I think one way this is happening is with shared authority in the historical world. In the past, the study of history has always been very exclusive to scholars- the so called “ivory tower” school of thought. That is not the case today. With increasing public history programs, historians are sharing history with the public more than ever. Digital tools and methods are an important part of this. For example, many museums now offer virtual exhibits in which visitors can view and learn about exhibits right from their computers. Many other museums and institutions offer opportunities for the public to participate in blog discussions. Some institutions allow the users themselves to contribute to exhibits. The East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, for example allows people to submit their own photos and other items to add to the museum’s collection. This new push for shared authority has forever changed the field of history. Historians are not only conversing with each other, but they are also sharing history with the greater public. I believe that as long as Historians are there as the experts to moderate, this can only increase the field’s relevance and interest.

Another way digital methods are changing the study of history is through new research methods. No longer do historians have to spend long hours searching through libraries and archives for their sources (well, at least not all the time). There are now a vast amount of sources available online. While in the past sources were considered scarce, the digital age has created an over-abundance of them. This requires historians to approach online research in a whole new way. They need to know how to sift through sources and weed out the useless ones. This is when researchers will need to master the online tools available to assist them with this. Search tools and the advance search options they provide are most helpful with combing through sources. Other online tools like zotero can help historians organize sources. The digital age has opened up vast amounts of sources. Historians certainly benefit from this, but they must also know how to manage it. Digital methods have changed historical research forever.


Week 13 blog: Teaching History in the Digital Age

The readings for week thirteen were concerned with teaching history in the digital age. The reading I found particularly interesting was Jeff McClurken’s “Teaching and Learning with Omeka.” I thought this was interesting because Omeka is something we have been learning about and will use to create our virtual tours. McClurken states that he often has students feeling very skeptical when it comes to learning digital tools in history. They often feel uncomfortable. He wants them to feel this way because he wants them to push the boundaries of historical scholarship beyond papers and tests. Learning these new tools is vital for historians moving into the digital age. It is the only way history can remain relevant.

One such tool McClurken has his students learn, and the subject of this section of his book, is Omeka. Omeka is an open-source, free, web-based publishing tool that is both a digital repository and a resource for building online exhibits. It allows users to catalog and share their collections of documents, images, and videos in any number of ways. McClurken makes it clear that it can be difficult to teach Omeka to students. He lays out some basic points of advice for teachers such as making sure the extent that students use Omeka matches your goals for them, be prepared to offer a lot of technical support, and plan on having extensive discussions with students on how to use the program.

McClurken makes it clear that Omeka can be a very difficult tool to teach with. It can be daunting to students who have little to no experience in digital history. However I think the challenge is worth it. Like McClurken says, students need to push their boundaries; they need to go out of their comfort zone. The world is changing rapidly as we progress into an increasingly digital age. The field of history is no different. It is experiencing changes as well. Students need to learn to use these new digital tools. As someone who has to use Omeka, I am glad that this useful guide exists.

Week 12 blog: reviewing online exhibits

For this weeks blog I took a look at two online exhibits on the Omeka showcase. The first one is “Bridges NYC: Postcards.” This online exhibit features an historical postcard collection featuring bridges from New York City and its surrounding metropolitan area. There is a focus on lesser-known bridges, especially those which have been replaced or demolished. It is quite easy to browse the collections. You can either search the entire collection or each page has its own page that you can browse as well. When you click on a certain postcard it comes up larger, showing both sides of the card in color. Off to the left is a column of some descriptive information such as a transcript of what the person wrote on the card, who published that particular card, a brief history on the bridge pictured, and even some information on the stamp used. It is a really interesting site and I spent some time myself looking through the Connecticut section.

The second online exhibit I took a look at was “Greenwich Village History.” The Greenwich Village Digital Archive highlights items in New York City archives located by students in New York University’s graduate program in Archives and Public History and in Museum Studies. As part of the Creating Digital History course and Historical Sites, Cultural Landscapes, and the Politics of Preservation, students conduct research on a topic in Greenwich Village’s past, gathering primary source materials and creating a digital exhibit. Students in the Creating Digital History courses also blog about their experiences researching their topics at Researching Greenwich Village History. I was attracted to this site because it sounds a lot like what we are doing. We are creating virtual tours and we write weekly blogs, so it was interesting to see what students in other digital history courses are able to create.

I found both sites to be really interesting and easy to use. Both have browsing options that makes use of tags and different categories to make it easier for users to search for specific materials. The Greenwich Village site does appear to have a far greater amount of material however. It also has a map that users can use in its browse section. You can look for locations on the map and it will link you to the item in the collection that that location is related to. This use of geography reminds me of our readings and assignments about GIS a few weeks ago. The map allows a more visual representation of the village to users who can now see where things actually were. This adds a whole new depth to the experience. It is a far richer experience than simply just looking at postcards. However I do recognize that this is the purpose of the bridges postcards site, to display historic postcards. So while I find the Greenwich Village site far more extensive and in-depth, I believe both sites successfully serve their respective purposes.

Week 11 blog: Charting trends with Google Book’s Ngram Viewer

For this week’s blog I chose to write about my experience creating graphs in Google Book’s Ngram Viewer. It is a pretty interesting tool. You can enter in specific terms and then a specific date range into the search. In return it gives to a graph telling you how often those terms came up in books published within those date ranges.

 I tried creating a couple of different graphs. In my first search I searched for the term “environmentalism” within the date range of 1920-2013. The results show the term was rather flat until around the 1970s. It really takes off after the 1990s. What this exhibits to me as an historian is that environmentalism really became a movement in the 1970s, and has become an increasing concern since the 1990s. This was a rather quick search that didn’t require me to go through massive amounts of data to find results. Next I tried to gauge concern with the economy in the United States. I searched the terms “stock market” and “economy” using the same date ranges. “Economy” starts on a steady increase starting in the 1930s. This suggests that the Great Depression was responsible in creating a real concern for the US economy. The stock market also goes up gradually from the 1930s as well.

 It is quite interesting how you can map trends using a tool such as this. It is definitely useful to an historian trying to get a feel for what was going on in the minds of people during specific time periods. I don’t think this can replace reliable, old fashioned primary and secondary sources however. This tool searches through a massive amount of books in the Google books library. It isn’t giving you specific sources and citations. However, it is a good tool for managing large amounts of data. It allows you to get a general idea for the trends happening in print media throughout different time periods.

Week ten blog: Historical GIS and its impact on historical scholarship

            The Digital Harlem website presents information drawn from legal records, newspapers, and other archival and published sources about the everyday life in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the years 1915-1930. The information is presented on a Geographic Information System (GIS), which organizes and integrates sources on the basis of their shared geographic location, in this case their street address. GIS displays the contents of the database on an online map. In doing so it takes advantage of one of the core properties of the digital medium: the fact that it is visual. This is an aspect that historians have been slow to use and develop an important aspect of historical analysis.

            Being able to make a visual connection with date takes historians beyond what is possible to find in traditional text sources. Large quantities of data can be combined in different layers on a single map. This provides the historian with an image of the complexity of the past right before their eyes. By visually detecting special patterns in the date presented, historians may discover relationships they never would have realized looking at simple text data. I think this provides a whole new level of historical scholarship that may have been previously overlooked.

            To show how GIS can help historians discover patterns, I looked closer at the Digital Harlem website at a pattern Stephen Robertson pointed out in his article. Digital Harlem allows users to look at Harlem’s nightlife, showing layers of the nightclubs, speakeasies, and buffet flats black residents set up as an alternative to those venues. The geographic locations of these businesses reveal an unrecognized black response to Prohibition’s impact on Harlem. As whites increasingly appeared nightclubs and speakeasies because of Prohibition, blacks opened the buffet flats in more secluded locations within the neighborhoods or Harlem. GIS made finding this response possible, when an historian would not have learned it from traditional documents.

Week 9 blog-project proposals

This week I began drafting the proposal for my topic for the walking tour project. I decided that I wanted to do my hometown of Milford, CT. Milford has quite an historic downtown and I felt it had a lot to offer to visitors who wanted to learn more about colonial history. I began by taking a trip down to the Milford library to look for some sources. I found various books on Milford’s history that I found to be quite helpful. The library also has Milford’s past and present newspapers on microfilm in its archives. While I did not look through any of these on this visit, they may prove helpful when I begin working on the actual project. All of these sources will be listed in the annotated bibliography of my proposal.

I also took a look online at the Milford Historical Society’s website. They also have a lot of useful information, particularly about the founders of Milford and the colonial-era houses I want to feature on my tour. I was also able to find some tours that have already been created. These are great to use as a reference, however I want to try and focus my tour on the city’s colonial history. These other tours were far more general.

Overall I feel confident about what I have found so far, and have been able to come up with a concrete idea for the project. I feel comfortable knowing that there are plenty of sources available to aid me when I actually begin to create the tour. I have learned a lot about Milford’s history having lived here all my life; however I believe there is a lot more to learn. I am excited that I get the opportunity to explore deeper into my hometown’s history. Hopefully my final product will offer other residents the same opportunity.

Week 8 Blog: The Challenge of Preserving Digital History

This weeks readings got me thinking about an issue in digital history that I did not really realize before. In an age where the internet has become such a huge part of people’s lives, people are constantly posting and updating their social media and other sites. A news site’s front page will change constantly throughout the day. How do we preserve these ever-changing historical records? There is so much information being put out on the web every day it is almost impossible to save everything. We have spent so much time talking about the viability of online resources in studying history, but I never stopped to think about the daunting task of preserving digital sources every day. These readings shed light on that issue.

Cohen talks at length about this issue. He lays it out with an interesting example: preserving the memory of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 versus preserving the memory of the September 11 terrorist attack in 2001. The largest collection of photographs of Pearl Harbor is five boxes containing a mere 200 images at the National Archives. With the prominence of the web by 2001, there are literally millions of images of the September 11 attacks. Historians had to began preserving this history immediately after the attacks occurred, forcing them to adapt to new tactics of preservation.  Many organizations worked to preserve everything from photos to screenshots of websites when the attacks happened. The new digital age forces historians to make more difficult choices about what warrants saving, as it would be impossible to save everything.

As an historian going into this digital age, I found the points discussed in these readings to be very valuable to me. While in the past there was always an issue of finding enough sources, the digital age provides an overabundance of them. Learning the different techniques of collecting and preserving digital history, which Cohen and Rosenzweig discuss at length in their book, are very important skills to the 21st century historian. The internet is the here to stay, and whether they like it or not historians need to adapt to that. Our historical record depends on it.